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What about the rich man and Lazarus?

Text in question: Luke 16:19–31

“There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then 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.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’ Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’ ”

There has been much debate in the Christian world over the true meaning of the story of “the rich man and Lazarus,” spoken by Jesus. The various arguments tend to boil down to a single issue: Is the story a true tale of the characters involved, or is it a parable?

Those who understand the story literally tend to argue two main points: that life continues immediately after death, either in heaven or hell, before the return of Jesus Christ; and that hell is a place of eternal torment. Those who consider the story as a parable tend to look for the spiritual meaning rather than the literal one. Why is there such confusion?

The story follows a long line of parables told by Jesus in the book of Luke. In chapter 14, we find the parable regarding prominent places at the dinner table, the parable of the great banquet, and several parables about the cost of following Christ. In chapter 15, we find the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son. Chapter 16 includes the parable of the shrewd manager and then shares the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The story’s position relative to the other parables implies, contextually, that it is also a parable. However, the others are specifically mentioned as parables whereas the story of the rich man and Lazarus is not. This change in the Bible’s language, despite its context with the other parables, causes some to believe that the story is to be understood literally.

Can we determine which is the correct interpretation? Let us first identify the things that must be true, according to the story, if it is literal:

  • The righteous dead go to live in Abraham’s bosom
  • The wicked dead are able to speak despite their torment
  • Those in hell can speak to those in heaven, and vice-versa
  • The dead in heaven and hell both have bodies
  • A drop of water is expected to relieve the torments of hell

Abraham, though faithful, was just a man like any other. In order for all the righteous dead to go to live in his bosom, he would have to be quite large. The “fixed gulf” between heaven and hell is apparently not so fixed to prevent communication between them, according to this story. And the flames of hell are said to be so weak that those in hell can carry on normal conversation and expect only a drop of water to soothe them! That is hardly a picture of torment. Finally, the Bible says plainly that the righteous dead will receive new bodies at Christ’s return (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52), and the risen wicked a thousand years later (Revelation 20:5), so this story contradicts the plain words of the Bible by giving new bodies before the second coming. In light of all this, it seems clear that the story cannot be literal and must be a parable.

Why would Jesus not plainly state that the story is a parable? First, let’s identify the audience. According to verse 14, Christ is speaking to the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed and taught many things that were not according to the Scriptures. Among them was that the Jews, upon their death, would go to Abraham’s bosom to live in paradise. This version of the belief in an immortal soul had its roots in the kingdom of Babylon, not in the Scriptures, and was not universally accepted by the Jewish people. (The Sadducees, another leading religious group, disbelieved in any resurrection at all.) Therefore, because Christ was speaking specifically to the Pharisees, He used their own language to emphasize His point.

The Pharisees also viewed earthly wealth as a sign of God’s favor. Thus, when Christ told the story about the rich man going to hell while the beggar found comfort in heaven, He was directly attacking this idea. In combination with the language of Abraham’s bosom, the Pharisees knew exactly what Christ meant: that the Pharisees were incorrect in their traditions, understandings, and teachings.

Christ repeatedly drew His listeners’ attention back to the Old Testament Scriptures (John 5:39, Matthew 22:29, Luke 24:27). Therefore, we should look at the abundance of Scriptural evidence that supports the sleep of death while awaiting the resurrection to draw our conclusions about death, rather than a single story that is illogical unless understood as a parable. Additionally, Christ Himself taught that the dead sleep in their graves until they hear His voice (John 5:25).

It is clear, then, that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus does not support the idea of immediate life in heaven or hell after death.

*All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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