I listened to a podcast today in which a well-known pastor offered a really articulate sermon about hell, in response to Rob Bell's new book on the same subject. His thinking was nicely expressed, nuanced, and thoroughly orthodox, built mostly around the parable about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16.
Please understand, I enjoyed the sermon and I think it was well done. However, about 2/3 of the way into it, I could just imagine Jesus smacking his forehead with the palm of his hand and saying, "Um, guys? That wasn't a theological treatise about hell. It was a really poignant story about who God loves and what really matters. I think you missed the whole point." Maybe he even muttered under his breath, "I don't know why I even bother . . . "
As scary as it is to contemplate the doctrine of hell, it is even scarier to take this parable at face value--it's a story about a man who is in hell because . . . well, because he is rich and lived a comfortable life. Jesus doesn't say that he is wicked or that he failed to "pray the prayer" when given a chance. Jesus' point is that he got his good life on earth, oblivious to the needs of others, and that Lazarus the beggar is given his chance at the good life in heaven after he dies.
Don't get me wrong--because I believe that this is a poignant story and not a soteriological treatise, I believe that God's grace extends to all, even the rich and clueless. But as a person who is clearly rich and comfortable and lives a pretty luxurious life, I'm very unsettled by the parable and its challenge to me and my lifestyle. I'm also deeply grateful that God is the kind of God who values the life of a sore-covered beggar as much or even more than he values mine. (The preacher points out that Lazarus is ironically named--that Jesus and his sense of humor!--and is the only character in any of Jesus' stories who is given a name.)
To complicate things even further, an hour after I listened to the podcast, I was dashing into Walgreens to get Advil and a young man approached me with a tentative story about needing money because of something having to do with his girlfriend . . . I didn't give him any money, but I did drive away feeling even more unsettled than I was before.