The Chasm Between Heaven and Hell
“A great chasm separates us. No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there.”
In this way, Abraham replied to the rich man who cried out from hell. It’s a hard word. The soul was suffering in the pool of fire and gazing up at paradise. He asked for one drop of water. But he was turned down. This should bother you a little. Most of us, if we heard a man groaning in pain from thirst, would do just about anything to help him. Couldn’t Father Abraham have bent down and given him a little water? If not Abraham, why not God? God is all-loving and all-powerful, or so we claim to believe. Then why couldn’t He pity the suffering man and give him a little drink? Or better yet, couldn’t God end his suffering all together, sweep him out of hell for good and bring him up to heaven?
A lot of people ask this nowadays.
As one young man told a pastor, “I doubt the existence of a judgmental God who requires blood to pacify his wrath…Why can’t he just forgive?”
Another asserted, “All that is troubling…The only God that is believable to me is a God of love. The Bible’s God is no more than a primitive deity who must be appeased with pain and suffering.”
These are good questions. Do you have an answer?
Young men and women are leaving the church by the droves, because they ask these questions to their parents or pastors, and aren’t given any answers. Sometimes, we Christians get cozy with our own pious habits in the pews and our nice formulas on Sundays, and we don’t take time to address the real struggles of the people in the world. What can we say about God’s love and hell?
In our Lord’s parable, today, we’re given a key to this mystery.
“A great chasm separates us,” Abraham replies to the rich man. “No one can cross over to you from here, and no one can cross over to us from there.”
Let’s take a moment to look at this.
Here’s the story as Christ tells it, ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed” (Luke 16:19-26).
Listen to the rich man’s words: “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger…and cool my tongue.”
Can you hear how pompous he is and self-important? Even here in hell he expects the poor man to take care of him. He never actually asks God for help. He doesn’t even ask Abraham. Perhaps he expects Lazarus, the beggar and the servant, to serve men like him. You can imagine him saying, “Lord Abraham, you’re a great man like me, send that dog Lazarus down here to ease my poor pain.”
He doesn’t get it.
The rich man lived a life of luxury. He was the center of the party. Whatever food, drink, money, girls that he wanted, he had them. He was so used to getting everything he fancied, that even after death, he felt entitled to it he expected those “lower” than him to wait on him.
Furthermore, we’re given a clue to the character of this man by the fact that he’s not given a name. It’s ironic. While he lived on earth, you can imagine he was a bit like a movie star. Wherever he went the paparazzi followed and his face was on all the magazine covers. Everyone knew his name, just as we know Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, and Madonna. But in the next life, he’s nameless. Meanwhile, Lazarus, who was ignored in this life is given a name in the Kingdom of God.
The rich man’s identity was so wrapped up in his wealth, that when his wealth was taken away, he no longer had an identity.
Have you ever seen that happen? In our culture, we define ourselves by our social status, jobs, fashion, good looks, talents or accomplishments. When that’s gone, nothing is left.
Why couldn’t God take the rich man out of hell? Why couldn’t Abraham bend down to give him a little water? Truth be told, the chasm between heaven and hell is too great, not because God makes it so, but because we make it so.
Year after year, Lazarus spent his life so wrapped up in his own selfishness, prejudice and pride, that they had eaten away everything that made him a man. He no longer had a name. He was no longer a person. Have you ever seen someone addicted to drugs, gambling or pornography? At first, they find a little pleasure in it. Then it becomes an addiction and soon the addiction eats away at the very person. One pastor in New York noticed this and came to the conclusion:
“Hell is simply one’s freely chosen identity apart from God on a trajectory into infinity…When we build our lives on anything but God, that thing – though a good thing – becomes an enslaving addiction, something we have to have to be happy. Personal disintegration happens on a broader scale. In eternity, this disintegration goes on forever. There is increasing isolation, denial, delusion, and self-absorption…No one ever asks to leave hell. The very idea of heaven seems to them a sham.”
In another place, C. S. Lewis says the same thing but in different words:
“Hell begins with a grumbling mood, always complaining, always blaming others…but you are still distinct from it…But there may come a day when…there will be no you left to criticize the mood or even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself, going on forever like a machine. It is not a question of God ‘sending us’ to hell. In each of us there is something growing, which will BE hell unless it is nipped in the bud.”
Heaven or hell begin right here and right now in our own hearts.
The more we reach out to love God and love the people around us, the more heaven will take root and grow in our souls. The more we ignore God and our brothers and sisters and wallow in self-love and entitlement, the more hell will grow inside us. It all comes down to the way we choose to live. Will you be a “me-person” or a “Thou-person”?
But enough of that. Let’s turn to Lazarus.
He was a poor man and had a hard life. He spent his days lying in the streets, hoping for a little bread while the dogs licked his sores. And when he died, the angels swept him up to paradise.
Clearly, being poor doesn’t guarantee salvation. But poverty does have something to do with it.
The name, Lazarus, comes from the Hebrew word, אלעזר (Elʿāzār), which means, “He who is helped by God,” or, “He who depends on God’s help.” In Lazarus’ poverty he learned that he could not rely on himself. He needed help from others. His lifestyle taught him that it’s impossible to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” His only hope, our only hope, is to depend on God.
The rich man had the money, food, and health. In themselves, and in their proper place, these aren’t bad things. They can be used to serve God and inspire gratitude. But all too often, these pleasures can get out of control and consume us.
Deuteronomy 8:10: God warns us, “When thou hast eaten and art full…beware that thou forget not the Lord thy God.”
And isn’t that how it goes?
When we’re comfortable and stuffed all the time, we forget about our Creator.
The rich man spent his life so self-satisfied that, even in hell, it never crossed his mind to ask God to help him. For this reason, neither Lazarus, nor Abraham, nor even God could cross the chasm between heaven and hell. That chasm was too deep in the rich man’s heart. Lazarus on the other hand, through all his pain, suffering, losses and poverty, learned the most valuable lessons. And this same lesson can be learned by all of us when we accept the losses in our own lives. Whatever we’re going through, none of it is meaningless. God allows our suffering here and now to teach us to rely on Him.
“I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; From where shall my help come? My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1-2).
This Sunday, we’re celebrating Corpus Christi, the feast of the Body of Christ. After mass, we’ll take out the Bread of Heaven, the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ, reverence it with prayers and incense, and process around the church, giving thanks to God for this wonderful gift. What is so wonderful after all?
“This is my body…This is my blood” (Luke 22:19-20). “He that eateth this bread shall live for ever” (John 6:51). We may be hungry now for material bread – for better health, for better success, and for all those things in life that we’re lacking. Sometimes we do relate with Lazarus, lying on the bed of dirt in life. But in the midst of that, our physical hunger reminds us of our much deeper spiritual hunger. It’s all worth it, if only our lack of material bread now can inspire us to lift up our eyes to the spiritual bread.
God didn’t allow Lazarus to suffer on earth because he was vindictive or absent. God allowed Lazarus to suffer down here so that he might better yearn for life up there. When we suffer, when our hearts are broken, when we wrestle with declining health, mental disorders, or each and every loss that comes our way, God is not absent. He allows us to go hungry now so that we can better hunger for Him.
And what a perfect message for us on Father’s Day. Our number one job as dads isn’t to bring mere ordinary bread to the table. Our first job is to inspire our families to seek the spiritual bread. And this is the job of all of us, to aspire in ourselves and to encourage one another through all the struggles of daily life to always place God as first.
So when we lift up the sacred host this morning, and fall down on our knees, remember Lazarus and the rich man. True happiness doesn’t come from the pleasures down here. True happiness comes when we feast ourselves on the Living and Eternal Bread, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.