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Torture Condemned?

The parable of rich man and Lazarus found in Luke 16:19-31 raises many uncomfortable questions about wealth, poverty, salvation, judgment, and the nature of the afterlife. Most uncomfortable for me, is the parable’s apparent ease with the idea of the rich man being tormented in Hades.

In the narrative, torture is introduced abruptly without comment and neither Lazarus nor Abraham seem to have a problem with it. The rich man is dead, buried, and being tormented in Hades all within one quick declaration in vv.22b - 23. Lazarus makes no plea for mercy with Abraham on the rich man’s behalf in the parable. Indeed, Lazarus remains completely silent during the entire afterlife exchange between Abraham and the rich man. Abraham throughout his entire discourse with the rich man shows no repulsion to what is happening. On the contrary, Abraham makes it clear in v. 25 that he knows the rich man is “in anguish.” This he notes, as matter of fact.

Within this context, Dr. Levine asks if the torture of the rich man should be celebrated or condemned.1 To me, torture in the afterlife as presented in the Bible cannot be celebrated nor condemned. The torture awaiting those judged negatively by God in the afterlife – so long as it is placed within the context of the greater divine narrative – must be accepted with great pain and sorrow. Acceptance, however, is far from celebration.

In Ezekiel 18 God declares that he takes no pleasure in the punishment of those who know the law and fail to live by it.2 But, God’s ways are just even when they do not appear as such to Abraham’s children.3 God alone is the judge of who belongs with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the afterlife. In Matt 7:1 Jesus teaches that we are to, “judge not, that [we] be not judged.” Jesus was focused on judging the sins of others, but the teaching applies to judging the acts of God as well. The decision for the rich man’s torture are God’s alone. God’s thoughts – and thus judgments – are, per Isaiah4, more advanced than ours; beyond our ability to fully understand.

Matt 3:8-10 and Luke 3:8-9 show that covenantal relationship with God – being a child of Abraham – requires bearing “good fruit” by living the law of Moses and the prophets.5 This is the common thread of the Hebrew Bible and the teachings of the very Jewish Jesus. Those who break relationship with God in the narratives of the Hebrew Bible by knowingly living outside his law time and time again face punishment and often death. My modern, Western sensibilities find this troubling. However, if I am to affirm that the Hebrew Bible and New Testament contain all things necessary for salvation6 and that salvation is through relationship with the God revealed within those books’ narratives then I must accept a God who tortures a rich man. Like Lazarus and Abraham, I am to accept God’s judgment and the sufficiency of his revealed word for salvation.

  1. Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2014), 265.

  2. “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord GOD, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” Ezekiel 18:23 (RSV) “For I have no pleasure in the death of any one, says the Lord GOD; so turn, and live.” Ezekiel 18:32 (RSV)

  3. Ezekiel 18:25-32

  4. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:9 (RSV)

  5. Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), 430.

  6. Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England, 1571, Article VI.