And he will answer, “I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.” [Matthew 25:45-46 (NLT)]
Were I not a believer, I don’t think I’d find the concept of eternal life very comforting. While Jesus made it clear there is an afterlife, He also spoke of the destinations awaiting us in that afterlife. In the gospel of Luke, we find Him telling the parable of the rich man and the beggar named Lazarus. [16:19-31] Indifferent to the plight of the destitute and diseased Lazarus, the rich man lived a life of indulgence and luxury while Lazarus lay outside his gate, hoping for just a few scraps from the rich man’s table.
When Lazarus dies, angels carry him to the bosom of Abraham. The presence of both angels and Abraham told Jesus’s audience that Lazarus was in Heaven. Being in Abraham’s bosom refers to the Jewish custom of reclining on couches while dining (which brought the head of one man almost into the bosom of the one sitting beside him). From this description, Jesus’ listeners also knew that Lazarus was sitting at Abraham’s side, in a place of honor, at a banquet in Paradise. In contrast, when the rich man dies, he is sent to Hades, the realm of the dead. Jesus’ mention of it being a place of torment and flames, however, implies the rich man is in what Jewish tradition called Gehenna, a place of fiery torment and punishment. This parable makes clear that there are two destinations awaiting us when we die and one is far nicer than the other.
Still thinking that he’s in a position to call the shots and give orders, the rich man calls to Abraham, telling him to have pity and send Lazarus over with some water to relieve his agony (something he’d refused to do for the beggar). Explaining that there is a great chasm between the two places and that no one can traverse the span in either direction, Abraham reminds him that he had his reward during his lifetime. This parable leads us to the conclusion that, once we reach the end of the line here, we will not be getting a second chance to make things right in the hereafter. The impassable abyss means our first destination after death will be our final one!
Realizing that his behavior in life determined his hereafter, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers about his fate. Abraham replies that they’ve already been warned in Scripture. When the rich man insists that his brothers will repent and change their ways if someone returns from the dead, Abraham answers that even someone returning from the dead couldn’t convince them. It’s ironic that when Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus returned from death, rather than believe him, the Pharisees planned to kill him!
While the rich man could not warn his brothers about the consequences of their behavior, Jesus warns us with the rich man’s story. Hell is a real place and, after death, the unrighteous are eternally separated from God in a place of torment. There are eternal consequences to our choices and, if we prefer not to have God in our lives on earth, He will accommodate us in eternity, as well.
It is better to beg bread on earth than water in hell. [Dwight Moody]