There is no bridge from hell to heaven. Once this life comes to an end, it is too late to repent of sin and look to Christ for mercy. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his sermon series in the gospel of Luke by examining one of Jesus’ most sobering parables.
This morning we will continue with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We are still in the sixteenth chapter. The beginning of this chapter contains Jesus’ parable of the unjust steward, which is perhaps the most difficult of Jesus’ parables to interpret. Now we have the parable of Dives and Lazarus, which of all the parables of Jesus is probably the most difficult for us to accept. Nevertheless, this parable comes to us from the lips of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is found in Luke 16:19–31, and I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
“There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
“Then he cried and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’
“Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”
This is the Word of God for you. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, send help, for we desperately need it to have ears to hear this teaching from our Savior. Every fiber of our being recoils in horror at the content of this parable. Even in our redeemed state, there are times that we desperately wish Jesus never told this story. But this is Your Word, oh God, and Your Word is truth, so give us that truth in this hour. Amen.
The Reality of Hell
Recently, I saw the results of an extensive survey of a cross-section of people in America. Religious people, nonreligious people, Catholics, Protestants, self-proclaimed evangelicals, old people, young people, men, women—people from all kinds of diverse backgrounds were questioned about a multitude of theological affirmations. One result of that survey stood out in bold relief. Most of these people, both in the church and outside of the church, asserted their belief in the existence and reality of heaven. Yet, at the same time, most of those polled both in and out of the church denied the existence and reality of hell. That is a strange phenomenon, as for the most part we have the same source affirming both heaven and hell. When Jesus speaks of heaven, people say, “Yes, Lord.” When He speaks of hell, we say, “No way, Lord.”
I have thought about this for many years, and before I get to the parable itself, I want us to remember a couple of things. First, in His earthly teachings, as recorded for us in the New Testament, Jesus spoke more about hell than He did about heaven. Obviously, it was a matter of great importance and concern for Him. Also, we hear much more about hell from Jesus than we do from the prophets or the New Testament Apostles. I have often speculated on why that may be, and I have concluded that we hardly believe it when we hear it from the prophets or Apostles, and only scarcely believe it if we hear it from Jesus Himself.
There is no greater authority on these questions that has ever appeared in the flesh than Jesus of Nazareth. If Jesus was wrong about this, there is no intelligent reason to believe Him about anything. If you are a Christian, the affirmation of the reality of hell is simply not optional.
Why We Struggle with Hell
Why is it that we struggle so deeply with the doctrine of hell? I think there are many reasons, including our care, concern, and compassion for our fellow human beings who may end up in that awful place. I frankly cannot be happy in this life of thinking about anyone going into such a miserable place. Of course, I am not yet finished with my sanctification, and I still tend to have more compassion with my fellow human sinners than I have desire for the glory of God.
There are two significant reasons for our hesitancy and, at times, revulsion to the doctrine of hell. The first is that we do not really understand who God is. We have hardly a clue about the depth, breadth, and height of His perfection and holiness. Consequently, we do not have a clue about the sinfulness of sin. We are quick to say, “To err is human, to forgive divine,” and equally swift to affirm that no one is perfect with a shrug and the unspoken sentiment of, “It’s not really a big deal.” So, the awfulness of sin has never captured our understanding. What repentance we have before God is shallow at best, as we sugarcoat our offenses, not only against our neighbors, but especially and ultimately against God Himself.
If I were to die this afternoon and wake up in hell, I would be surprised, yes. I would also understand that it is proper for me to be there. It would be proper not just for an afternoon, or a week, or as if it were purgatory, a year, a thousand years, or a million years. If it were to endure for an eternity, I could never find a just reason to complain about my being there. Having said that, let us look at Jesus’ parable.
The parable begins by explaining the condition of two men while they are still alive on the earth. There are two men: one of them rich, one of them impoverished; one of them comfortable, one of them miserable. The two men are traditionally known as Dives, or the rich man, and Lazarus.
Jesus said, “There was a certain rich man (Dives) who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.” This was not a judgment against wealth. Joseph of Arimathea had great wealth. Abraham and Job were two of the wealthiest people in the history of the world. There was no inherent evil in the man being wealthy, but this man was nouveau riche. He did not follow the aristocracy’s maxim of understated elegance.
Dives made an extravagant display of his wealth. He was the quintessential ostentatious rich man. He dressed like a king, wearing purple. Purple dye was nearly priceless in antiquity and reserved almost exclusively for royalty, so much so that to be a king was to be “of the purple.” Dives dressed up like a king, wearing purple and fine linen. He lived lavishly, displaying his wealth in sumptuous extravagance every day.
In stark contrast to Dives, there was another person in the drama, a beggar named Lazarus. He was a man without a penny to his name. Not only was he impoverished, but he was also suffering from endless sores that filled his body. He was also a man on the edge of starvation every second.
Somebody with compassion brought Lazarus near the gate of the wealthy man with the hope that, somehow, if he begged in close proximity to such plenteous wealth, crumbs from the garbage could fall in the direction of Lazarus and keep him alive.
Moreover, Jesus said, “The dogs came and licked his sores.” I must use blood thinners which make my skin thin, and it takes but a minor bump for me to bleed. Vesta’s nickname for me is “Spot” because I bleed so easily and give her so much work to do cleaning my clothes.
At home we have a marvelous pet, a real dog, a German Shepherd. When I am seated at home, my Shepherd cannot wait to lick the sores on my arm. I do not know why dogs do that. I do not know if they are trying to be therapeutic and minimize the pain of whatever wounds we have, but I know that there is a world of difference between my German Shepherd, a domesticated pet, and the dogs that ran loose in Jerusalem.
Dogs were not household pets. They were feral creatures, wild and despised. A dog was one of the worst things you could be called. The image Jesus gave of Lazarus was that this unclean, despicable animal was coming to the poor man, not to give canine mercy, but to enjoy his own desires in licking the sores of the beggar.
One to Heaven, One to Hell
As the text continues, we read that the beggar died. You would think that the rest of the account would be that the public officials came and unceremoniously put his corpse in a cart, drove it off to Gehenna, the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, and threw it in the flames, but that is not the story as Jesus told it. It was not the coroner, but rather a band of angels who scooped up Lazarus, carried him to the bosom of Abraham, and laid him in the arms of the patriarch.
No wonder the slaves in our country in its earlier years would sing:
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home.
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
A band of angels coming after me.
That is good theology. It’s a song I love to hear and love to sing. Imagine it: the beggar died and woke up, not by the garbage can of Dives, but rather in the arms of the angels carrying him to the most honored place in heaven, to the bosom of Father Abraham.
Jesus said that the rich man also died. He didn’t say a word about angels. No mention of Abraham, simply that he was buried. Not only did his body go into the ground, but his soul was carried by demons to hell.
Dives was conscious in hell. Jesus said, “And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.” We are told in verse twenty-four, “Then he cried.” What was it that Jesus would say about the outer darkness? There was weeping and gnashing of teeth. This man who lived sumptuously every day was now crying and, I assume, sobbing.
The Boundary of God’s Mercy
Dives cried out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; just give me some relief from hell. Please, have mercy.” He asked for mercy. If you knew this man during his life, you would wonder if he even understood the meaning of the word. But now he did, and he wanted mercy. He cried for it.
Beloved, two words in the English language that you never want to hear from God are these: “Too late.” God is a God of mercy, whose mercy is beyond all human comprehension, but sometimes I inwardly object when I hear people thank God for His mercy and, in their zeal, speak of God’s “infinite mercy.” I want to stop them and say: “Wait a minute. God is infinite, and insofar as He is an infinite being who has mercy, you might say His mercy is infinite. But if you mean that it has no boundaries, you have not read the Bible, because there is a boundary to the mercy of God: the end of your life.” It is appointed for you to die once, and then the judgment. If you cry for mercy and for Jesus after you are dead, it is too late.
Dives said, “I’m tormented in this flame.” Abraham answered him, “Son,” which suggests in the parable that the man in hell was a Jew, like he would be describing a church member today.
“Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.” The implication is: “What you’re experiencing is justice. You want mercy, but what you have is justice.”
Then it got worse. Abraham said: “And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.” Our Lord was telling us that there is an unbridgeable chasm between heaven and hell; a chasm so wide you cannot go around it and so deep you cannot go under it. There is no power on earth or in hell such that, once you are there, you can escape and reach heaven. There is no bridge between heaven and hell. The chasm represents the fixed and permanent position of hell. If you are there, you are there forever. There are almost certainly hearing me right now who will be there when they die. If you had any understanding of the reality of hell, you would crawl on glass to the cross, to the only One who can bring you safely home for eternity.
Testimony from the Dead
Dives, hearing the dreadful words that no one can pass between heaven and hell, started to beg. How interesting that at the beginning of this parable Lazarus was the beggar; now Dives is doing the begging: “I beg you therefore, father, that if you won’t or can’t send Lazarus here to me, please send him to my father’s house. I have five brothers who are still alive, and I don’t want them to come here. I miss them. We’ve had our differences, but I wouldn’t wish this place on anybody, certainly not my brothers. I beg you to send Lazarus, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.”
Abraham responded to Dives: “You want me to send Lazarus? Don’t they have Moses and the prophets? Hasn’t God given them all the information they will ever need to escape this place?” If this parable were given by Paul, he would have said: “They have Moses. They have the prophets. They have Jesus. If they’re not going to believe Jesus, why do you think they’ll believe a beggar who comes back from the dead?” Dives said: “No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
If the parable ended there, I would probably agree with Dives. If somebody walked in this church this morning and said: “Ladies and gentlemen, I died last year, and for the last twelve months I’ve been in hell. Let me tell you about it. I don’t want you to go there. Please listen to the Word of God. Flee to Jesus, put your trust in Him. For God’s sake, don’t go where I’ve been.” Would you believe him? You would think you would believe. It would certainly get my attention if I knew the person had come back from hell. I would think that would be enough to convince me beyond a shadow of a doubt, not to mention a reasonable doubt. Abraham’s response was different.
Abraham said to Dives, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” Truer words have never been spoken, because One has risen from the dead, the very One who told this parable, and we still do not believe it. Please think about that.
If there is a hell, and there is, it makes all the difference in the world for you, for everyone you know, and for everyone you love. God grant that we heed Jesus’ parable and let it pierce our souls and hearts. God grant that a concern for the future of every person we meet weigh heavily on our hearts, because when they die, it is too late.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.