One of the central texts in the debate over hell is Luke 16—the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Actually, whether or not this is a parable is part of the debate.
People who deny eternal conscious torment deny that Jesus’ story depicts a real situation. For example, many annihilationists want to deny it because, for one thing, they believe that death is the cessation of existence, not the separation of the soul from the body. They tend to be physicalists (man is a living body), not dichotomists (man is a body plus soul) or trichotomists (man is a body plus soul plus spirit).
Whether or not Jesus was telling a parable or recounting a historical event does not change the fact that He was depicting an intermediate state. Whether or not Lazarus and the rich man were historical persons, Jesus is teaching about Hades and Abraham’s Bosom. Why would Jesus depict a non-existent afterlife?
Some annihilationists think Jesus did exactly that. Edward Fudge calls this an appeal to “first-century folklore” (The Fire That Consumes, 3rd ed., p. 152) and “a revised rabbinical parable” (Ibid., p. 153) in order to make a point about how to deal with wealth. Fudge denies the details of the story or parable should be taken as literal descriptions of an intermediate state:
“Moreover, no one can seriously claim that the details should be understood literally: a drop of water would provide no palliative benefit against hadean fire; the redeemed and unredeemed do not converse face to face across a literal chasm” (Ibid., p. 153).
But how does Fudge know that? How can he be sure the redeemed and unredeemed do not talk to each other like that? Jesus says they do. Or, at least He depicts them as doing so. So why would Fudge resist it so confidently? It seems to be an issue of personal credulity, not Biblical evidence.
What reasons do I have to take those details literally? For one, I think of the story of Saul, Samuel and the Witch of Endor. In 1 Samuel 28, we read about how King Saul hired a witched to raise the spirit of Samuel from the dead. And Samuel came up!
“I have seen one like a god coming up from the ground!” He said to her, “What about his appearance?” She said, “An old man is coming up! He is wrapped in a robe!” Then Saul realized it was Samuel, and he bowed his face toward the ground and kneeled down. Samuel said to Saul, “Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?” (1 Sam 28:13b-15a)
There is no question but that this is history. This is not folklore or a rabbinic parable. This happened.
Notice how Samuel is depicted: a thinking, seeing, talking spirit who looked like himself. He came up—presumably from Sheol or Abraham’s bosom—and talked to Samuel about future events.
I quoted Fudge as saying, “No one can seriously claim…the redeemed and unredeemed do not converse face to face across a literal chasm.” But here is Samuel’s spirit depicted as talking face to face with Saul. If the dead can talk to the living, why can’t they talk, or be prevented from talking, to each other?
As I write my book, Final Punishment: A Biblical Case for Eternal Conscious Torment, and as I interact with annihilationist and universalist authors, I find that one of the biggest issues in this debate is not over the meaning of this or that text, but over the limits of an author’s credulity. What is the author willing to believe? For example, some universalists simply cannot believe in everlasting punishment because the Biblical evidence takes a backseat to their moral convictions. Or to take another example, Fudge and I can both see that Jesus is depicting dead people talking to each other in an afterlife, but he’s not willing to believe that could be literal, whereas I am.
It raises the question: where do those standards of credulity come from? How are they being shaped? Am I being shaped by Biblical standards, or by something else? What about you?