Q & R: Hell and Luke 16

Here’s the Q:

I have read your books A Generous Orthodoxy, A New Kind of Christian, and A New Kind of Christianity. All of them have helped me grow in my faith, as there was a time when I thought that I couldn’t be a Christian anymore as I didn’t toe the conservative party line on issues like homosexuality, and i also didn’t think that just because you didn’t find Christ in this life you were destined for hell. In fact I was not even convinced that hell was eternal. How could someone be punished eternally for a finite number of sins? It didn’t make sense to me. After reading A New Kind of Christianity. I decided to read the gospels again. I started with Luke. I recently read Luke 16:19-31. This passage really confused me. It seems to me that Jesus is using Abraham to say that some people will never get to be with God because of their decisions in this life, and that there is no way to cross the divide. This upset me greatly. I wouldn’t say I believe in universalism because I don’t see enough scripture in the Bible to back it up, but I am a hopeful universalist. I am hopeful that after death there is a chance for those who have not followed God to turn to him. I don’t want anyone, however awful they have been in this life, not to get to be with God. It makes me so sad to even think of that. This passage seems to suggest that some people will be separated eternally from God. Is there another take on this passage? Or is it as self explantory as it seems? What do you do with the passages in the Bible which suggest some will be separated from God in the end? Do you think some people would honestly choose that after encountering God? Even if their encounter comes after death? Or do after death encounters not hold any validity?
In Romans 8 Paul said nothing can separate us from the love of God. Is he only talking to Christians when he says this, or to the whole world?
If you don’t have time to answer my questions I understand. You are very busy. Thank you for your time anyway.

Here’s the R:
Thanks for your question – and your honesty. I actually wrote two sequels to A New Kind of Christian –
The Story We Find Ourselves In, and
The Last Word and the Word After That.
The Last Word is about hell, and I think you’d find it helpful in grappling in more depth with your question than I can do here. But let me offer two quick thoughts.
1. Isn’t it interesting that the reason for going to hell in this verse is not the reason most people give today? Why does a person go to hell? Most churches today say, “Because you don’t believe the right things” or “You don’t belong to the right religion/church.” But in this parable, the reason is “Because you’re rich and didn’t show compassion to the poor.” I haven’t heard that preached “literally” in a sermon in my life …
2. A key issue in interpretation (I go into this in more depth in the book) isn’t simply “what is the text saying,” but “what is the text doing.” In other words, is Jesus a) telling a parable about how people can go to heaven when they die? Or b) is Jesus doing something else?
I’d say b). From beginning to end, Luke is especially concerned about the poor. (See Luke 4 for starters, or Mary’s song in Luke 1). In the immediate context, beginning in Luke 15, Jesus responds to the Pharisees and scribes who judge Jesus for welcoming “sinners” to eat at the same table. He tells the stories of lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son – showing how the humanly despised are valued to God. Then he tells a story about a shrewd manager. (I offer an alternative reading of this parable in my book Everything Must Change. I think the common titles “Unjust Steward” or “Dishonest Manager” betray a misreading of the text, with sympathy toward the rich instead of the poor …) The clever manager decides to side with the poor instead of the rich. And then he nails the Pharisees for loving money. That’s the context for this parable … which is about a despised person being precious to God … and a money-loving rich person being a loser in the things that matter most.
So I don’t think this is a parable using riches to teach us about hell. I think it’s a parable about hell to teach us about riches. You might go back and read straight through from 15:1 and see how that flows for you …