Fire and Brimstone

I don’t do a lot of fire and brimstone preaching. For one thing, it seems to me that such preaching is often born of a hypocritical hope for the damnation of one’s enemies. We are not to hope for the damnation of anyone. Rather, we are to become ever more like God, who does not desire the death of sinners but rather that they repent and live (cf. Ezekiel 33:11). Life is salvation and it is death that we are saved from (cf. Rom 6:23). Like God, let us desire life for all the sinners – our friends and strangers, our enemies and ourselves.

Nonetheless, Jesus does use the image of flame, for example, to describe the anguish and torment of the rich man in Hades after he dies (Luke 16:24). So, the fire and brimstone preaching comes from somewhere. But let’s look at the whole context surrounding this image. Listen to the conversation between the rich man and Abraham.

The rich man, tormented in Hades, sees Abraham far off and calls out to him, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me…, for I am in anguish in this flame” (Luke 16:24). And Abraham answers him. First of all, he calls him “son” (16:25). I think it’s worthy of note that Abraham still thinks of the rich man as his son, despite all his waste and neglect of the poor beggar Lazarus.

A great deal is often made of the fact that the rich man has no name. We know the name of Lazarus (Luke 16:20). But not the name of the rich man. (Sometimes you hear the rich man named Dives, but this is simply the Latin word for “rich man” and comes from the Vulgate – the Latin Bible). So, in the context of this parable, the fact that the rich man is unnamed in contrast to Lazarus is seen as meaningful, especially in light of what Jesus says in another place to those who do not do the will of his father in heaven. He says he will declare to them, “I never knew you, depart from me, you evildoers” (Matt 7:23). The rich man spends his life in evil neglect of Lazarus who suffers just outside his gates (Luke 16:19-20, 25). Therefore, this reasoning goes, the rich man is unknown to the Lord — and that’s why we do not learn his name. We know the name of Lazarus because he is carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom. He is received by the Lord and known by the Lord, which is indicated by the giving of his name.

But this meaning of the rich man’s anonymity must be held in tension, I think, with the fact that Abraham calls him “son.” The rich man, despite his evil-doing, is not so cut off as to have lost all relationship. Somehow, Abraham is still his father and he is still Abraham’s son.

Now, certainly, this is not all that Abraham has to say. All the rich man was begging for was a drop of water from the end of Lazarus’s finger to cool his tongue (16:24). He didn’t say, “Get me out of here!” He didn’t beg to be delivered from the flame that tormented him. He only begged for a droplet of water. Surely this would not be too much to ask. But it would be a good thing – very like the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table, which he denied to Lazarus who desired them (16:21). So Abraham must remind the rich man that he has already received his good things and must inform him of the great chasm between them over which none may cross (16:25-26). So Abraham speaks the truth even though it is a hard truth, but he speaks the truth in love – not in vindictiveness. Remember, he calls the rich man his son.

So, yes, we must issue the warning of the real possibility of damnation and fire, but, like Abraham, we must issue this warning out of love and truth, not out of some secret desire to cause the wicked to suffer. Very much to the contrary, Abraham doesn’t want the rich man to suffer but rather reveals to the rich man how he is simply suffering the result of his own actions (16:25). The rich man put himself where he is. Maybe he made himself nameless to the Lord.

But, in the context of all the parables, what’s more striking about this parable is not that the rich man is unnamed but that Lazarus is named. In every other parable, the characters go unnamed. Their names are unnecessary to make the point of the parable, and so they’re not given. Bearing that in mind, the anonymity of the rich man may not be as meaningful as is sometimes suggested.

So unusual is this naming of a character in a parable that some have suggested that it indicates that, at least in part, this story is not a parable at all, but a true story. The rich man, they say, may be Herod. He was clothed in purple, which indicates him as connected to the state and possibly a king (16:19). Furthermore, he later says that he has five brothers, who stand in need of warning (16:28). Herod also had five brothers. So, I don’t know, maybe – but, true story or parable, Jesus tells it to teach us about how to live and how to live forever.

This is the only parable that names a character, and so the meaning of that name may be more significant than the meaning of the rich man’s namelessness. St. Jerome says that the name Lazarus means “one who has been helped” because Lazarus “is not a helper but one who has been helped. He was a poor man and, in his poverty, the Lord came to his assistance.”[1]

Another significance of the name Lazarus is that it also belongs to a friend of Jesus who dies and who Jesus raises from the dead, according to the Gospel of John (11:1-44). So, in both biblical cases, Lazarus dies and is helped by the Lord. Both stories are for us important reflections about death — about what happens to us after we die.

What does happen when we die? What happens at the end – at the end of all things?

These are important questions. Maybe some of the most important questions. When studied deeply, I think the parable of the rich man and Lazarus doesn’t so much provide concrete answers as invite contemplation of the mystery of death – so that we might prepare ourselves for it.

First of all, by not only taking the opportunities that come our way but also by seeking out opportunities to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned (cf. Matt 25:31-46). The rich man is given these opportunities by the presence of Lazarus at his gate, and he squanders them. The only misery Lazarus seems to not suffer is imprisonment. But his situation may have been better in prison than lying at the gate of this rich man. Prison would have at least kept out the dogs (Luke 16:21). Anyway, even the dogs were treating him better than the rich man was.

Do not live like the rich man. He stands before us as a warning. But show compassion to all others, whether just or unjust, even as Abraham addresses even the rich man with the warmth of the name, ‘son,’ do not cut off from hope and loving solicitude even those who cut off themselves. Maybe, if we speak the truth in love to them (Eph 4:15), rather than cursing them to hell, they will be stirred to repentance and join us in paradise.


[1] Jerome, “On Lazarus and Dives,” in Luke, ed. Arthur Just Jr. (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2003), 261.

Fr. John R.P. Russell


Fr. John R.P. Russell is a husband, a father of four, a priest for the Byzantine Ruthenian Catholic Eparchy of Parma, and a painter particularly influenced by abstract expressionism and iconography. He has an M.Div. from the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Ss. Cyril and Methodius and a B.A. in art with a minor in religion from Wabash College. He blogs here: Some of his paintings can be seen here:

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  • John Palmer

    I comment, but my comments are taken down…

  • John Palmer

    Sorry, in Catholic circles, I’ve never heard anyone preaching “fire and brimstone” in a malicious, damning way. It has always been with a view toward charity, to point out a brother’s error so that he might repent. On the other hand, I spent a good deal of my youth being reminded by Protestant kids (and a few adults) that the Pope was the Anti-Christ and that I was going to hell with him! They seemed to me, at the time, to be parroting the words of their parents and pastors, so I didn’t take it too hard. But, it has always bothered me, because it wasn’t done in the light of charity. They reflected a real hatred for the Catholic Church. I pray that this hatred has cooled off enough in this age to allow an opportunity for ecumenism to take hold! BTW, “fire and Brimstone” should induce a lesser form of the ‘Fear of the Lord’ on those who still have a conscience, and a Fear of the Lord is the “beginning of Wisdom.”

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Sorry about that. For reasons I can’t understand, your comment got marked as spam by our filter. It’s been moved back and should stay on the site, this time around.