We followers of Christ often point to the story of Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) as evidence that hell is real. But I think that’s like pointing to the story of the Three Little Pigs as evidence that pigs make decent architects. I think it pretty wholly misses the point.
Here’s the part of the story of Lazarus to which I think Jesus most wanted us to pay attention:
“The time came when the beggar [Lazarus] died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 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.’"
So here we have a guy who’s in hell. Hell! Not good. Complete suffering. Mortal agony. Torment.
And in his writhing desperation, this formerly wealthy man looks up to heaven, and says to Abraham, “Abraham! I’m dying down here! I can’t take it. Have Lazarus there bring me some water!”
And there it is. There, I think, is the real point of Jesus’ story.
Look how the rich man can’t let go. Look at no matter how much the guy is suffering, no matter how busted down he is, no matter how directly horrible the evidence is that the way he has always lived and thought has resulted in nothing but pure suffering for himself, he still has to be a complete jerk. He still has to treat Lazarus as someone not really a man, not really complete, not really worth respecting.
The rich man doesn’t ask Abraham to quench his thirst. That doesn’t even occur to him. Abraham’s too important for that sort of menial task. To his mind, Abraham is more like one of his peers.
But Lazarus? Pffft. That guy’s a bum.
Lazarus can wait on him. Afterlife or not, the guy clearly thinks that hasn’t changed.
I certainly understand using the story of Lazarus as compelling evidence that hell is where bad people go to suffer forever. But I do not think that's the primary purpose of the story; at the very least, I think there's another great lesson in this story. I think it’s a story by which Jesus means to teach us the limitless depth to which we are attached to our egos, our arrogance, our stubborn, shameless pride. Through this story Jesus is showing us that the harder we cling to our vanity, and the more blindly we align ourselves with the baseless persona that we believe is essential to both our identity and our survival, the more we are bound to miss out on the only thing in life that really matters, which is treating and loving others as Jesus commanded us to do.
I think that’s the reason the rich man in the story isn’t given a name, while Lazarus is.
I think what Jesus most wants us to understand about this story is that the rich man is us.
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