Are The Rich Damned?
By Cliff Burton
Though this controversial question tends to be carefully sidestepped in church meetings, Jesus himself addressed it in the Gospel of Mark: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God (Mark 10:25).” Since it seems impossible for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, this passage leaves us with the impression that the rich cannot enter God’s kingdom, or in other words, that the rich are damned. For Mormons with significant wealth, hearing such a comment from Jesus, whose example we’re supposed to follow, can be pretty hard to take.
Such a Mormon might think: “Is it really wrong for me to be wealthy? Didn’t I work hard all these years to earn the wealth I’ve accumulated? What’s wrong with living in a nice home, taking exotic vacations, driving a fancy car, and enjoying the finer things in life? Is that what Jesus really meant, that the rich are damned?”
The Apostles were similarly shocked when they heard what Jesus had said, so they asked him a question hoping to get some further explanation: “Who then can be saved?” Jesus then replied, “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for with God all things are possible (Mark 10:26-27).” For wealthy Mormons this qualifier comes as a godsend, literally: “Oh, good. It looks like I can be rich and get to heaven. I was worried for a second there that I might have to change my lifestyle. I was worried there might be something wrong with being filthy rich. Looks like I won’t need to sell my mansion on the east bench in Salt Lake City and move to the west side of town, get rid of my Hummer and buy a Hyundai, stay in a Motel 6 for my next vacation instead of the Four Seasons, or give all my money away to a bunch of lazy poor people.”
While the passage telling us that with God all things are possible gives the rich some relief from the anxiety of going to hell, unfortunately the New Testament is a big book, and, as it turns out, has some other comments by Jesus that are pretty scary as well, indicating that its not ok to live in luxury while grinding the faces of the poor.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus from the New Testament is one example (Luke 16:20-31). In it, Jesus describes how an anonymous rich man enjoys all the good things in life, while a beggar named Lazarus waits outside the gate of the rich man’s home, hoping to get some of the “crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table.” Instead of getting food from the rich man, dogs come and lick Lazarus’ sores, after which Lazarus dies, apparently from starvation. Angels then carry his soul to “Abraham’s bosom,” in other words to heaven. The rich man dies soon thereafter, and instead of going to heaven like the poor beggar Lazarus, the rich man “lift[s] up his eyes” in hell, “being in torments.”
Apparently the rich man’s cruelty in refusing to share his wealth with others in need, when he had more than plenty to spare, was enough to land him in a tough spot in the afterlife. The rich man even asks the prophet Abraham to send an angel to the man’s still living relatives, in order to warn them that if they are greedy and don’t help the poor, they’ll also go to hell. Abraham refuses, telling the rich man that Moses and the prophets have been preaching such a message all along, and that if the rich man’s relatives don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t bother listening to an angel either.
For wealthy Mormons this story is likely pretty disturbing, and may make them again wonder whether they can really be rich and go to heaven after all.
But, the rich Mormon says: “the Bible isn’t an infallible book. There are plenty of mistakes, mistranslations, and transmission errors in the text. Maybe all that talk of the rich going to hell in the Bible was added by some Catholic monk in the Middle-Ages, who corrupted the text of what Jesus really said. Instead of thinking that a rich person like me can’t go to heaven, I’m sure I can find some support for my lifestyle in the other holy books of scripture. In fact, I remember some comforting words from the Book of Mormon (a book of scripture written by prophets in the ancient Americas) where the prophet-king Benjamin says that if you keep the commandments, God will bless you and make you rich: “And behold, all that [God] requires of you is to keep his commandments; and he has promised you that if ye would keep his commandments ye should prosper in the land; and he never doth vary from that which he hath said; therefore, if ye do keep his commandments he doth bless you and prosper you (Mosiah 2:22).” The rich Mormon might be tempted to then draw some conclusions, “You see, I’ve become wealthy because of how righteous I am. If I didn’t deserve the money I’ve got, and didn’t deserve to enjoy it, why would God have bothered to make me rich? Other people are poor because they don’t keep the commandments or are lazy, or both. If someone is poor, that’s his own fault, not mine!”
Though King Benjamin’s words might make a rich Mormon a little more optimistic initially, sadly, the Book of Mormon is also a pretty big book and it doesn’t take long before we come across passages that are pretty scary for the rich, just as we find in the Bible. In this case, we simply need to finish reading the exact same sermon of King Benjamin in which we thought the rich had found some comfort. King Benjamin later teaches that anyone who refuses to help those in need isn’t really on the road to heaven:
“And also, ye yourselves will succor those that stand in need of your succor; ye will administer of your substance unto him that standeth in need; and ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just- But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this, the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God (Mosiah 4:16-18).”
And if that’s not enough, the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi has a few pretty harsh things to say about the rich as well: “But wo unto the rich who are rich as to the things of the world. For because they are rich they despise the poor and they persecute the meek, and their hearts are upon their treasures; wherefore, their treasure is their god. And behold, their treasure shall perish with them also (2 Nephi 9:30).”
So it seems that when God says he will prosper those who keep the commandments, it looks like he was talking about a people or nation as a whole, rather than individuals. For example, in the book of 4 Nephi, Mormon describes how the entire Nephite people prospered due to their righteousness, having all things common among them, so that there were no rich or poor, rather than just a few “righteous” members of society getting rich while everyone else wallowed in poverty.
Does this mean the rich are really damned? It looks like the answer is mostly yes, the rich will be damned. But since Jesus did say that with God all things are possible, there must be some small chance the rich may join the poor beggar Lazarus in heaven. But how is that? In the Doctrine and Covenants (a book of revelations received by the prophet Joseph Smith), God gives some commentary on the story of the Lazarus and the rich man: “Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wealthy, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment (D&C 104:18).”
Apparently, the rich have a chance of going to heaven only if they “impart their portion to the needy.” In other words, if the rich give their wealth to the needy, or use their wealth to help others rather than to live in luxury, they may get to heaven. So even though it is extremely hard for the rich to go to heaven, it is possible, if they have enough charity to want to use their wealth to bless others, rather than watching others, such as the beggar Lazarus, or children in Africa, die from want, just in order to drive nice cars, or have big houses that will impress the neighbors. The prophet Jacob from the Book of Mormon makes this point explicitly: “Think of your brethren like unto yourselves, and be familiar with all and free with your substance, that they may be rich like unto you. But before ye seek for riches, seek ye for the kingdom of God. And after ye have obtained a hope in Christ ye shall obtain riches, if ye seek them; and ye will seek them for the intent to do good—to clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive, and administer relief to the sick and the afflicted (Jacob 2:17-19).”
Of course, it would be best to begin living the Law of Consecration and create a society in which there is neither rich nor poor. But until that time comes, it is important that we have enough charity to use our excess resources to end as much suffering as we can now. Each of us, whether rich or middle-class or even poor by American standards, is incredibly wealthy compared to those in developing countries, hundreds of millions of whom live on less than a dollar a day. If any of us think we are not that well off and don’t have anything to give, seeing life in the slums of Mumbai, or Mexico City, or Port-aux-Prince would change that real quick. Even though it is the fabulously wealthy that will most strongly be condemned at the last day for their cold-heartedness and greed, there is certainly more that each of us can do now to live more frugally and use the excess resources we have to help others. Otherwise we may find that we will, with the wealthy, lift up our eyes in hell as well.