ULTIMATE REALITIES FOR NON-CHRISTIANS TO FACE
by Charles (Chuck) R. Swindoll, (from his book "Growing Deep in the CHRISTIAN LIFE")
A startling narrative of the afterlife related by the ultimate authority on the subject - the Son of God Himself.
A number of commentators refer to Luke 16:19-31 as a parable. I'm not so sure. By naming two of the key characters in the account, I believe that Jesus gives us ample reason to interpret these verses as an actual historical event. A true story of two men.....and their eternal destinies.
Luke sets the stage:
It is a pathetic scene. First there is a rich man who, as we shall see, is eternally lost. Then there is a poor man who is eternally saved. They live in two different worlds in their earthly lives. But there is a remarkable change of events at death. Death, the greatest of all levelers, reduces everything to the lowest common denominator. Look at the way Jesus describes the reversal of roles:
Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham's bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried (v. 22).
When Lazarus, the believer, died, his body was probably tossed in the local dump, the refuse pile. Chances are good he didn't even receive a decent burial. But his soul and spirit were taken immediately into the presence of the Lord, called here "Abraham's bosom."
When we read, "The rich man also died and was buried," we can be sure his burial was one of great pomp and elaborate ceremony. So much for his body. It is his eternal soul that interests us. We find him "in Hades" as we continue to read Jesus' words:
And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. (v.23)
In the verses that follow, we will not read of some paranormal experience reported by a man who saw lights and heard buzzing. This, I believe, is an event, not a vision. It becomes an interview, as it were.
Notice several things that occur. First, there is agony. There is literal pain. He is in torment. And somehow he catches a glimpse of those who are at peace. Second, he is fully conscious. Third, he not only has his senses, he has his memory. Neither is obliterated by death.
And he cried out and said, "Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame" (v.24).
The scene becomes increasingly bleak. Scripture pulls no punches. Earlier it mentioned "torment." Now it's "agony." Observe that the man could reason. He could also visualize his surroundings. He had feeling. He could hear. He could taste. It was as if he still had a tongue.
Abraham (who seems to speak for the Lord) answers the man's request in verse 25: .....Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony.
Now for those who joke about hell and say, "Well, we'll be there for a while and somebody will just pray us out," take a good look at the next verse:
And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us (v.26).
The "fixed chasm" suggests a perpetual situation. In other words, it is impossible to change destinies or to escape one's location after death. Even if others wish for you to be released, they cannot come to your rescue. Realizing this, the man begins to bargain---
And he said, "Then I beg you, Father, that you send him to my father's house......." (v.27).
Now this is where the account becomes extremely moving. The man in torment remembers his family at home. His concern for them is enormous, and understandably so.
....for I have five brother - that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment (v.28).
Let me interrupt the story long enough to ask a question. Is it your feeling that the lost who are dead care about the lost who are alive? If you're uncertain about your answer, read verse 28 again. Since he was unable to escape, his number-one concern was that someone might go to his brothers and communicate the truth about hell to those who are still living. Don't miss the urgency, "....that he may warn them." Talk about a missionary message! Talk about evangelistic zeal! If it exists nowhere else, an evangelistic passion exists in hell. "Oh, that someone could go to my brothers...if only someone could rise from the dead and appear to my five brothers who are living like I lived, denying what I denied."
This certainly silences the superficial comments we hear from some who joke, "Aw....I'll just be in hell with all my buddies." All it takes is a few verses from this account to realize there's no companionship there. On the contrary, there is an awful, gnawing, inescapable loneliness.
In response to the man's request, Abraham says to him, ".....They have Moses and the Prophets." Meaning what? They have the Scripture, the very Word of God. They have God's voice in God's Book. In other words, "Let them who are alive hear the truth of Scripture." Applying it to our day, "They have ample opportunity to hear the truth. Let them pick up the Bible and read it for themselves. Let them hear the preachers. Let them hear the broadcasts. Let them hear the gospel as it is contained in God's Word."
He pleads with greater intensity:
But he said, "No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!" (v. 30).
"Father Abraham," he reasons, "I know they've got God's Word. But it would make a greater impact if someone were to go to them from the dead. They'd repent. They'd believe. That's all it would take."
I find the following response nothing short of remarkable:
But he said to him, "If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead" (v.31).
You talk about the power of Scripture! If you could bring someone back from beyond - someone who has been in hell - to tell people what the future holds, it would not be as effective as Holy Scripture! The most invincible, convincing power on earth is the Word of God as the Holy Spirit uses the truth to convince the lost.
We have sufficient truth available to us in our Bibles to do the job. It is all that is needed to convince the person without Christ that they are missing what life is about. Even if we could do something miraculous, like bring someone back from beyond, it would not have as great an impact as simply presenting the Scriptures.
.....They have Moses and the Prophets........(v.29).
.....If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead (v.31).
If I were asked to put the message of this entire chapter into one sentence, it would not contain more than twenty-one words: Those who ignore the Word of God in life will not be ignored by the God of the Word in eternity.
MAJOR QUESTIONS WORTH ANSWERING
If I were sitting where you're sitting, having read what you have just read, I believe I would have four or five questions hanging in my head. I have an idea what they might be. So, before we leave this section on resurrection, let's consider several significant concerns.
1. How can a loving God send people to hell? The way that question is worded bothers me. Even though it is commonly asked that way, I don't like the way it sounds, because I don't like what it implies. So if you'll allow me to analyze the question before I answer it, I think it will help.
The question seems to imply that God is indulgent and a bit impotent....and that mankind is being taken advantage of, handled cruelly, and treated unfairly - with very little feeling on God's part. Almost like God is taking delight in watching people squirm, saying, "Get out of My sight," as He pushes people into hell against their wills. So if that is what is meant by the question, then that needs to be dealt with first. Suffice it to say, that is not what Scripture teaches.
But if it's an honest question, where you wrestle with God's loving character and hell's awful consequences, then I would begin by saying that God has established the ground rules. That's His sovereign right. As the Creator of life, His divine rule states that those who believe in His Son will have eternal life with Him. Those who do not believe in His Son will not have eternal life with Him. The believers will have the blessedness of heaven. Those who reject the message must face the punishment of the rejection.
And lest you think God is calloused and unconcerned over that scene, you'll need to return to 2 Peter 3:9, which states:
The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.
Never forget that verse! When someone presents to you the idea that God cruelly and gleefully dances about heaven as the last people are dumped against their will into hell, remind them of Peter's words. With patience and grace He offers the gift of eternal life and heaven to all who will accept it. Those who refuse the gift He offers must suffer the consequences, having made their own decision about eternity.
2. What about those who have never heard? Or, What about those who sincerely follow their own beliefs and their own religion? We must always be careful about stepping into the role of God. Only He knows the destiny of people. People you and I may think are in the family may not be....and vice versa.
God alone knows the heart. He alone is the One who makes the final determination. Not all who call Him Lord will enter into the kingdom. And conversely, not all who think they are lost are actually lost. Some have genuinely come to know Christ and live under the misguided assumption that they've lost their salvation.
But to answer the question, we need to read again the words of Romans 10 in order to determine the basis of salvation.
That if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raise Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, "WHOEVER BELIEVES IN HIM WILL NOT BE DISAPPOINTED." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call upon Him; for "WHOEVER WILL CALL UPON THE NAME OF THE LORD WILL BE SAVED." How then shall they call upon Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? Just as it is written, "HOW BEAUTIFUL ARE THE FEET OF THOSE WHO BRING GLAD TIDINGS OF GOOD THINGS!"
However, they did not all heed the glad tidings; for Isaiah says, "LORD, WHO HAS BELIEVED OUR REPORT?" So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (vv. 9-17).
The only way to have eternal life with God is through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. God has wonderful ways of getting our attention. He uses natural phenomena. He uses general revelation. He uses circumstance, blessing, and suffering. He uses people. He uses written material. He uses human beings who make the message known. He will use tragedies and calamities, the loss of a loved one, a crippling disease, bankruptcy, divorce, and a hundred other situations. The marvel of His plan is that He has an endless number of ways of reaching the lost. As they are reached, as the Holy Spirit uses the truth of Scripture to convince them, they will believe.
While I'm on this subject, let me add there will always be some who will not have as much divine input as others. Because that is true, I believe there will be degrees of eternal punishment. Before you pick up stones to stone me, look closely at these words of Jesus:
And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will, shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it, and committed deeds worthy of a flogging, will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more (Luke 12:47-48).
Let's understand that no one without Christ spends eternity in heaven. But the specifics of how God handles those who are without Christ because they heard so little might very well be answered by this idea of degrees of punishment. But we do know for sure that heaven will not be their home.
3. What about deathbed repentance? This is another gnawing questions. I hear about people who turn to the Lord their last day on earth.....maybe even their last hour. They have spent their entire life apart from faith in the Lord Jesus and now, dying, they express strong and confident faith in the Lord, Is that valid?
Once again remember, no one on earth can determine with absolute certainty the eternal destiny of another individual, since God alone knows the heart. But who is to say no one can become a Christian at the end of his or her life? Remember one of the thieves on the cross? He had lived the life of a criminal, a thief. He had lived his entire life without Christ. But in his final breath he makes a statement regarding eternity, and Christ acknowledges it.
And one of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, "Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!" But the other answered, and rebuking him said, "Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." And he was saying, "Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom!" And He said to him, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:39-43).
There is no doubt in my mind that that thief will spend eternity in heaven.
By the way, we need to be careful about expecting people to say the exact words we want to hear so we can say in return, "Now you're a Christian." Be careful about giving them the prayer that they must recite or giving them the words that they must repeat. Who can say for sure what language the heart speaks when one "believes in his heart?" I don't think that I've ever heard anyone I have led to the Lord say, "Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom." But in this case that was sufficient. The Lord read the language of his heart. Only He can do that. Yes, deathbed repentance can be sincere and effective.
4. What about the death of babies? This question is extremely important to those who have lost an infant at birth or a little child who never reached an age of spiritual comprehension. It's my understanding that small children who die before reaching a primary level of maturity (when they are able to reason with the basic issues of salvation and faith in the Lord Jesus) go immediately into the presence of the Lord.
No passage of Scripture is any clearer on this subject than 2 Samuel 12:23, where David says of his infant who has just died, ".....I shall go to him, but he will not return to me." Somehow, in God's wonderful plan, He has reserved in heaven a place for the precious infants and little people whose lives ended prematurely on this earth. David states the truth as he testifies to the inability of his baby to return to earth. But when David himself dies, he will see his child as he enters the presence of the Lord. By they way, the erroneous teaching regarding reincarnation is nullified by David's remark "He will not return to me" - which brings me to my final question.
5. Is reincarnation valid? If you can believe it, I have heard some say that Jesus' words in John 3 - "You must be born again" - provide a basis for belief in reincarnation. I've also heard Hebrews 12 quoted as biblical justification: "We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses." Proponents of reincarnation say, "See, people have come back, and they now 'surround' us." Quite probably, if there were reincarnation, I think Scripture would clearly refer to several deaths that the same soul passes through. But there is no such occurrence in Scripture. The Bible consistently refers to the death of an individual in the singular. Furthermore, Hebrews 9:27 says, "It is appointed for men to die ONCE and after this comes judgment" (emphasis mine). Job's words are also worth noting:
The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more; Thine eyes will be on me, but I will not be (Job 7:8-10).
And don't forget that "great chasm fixed," which we read about earlier. Luke 16:26 seals the door shut:
And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, in order that those who wish to come over from here to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.
When death occurs, a fixed destiny has been determined. The teaching of Scripture denies the possibility of reincarnation.
Now I have one final question for you, which only you can answer:
WHERE ARE YOU GOING TO SPEND ETERNITY?
Only you can answer that. Read the question once again. I plead with you, do not continue until you have come to terms with this all-important question.
Our country may have been a death-denying culture as recently as the 1960's. What concerns me a great deal more than that is that the majority are still a Christ-rejecting people.....especially so in these closing years of the twentieth century. But since when do thinking people like you take their cues from the majority? You have certainly read far enough in this book to know what it means to become a Christian. I ask you directly, have you become one?
To be a death-denying individual is not nearly as tragic as being a Christ-rejecting individual. One simply means you'd rather not talk about it, which is fine. The other means you refuse to believe it, which could be final. Before you decide to die like that, better remember the "certain rich man" Jesus talked about. While he was alive, he didn't believe either. He does now.
Swindoll, Charles R., "Growing Deep in the CHRISTIAN LIFE" 1986 Charles R. Swindoll, Inc., Multnomah Press, Portland, Oregon 97266, p.319-327
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