In my last posts here and here, I talked about the references to fire in Revelation. I plan on discussing one more important text that is used to prove a literal fiery hell. This is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Some might argue that this parable is something that actually happened and they cite to the fact that Lazarus is mentioned by name. For now, I will simply assume that it is a parable and leave this debate for another time because I do not want to get sidetracked.
Most of you might know the story but, for those that don’t, I will provide a short summary. In Luke 16, Jesus tells a story of a poor man named Lazarus and an unnamed rich man. Both die and Lazarus is taken to “Abraham’s bosom” while the rich man is taken to hell. The rich man complains of the torment he is currently facing and begs Abraham for a drop of water and to send Lazarus to warn his family. Abraham refuses, saying that even a dead man won’t convince someone if they do not obey the law.
First up is the use of the word torment. In the Greek, two words are actually used. In Luke 16:23, Jesus describes the rich man as being in “torment”. The Greek word used here is basanos. Basanos refers to something called a touchstone; this is a black stone that is used to test the purity of gold or silver. As one commentator put it, the rich man is indeed going through a test in hell, a test of purity; however, because no purity is found in the rich man, the test never ends.* Whether the rich man suffers pain or not is unknown, he very well could be, but that doesn’t seem to be the point of the word “basanos” translated to torment in most translations. The point seems to be that he is undergoing a trial that is never-ending. Whether physical, roasting pain is a part of it is beside the point.
The rich man also man begs Abraham for a drop of water to cool his tongue because of his torment. Here a different Greek word is used: odunao. Odunao only appears two other times in the New Testament and, in both uses, refers to extreme sorrow, not physical torture. This good evidence that “odunao” as used by the rich man does not refer physical torture.
There are a few more things in this parable that, at least, suggest metaphorical flames. First, the rich man begs for a drop of water to cool his tongue. However, if the rich man really was being roasted with flames, a drop of water on the tongue would do absolutely nothing. Jesus is clearly using hyperbole here to illustrate a point, similar to what he did when he said that it would be easier for a camel to go through the needle of an eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Second, the rich man is able to see Abraham and Lazarus, but how is he able to if hell is a place of darkness? It’s would seem obvious this parable isn’t mean to be taken literally when we have contradictory descriptions like this. Third, Abraham speaks of a great chasm that separates him and Lazarus from the rich man. Do we take this to mean that in hell, there will literally be a huge chasm separating those in hell from those in heaven? I don’t know of many Christians that believe that.
Now this doesn’t necessarily mean I’ve proven hell to be metaphorical. I only want to show that it is more plausible to take the various descriptions of hell metaphorically as opposed to literally. All these descriptions of hell tend to come in parables and are surrounding by metaphor. Taking the descriptions of hell literally seems to be a stretch and something we read into the text rather than out of it.
*What in Hell is Going On by JP Holding