The parables of Jesus, I am told, have one basic meaning. These parables are like an extended metaphor in which Jesus is saying one thing (often the kingdom of heaven) is like something familiar to His hearers. Not every detail in the parable refers to some great truth, but the entire parable makes one point about the topic.
For instance, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, or that the joy in heaven over sinners who repent is like the joy of someone who has found a lost coin.
Jesus also told stories, such as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) and the Prodigal Son (Luke 15) that served as parables yet sounded as if they came out of the daily news. One of them is about a man who died…
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment. (Luke 16:19–28)
When I read this, I find it difficult to restrict the meaning to one point. Is Jesus describing the reality of life after death? The reality of heaven and hell? Or is His emphasis on the fact that once a person is dead and in one of these two places, there is no hope of getting out and going to the other one?
Jesus sometimes explained the meaning of a parable to His disciples later. For this one, He gives a bottom line in the words of one of the characters in the story.
But Abraham said (of the five brothers still living), ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ (Luke 16:29–31)
When some hear the Gospel and their need for repentance, they say, “I will wait and see what happens” or “I will let God decide my fate” not realizing that God has already spoken. He says that “the wages of sin is death” and although “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23) that gift is for those who are living. As the story says, those who are dead will not repent; repentance is for the living.
The ‘rule’ about interpreting parables cannot dismiss all the other parts of this story on the grounds that they are not the main point. That is, we cannot dismiss the parts about hell. The Bible teaches elsewhere about eternal punishment in a place of torment, such as this most sobering passage…
… when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might… (2 Thessalonians 1:7–9)
Some people describe hell as a void in darkness. They say that whatever sins a person enjoys now, that will be their occupation forever. That is, a liar will lie for eternity. Those who curse will curse non-stop. Those who covet will be envious forever. Anyone who refuses to hear Jesus now will never hear Him again.
It is also suggested that hell will be everything that Jesus is not. Instead of peace, stability, light, a good Shepherd, redemption, answered prayer, love, kindness, self-control, and incredible goodness, imagine the opposites. This makes me shudder.
No one needs to go to that place. It was “prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41) and everyone who makes Jesus their choice can avoid that eternal torment. He says, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
Those who follow Jesus eventually will say goodbye to all things physical and material, but death cannot take away the love of God and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Instead, as everything else fades away, He and His goodness will be magnified.