Are people in hell repentant?

I’m currently teaching a Bible study on the parables of Jesus in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings. A few weeks ago, we looked at the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16:19-31.

Recently some Bible scholars and theologians have rejected the depiction of hell in this parable. The parable isn’t about hell, they say. Jesus was merely adapting a well-known (at the time) Jewish folk tale to make a theological point about something other than perdition.

That may be true for all I know, but that doesn’t mean that Jesus’ words about hell aren’t truthful.

After all, Jesus didn’t tell us the Parable of the Good Samaritan in order to describe the highway connecting Jerusalem with Jericho, but the road that he describes certainly existed! With its twists and turns, it afforded many hiding places for brigands to rob passersby, as they do in the parable. Even though the highway isn’t the point of the parable, the setting is a real place, and Jesus describes it accurately.

My point is, I believe we can learn a lot about hell from this parable.

In my Bible study, we discussed whether the rich man was truly repentant. After all, instead of begging forgiveness of the poor beggar, Lazarus, whom the rich man mistreated throughout his life, he instead wanted him to leave his place of comfort to fetch him water—even through the flames—and warn his brothers of their fate.

Even in hell, it seems, the rich man still wanted to treat Lazarus with condescension or contempt, just as he did in the world.

But there’s another clue that the rich man remained unrepentant, as Clay Jones points out in a chapter called “How Can Eternal Punishment Be Fair” in his recent book Why Does God Allow Evil?

Further, the rich man’s suggestion that his brothers needed to be warned betrays a lack of repentance because it implies that he ended up in hell because God didn’t provide him with sufficient warning. Finally, the rich man disagreed with Abraham’s assertions hat the Law of Moses was sufficient evidence to lead his brothers into repentance. As R.C. Trench says, the rich man’s “contempt of God’s word,” which he showed on earth, follows him “beyond the grave.” Ironically, Lazarus was the name of a man who did come back from the dead [See John 11], and the chief priests responded to this resurrection by trying to kill both Jesus and the resurrected Lazarus (John 12:9-10)![1]

Why is lack of repentance important? One of the biggest fears that we Christians have about hell is that people who go there will realize immediately that they were wrong, will want to repent, but will be unable to. In at least a couple of his apologetic works, The Problem of Pain and The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis argues against this idea, saying that the doors of hell are “locked from the inside.” In other words, in some twisted way the people who are in hell will want to be there—at least more than they’ll want the alternative, which would involve their humbling themselves before their Creator and repenting.

I’ve always hoped that Lewis was right about this. Whether he is or not, I have no doubt that God will be perfectly just. But until I read Dr. Jones’s book, I had never considered the biblical evidence for Lewis’s point of view.

1. Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 100.

15 thoughts on “Are people in hell repentant?”

  1. The idea that a punishment “isn’t fair” is rather childish. When one stands accessed of a crime against man or God, the most one can demand is Justice. To get something less stern calls for Grace.

  2. Which “hell” are you referring to? If it’s Sheol, the holding place for all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, only the chasm described by Jesus separated them and the conditions for the unrighteous were unsavory, but hardly the punishment of the “hell” described in Revelation, as the final destination for all unrighteous, both angel and man. This is the lake of burning fire where the torment is inflicted by God and not self-inflicted as supposed by the example in the article.

    1. Since I’m talking about Luke 16, I’m referring to hell as the intermediate state between death and Second Coming/resurrection. It sounds like you’re arguing that there’s a qualitative difference between hell in this state and the final place of punishment? Regardless, I don’t think I implied that punishment is “self-inflicted.” What in Luke 16 indicates that this punishment is self-inflicted? I’m confused.

  3. Interesting. As far as not being repentant, I agree. As far as “legitimately” not wanting his brothers to come, I think he did feel that way. It may have been a little selfish to limit his request to his brothers, but I think he really did not want at least them to have to come to that place of torment. Also, the idea of blaming God for not sufficiently warning him, that is something I never heard before, and is intriguing. However, I do think he was expressing what he considered to be a legitimate position–he was just wrong about it, as the temporary raising of the real Lazarus (possible intentional naming by Jesus of the parable character?–never heard that before either, but maybe) and the ultimate permanent resurrection of Jesus showed. The religious leaders would not repent though they knew the resurrections occurred.

    As far as where the rich man symbolically was in the parable, in my personal opinion he was in the “lake of fire” hell. Even if people may not have gone there yet, that does not preclude Jesus’ use of that ultimate destination in a parable. Also, I think that the Bible is not totally clear that nobody went to a “place of eternal torment” instead of an interim “place of the dead.” The demons, at least, asked Jesus not to send them into the pit, so “hell” seems to have been an existing place at that time, as I see it. (The lake of fire was created for the devil and his angels, but unrepentant sinners end up there as well.) Paul says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (no “in limbo” for Christians). However, I do acknowledge the curious episode of Samuel, who surely could not have been conjured out of heaven, and who also said that Saul would be with him. Contrast that with Enoch and Elijah being taken straightway to heaven. So I acknowledge some lack of clarity on the point.

    Finally, though I tremble to do so, I disagree with the notable and heroic C.S. Lewis about hell being “locked from the inside.” Nobody is going to enjoy hell whatsoever, despite the parabolic The Great Divorce (which, I think, is more directed towards the types of things that keep people from going to heaven in the first place–as opposed to what “keeps them in hell”). Everyone would like to get out of hell if they could. However, if “locked from the inside” rather means that they would not enjoy heaven either, due to their unrepentant hearts, perhaps I could go with that.

  4. Very interesting question. I don’t agree with Lewis or Clay Jones on this point. The discussion is just too speculative. The rich man might have been asking Abraham to allow Lazarus to help him simply because he recognized Abraham as someone with authority.

    Immediately after death, the implication is that punishment begins right away. In the case of the rich man, he recognizes his predicament, but does not ask to be released from his condition, asking only for the most minor and temporary lessening of his pain. Likewise, his concern is not for himself, but for his brothers. These could just as easily be interpreted as showing repentance.

    While all who die in their sins will immediately recognize their fate and desire release, we don’t know enough to speculate whether their hearts will be hardened (i.e., blaming God) or softened (i.e., repentance, whether due to desiring release from their fate or from at last recognizing the blackness of their hearts). One could argue for or against any of these positions based on the text,

    I don’t find Lewis’s line of reasoning compelling when he tries to argue that those who end up in hell will want to be there more than being with God. His arguments go far beyond the texts; we simply don’t know other than that our God is a just and holy God and we need to trust Him. Even the premise that it would be unfair for someone to end up in hell and then repent but be stuck there is flawed. We don’t see the heart and we are not the arbiters of what is and is not fair.

    It really is an interesting and thought-provoking question!

    1. I basically agree with you, Paul. I note that with respect to whatever “repentance” there may or may not be, “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after that the judgment.” This is the only life and chance we get to determine our eternal destiny.

      1. That’s right! I think we can overthink these things sometimes. Jesus made it very simple. John 3:16-21 is just one such example.

    2. Revelation 9:20 KJV
      And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk:

  5. I might have written this here already, but here’s my take: “every knee will bow and every tongue confess” is the line describing the state of things after the current proceedings are concluded. I take this to mean that every knee and tongue, all, without exception. So that those who chose God through faith in the empty Cross and Tomb will have great joy realized in the presence of the Great Love, praising Him perfectly, whereas those who denied God here, will still be praising Him, it’s just that their praise will burn in their hearts. Love, for them, will have precious little comfort, i.e. none, for their hardened hearts. The first group will love praising Him, the second will not. But praise Him they, we, all will.

    1. I’ve heard this interpretation before. I can’t imagine the unrepentant will kneel and confess with anything other than reluctance and anger.

      1. I lean in BobBob’s direction here. Those who denied Christ, either in favor of other gods, or in denial of any god, will be crushed in their remorse. It will no longer be a question of fact, but rather the realization of what they have lost. They will fall on their knees in one last gasp at remorse, or they will shake their fist in one final act of rebellion.

      2. Perhaps this is like a foreign invasion. The captives have to bow because the other king won and they have no choice, not because they like the other king.

      3. that’s exactly what i mean, they won’t like it, but confess they will. but the problem will be that they won’t get to experience the eternal love that God has in store for us. whatever love they experienced here will be dim, persistent memory, and they will ache and burn for it and be unable to obtain relief.

        my $0.02.

  6. I can imagine this being the case just like the Bible says that all will bow the knee and confess Jesus as Lord. For the unrepentant, they must acknowledge Jesus as God just like Satan and his demons must acknowledge Him as God, having authority over them. They are not free to do as they desire.

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