Dives in Hell

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Every commentator on this story I’ve read or heard seemed determined to avoid the point Jesus is trying to make.  Many are troubled by that fact that Dives in hell pleads for his family.  He’s not all bad.  It just seems wrong that he’s in hell.  Often I’ll hear priests tell us to ignore that last part.  Dives didn’t really care about keeping his brothers out of hell; we all know there can’t be charity among the damned.  In reading the parable, we should just stick to the main point Jesus is making and ignore (for theological purposes) those little details He adds that make the characters seem to come alive.  Perhaps this is true, but the question is whether in ignoring these details we really are preserving the main point.  The main point is supposed to be that Dives is condemned to Hell because he was rich, Lazarus was poor, and Dives failed to help Lazarus when he could.  In fact, even this is a softening of what Jesus said:  the most straightforward reading of the parable is that Dives is in hell simply for being rich when Lazarus was poor; a philanthropic sin of omission is not explicitly mentioned.  Now, if Dives were indeed a totally heartless man with no concern for anyone but himself, he would have much worse sins on his conscience than failing to help Lazarus.  His damnation would have nothing to do with Lazarus at all, but rather be a consequence of being a complete moral monster.

I once heard a priest say that, according to Thomas Aquinas, Dives is actually in purgatory, because he displays charity, which cannot exist in hell.  This is an interesting argument.  Charity is a supernatural virtue, and the damned are by definition not in a state of grace.  However, could Dives’ plea not be one of natural love and benevolence?  I suppose one could say that even natural virtues are blotted out of the souls in hell.  To me this sounds plausible, but hardly obvious.

The really important point, though, is that we must not alter the parable by making Dives completely wicked during life.  This destroys the point.  Let me therefore add my own embellishments, consistent with the story Jesus tells.

There was once a rich man who lived his whole life in luxury.  He was a pious and patriotic Jew, a loving brother and uncle, a fair and hard-working employer, a generous master, an active and public-minded citizen.  Reverence for God and love of his family guided his life.  He loved children, and many thought it sad that he never knew the joys of fatherhood himself, for his beloved wife having died years ago in a plague, and he could never bring himself to consider remarriage.  There were at his gate poor beggars, faceless shadow beings always on the periphery of his consciousness.  Always there were more important things to attend to.  “Should I toss them a coin?  Perhaps, but not now; let me now attend to my own household.  Perhaps, but not now; let me rest a little.”  And he never got around to them.  When death came, his brothers travelled far to be at his side.  The rich man blessed them all, saying “Do not mourn for me, dear brothers.  I go to the God of Abraham.”  With that, he drifted from consciousness.  He awoke to eternal torment.

Do you like my story?

“Good God, no!  You’ve totally warped the story by making Dives a good man who just does one bad thing.  It wouldn’t be fair for him to go to hell, when so much of his life was good.  You’re making God out to be a monster!”

Ah, but where did you get the idea that “mostly good” people go to heaven, that wide is the gate and broad is the path that leads to eternal life?  Not from the Gospel, I assure you!  We many be damned just for sins of omission to the poor, no matter how good we otherwise are.

“But this is terrifying!”

Indeed.  If you’re scared, you’re starting to get Jesus’ point.

33 thoughts on “Dives in Hell

  1. The main point is supposed to be that Dives is condemned to Hell because he was rich, Lazarus was poor, and Dives failed to help Lazarus when he could. In fact, even this is a softening of what Jesus said: the most straightforward reading of the parable is that Dives is in hell simply for being rich when Lazarus was poor; a philanthropic sin of omission is not explicitly mentioned.

    While I agree that it is unnecessary to make the rich man a comprehensively wicked person, I don’t get this. Is it really significant that the Lord did not state outright, “The rich main failed to do charity to Lazarus,” or anything else like that explicitly identifying a philanthropic sin of omission? The man’s sin was his disdain for Lazarus. Consider what he says to Abraham, when he is in torment: he asks for Lazarus to come and tend to his thirst and his burning. Even in Hades, the rich man regards Lazarus, as he did in life, as a lesser creature, and even in death he wants Lazarus to attend to him. That’s a pretty clear indication that, more so than even a mere omission to act, this is a sin of failing to love Lazarus. So in this also I think your embellishment, where you have the rich man merely procrastinating any aid for Lazarus, you give him an attitude towards the poor and Lazarus in particular that is at odds with the parable.

    As for having to be comprehensively wicked, well, even publicans love their friends and brethren. No one should be surprised that the rich man was worried for his brothers. Any commentator who thinks that should be ignored, as though it makes the man worthy of eternal life, needs to revisit the Sermon on the Mount. He may very well have loved his brothers and perhaps even a good many other folk. He did not, however, love Lazarus, who was very much in need of comfort. So we do, you and I, agree that making the man thoroughly evil is absurd. I am, however, uncomfortable with how your embellishment paints over the contempt the man showed both before and after death to Lazarus. Not comprehensively wicked, but wicked enough (not just considering whether to help and merely procrastinating) when it came to Lazarus.

    • I’ve certainly pushed the story as far as it can go in the direction of making Dives sympathetic. The better he is, the scarier the implications for the rest of us. It’s fine to point out that Dives seems to disdain Lazarus, but let no one imagine that he’s off the hook just because he doesn’t consciously look down on the poor people he’s failing to help.

      • Upon a second reading, I think that my initial assessment of your embellishment was a bit off. There actually is clear disdain in your version. “Should I toss them a coin? Perhaps, but not now; let me now attend to my own household. Perhaps, but not now; let me rest a little.” He knows that the beggars are in need, he knows that he can help, and he chooses not to. He really doesn’t come across as all that much more sympathetic, even for the other favorable generalizations you give him. “Let me rest a little.” No, that’s not good. That’s disdainful too. That’s not a good man who does just one bad thing. It’s a man who loves his own and habitually disregards another group who are just as close and just as within his reach to love.

        Our species has a marvelous gift for making excuses for ourselves, but it’s not like disdain or contempt are chosen things as in, “I shall now have disdain for this man.” Whether (or how much or how well) one loves one’s neighbor is inherently connected to what one does within one’s ability to help, when one’s neighbor is in need. An excuse-making sinner may say, “But I did not consciously look down on the poor,” even though, well, he looked down on the poor every time he chose not to help when he could. I don’t think the disdain is just a fine thing to point out in the parable: it’s an essential thing. The one who loved the man at the side of the road was the Samaritan. The others disdained the beaten man by merely walking by.

      • Indeed, you are right: Dives does deserve to be in hell. And yet, my Dives is a much better man that I am!

        “If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

  2. Jesus also said (Matthew 5:22) that whoever calls his brother a fool is in danger of hellfire.

    What is clear is that the typical reasoning does not work: when we die, obviously we’ve been good and bad at alternate occasions, but we can’t go to both Heaven and Hell at once, so ‘obviously’ our good deeds are “weighed against” our evil deeds and if our good deeds “outweigh” our evil deeds then we’re free and clear. According to that, either the Dives in your story would have to have been spared, or 99.9999% of all people who ever existed damned for sins of omission. Neither answer is acceptable.

    In a more personal dimension, the notion that anyone can punch their current total into a calculator and consider themselves justified is right out — no matter how cunningly or humbly you weight the good deeds — it’s nonsense verging on the ‘utility calculus’.

    • A natural reading of the Gospels would suggest that most people (certainly most rich people, cf. how many camels you’ve seen passing through needle’s eyes lately) are damned, and that it would be 100% if each of us had to rely on his own merits rather than Jesus’. I’m not saying this is necessarily true, and I would obviously prefer that it not be, but its opposite should not be the default assumption among Christians.

      • The problem with presuming personal salvation as something that is practically unattainable, is that it becomes necessary to put other values ahead of one’s personal salvation in order to function in day-to-day life. Or maybe that’s the point.

        Because, if you gaze long enough into the yawning abyss of Hell and all the mounting evidence of how difficult it is to escape — and foretaste of Hell is given as an experiential reality even in this life — you must either go mad into extremes of ‘transcendent egotism’, or stop thinking about your own benefit and salvation entirely, whether in this life or the next.

        I think this is a very different view of why fear of Hell is beneficial than your own, though?

      • At least, I want to thank you for leading me to a visceral realization of why seeking to attain to a better contemplation of death and Hell would be beneficial for me. Before, I did not understand this sort of advice at all, because the justification commonly given (i.e. inflaming zeal towards one’s own salvation) seemed faulty to me.

    • “… ‘obviously’ our good deeds are ‘weighed against’ our evil deeds and if our good deeds ‘outweigh’ our evil deeds then we’re free and clear.”

      A Hindu karmic understanding of heaven and hell, not the Christian one. The Christian God cares about whether we are heavenly persons or hellish. He looks at the heart, not at the deeds.

      • “A Hindu karmic understanding of heaven and hell, not the Christian one.”

        Yes, I agree, except to my dismay this ‘karmic’ understanding keeps cropping up within Christianity, e.g.


        Certain strains of Roman Catholic thought also tried to formulate a calculus to weigh good and evil deeds against one another; though those doctrines I am less familiar with (both how they work and what motivates them).

  3. To understand the point of the parable of Dives and Lazarus it must be read in the light of John 11. In the parable, Dives’ request that Lazarus be sent back to warn his brothers is denied. In events as they actually occurred Lazarus was raised from the dead. Furthermore, in actual history “Dives” was still alive when Lazarus was raised and his response to the resurrection of Lazarus was to plot the death of Jesus (John 11:47-50). Note that Dives in the parable, is dressed in the robes of the high priest (Lk. 16:19), who as John 11:49 tells us was Caiaphas in the year that Lazarus was raised. Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas, a previous high priest who had been deposed by the Romans and who had five sons each of whom at one point or another held the office of high priest. Hence Dives’ reference to his father’s house and his five brethren (vv. 27-28). The difference between events as they unfold in the parable in which “Dives” dies after Lazarus and his request that Lazarus be sent to his father and brothers is denied and events as they unfolded in real history in which Lazarus was raised from the dead which led immediately and directly to the conspiracy of the priests and Pharisees, headed by Caiphas, highlights the point of the parable which is to be found in Abraham’s final words to “Dives” in refusing his request “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead.” The parable is not about the rich and the poor at all. It is a masterfully accomplished, satirical slap in the face of the high priest, whose response to Jesus’ greatest miracle short of His own return from the dead, was not to believe in Jesus but to plot His death.

  4. —“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”—

    This is a great text for Christians with a robust sense of the Bible’s authority and of God’s determination to work through the preaching of the Word.

  5. Bonald,
    Id Dives were “a pious and patriotic Jew”, he would certainly not be amiss in alms-giving. I think Morant is correct here that Dives’ sin lay in not loving Lazarus.

  6. So we’re all going to hell then? Because, the way you put it, you have to be a saint, to have never sinned to be admitted to heaven. I don’t think a single human being fits these criteria.

      • I’m glad you made this explicit, Bonald, because your interpretation of the parable might otherwise drain the sacraments of their efficacy and deprive us of all hope. It would, to my mind, imply that we live in a Lovecraftian universe, in which the vast bulk of humanity, past and present, is destined for everlasting and unimaginable torment at the hands of a cruel god.

        Since my conversion, I have gradually come to terms with the fact that a great many–perhaps most– will refuse the grace necessary for salvation. Every day, I pray–with varying levels of desperation–that my parents and brethren will come to Christ, and that my children will not fall away. No, salvation isn’t easy, but I cannot reconcile my faith in a loving God with the belief that it is almost impossible, on the level of qualifying for the Olympics or the Navy SEALs. If only the most heroically virtuous (whether 1%, 0.5%, or 0.01%) can avoid hellfire, despair is inevitable and there is no point in even trying. Because I am by no means a holier man than your Dives.

        But Christ established his Church with Peter at its head, and gave her the power to bind and loose. She tells me that if I die in a state of grace, I have firm hope of salvation, even if I have to climb Mount Purgatory to get there. She does not impose burdens too heavy for men to carry, and we may thus hope that even the grubbiest among us, fortified by prayer and the Sacraments, may attain Heaven.

    • You’ll never have certainty but the Church (I think) has an understanding of the Gospels that can lead anyone to heaven (not that everyone will go but everyone can go). This seems to sharply contrast with the reformed understanding that only some can.

    • “Because, the way you put it, you have to be a saint, to have never sinned to be admitted to heaven.”

      Well, yes, by definition saints are people in Heaven, so to be in Heaven you must be a saint. “Never sinned” (mortally) since your last confession, certainly.

  7. I’ve had a recurring thought that modern Christians aren’t nearly as scared as most of us should be. Most of us should be crapping our pants on a fairly regular basis. It’s probably because most of us have relatively little faith (faith exists on a continuum – it’s not a binary 0 or 1 thing).

    • If being scared works for you, then so be it. But it is not an unequivocal good — the only unequivocal good is repentance, however it be attained.

      If any given feeling fails to actually make one more mindful of one’s sins than they would be otherwise, it’s worse-than-useless emotional posturing. After all, not only do the demons believe, they *also* tremble, but neither operation taken by itself does them a lick of good….

      • I should correct myself — ‘only’ is not a precise term in the below:

        “the only unequivocal good”

        But I hope you will understand what I mean.

    • It’s no coincidence that only in our past few generations have reminders of the perilous state of our souls, such as the Dies Irae, been steadily removed.

      Lex orandi, lex credendi indeed!

  8. Pingback: Assurance of Salvation | The Orthosphere

  9. @Bonald – As you presumably know, I don’t think anybody can make much rigorous sense of Christianity unless there is a strong focus on theosis/ sanctification/ spiritual progression as well as salvation.

    A near exclusive focus on the binary event of salvation/ not salvation simply fails to capture the broad characteristics of the Gospel. The Gospel must be GOOD news, it is about saving sinners, it is joyous, hopeful, positive; but on the other hand and equally, universal/ compulsory salvation is not consistent with the Bible.

    Theosis is necessary because if (as I believe) salvation is ‘easy’ and straightforward (because Christ made it easy for us) then salvation is not the focus of the Christian life for most people who live beyond their conversion – the focus then should move to theosis – which is where things like sacraments, good works, Good Living (marriage and family) come in (in a word – Love).

    But if (as is true) salvation is easy and swift (the Good Thief, for example) – then equally – choosing damnation is ‘easy’ – in the sense that despite decades of salvation and theosis (conversion and good living) we might at any point choose damnation.

    (A lot of Good Living is about trying to prevent our own corruption – trying to prevent our future selves from making that choice of our own damnation.)

    But we can have the assurance (the certainty) that we will not be damned unless we ourselves choose to reject salvation.

    (i.e. repentance and belief in in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour – when we are given the choice by Him, presumably after our resurrection).

  10. Pingback: The Importance of Preaching Salvation | The Orthosphere

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  12. Adam and Even were removed from the garden of Eden so they could not eat from the tree of life and live forever (1). Those who are saved at last will have access to the tree of life once again (2). Man must eat of the tree of life in order to live forever (3). If the wicked will burn forever in hell, I have a question, Where in hell is the tree of life?

    (1) Genesis 3:22, 23
    (2) Revelation 22:14
    (3) Genesis 3:22

    God told sinful man, “Thou shalt surely die” Genesis 2:17. It was Satan, not God, who said, “Ye shall not surely die.” Genesis 3:4. How is it that Satan has the whole Christian world promoting his lie?

  13. Pingback: The Basis of Our Salvation | The Orthosphere

  14. Pingback: The scandal of the idea of mortal sin I: theoretical problems | Throne and Altar


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