“Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”

Abraham speaks these words to a soul in hell in the famous parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-21). They are generally understood to mean that there exists between heaven and hell a gap that’s impossible to bridge. Nobody passes from hell to heaven. Hell is forever and no amount of regret or repentance there will get you to heaven. Indeed, once in hell, nobody in heaven can help you either. The gap between the two is eternally fixed.

But that’s not what this parable is teaching. Some years ago, Jean Vanier delivered the prestigious Massey Lectures in Canada and he took up this parable. The point he emphasised is that the “unbridgeable chasm” referred to here is not the gap between heaven and hell as this is understood in the popular mind. Rather, for Vanier, the unbridgeable gap exists already in this world in terms of the gap between the rich and the poor, a gap that we have forever been unable to bridge. Moreover, it’s a gap with more dimensions than we first imagine.

What separates the rich from the poor so definitively with a chasm that, seemingly, can never be bridged? What would bridge that gap?

The prophet Isaiah offers us a helpful image (Isaiah 65:25). Drawing upon a messianic dream, he tells us how that gap will finally be bridged. It will happen, he submits, in the messianic age, when we’re in heaven and God’s grace is finally able to affect universal reconciliation, so that “the wolf and lamb will feed together” (or, as this is commonly read, “the lion and the lamb will lie down together”).

The lion and the lamb will lie down together. But lions kill lambs. How can this change? Well, that’s the unbridgeable gap between heaven and hell. That’s the gap between the victim and the killer, the powerless and the powerful, the bullied and the bully, the despised and the bigot, the oppressed and the oppressor, the hated and the hater, the older son and his prodigal brother, the poor and the rich. That’s the gap between heaven and hell.

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