It is almost alarming to consider the difference between a man or woman in hell and a man or woman in heaven. In that amazing story from Jesus about Lazarus the poor man who ate the crumbs from the rich man’s table we learn, after the death of both of them, something which we might not know otherwise.
The rich man is in Hades, the first dimension of hell. He is in torment, and asks for mercy from Abraham, the man of faith, who is next to Lazarus. He is “in the bosom” of Abraham, which only means that he was laying next to Abraham on the triclinium or three-sided couch used for eating meals in that day. He is in front of him, or at his bosom, resting his head on his arm. The rich man in Hades is seeing into heaven and has a discussion with Abraham over his desperate need for mercy.
It is intriguing that Abraham calls the rich man, “child.” No doubt, he was a child of Abraham from an ethnic connection to him, the first Jew. But he was not a child of Abraham in the spiritual sense, as was Lazarus. There is a note of tenderness in that term, even though the rich man is in hades. The rich man asks for mercy. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am in agony in this flame.” What a colorful revelation this is.
Asking for Mercy
We can see something remarkable here in the rich man’s request. He asks for mercy because he sees that God is merciful even while he is being tormented. In other words, God’s character is unchanged. God is both wrathful and merciful. This can only mean that the rich man who did not value mercy on the earth and had such total fixation on his wealth and plenty that he did not feel the need of it, now acknowledges that God is a merciful God. In his agony, he sees God’s character and longs for the benefit of it.
The rich man is taught by Abraham first that the station he finds himself in is perfectly just for both the rich man and Lazarus. Then he further tells him that he cannot receive that mercy because it is not possible to send Lazarus across the great fixed chasm between them. So, the rich man, acknowledging God’s gracious character once again, asks if Abraham would send Lazarus to his living brothers to warn them about “this place of torment.” But Abraham reminds him that “they have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear him.” And “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.” That is, he says that the Scriptures are enough to change the lives of his brothers if they would listen and even a resurrected Lazarus would not persuade them without God granting it. Indeed, later, we find that both a person named Lazarus from Bethany who would die and then be resuscitated temporarily, and Christ himself, being resurrected from the dead, could not convince people of their necessity to humble themselves and believe apart from God’s special enabling.
Not a Half God
I only want to draw our attention to one thing which can sometimes be missed. In torment there is the acknowledgment of mercy. It is not a half God that is revealed in Hades, but the whole God, with both mercy and judgment. And the mercy of God is part of the torment. That is, the mercy which cannot be extended is an aspect of torment to the rich man. The man who did not have time or interest to request mercy from God on earth, fully realized its necessity when in torment. The most beautiful aspect of God’s character, mercy, is fully desired.
Being in hell isn’t like being in the Gulag, where no one but perpetrators of evil are at work to torture you. No. In hell you will see more of the beauty of the righteous but merciful God than you ever realized on earth and will not be able to enjoy. You will see much more of God in hell than you do now, and in much sharper relief.
What an awful place hell is. I know that we can quibble about this or that physical phenomenon in hell, or whether Jesus is merely using the worst of physical pain inflictors, namely fire, to emphasize a much deeper torment which description is entirely inadequate to convey. Description, even from Jesus, is always less than the reality. Words are not experience. But putting those questions aside, imagine for a moment forever KNOWING that God is good and gives mercy and that this mercy is what you must have, but never being able to experience even a drop of it on the parched tongue of your conscience.