Could Life be Inherently Just? The Significance of the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man

April 8, 2009
By

It seems like a silly question. We all know life isn’t fair. Its cliché, isn’t it?

There is a long time “proof” that God does not exist that goes like this: “If there is a God, how could there be such injustice and evil in the world?” What they really mean is that they can’t rationally fathom the possibility that all the evil and injustice in the world could somehow be part of a greater justice or morality. Without this further explanation, the “proof” is meaningless.

There is also a “proof” that God does exist that goes like this: “Why do we all — even those of us that claim we believe otherwise — treat morality as if it’s an absolute (that is to say, not merely a construct of convenience of situation) if morality rose from an inherently unjust universe?” What the asker really means is that they can’t fathom the possibility that morality really is merely a construct. (I have never met, and believe I never will, a person that isn’t outraged over immoral conduct towards his or her self rather than just saying, ‘oh, morality is just a construct anyhow, so to each their own.’”)

It seems morality is the main — perhaps only — point of contention over God, and it’s a sharp point that pierces both ways.

Now consider the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man:

  20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,
  21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
  22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
  23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
  24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
  25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.

It’s impossible to draw any definitive conclusions about the details of the afterlife or God’s judgment process from this parable, though Christians desperately try. And we can argue off topic all we want about whether or not the parable sufficiently characterizes our “good” and “bad” examples here for a modern audience’s current sensibilities. But that’s all unnecessary because the intended meaning of the parable is clear. It is no more or less than an affirmation that justice and morality are part of the hardwired DNA of life — if you include post-mortal existence in the definition of the word “life”.

Imagine that for a moment. What if life (or existence) is in fact perfectly just and moral? Jesus is teaching that it is.

This parable haunts me with its impeccable logic: For morality to not be just a construct there must be a God (and by “God” I mean any concept of an absolute higher power, if only absolute morality itself) and life must be inherently moral.

Yet it’s patently obvious mortal life isn’t moral or just, so any worldview where reality is just and moral must include an afterlife in which all injustice becomes part of a greater arc of justice.

Thus morality, God, and afterlife are not three separate things distinct from each other. You can’t have one without the other.

But what really haunts me is that the converse must then be true: if there is no afterlife then life is not inherently just or moral, and we do indeed have proof there is no God. (Likewise, if there is no God or absolute morality then there can be no greater arc of justice that our lives are a part of.)

But it also logically follows that what we call “morality” is but a construct than can be freely made and remade.

25 Responses to Could Life be Inherently Just? The Significance of the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man

  1. James
    April 8, 2009 at 4:34 am

    Bruce first of all welcome back from where ever you have been!

    I think we all try to make sense of why we are where we are and the circumstances of our life. Mark E Peterson(below) tried his best I believe to answer BYU students questions with the knowledge that he had. His talk seem racist now but at the time an considering the culture it could of been spot on. I think many members feel what he said is still doctrine.

    It is no more or less than an affirmation that justice and morality are part of the hardwired DNA of life — if you include post-mortal existence in the definition of the word “life”.

    Im beginning to believe life is very random and if there is a God he will look at us and judge us in the vain that we are all doing the very best we can for the circumstances and knowledge we have been brought up in. I think the key is being honest to your self.

    “Now let’s talk SEGREGATION again for a few moments. Was segregation a wrong principle? When the Lord chose the nations to which the spirits were to come, determining that some would be Japanese and some would be Chinese and some Negroes and some Americans, He engaged in an act of SEGREGATION…. When he told Enoch not to preach the gospel to the descendants of Cain who were BLACK, the Lord engaged in SEGREGATION. When He CURSED the descendants of Cain as to the Priesthood, He engaged in SEGREGATION…. “Who placed the Negroes originally in darkest Africa? Was it some man, or was it God? And when He placed them there, He SEGREGATED them….The Lord segregated the people both as to blood and place of residence. At least in the cases of the Lamanites and the Negroes we have the definite word of the Lord Himself that He placed a dark skin upon them as a curse—as a punishment and as a sign to all others. He forbade intermarriage with them under threat of extension of the curse. (2 Nephi 5:21) And He certainly SEGREGATED the descendants of Cain when He cursed the Negro as to the Priesthood, and drew an absolute line. You may even say He dropped an Iron curtain there….

  2. Ray
    April 8, 2009 at 9:28 am

    Please, everyone, let’s not turn this post into an argument about race and the Priesthood ban. Even if we disagree vehemently with some of the first comment, let’s not focus on it. Please.

    There’s WAY too much potential for this post to let it devolve into another argument about that topic.

  3. April 8, 2009 at 10:08 am

    there’s a difference between recognizing that morality could be a construct and then jumping from there to saying that morality isn’t important or held centrally.

    So, it does not follow that someone who believes morality is a construct should not still press forward with his own constructed ideas of morality. Basically, if morality is constructed, then this means that through imperfect means (like through force, power, authority, persuasion) we can have argue for one moral construct over another.

    I’ve been writing about this issue extensively, but my idea is this: I have no problem if there is no intrinsic morality or meaning to the universe (a nihilistic position). But behind every nihilist sentiment must be an existentialist position that creates something subjectively meaningful from the objective meaninglessness.

    So, really, it seems like neither argument (the proof against God OR the proof for God) are proofs at all. Morality doesn’t have to be an absolute even if we fight for our constructed senses of morality as if they were, so God does not have to be necessitated. In fact, I take comfort if we don’t necessarily have an overriding Truth or overriding Morality, because this kind of idea would be fatalistic — there’d be no way we could fight against it. I’ve tried to write about it on my blog

  4. FireTag
    April 8, 2009 at 10:14 am

    I’m going to wade in here, but I want to make clear that I speak entirely for myself. I don’t think my denomination has paid serious attention to such questions as pre-existence in my adult lifetime, and really wants to focus our attention away from concerns about the afterlife toward questions of social justice.

    So, FWIW, let me speak as a theologically-interested physicist. As a physicist I can be pretty confident that ALL realities exist: ones where my life experiences are wonderful and ones where they are horrible, ones where I’m my own “evil twin”, and ones where I was never born. Ones where I never met my wife here and married someone else. Ones where she married someone else. Ones where you’re writing this post to me, ones so trivially different as my decision about combing my hair this morning. Such realities exist throughout the past. They exist throughout the future.

    If my spirit and its afterlife state is being forged by interaction with my earthly choices now, I strongly suggest that my pre-existent spirit was being forged by the choices made by the earlier copies and variants of me that inhabited other portions of spacetime.

    In this view, life’s circumstances average out over spacetime, the best of us is preserved by God in our spiritual selves so that we “become what we always were”, and those realities where we responded badly to the call of Christ lead to the casting out of those variants the way a developing brain culls neurons that don’t contribute anything to its future needs.

    I don’t say this is even close to a final answer, but I think it opens new possibilities to understand what the Restoration Scriptures were trying to describe when limited by 19th Century understanding and language. In other words, the answers to the questions raised in the original post about the spiritual realm may be so hard because we misunderstand what human souls are in the physical realm.

  5. April 8, 2009 at 10:29 am

    oh, ok, I think I misunderstood something here, but now I think I have it:

    There is also a “proof” that God does exist that goes like this: “Why do we all — even those of us that claim we believe otherwise — treat morality as if it’s an absolute (that is to say, not merely a construct of convenience of situation) if morality rose from an inherently unjust universe?” What the asker really means is that they can’t fathom the possibility that morality really is merely a construct. (I have never met, and believe I never will, a person that isn’t outraged over immoral conduct towards his or her self rather than just saying, ‘oh, morality is just a construct anyhow, so to each their own.’”)

    I think we treat morality as an absolute because it’s easiest to do so. I don’t think this points to a God that we do that (since a lot of things that we do out of convenience, whether evolved convenience or otherwise, can be *wrong*…our penchant for making snap judgments about others unlike us is convenient, but it’s in many cases misguided.)

    Beyond that, I think that some of the other things I was saying are still applicable. Even if morality is constructed or evolutionary or one of many “non-absolute” forms, this doesn’t mean that we can’t or don’t or shouldn’t be expected to treat these moral constructs as something greater than they are. Something does not need to have eternal or permanent significance for us to have subjective significance that we press on. So I think the reason you don’t hear people saying things like, “Oh, morality is just a construct, to each his own,” is because this is a non sequitur. Really, things go like, “Morality is just a construct, but regardless of this, my construct has personal significance to me so I value and fight for it.”

  6. Wade Nelson
    April 8, 2009 at 10:34 am

    This post reminds me of a recent discussion I had with a friend regarding Hume’s is-ought problem. It might be prouctive to get into that.

  7. Angie
    April 8, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    Pragmatically speaking, this parable helps to explain, understand, and accept the seeming inequalities in our mortal experience. I actually think about this parable a lot. Who is the beggar? Who is the rich man? What is the responsibility of the rich man in this mortal experience? How can this parable console the beggar? etc., etc.

  8. Brjones
    April 8, 2009 at 4:00 pm

    First of all, I’m not sure I accept the concept that if there exists innate morality, then there must necessarily be a god. I think one could reasonably believe that there are certain beliefs and values that are inherent to all human beings as human beings – a commonality of thought or belief, if you will – that don’t have anything to do with god.

    Secondly, I’m surprised to hear you say that you have never met anyone who isn’t outraged by the immorality of someone’s conduct when they wrong them. I don’t think the alternative to this is, as you stated, “Well, morality is just a construct, so to each his own.” I actually believe that morality is a construct, and so do many other people. I think most atheists, and any other person who is a moral relativist believe that exact thing. As a society, we are capable of deciding what things are right and wrong, and we can be offended and outraged when people flaunt those values. I don’t think values are necessarily the same as morals, although to me it doesn’t matter because either way they are subjective. If someone steals my car I am outraged that they stole my property and harmed me. I’m not outraged that they broke god’s law or violated an innate, moral imperative. It is a completely practical consideration.

    One more thought on the subject of innate morals. I think it’s interesting that people who argue that morals are absolute and innate, and from an unchanging god, are often people who believe in the bible, and many of those believe it to be literal. This is interesting because many of the “morals” or “values” found in the Old Testament are things that in our modern society find to be absolutely repugnant, and I trust that most Christians find them so. So whatever else those Old Testament morals were, they weren’t absolute, or at least some of us would be adhering to, or at least celebrating them, today.

  9. Scottie
    April 8, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    It all goes back to the original assumption, which is shaky, at best.

    Morality could be absolute.

    It could be a construct.

    I’m inclined to believe the latter but it is unknown. Therefore, all the conclusions that are based on either assumption are unknown.

    If morality is an absolute, why do so many cultures in space and time have such different moralities?

  10. April 8, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    or, even more, morality could be an absolute, but undetected and/or undetectable.

    for all we know, god could be the same way. So, here, the issue becomes even more muddled. So, the question is, in a world where we don’t know, are we going to believe or are we going to not believe?

  11. Bruce Nielson
    April 8, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    Good discussion everyone. I particularly like Andrews #10, which is what I believe.

    Let me clarify a few points:

    1. Several posters seem to believe I am making a proof of God’s existence in this post. Not sure why you think that.

    2. Some seem to think that “construct” has a meaning of “created by people” but that’s not necessarily the case. Created by evolution would probably work too.

    3. AndrewS, Scottie, and Brjones seem to be agreeing with me, but think they are disagreeing with me.

    #6: Wade, tell me more about “Hume’s is-ought problem”

    #5: Andrew – “Really, things go like, “Morality is just a construct, but regardless of this, my construct has personal significance to me so I value and fight for it [against other's equally valid/invalid moral constructs].””

    Yes, this is the only alternative to Absolute Morality in some form of another. The conclusions that must logically flow from this are staggering to me.

    “In fact, I take comfort if we don’t necessarily have an overriding Truth or overriding Morality, because this kind of idea would be fatalistic — there’d be no way we could fight against it. I’ve tried to write about it on my blog”

    I just finished reading Suprised by Joy and C.S. Lewis made this very point.

    #1 – James: Threadjack aside :) I actually think you are making a salient point here: “God.. will look at us and judge us in the vain that we are all doing the very best we can for the circumstances and knowledge we have been brought up in”

    #4 – FireTag: Interesting. I just very recently read the Universe in a Nutshell. Wish I could even begin to wrap my mind around the idea that all realities exist, etc.

  12. FireTag
    April 8, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    Bruce (and others): For interesting help in mind wrapping about these issues in a way that keeps the math in the background, and the philosophy up front, I’d highly recommend “The Fabric of Reality” by David Deutsch.

    Translation of the ideas therein to Mormon frameworks of thought is left as an exercise for the interested.

  13. April 8, 2009 at 11:11 pm

    Re 11: About possibly agreeing with you…

    what if life is inherently just because there is no justice? >_>

    ….no, you lost me. I’m not sure how I agree with you but don’t realize it.

    What kind of staggering conclusions do you feel?

    Also, about the C.S. Lewis note, I’d think he’d take a vastly different approach. He’d probably appreciate and cling closer to an overriding Truth, whereas I don’t. If I’m guessing his position correctly.

  14. Bruce Nielson
    April 9, 2009 at 12:10 am

    #13: Suprised by Joy is about his eventual conversion to Christanity, so, in the end, you’d be correct.

    But what I was really talking about was his explanation of why, when he was an atheist, he took so much comfort in atheism and found great horror any time he had doubts that perhaps the Christian God might be true.

  15. April 9, 2009 at 5:46 pm

    if there is no afterlife then life is not inherently just or moral, and we do indeed have proof there is no God.

    No, if there is no afterlife, then the proof we have is that if there is a God he either lacks power or is not necessarily good as we understand good.

    Paul is the one who noted that if all we have of life, then believers would be of all men most miserable because they would be more aware than anyone else of the immorality and unfairness of life.

    Some interesting thoughts though.

  16. Bruce Nielson
    April 9, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    If we allow for the word “God” to encompass the possibility for an evil all-powerful being or a being that is not all-powerful, yes, you’d be right. But now it’s semantics.

    I agree with C.S. Lewis that there is no reason to logically consider the possiblity that God is not “good” in the human sense of the word. Afterall, that would mean that God’s goodness might all be a lie because lying is good to him. Or if he does save us ‘salvation’ to him might be torturing us forever in a pit of fire and brimestone. We might as well just say “God is evil” in such a case because it’s logically equivalent and easier to understand.

    If God is evil, then morality is still a construct.

    If God is not all-powerful, then I’m not sure “God” is the right title for him. But nevertheless, morality is still just a contruct because it’s not part of the fabric of reality because existence isn’t inherently just.

  17. FireTag
    April 9, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    Actually, isn’t it Pascal’s wager that says if there is no afterlife, we can never be aware that there is no afterlife, so we might as well live as if there is (even if only “just in case”!)

  18. Bruce Nielson
    April 9, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    Yeah, that’s the crux of it.

    Of course you could argue that it’s bad logic because maybe there is an afterlife, but only for evil people. Or maybe the afterlife is a giant party for immoral people, but just a lot of harp playing for good people.

    On the other hand, I have never seen a need to argue logical possibilites that no one believes in for it’s own sake. Thus it seems like, for the sake of discussion, we can just drop those logical possibilities all together. I think pascal’s wager is “correct” if you realize he was only looking at logical possibilities that had real human beings that believed in them.

  19. April 9, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    re 14:

    that’s what I thought. Fortunately (for me), I think C.S. Lewis arguments for his conversion are really…silly. No offense (ok, lots of offense), but it surprises me that so many people think that is something groundbreaking. So I think I’m safe from becoming a pop christian apologist.

    Now, here’s another guy I HATE. PASCAL.

    Re 17:

    The problem with pascal’s wager is that 1) it doesn’t distinguish between true belief and false (basically, think about what you said: “just in case” belief probably won’t fool any god worth his snuff), 2) it doesn’t properly account for all the various religions (it actually tries, but it’s very…egh). And as Bruce said, the afterlife could be much weirder than that. It seems like trying to “drop” logical possibilities that “no one believes in for its own sake” isn’t really…sound. Just because more people happen to believe in xyz afterlife doesn’t necessarily mean that crazy wackedout one that no one pays any mention couldn’t be the one that awaits us.

  20. FireTag
    April 9, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    Andrew S:

    I’m the guy with the bizarre belief that spirit is to person as mind is to neuron and that the spiritual and physical realms are co-evolving alternate descriptions of the same reality.

    Just call me crazy wackedout and don’t ask, my brother.

  21. April 9, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    That wouldn’t have been the most bizarre belief I’ve heard, actually.

    Although I will say that it’s the first time I’ve heard these kinds of ideas (neurology and mathematics) mended. You get a whole different kind of weird when it’s different subjects melded with esoteric theology.

  22. FireTag
    April 9, 2009 at 9:16 pm

    To be more serious, I believe God gives life. Life everywhere, everywhen, everyhow, in forms imaginable and unimaginable, with growth and challenges and unending beauty to discover. Element and spirit, inseparably connected, and with events in each realm impacting the other. A God who shows us His love by helping us experience all the possibilities of our existence (including some we don’t enjoy) and guarantees that is best because it is what He chooses for Himself.

  23. Bruce Nielson
    November 18, 2009 at 5:50 pm

    FireTag,

    You’ll probably never see this, but I really enjoyed “The Fabric of Reality.” I’m now in a physics phase or my reading trying to understand it mathematically.

  24. November 18, 2009 at 7:23 pm

    Bruce:

    Glad you enjoyed it and hope it was thought provoking.

    I keep suggesting it to Andrew S. as well, because it is largely a philosophical book with little math in it. I hope your recommendation will help convince him.

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