By Dr. Roger Barrier, Crosswalk.com
Our Bible study last night was from Luke 16:19-31 about Lazarus and the Rich Man. We discussed the fact that many people consider this to be a real story and not a parable because this is the only story where Jesus gives us the name of a real person. One of the men brought up the question: will God answer prayers from hell?
I feel led to “over-answer your question.”
I want to tell you the story. Then, I want to share an understanding of the theology of hell.
Finally, I want to answer your question about whether or not God answers prayers from hell.
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Opinions about Hell Vary
People have all sorts of opinions about heaven and hell and what happens when we die.
Some children were asked to share their ideas of what happened after we die:
“When you die, they bury you in the ground and your soul goes to heaven, but your body can’t go to heaven because it is too crowded up there already.”
“Maybe I’ll die someday, but I hope I don’t die on my birthday because it is no fun to celebrate your birthday if you’re dead.”
“Only the good people go to heaven. The other people go to where it is hot all the time like in Nevada or Arizona.”
The best Bible story to answer your question about unanswered prayers from hell is Jesus’ story about a rich man who went to hell and tried to pray prayers that God would answer. However, Jesus never did.
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The Story of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Luke 16:19-31)
In Luke 16:19-21 we read that there was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury. At his gate was a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The rich man is unnamed by Jesus, but named “Dives” by tradition. When the Bible was translated from Greek into Latin the Latin word for “wealthy” is “dives.” So we will call him Dives.
Purple dye was very expensive. It was made from a special fish and ranged in color from deep violet to deep scarlet. Fine linen was so delicate that it was called “woven air.”
“Beggar” is a Greek word for “utterly destitute.”
The Rich Man was covered with fine linens. Lazarus was “covered with sores.” Lazarus longed to eat what fell from the table; but he received not one crumb. The only comfort that he received was the dogs that licked his sores.
Luke 16:22 says: The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.
“Abraham’s Side” is a symbolic way to describe heaven.
Dives saw this dead man outside his door and invariably hired someone to drag the body away.
To where? To a place called Gehenna that was a Valley south of Jerusalem. It was utilized in Israel’s days of idolatry for sacrificing idols to fire god Molech. Later, Gehenna became a place for burning dead bodies. By the time of Christ it had become a burning trash heap where the fires never ceased. Jesus used this as a euphemism for the reality of hell.
Luke 16:23-24: In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 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.”
Luke 16:25-26: “But Abraham replied, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus his bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.
And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, not can anyone cross over from there to us.”
I believe that God used Abraham as his spokesman to communicate with Dives.
Now let me make something clear:
It is appointed men once to die and after that comes judgment. (Hebrews 9:27)
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God Gives Blessings, Grace...and Choice
Almighty God in His grace gave this rich man every opportunity to be saved. This man woke up in Hell because this is where he chose to go.
The first thing God did was to make him rich. God blessed his investments, and God prospered his farms and God used all of these material things to speak to his heart.
In Romans 2, Paul wrote, "Don't you know that the goodness of God should lead you to repentance?"
When God saw that his riches would not bring him to salvation, God put a missionary on his front porch.
Lazarus was the one that Dives wanted to go and tell his brothers about the torments of hell. Dives had often heard Lazarus preach the gospel. The rich man would sit down to breakfast and sit by the front porch he would hear Lazarus singing, "What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear..."
God used a third method to speak to this man's heart: Lazarus died first.
You would think that if you had somebody die on your front porch that you'd wake up. People go to funerals today and don't think that death may come to them. It's always somebody else.
God spoke to the rich man through material blessings...He spoke to him through Lazarus...He spoke to him through a man's death...and Dives wouldn't listen.
Luke 16:27-28: He answered, I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.
Luke 16:29-31: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
“No Father Abraham,” he said, “but it someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
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.
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The Bible Teaches That Life Doesn’t End at Death
At death, the bodies of all believers and unbelievers alike go to the grave.
At death, the spirits of believers go to Paradise, in the presence of Christ.
At death the spirits of unbelievers go to Hades; a waiting place of judgment and torment.
The term “Rapture,” refers to the return of Jesus to take his children up to heaven’s glory. The bodies of believers who are already in the graves will be resurrected to join with their spirits and souls. Those who are alive on earth when the Rapture occurs will meet Jesus in the air and be translated directly into heaven. This is the First Resurrection.
A millennium later, at the Great White Throne Judgment, the bodies and spirits of all unbelievers will be resurrected from the graves and from Hades, respectively. This is the Second Resurrection. Every unbeliever will be judged as to whether or not their sins are forgiven and they have received Christ as their Savior. Every one of these people will be cast into the Lake of Fire. This is the second death.
Avoid the second death at all costs.
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What Is Hell Like?
Burning fire (Mark 9:43)
Intense thirst (Luke 16: 24-25)
A place of darkness, depression, isolation, weeping and utter anguish (Matthew 25:30)
A place with no joy. No joyous reunions as we so often pictured in the minds of others!
A place of torment (Luke 16:23-24)
A place of sorrow and remorse (Luke 16:25, 27-28)
Could the fire be symbolic? Many feel it is and that makes us feel better. I don’t know why.
If the fire is a symbol, then the reality is worse. Symbolism is used when conventional language is inadequate to describe something. The reality is always much more than the symbol.
There are different levels of Hell but only one level in Heaven. The ground at the foot of the cross is level.
“Sheol” is the most-used Old Testament word for hell and it means a place for the wicked dead or simply the grave.
“Hades” is the New Testament Greek equivalent of “Sheol.”
“Gehenna” is a burning trash heap where the fires were never allowed to go out. Christ chose to use this valley as a literal description of what hell was like.
“Gehenna” was Christ’s most often used word for Hell.
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Should I Believe in Hell?
Jesus surely did.” Fifteen times in the New Testament Jesus described a place called Hell. Only four times did He mention The Lord’s Supper.
Ephesians 2:4 and refers to the lowest Hell: “For if God did not spare the angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of nether doom to be kept until the judgment, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous sinner under punishment until the day of judgment.”
Adolf Hitler certainly resides in lowest hell. A nice person who has not received him as Lord and Savior will certainly be on a much higher level than Adolph.
Everyone is on the same footing at the foot of the cross—kneeling in worship and humility at the grace of Christ.
By the way, the story of Lazarus and Dives gives us insight into what is it like the afterlife.
We are still alive. We are conscious of being ourselves. Lazarus is still Lazarus. Dives is still Dives.
We remember our former experiences. Lazarus remembered Dives and Dives remembered Lazarus. Dives remembered the life he used to live.
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God Doesn’t Answer Prayers from Hell
Let me illustrate. Dives prayed three things to God. Not one was answered.
1. The rich man prayed for mercy.
There will be no mercy in Hell. If we want mercy we had best ask for it now before we die. After that, there will be no more mercy.
“It is appointed men once to die and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).
2. The rich man prayed for an evangelist to warn his brothers about hell.
“Send Lazarus.” No. He couldn't do that. Do you know why? Lazarus could testify no more.
When we leave this life to go to be with the Lord Jesus, our days of witnessing for Christ are over. By the way, God could not answer this prayer because miracles don't save hard-hearted people.
“Surely if someone came back from the dead they would believe.”
Almighty God said to that man in torment in Hell, "They have the Bible. They have the Word of God. This is what leads a person to salvation."
3. The rich man prayed for water.
People have the crazy idea that we can satisfy spiritual needs with material things.
The sad thing is that this man today is still thirsty...He is still thirsty... and he will always thirst.
4. Finally (the most compelling notion why prayers from Hell are unanswered): nothing gets out of the darkness of hell!
As we think about hell, we must carefully keep our feelings and emotions in check. Hell is not theoretical. We’re talking about reality.
Whenever I preach on hell, or on the people going there, I remember the church that was looking for a new pastor. The first applicant preached on the subject; “The Wicked Shall be Turned into Hell.” The search committee turned thumbs down. By a strange coincidence the next candidate preached from same verse: “The Wicked Shall be Turned into Hell.” The Committee all agreed, “Call him; he’s the one we need.” The church congregation was amazed: “Both used the same text!” However, they replied, “one was so sorry, and the other was glad of it.”
Well, Todd, I know that I answered more than you asked, but I hope that I’ve helped answer the question.
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Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at [email protected].
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.