Friday, 24 September 2010

Hell is yourself


Sartre famously wrote that 'Hell is other people'. For the existentialist, at the centre of reality, the other person is hell: they are an affront to my independence and to my autonomy. Why should the rich man in this story not do what he wishes? Why should he show any compassion to Lazarus? Lazarus is an inconvenience, an irrelevance.

The problem for Sartre is that life, as we experience it, is full of other people. And Jesus, through this story, teaches the complete opposite of Sartre's aphorism. Hell is not other people. Hell is when we live blind to God and blind to others, alive only to self. Hell is yourself.

In this story, we have a rich man. He thought that he was at the top of the world. He dressed in the best clothes; he ate the best food. He had the good things in life. But he dies. And then we get the first shock of this story. He goes to the place of torment, to hell.

Why? Because he was rich? Certainly Jesus has warned those who are rich, and well fed, and who have high status (Luke 6:24-26)? But is that the criteria for whether people go to heaven or hell? On that basis most of us in this society are heading for hell.

And we are not told that he was a bad person, or had done something particularly wicked. All we are told of him is that he was rich, and that at his gate was a poor man who longed to rummage through his wheelie bin and eat what he could find.

Why does he go to hell?

There are hints in the story.

It is often pointed out that although we know Lazarus’ name, the rich man in the story is nameless. As far as Jesus is concerned he has no name. His sin was that he had ignored God and lived for himself and, no doubt, the extension of himself: his family and friends. The world rotated around him. The world existed for him. He had built his identity on himself. Oh, he probably satisfied the external requirements of his religion (like going to church, maybe even giving to church), but even though it was done in the name of God, it was self-serving. He did it for himself – to gain respectability or his place in society or peace of mind.    

The passage talks about how he is in torment. It talks about flames. The picture that most people had at the time of hell was the picture of a place called Gehenna, which was the municipal rubbish tip outside Jerusalem, where the rubbish would be brought and then set on fire. But the fire of hell is not created by some external Dante-esque torturer who is adding fuel to the furnace. The fire of hell is chosen.

It is like addiction. The addict gets what they want, but what they want ends up destroying them.

We are all addicts, not necessarily to a particular substance (although it can be), but to self. I build my worth, my identity on me: whether that is my good works, or my toughness, or my family, or my business, on my speaking ability, on being a religious person. So, for instance, if I build my identity on my toughness, and someone comes along who is tougher than me, my addiction drives me to prove that I am tougher than them. Or if I have built my identity on the fact that I am a successful business woman or man, and my business starts to fail, then I need to work harder and harder, and sacrifice more and more, in order to try and preserve my self-identity. Or maybe I build my identity on the fact that I am a good person or a religious person or a sufficiently penitent person. And then things go badly for me. And so I feel let down badly by God. ‘Why should he let this happen to me when I have been so good, when I have made so many sacrifices for him?’ And we become angry and bitter.

Elisabeth Elliott tells a story of Jesus and his disciples. It is not in the bible. It is made up. One morning Jesus tells each of his disciples to pick up and carry a stone. Peter thinks, 'he didn’t tell me what size stone to pick up', so he picks up a very small stone and carries it. At lunchtime, Jesus turns their stones into bread. Peter has only a small piece of bread. After lunch, Jesus tells them to pick up another stone and carry it. This time Peter picks up a massive stone and lugs it around with him all afternoon. At suppertime, Jesus says to them. ‘OK. Now throw your stone into the river’.

The key question we need to ask is not what are we doing, but why are we doing what we are doing?’ Do we do it as a response to his love for us, or out of self-interest.

We do not realise that our addiction to self-interest is actually destroying us. It is making us like a rather stupid spider who weaves a tighter and tighter web around itself, until it is completely trapped.

The dreadful thing about hell is that people are there by their own choice. . CS Lewis speaks of the insanity of hell. It lies in the fact that the doors of hell are locked not on the outside, but on the inside. We could open them and come out, but we choose not to.

And notice that, even though the rich man is talking with Abraham, he does not actually ask to come out of Hell. In fact, rather than asking to come out of hell, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus into hell, so that Lazarus can be his servant in hell. He would rather be at the centre of his own little world, even if it means being in torment in hell. He cannot even consider centering his life and his identity on God, even if it is a God who loves him and has shown the extent of his love by dying for him.

When we talk about this, people sometimes laugh and say that they will repent on their deathbed. It is no joke. If we are not prepared to repent now, to turn to God now, we will probably be in no position to repent then.

There comes a point, and for most of us it is the point of death, when the decisions that we make in this world become fixed in our hearts for eternity. We become colder and harder and colder and harder, and even if someone rose from the dead and begged us to repent, we have become so fixed that we would never choose to do so. Again, quoting CS Lewis, there comes a point when, if we will not say to God, ‘Thy will be done’, He will say to us, ‘Thy will be done: You have chosen to live without me, to build your identity and your security without me, even though I have told you, and shown you, time and time again that it is destroying you – but you still will not come to me. So be it. I call you my child. I weep for you but I treat you as an adult and I accept your decision’.

Is there no hope? Are we condemned to being addicts to self, now and for eternity?

The glorious answer is no. There is a way out. Jesus offers us freedom. Of course, like an addict we cannot escape ourselves (although again, our addiction to self makes us believe that we can pull ourselves up by our bootlaces), but like an addict – the first thing we need to do is to realise that we are an addict to self and that we need help. That is what repentance is. It is a turning to God and asking him for help to release us from being self-centred to being God-centred.

Several years ago we travelled to stay with some friends in Nepal. They lived on a mountain. Mt Shrinigar. It was a big mountain: two times higher than Ben Nevis. We climbed to the top of their mountain. As we looked out it felt as if we were at the top of the world. It was all there in front of us. The valleys, the hills, the fields, the rivers, the villages, the town in which they lived. We were masters of all that we saw.

And then we turned round, and everything changed. Behind us, towering above us, were the Himalayas. And compared to them our little mountain was nothing. It was there because of them. They were what was really significant. They were the mountains which had shaped the landscape, which controlled the weather for the region and the flow of the rivers, the wildlife, where people were able to live and what they were able to do.

Repentance is about turning around. It is about getting real. It is about discovering that the universe does not revolve around me. It is about recognising that God is God. We need to stop kidding ourselves, turn around, and discover a bit of perspective in life. There is another world. We might not see it. There were many times when we did not see the Himalayas: there was a cloud of fog which prevented us. But just because we couldn’t see them, it didn’t mean that they were not there. And – visible or invisible - they were the mountains which really mattered. 

The rich man was so taken up in himself that he simply did not see God. He may well have been open to religion, because religion gave him status in this world, but he was blind to God and deaf to the words of God. 


And because he was so taken up in himself that he just did not see Lazarus. He took him for granted. ‘Another beggar’. While we focus in on ourselves, we either ignore other people, or we look after them if it is in our interest to do so, or if it makes us feel good.

And one of the consequences of repentance is that we will begin to see Lazarus.

And a person who is turning to God and seeking his help will be someone who begins to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). Not in order to make themselves feel good; not to try and earn brownie points with God; not because they feel guilty about the wealth that they have; not even to save the planet. They will begin to do it out of an immense gratitude to the God who loved us, who gives us life, this world and everything in it, and who gave himself totally for us. They will do it because the Spirit of God helps us to see Lazarus, and gives us a love for the people who we are serving. 

What do we need to bring us to the point of repentance?

This rich man in hell speaks of his family. ‘Tell them’, he says. ‘Send Lazarus to them’. Again, he is so wrapped up in self that he cannot see Lazarus as anything but a servant. ‘Warn them of the consequences of living for self, of becoming wrapped up in self. Warn them of what it is doing to them now, and what it will do to them in the future’.

And Abraham replies, ‘They’ve got Moses and the prophets. If they will not listen to them, they will not listen to Lazarus – even a Lazarus who comes back from the dead’.

God in his mercy does raise a Lazarus from the dead. Luke doesn’t tell us that, but John in his account of the life of Jesus, tells us that Jesus raises Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary (John 11). But Jesus is proved right. The religious people, even then, will not listen to Lazarus. In fact they want to kill him. They are so wrapped up in themselves that not even a dead man coming out of the tomb is going to shake them out of their self-centredness.

And of course, God in his mercy, raises someone else from the dead. Whereas Lazarus was going to die again, Jesus defeated death once and for all.


I would love to be able to say that if we saw a great miracle then it would shake us out of our self-centredness. But it won’t. Indeed it can just feed it. ‘I was so lucky. I was there. I saw it. I can tell you about it’.

What makes an addict realise that they are an addict?



What makes a sinner realise that they are a sinner?


For each person it will be different.
·        Sometimes God has to bring us so low, to such a point of desperation, that we begin to realise we are absolutely powerless - that there is nothing we can do to bring us to the point of repentance, and in that realisation we begin to turn to him
·        Sometimes God opens our eyes to see the wonder of what Jesus has done for us in order to rescue us. After all Jesus lived a totally God-centred life, filled with love for God and with love for people. If the only way I could be saved was by the death of Jesus, then it must have meant that I was in a pretty bad state.
·        Sometimes God deals very gently with us, gradually helping us to realise how much he loves us, how much we need him and how we can trust ourselves to him, and put him in the centre.

May I urge you, if you are beginning to become aware of your helplessness, of your addiction to self, to open up yourself to his voice, to respond. Recognise his love for you; and receive the gift of a new God-centred, God-focussed life that he longs to give you. 

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