Harrowing One’s Own Hell: Evagrius on Lazarus and the Rich Man

I finished Frank Schaeffer’s Patience with God last night.  Basically, his argument was that we find God in people’s love for each other, or something like that. 

I was intrigued by pages 216-217, in which Frank quotes Evagrius’ Commentary on the Proverbs.  Evagrius is discussing Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31).  In this parable, the rich man wears fancy clothes and lives sumptuously, whereas the poor man Lazarus sits at the gate, desiring the rich man’s crumbs, as the dogs lick his sores.  The two of them die, and Lazarus is taken to the comforts of Abraham’s bosom, whereas the rich man goes to Hades.  As the rich man experiences torment, he asks Abraham to have mercy on him, and to send Lazarus to dip his finger in water and to cool the rich man’s tongue.  Abraham answers “no”, saying that there’s a gulf between Abraham’s bosom and Hades, and no one can pass from one to the other.

The rich man then asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his (the rich man’s) five brothers, so Lazarus can warn them to avoid Hades, a place of torment.  If they see a man risen from the dead, the rich man figures, then they will repent.  Abraham responds that the five brothers have Moses and the prophets to instruct and to warn them.  If these brothers won’t believe Moses and the prophets, then they won’t repent after seeing someone rise from the dead.

Evagrius states the following:

There was a time when evil did not exist, and there will be a time when it no longer exists; but there was never a time when virtue did not exist and there will never be a time when it does not exist.  For the seeds of virtue are indestructible.  And I am convinced by the rich man almost but not completely given over to every evil who was condemned to hell because of his evil, and who felt compassion for his brothers, for to have pity is a very beautiful seed of virtue.

Frank interprets Evagrius to mean the following:

Evagrius discovers a seed of virtue in the rich man’s compassion for his brothers.  According to Evagrius, the rich man’s situation is not as dire as it might seem.  He’s dead; he’s in Hell, but wait, that’s not the end of it.  Evagrius writes a postscript.  Since the rich man showed pity for his brothers—in other words, he felt and expressed love—there is a way out.  Virtue, says Evagrius, will outlast evil.  The Law of Love prevails.

Even the rich man who lived his life mired in injustice will find salvation.  His hell will turn to paradise because there will come a time when evil “no longer exists,” which, given Evagrius’s thinking, means that someday Hell will turn into Heaven for the rich man, because if there is suffering anywhere, then evil will still exist and will have outlasted virtue. 

The rich man’s perception that he is in Hell derives from the gulf between him and God.  This gulf was placed there by the rich man’s lack of charity, which turned him into someone who cut himself off from love.

When he was alive on earth, the rich man was selfish, for he failed to help the poor man Lazarus.  In Hades, however, the rich man begins to care about other people, for he wants to help his brothers avoid the torments of Hades.  For Evagrius, this was a seed of virtue within the rich man, something that could grow and transform his torment in Hades into the paradise of heaven.  Moreover, since God’s plan is to eliminate evil one day, Evagrius believes that the rich man’s suffering will eventually come to an end, for the suffering of any human being is evil. 

Evagrius appears to combine universalism with a notion that C.S. Lewis expressed over a millennium after him: that the door to hell is locked from the inside.  Evagrius may combine the two ideas in that he sees the torments of Hades as God’s way of instilling compassion for others into the rich man, for pain can lead us to sympathize and empathize with other people.

So who was Evagrius?  I assume that the Evagrius Frank is talking about is Evagrius of Pontus, a fourth century Christian monk and ascetic, who influenced such patristic luminaries as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, John Cassius, and Theophilus of Alexandria (see here).  Evagrius and Origen were condemned in a sixth century church council, yet the influence of their writings was strong.

It’s interesting how there was an openness to universalism in the early centuries of the Christian church.  I’m not suggesting that all (or even most) Christians shared it.  But there were prominent Christian teachers who were universalists.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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