Friday, September 24, 2010

Lazarus and Dives: a meditation on heaven, hell, and repentance

Today's Sunday reading (in the Anglican, Catholic, and many mainline Protestant churches) is a very interesting one. The Gospel reading focuses on the story of Dives and Lazarus. This story, found (as with many of the really interesting stories of Jesus) only in Luke 16: 19-31, deals with the nature of the afterlife, with the promise of ultimate justice for the downtrodden, and with the magnitude of our human capacity for evil and indifference to the needs of our brothers and sisters.

It tells the story of a rich man (generally called 'Dives', Latin for 'rich man'), indifferent to the suffering of his poor neighbor Lazarus. Lazarus suffered from hunger every day, 'desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table', while Dives ate sumptuously and was clothed in purple and fine linen. It's implied that Lazarus was a leper, for 'the dogs came and licked his sores'. When the two of them die, Dives, who lived his life indifferent to the hunger, poverty, and sickness of Lazarus and those like him, and who delighted in the pleasures and pomp that great wealth had bought for him, ended up in hell. Where Lazarus ended up is less clear; it's important to remember that this happened before the Incarnation, when presumably human beings could not yet enter heaven. The traditional belief is that he was in some kind of blessed state but outside the true Heaven; the medieval church called this intermediate place 'Limbo', and the story simply refers to it as 'Abraham's Bosom'.

The story goes on from there:

"And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And 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 thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

"Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."

This story probably refers to real people- Jesus refers to Lazarus by name, which is unlike all the parables he told, so it suggests that he intended this story, not as a parable, but as a real description of the afterlife. It's a powerfully ironic story when we remember that Jesus Himself was telling it. It features Abraham scoffing at the idea of one returning from the dead, and saying essentially that would change nothing. But we know that very soon after this story was told, quite possibly in the same year, Christ Himself would die, and rise from the dead. His resurrection would be the miracle that would turn millions to God, and would once and for all reconcile God with man. It would, pace Abraham, 'persuade' innumerable men and women to turn away from sin and dedicate themselves to faith, hope, and love. And more than that, it would bridge the gap, not just between Lazarus and Dives, but between Lazarus and God. No one, not even good people like Lazarus, not even the greatest of the saints or prophets, had been able to enter heaven prior to the death of Jesus, for his blood was the price of our salvation, and our ransom from the bondage to sin, death, and the devil. As big as the difference between Lazarus and Dives, it was nothing compared to that between Lazarus, and other imperfectly good men on the one hand, and the perfect, unfallen goodness of Heaven. Yet Christ himself, within just a couple short years, would bridge that gap, and open up the way to heaven for all those who would accept it. Lazarus would sit, no longer, in 'Abraham's bosom', but in the Paradise of God.

This story ends on a chilling note, for it seems to tell us that the gap between Lazarus and Dives is unbridgeable. From this story we get the traditional Christian teaching that hell is definitively eternal, a place from which there is no return, and in which there is no longer any possibility of repentance. The traditional teaching of orthodox Christianity about hell is that the damned are forever fixed in their sin, like Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggiero eternally gnawing each other's flesh in the ninth circle of the Inferno, and that death, or the moment immediately after death, is the last moment we have to repent. The dead, we are told, had their chance while on earth, and must pay eternally for refusing to accept it. Some of the early heresies, including (I think) the Donatists, went even further and held that some sins were so grave they could never be repented of even while still on earth. Read alone, the story of Lazarus and Dives would seem to support this kind of harsh, uncompromising interpretation. But of course, it's always a bad idea to read any piece of scripture alone; it needs to be read in the context of other scriptures, of tradition, and of reason.

That teaching about hell is hard for many of us to accept, and it's worth remembering that it's never been fully or universally accepted in Christianity. One of the most common themes in the visions of heaven and hell which proliferated in the patristic and medieval periods, is that God's mercy is present even in hell, and that He will intervene in some way to make their sufferings less then they would be otherwise. Some of the medieval mystics claimed that God would grant 'vacations' to the damned, allowing them to wander on earth or even to visit heaven; at least one such mystic personally claimed to have spoken with Judas on one of his holidays from hell. Others claimed that God would grant to the lost a reprieve from suffering- for Easter Day, for Easter Season, or for Easter and Pentecost. Some of the visionaries hinted that God would listen to the intercession of the saints, and for their sake would forgive the damned. In the last few centuries, a much bolder (and, in my view, wrong) teaching has become increasingly popular in Christian circles, called Universalism. Universalists hold that in the end, all will be saved. They take inspiration from the third century Bishop Origen, who held that in the end even the devil would be saved.

Personally, I _don't_ agree with universalism, but I also don't agree with the idea that there is no mercy, and no possibility of repentance, for those in hell. I suppose my thoughts are somewhere in between. I believe, in short, that God's mercy is present even in the uttermost and farthest depths of hell, and that He will always welcome to his embrace anyone who is truly repentant: but I also believe that he respects our free will, that He will not force his love on anyone who rejects it, and that corrupted human nature is such that there will always be those who do reject it, even in the depths of hell. I think if we read the story of Lazarus and Dives closely, it's not incompatible with this kind of view, that ultimately everlasting torment is not something God imposes on us, but something we choose for ourselves.

Listen again to Dives' lament in hell. All he can think about is himself. He thinks of Lazarus, but only in terms of what Lazarus can do for him; he imagines him as a servant, bound to give him a drink of water: "Send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue...". He then asks Abraham to tell Lazarus to go attend to his brothers. Never once does he ask about Lazarus' own well-being, or his experience in heaven. He wants to be saved from torment, but he is incapable of even beginning to step outside his own needs and his own suffering. He doesn't pray, or implore, or ask forgiveness, he thinks of his own needs and those of his brothers. "Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house..." Never is there a hint that he understands why he is there, or that he's genuinely sorry for his own sins.

The reply that Abraham gives him isn't really a statement that repentance is impossible; it's more a statement that Dives is not, at least at present, in a truly repentant condition. Heaven is a place characterized by pure, self-giving love, which takes as much delight in the joy of those around us as it does in our own joy. Until we have begun to step outside ourselves, and attempt to love each other as we love ourselves, we haven't begun to take the first steps towards heaven. Dives, in hell, knows that he is in pain, and that he wants to be out of it; but as yet he shows little sign of true self understanding, or of attempting to become capable of repentance and of love. Like the lost in Dante's Inferno, all he can talk about is himself.

In this passage, Jesus is warning us away from one error about the afterlife: that hell is a myth, that it doesn't really exist, that we will all be happy and comfortable in the end. He is seeking to warn us that hell is real, that it's a place of unimaginable pain and torment, a place of cold worse than the farthest wastes of the Arctic, and heat worse than the Arabian desert, and worst of all a place from which love is absent, in which human beings, the devils, the fallen angels, and the Enemy himself are all divided against each other and against themselves. And he seeks to warn us, too, that there is an ever present danger that we will condemn ourselves to that place of suffering and hatred, by choosing self-interest over self-giving, pride and hatred over love, and by being as indifferent to our neighbours as Dives was. Even if repentance is possible in hell, a lifetime devoted to serving ourselves can make it very, very difficult for us to truly repent and to truly love.

Yet it's important not to fall into the opposite error, too. We should remember that this story happened before the Incarnation, and that it even features Abraham saying- incorrectly, as we all know- that it would make no difference if 'one rose from the dead'. The Incarnation changed everything: it made possible things that had been impossible before. It made it possible for a virgin to give birth, for lepers and blind people to be healed with a touch, for the dead to be raised, and ultimately for God Himself to descend into hell and free the lost. And maybe it made it possible for the gap which Abraham called unbridgeable, to be bridged. Dives was among those sinners who Jesus descended into hell to save, and we don't know if, when he beheld the face that "was like the sun shining in all its brilliance" (Revelation 1:16) he at last repented and believed.

We know that suffering can be redemptive, that through suffering we can empty ourselves of pride and self-love, and lay our souls open to be filled with humility, love, and submission to the source of everything good. Perhaps it was so for Dives, and perhaps on Holy Saturday he looked at Christ and loved him. We don't know. We do have the assurance that no one who, in the end, truly seeks salvation, and truly has a heart full of love for God and their neighbour, will be denied it. "Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and ye shall find" says the Lord (Matthew 7:7) and he makes no exception for those even in the depths of hell.

St. John says in his vision of heaven that 'the gates of that city will never be closed by day, and there shall be no night there' (Revelation 21:25), and what can this mean but that heaven is always open, always welcoming, always inviting to anyone who truly desires to walk in the light of God and of the Lamb. For a city to throw open its gates and leave them open forever is the clearest token of welcome and invitation that there could possibly be. "The spirit and the bride say 'Come'," (Revelation 22:17) and it's implied that that invitation is extended to everyone, not just the righteous, and not just those who died in a state of grace. Those who remain in hell, in the long run, will be those who choose it for themselves, for no one who truly seeks salvation, knowing what it means and what it entails, will be denied it. I can't read the magnificent vision of the city of God, in the last chapters of St. John's Apocalypse, and think that anyone will be stuck outside the gates craving to be allowed in. Those outside will be those who prefer their pride to the humility of the city of God, who prefer their self-interest to the self-giving of the city of God, and who prefer self-love to the love of others. If the gates of hell are closed, as C.S. Lewis said, they are closed on the inside, and only on the inside.

I think, in short, that we should hope that salvation is a gift available to anyone who will accept it, even in hell, and that we shouldn't give up on the salvation even of those who died, seemingly, outside a state of grace. But we should also take warning, and the story of Lazarus and Dives gives us good reason for that warning. The reason Jesus told us this story was to remind us that hell is a terrible place, and that while it need not be eternal, it can be eternal: for those who, like Dives, find themselves unwilling to love, unwilling to empty themselves of pride and self-love, unwilling to truly repent or turn to God. Milton's Satan said, 'Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven', and it's more than likely there will be those who agree with that credo, into eternity, though of course none of us can be sure. The apocryphal 'Gospel of Peter', dating from the early second century, recounts the same story Luke tells us of the repentant thief on the cross, who received this beautiful promise from Jesus: "Verily I say unto thee, this day shalt thou be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). But he goes on to say that the Roman soldiers, seeing this unmerited, unaccountable display of grace and love, responded by becoming even more spiteful and cruel: "And having become irritated at him, they ordered that there be no leg-breaking, so that he might die tormented" (Gospel of Peter 1:14). This is the story of corrupt and fallen human nature, that repeats itself in every age: we see love in action, and find ourselves hating it. Just as those who react this way in this life, I think it's likely there will be those who react that same way in the hereafter, and for those people, who are always prideful, always self-sufficient even in their pain, always intoxicated by themselves, it can be truly said, "the smoke of their torment rises for ever" (Revelation 14:11). A moment of real, true love on their part would set them free, but it would also involve them giving up their pride, their vision of themselves, their self-love, and that's a sacrifice some of us are unwilling to make. Now, and probably in the hereafter too. That's the true lesson, in my view, of the story of Dives and Lazarus, and of all the chilling scriptural passages about hell.

The story of Lazarus and Dives gives us reason to be warned, just as St. John's vision of heaven as the welcoming city with its gates cast open gives us reason to hope. To deny the warning would be just as big an error as to deny the promise. As we go through the next few weeks, and try to allow the grace of God to infuse us and makes us better people, let's try to live less like Dives, and more like those people in the Gospel whom Jesus commended for their love and their charity. Every choice we make changes who we are, and makes us either more of a heavenly creature or more of a hellish one. That even death isn't a final and irrevocable Rubicon isn't a reason to put off trying to change our lives: it's a reason to try to make ourselves better people now, because what we do today affects who we will be in the future. But let's also remember that as human beings, all of us will fail at some point or another, and that in spite of that, in spite of even the greatest failings and mistakes we may make, that ultimately no one whose heart is in the right place will be denied salvation if they genuinely and sincerely long for it with all their heart. Justice is important, but ultimately hope is greater, one of the three greatest virtues in the world (1 Corinthians 13:13), and Christ has given us reason to hope that in the end, we will all have what we truly seek.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end.