This is part 4 of my critique of Timothy Keller’s chapter “How can a loving God send people to hell?” in The Reason for God.
Keller appeals to the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31) as biblical support for his view of hell as self-inflicted. Here’s the parable:
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
After quoting the parable Keller comments:
“What is astonishing is that though their statuses have now been reversed, the rich man seems to be blind to what has happened. He still expects Lazarus to be his servant and treats him as his water boy. He does not ask to get out of hell, yet strongly implies that God never gave him and his family enough information about the afterlife. Commentators have noted the astonishing amount of denial, blame-shifting, and spiritual blindness in this soul in hell. They have also noted that the rich man, unlike Lazarus, is never given a personal name. He is only called a ‘Rich Man,’ strongly hinting that since he had built his identity on his wealth rather than on God, once he lost his wealth he lost any sense of a self.” (80)
I find several problems with Keller’s comments. Given that this passage provides the primary biblical support for his hell as self-inflicted argument, these problems are very serious.
The first problem is that the parable isn’t even talking about hell. Instead, it refers to the two men both dying and immediately moving into two different states, “Abraham’s bosom” and “hades” (or sheol). In other words, the setting of the parable is the intermediate state between death and resurrection. It is only after resurrection that the elect pass into heaven and the reprobate into hell. So any extrapolations one would want to draw about the psychological state of the reprobate post-resurrection based on this parable is speculative at best.
Second, the text doesn’t support the idea that the Rich Man’s suffering in the intermediate state is self-inflicted. On the contrary, the text has the rich man saying: “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’” He is not described as enduring the self-inflicted suffering of his own rebellious will. Rather, he has been placed within a fire in hades and he is suffering as a result of that fire. Even for the intermediate state this picture explicitly contradicts Keller’s account of hell.
Third, it is far from clear that Jesus is really concerned here with presenting us a depiction of the posthumous psychological state of the reprobate. This may be part of his teaching here, but it certainly isn’t obvious. What is obvious is the shift of power structures in the afterlife where the first will be last and the last first, as Keller says “their statuses have now been reversed”.
Finally, note Keller’s claim that once the rich man lost his wealth “he lost any sense of a self.” This sounds lofty, but it too is obviously false. The rich man knows perfectly well who he is and he shows great concern for his five brothers. His sense of self was very much intact.
In conclusion, the parable of Lazarus and the rich man provides little to no support for Keller’s Lewisean view of the afterlife.