Tuesday, March 19, 2013

How to get to heaven or hell?

I was at church on Sunday. The preacher was speaking on Luke 16:19-31, the parable of the "Rich man and Lazarus". The sermon ended up being a traditional 'full gospel' type message, with an invitation to become a Christian at the end.

The problem I have with this is that the passage he was preaching on doesn't contain the full gospel, or anything like it. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the passage in question actually disagrees with the traditional gospel message in a number of important ways. So let's have a look at this passage:
Luke 16:19-31 (NIV)
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
The basic assumption of this passage regarding how to get to heaven or hell is plain - if you are rich, live in luxury, and ignore the needs of the poor in this life, then you will end up in hell, whereas if you have been poor and had a hard life in this world, you will get blessing and riches in the next. This is a thoroughly Jewish and not-Christian view of eternal realities. It is far closer to eastern concepts of karma (you get what you deserve) than it ever is to Christian concepts of redemption and salvation (Jesus paid, so you get blessings that you don't deserve).

The preacher, and Christians in general don't notice this problem because he/they have a fundamental assumption that all parts of the bible have the same message and the same viewpoint. All this comes from divine inspiration, so Luke 16 must agree with John 3:16...

I'm not sure the writer of Luke 16 and the writer of John 3 would have agreed on everything. They clearly don't agree here. Here, salvation has nothing to do with belief in Christ, and everything to do with karmic justice. Here, as in several other parts of Luke (and Acts), being rich is seen as bad in and of itself, and the best thing a rich person can do to attain eternal life is give away their riches to the poor.

Of course, its not just Luke that has differing views on how to get to heaven or hell than John, parts of Matthew and Mark also seem to have other opinions, like the famous parable of the Prodigal Son; there all that is necessary for salvation is repentance, again with no reference to faith in Jesus, much like the message preached by John the Baptist.

There is also something funny going on in the final verses of this passage. The original storyteller (whether Jesus, Luke, or someone else) suggests that "Moses and the Prophets" (i.e. the old testament books, minus the 'writings' like the Psalms, etc.) contains all the info you need to know how to get to heaven. Live according to these rules and you will be saved. Once again, this is a Jewish message - be a good Jew and you'll go to heaven. But the final verse appears to take a side-swipe at the Christian message! Could the original version of this story (presumably in edited form here) really have been casting scorn on the story of the resurrection of Jesus? From one point of view it could be read to say that Jesus' resurrection is irrelevant to salvation, and what people really need to do is listen to Moses and the Prophets... Is this an anti-Christian message that has been 'sanitised' and adapted to (partially) fit with the Christian message?

Finally, if we consider that there were oral versions of this story in circulation which may have varied slightly from each other in each retelling, and the version we have in Luke is only one version of the story among many (and not necessarily the original or definitive version), might we also speculate about some of the others? What if one variation on the story considered that the requested resurrection of Lazarus actually happened - that Lazarus returned from the dead, and sure enough his resurrection wasn't sufficient to cause people to repent. What if that re-telling of the parable became narrated as an event rather than merely a parable? Could it have been this story that the writer of the 4th gospel heard and included in his story - not as a parable, but as a miraculous act by Jesus? Given that miraculous resurrections are rate events, while story modifications happen all the time, this seems quite plausible...

Are you sure that all this stuff is divinely inspired and accurate reporting of what Jesus said and did? I'm just not sure anymore.

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