Note: I fully affirm holding to Biblical truths, but history has demonstrated that God works even when things aren’t fully correct. Learning to recognize God in these moments of contradiction is difficult but valuable. This is the final (for now) entry into a series. The rest of the series can be found here.
Jesus Got It Wrong?!
I first realized that the story of Lazarus and the rich man had far more depth than I understood when my supervising teacher corrected me while I was doing my student teaching. I had explained to the students that we were going to study the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The teacher asked how I knew it was a parable. I stammered a bit before shrugging. As I discovered when I got home, it doesn’t say it’s a parable. It’s not even strongly implied.
My supervising teacher brought this to my attention because I was teaching Bible in a public school. This obviously challenges the wall between church and state. I was part of a larger program that taught the Bible purely as a piece of literature to be studied like any other piece of literature. To avoid lawsuits and controversy, nothing could be taught that wasn’t explicit in the text, and I couldn’t talk about beliefs of anyone but the people in their days. Because I made some assumptions about the story, it put the program at risk. You can’t say it’s a parable unless the Bible says it’s a parable.
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This whole incident led me to study more, and I realized something interesting: if this story isn’t a parable, then Jesus is making some profound declarations regarding the afterlife.
The story in full can be found in Luke 16:19-31, but I’ll share a short summary. Jesus talks about two men who die and meet in the afterlife with their fortunes reversed. The first man, Lazarus, who was poor and afflicted in life, now stands next to Abraham. The rich man sits outside the gates in agony as his afterlife is spent in the fires of Hades. The rich man asks for help, but none is offered.
If this is a true story, then the traditional view of eternal damnation is the correct one, right? Bad people burn forever while the good people sit in comfort. If the Adventist view is true — the dead sleep until the resurrection, when sin and wickedness are totally anhialated — then this story must be a parable.
But if true, why would Jesus tell a parable that was so theologically wrong?
“He was accessorily wrong”
Here’s another example to answer that question. I was having lunch with a friend a while back and we were talking about how God accomplishes His purposes through our experiences, faults, and limitations. I brought up William Miller and the great disappointment. (Quick recap: William Miller was a military man, turned farmer, turned preacher who thought Daniel prophesied that Jesus would return to earth in 1844. Since you are here reading this, you know that didn’t happen).
I told my friend it’s remarkable that there was so much divine intervention into a movement that was fundamentally wrong. Jesus wasn’t coming in 1844, yet He sent prophecies to multiple people and performed multiple miracles for believers. My friend quickly countered that William Miller was, in his eyes, fundamentally right. He was accessorily wrong. (No shame in looking it up here. I did.)
William Miller was right about the dating, was right that it had to do with Jesus’ return, and was right that it related to the cleansing of the sanctuary. He was just wrong in what he thought the sanctuary was. It wasn’t earth; it was the heavenly sanctuary. Practically speaking, it was a big difference for the faithful believers who waited all through the night, but his theology was mostly spot on, and God was working through this movement!
Correct Where It Counts
Both stories, Jesus’ afterlife story and William Miller’s story of disappointment, contain a mixture of correct and incorrect theology. Which theology you think is incorrect probably says a lot about how Adventist you are. Either way, you should ask why God supports this conflicted theology? In the case of Lazarus and the rich man, the conflicted theology is coming straight from Jesus’ mouth!
One of the beauties of God is that He works with us where we are and reveals the truths we need to receive. William Miller and his followers didn’t get every detail right, but they understood the heart of the matter. Jesus is coming soon to bring about the New Earth and God’s eternal kingdom! Miller got the “how” wrong, but people were inspired to share this message all over the country and all over the world. If he had gone around sharing, “Jesus moved to another chamber that may or may not be symbolic as typified by the Jewish Day of Atonement,” do you think people would have gathered by the thousands to hear him? Probably not. God worked through flawed theology to illuminate beautiful, Jesus-centered, life-saving theology.
It’s the same with the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus was talking to a bunch of people who couldn’t even decide if the afterlife existed or not. To read too much into the particulars misses the point. The rich man spent his whole life looking down on the poor and mistreating them. In the afterlife, he continues this same pattern. Note how he wants Lazarus to bring him water, but he won’t even ask Lazarus directly. He instead speaks to Abraham. Even in Hades, this man is still looking down on the poor. He still views Lazarus as a servant to go fetch him some water. He even talks about poor Lazarus like he’s not there!
When Abraham refuses, the rich man again requests that Lazarus go and do something for him. Warn his family. Abraham replies that if his family won’t listen to Moses and the prophets (think Old Testament,) then they won’t listen to someone who rose from the dead.
Jesus isn’t telling this story to paint an accurate picture of the afterlife. He is trying to get Israel to see that God has given them everything they need in the scriptures! They have been told how to treat others and how to treat God. They have been told about the Messiah and what he would do!
Yet…the Messiah is staring them right in the face and they won’t believe…they won’t, even after he dies for their sins and comes back to life three days later.
Jesus is trying to teach them about love, oppression, His purpose, the kingdom of God, and more. If He has to use their flawed understanding of God and the afterlife to do it, so be it. He did it again with Miller, and that certainly wasn’t the last time.