This morning we consider the question of what the Bible says about being lost. Our guide will be Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, our gospel text. If it were in his power the rich man would have you feel sorry for him. He sees his own lot, now in hell after enjoying good things on earth, and he wants pity; pity from Abraham and pity from Lazarus.
He’d almost have us fooled into thinking it was unjust for him to now suffer the pangs of his torment in hell. Except his behavior in hell is little different than it was on earth. He only thinks of himself and those like him (his brother). He still treats Lazarus like a servant trying to order him and Abraham to cool his tongue. He doesn’t ask to leave hell, so he doesn’t want to be with God in heaven. On top of it all he strongly insinuates that God hadn’t warned him well enough about the destruction he brought upon himself when he asks to send a resurrected Lazarus to his brothers. By this request he insinuates that the Word of God in the Law and the Prophets wasn’t enough, that God wasn’t clear, and if he had only had a miracle or two in his life then he would have repented of his sins.
Something to consider is that during his earthly life a rich Jewish man like him would not have been an atheist. In fact he may have considered himself quite holy. To him his riches and possessions were evidence that he was a good man while Lazarus’ poverty proved that Lazarus was a sinner. He believed in the God of the Bible, yet he was still lost to God.
This parable carries a difficult warning: you can believe in God and still be lost. The rich man believed, but he built his life on everything except God. Kirkegaard wrote that sin is building your identity on anything, but God. Luther put it this way in the Large Catechism, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing him with the heart.” The rich man had a god, status and wealth. Now that he is dead that status and wealth were gone. He couldn’t take them with him, so he has nothing, he has lost his identity even. Notice that the rich man is not named while the poor man Lazarus is named. The man who built his identity on God preserves his identity at death and the man who looks to mammon loses everything. You see it wasn’t that the rich man was just greedy, that is only a symptom of the deeper problem. He built his whole life on his possessions, so of course he was greedy, but even more he wrapped his entire sense of identity, self worth, and security in his possessions. He traded the good and refuge of the true God for a god of his own making. As time went on he sank deeper and deeper into his sin all because he willfully rejected God and chose his wealth instead.
The Christian life is one of seeing the fires of that same kind of rebellion in our own hearts and having the grace of God extinguish them with the forgiveness of Christ. We need to constantly see that our sinful hearts try to build our identities and feelings of security on things other than God. Sin tries to convince us that there are so many things we cannot live without and when those things possess our inner life, our thoughts, and desires then we are at risk of having a false god. The Christian response is to repent and look to God in Christ.
The rich man is too stubborn to be repentant, but many people try to accuse God of being unjust for sending people to hell. They think an all loving God should just look past those who rebel against him and give them heaven anyway. There are two fundamental problems with this way of thinking. Firstly, it assumes men like the rich man would even want heaven. Notice he didn’t ask to escape hell and likewise God had been calling to him by the Law and the Prophets yet the rich man would not turn. Secondly, if God is not allowed to be just in condemning sin then we have no recourse for justice at all. It’s ironic that when some people say that God should just overlook sin and let all into heaven they don’t consider that such an attitude justifies the deeds of men like Hitler, child abusers, spouse beaters, and millions of other injustices in the world.
What we should really ask them is what they want of God when they don’t want him to judge. Do they want him to forgive men like the rich man? Unrepentant men don’t want forgiveness. Even the rich man was still rebelling in hell. Do they then want God to give such people a second chance? He did, on the cross of Calvary when Christ died for their sins to forgive them. Do they want God to just leave them alone? That is what hell is, it is the torment of a life without God. It is the natural end to a life built upon anything but God. Hell is a result of a willful rebellion against God and the result is a spiritual torment like no other. The Bible talks about fire and gnashing of teeth so we might understand the depth of the despair of being forsaken by God. Many commentators believe that fire is likely a metaphor for hell and we might think “Wow, I’m relieved that it’s not that bad.” There’s a rub though, fire might be a metaphor, but the spiritual torment of being forsaken to hell is infinitely worse than fire.
The good news is that hell is not imposed violently by God. It is not his will that we be lost, but sinful men like the rich man will not repent and there they are giving themselves over to hell. There is nothing more tragic in the world than an unrepentant man. Did you notice when Abraham speaks to the rich man he calls him “child”? He does not call him “sinner”, but “child”. There is a hint of the tragedy of the whole thing when Abraham calls him child. God does not look at people on their rebellious way and only think of punishment, but instead with a longing that they would repent. God looks upon them as prodigals who he longs to see back in their rightful place in his heavenly home. Jesus displayed this kind of love just before entering Jerusalem to bear our sins when he called out, “O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, how often I wanted to gather you as a hen gathers her brood, but you would not.” But even as they would not turn to him for safety and security Jesus turned his face toward them and to the cross.
That is the most comforting news of this parable. Jesus points his hearers to the Law and the prophets. Elsewhere in John he said, “You search the Scriptures for eternal life. The Scriptures speak of me.” The prophets told of the one who would come to die in the stead of the people. The Law and the Prophets tell us how Jesus would come to bear our iniquities and heal us with the stripes on his back. They tell us how he would rise on the third day and though our sins be red as scarlet we would be made white as snow. Because of what God did on the cross we do not have to live in fear of hell, we can trust what the Law and Prophets revealed of the Son of God, who has forgiven us.
I said just a moment ago that fire might be a metaphor, but the spiritual torment of being forsaken by God is infinitely worse than fire. You can know how much someone loves you by what they are willing to suffer for you. Many people want a loving God, but when you ask them what it might cost their god to love them they do not know. They want a God that is so loving he would overlook everything and never discipline anyone. Imagine how the children of parents like that turn out. Many people want a god of love with no judgment and with no sacrifice. They want a god that gives them good things in this life and the next, but demands very little of them now. This kind of love costs their god little and therefore their god demands very little of their worship.
But Jesus has shown us the unsearchable depths of the love God when on the cross he cried out “My God, My God why have You forsaken Me?” He has suffered the eternal torment of hell that your sins deserve and says, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The love of God cost him everything—even the torment of hell—in order to win you back from sin, death, and the devil. Jesus is not a God who stands far-off and sends you sweet little notes of encouragement from time to time. He is the God who came down into the depths of human rebellion and misery, even death. His love came at the greatest cost and therefore the only reasonable response is worship the true God alone.
God in Christ suffered all things, even hell, to find you. He suffered the cross to assure you that you are not lost to him and that you can trust him above all other things. He extinguishes that fire of rebellion within each of us by pouring on the forgiveness of sins which we first received in Baptism and he keeps giving us each day in the Word of God. For that reason we should heed the example of the rich man and remember that as sinners there is a rebel at the heart of each us; greedy, covetous, and stingy with the good gifts God has given us. All the more we need to listen to the risen Christ who tells us to listen to God’s Word and to remember that the forgiveness he delivers to us in the Word and the Sacraments is more than enough to save lost souls. Likewise, this parable reminds us that as repentant and forgiven sinners we are called to look to the needs of our neighbors and guard ourselves from overlooking them like the rich man did Lazarus. May God grant us faith in Him alone to will and to do this good work that he has begun in each of us and trust that he will bring it to completion on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of the lost. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, amen.