Friday, February 27, 2009

Damned if you do and damned if you don't


[Quoting me] 7.But let’s assume it is possible to contact the dead. If the only departed spirits you can reach turn out to be damnéd spirits, then they will not be reliable guides to the true nature of the afterlife. Rather, they will be more like vampires, who try to “turn you” to the dark side.

"What evidence would you call on to corroborate this statement? It seems definitive enough that you must have some underlying reasons for making it, but the only obvious scriptural example which springs to mind regarding the motivations of the dead is the rich man in the parable of Lazarus in Abraham's Bosom. I don't think that this parable necessarily intends to accurately represent the nature of the afterlife per se, but rather to emphasize the finality of it (Jesus, I believe, was drawing on an existing eschatological device, which doesn't imply that he was necessarily endorsing it). That said, the concern of the rich man for the eternal destinies of those still living could be affected for the sake of the point being made. But there isn't any definitive evidence that this is so, I wouldn't say—at best it's indeterminate; though it certainly could be taken as weighing against your statement. Perhaps I'm neglecting other places where the dead are represented in a less altruistic, more parasitic light?"

1.Let’s bracket the parable of Lazarus and Dives for the moment, and discuss the issue at a more generic level. Why do the reprobate care about their family and friends in this life?

The standard Reformed answer is common grace. And common grace exists for the benefit of the elect. Life on earth would be impossible for the elect unless God extended common grace to the reprobate. Restraining their sin as well as preserving an element of common decency.

The next question is whether common grace extends to the damned. I don’t see why it would. How would that benefit the living?

Keep in mind that, in the parable, Dives is not allowed to contact the living. So he has no influence on them, for good or ill. He’s not allowed to either help them or harm them. That being the case, what purpose would common grace serve in a damnéd spirit like Dives? And absent common grace, why would he actually care about the wellbeing of his family on earth?

Sure, he shows apparent concern in the parable. But at the moment I’ve discussing systematic theology, not theological fiction.

2.Turning to the parable:

i) There’s the preliminary question of genre. As one commentator notes, “parallels in Egyptian and Jewish sources suggest that a story of a rich man and a poor man whose fortunes are reversed in the other world was a widespread and well-known folktale, which had been variously adapted,” C. F. Evans, St. Luke, 612.

As another scholar notes, “In the Middle East there is a huge corpus of pearly-gate stories that circulates orally…These stories are usually humorous and often have nothing to do with the teller’s understanding of eschatology…Somewhat similar stories are also found in early Jewish tradition…if the parable is a 1C ‘pearly gate story’ its primary purpose is not to present fine points of Jesus’ view of life after death. Jesus was no doubt opposing the Sadducees, who claimed that there was no resurrection from the dead. The Sadducees were wealthy, and the entire composition of the story appears to be a challenge to them…But the main point of the story can perhaps be stated differently,” K. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 378-79.

ii) This, in turn, dovetails into the interpretation of the parable: “A few verses before the parable of Lazarus there is a short poem on God and mammon (Lk 16:9-13)…This poem on money and God is followed by a reference to the Pharisees who ‘were lovers of money’ and who ‘lifted up their noses at him’ (literal translation)…A slight backward tilt of the head and a lifting of the eyebrows signal rejection laced with condescension. Jesus’ comments on money trigger this negative response. With Luke 16:9-13 in mind as background, the reader of Luke’s Gospel is presented with the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. It is as though Jesus says, ‘Now I will tell you a story of two people; one served God and the other mammon,’” Bailey, 379-80.

So that goes to the primary point of the story.

iii) Finally, the rich man’s motives may not be as altruistic as they appear to be at first glance. As another commentator explains, “Given the indifference that had characterized the comportment of the rich man in relation to Lazarus, we may be surprised at the concern he now shows. His concern, though, is characteristic of the rich, whose circle of compassion extends to ‘friends,’ ‘brothers,’ ‘relatives,’ and ‘rich neighbors’ who are able to repay concern with concern, hospitality with hospitality (14:12-14). Even this show of sensitivity, then, is self-indicting since it manifests how true to character this rich man has been and even now remains,” J. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 608-09.


  1. Question - why term it a "parable"?
    The text never identifies it as such and other parables never name their characters.

  2. Calling a story a "parable" is a modern classification. The literary genre isn't set in stone. Bock discusses the genre of the story (2:1362-63), in the course of which he also draws on Blomberg's monograph.

    If you prefer, you could call an "example story." The larger point, however, is that the story is fictitious, but broadly realistic (if you make due allowance for artistic license).

  3. Well, the word "parable" exists in the NT text itself, doesn't it?

  4. A literary classification doesn't depend on the use of that designation within the text, but on whether the text exhibits the most of the typical characteristics of the genre. Moreover, genre is a bit fluid. Again, if you want the details, you can read Bock or Blomberg.

  5. Isn't it also a conceivable possibility that Dives' actions are not altruistic, but self-serving? That the state of his condemnation might in some manner or another be worsened by his close associates' damnation?

    Maybe his judgment could be worsened based upon his influence on their lives. Or maybe hell is a place where the damned seek retribution on one another.