The Rich Man and Lazarus
“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day.
“And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores.
“Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried.
“In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.
“And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’
“But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. ‘And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’
“And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers–in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’
“But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’
“But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.'”
There are not many places in the Bible from which the doctrine of Hell, as a place of everlasting torment for the lost, come. There are many references to a fire of judgement (Matthew 3:10-12; 7:19; 13:42, 50… and on and on), but virtually all of these point to fire as a consumer rather than a tormentor. It is not my purpose here to discuss these, but to discuss Jesus’ teaching in this story, the strongest if not the only reference to a long-lasting fiery torment in the afterlife.
I have always assumed that the story is a parable, and was surprised to have solid Christians come back with, “Parable? This isn’t a parable: it’s a true story!”
For this reason, I want to explore every possibility. I believe that if you build a doctrine largely on the events of a parable, you run the risk of some pretty way-out doctrine. Imagine people teaching that all Jewish leaders were uncaring, and all Samaritans were compassionate, based on Jesus’ own words in Luke 10:30-37! The moral of the story: “Go and do thou likewise: Become a Samaritan!”
There are two possibilities for the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus: either it is a true story, or it is a parable. I will first look at these possibilities. Then I will look at what the story is about.
Possibility #1: This is a true story
If this were a true story, then it would have to be the only true story that Jesus told. Is there any other place in the Gospels where Jesus talks about someone that really existed? Well, yes. He did talk about John the Baptist, and He did occasionally refer to some Old Testament personalities. However, He never presents an anecdote.
Well, if Jesus were to tell an anecdote to the Jews that would give insights into Heavenly secrets (such as Heaven and Hell, then He would be breaking His own code:
Matthew 13:10-17 – … “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been granted.”…
Mark 4:34 – and He did not speak to them without a parable; but He was explaining everything privately to His own disciples.
Jesus was deliberately hiding details from the Jews, only unlocking the mysteries to those He chose. The only time He spoke plainly to the Jews was when He was accusing them (for example, John, chapter 8). In any case, He never gave a true anecdotal story. Every story was a parable.
Possibility #2: This is a parable
Let’s look at the nature of Jesus’ parables:
They are stories of familiar situations – often agricultural situations involving harvest or shepherding. The stories have little if anything to do with the point of the story. For example, the parable of the Sower has nothing to do with farming; the parable of the hired hands of the shepherd has nothing to do with sheep herding; the parable of the master who leaves his servants in charge of the talents of money has nothing to do with monetary investment, and so on.
Sometimes, they are about situations outside the ‘natural’; for example, the habits of unclean spirits of Matthew 12:42-45.
Hey, wait: The story of the unclean spirits was just a parable?
If you look at the context, you will see that it is not a lesson in demonology, no matter how accurate the description might be of demon behaviour. From verse 39, we see that Jesus is talking about the evil generation that the Jews represented at that time: the generation that asked for a sign, but would receive none except Jesus’ rising from the dead; the generation that would stand accused at the judgement by the Queen of the South and the men of Nineveh. Jesus, without any further preamble, tells of the unclean spirit and how it treats the man, and concludes with: “That is the way it will also be with this evil generation.” (Verse 45) The unclean spirit and the wretched man are analogous of that evil generation and its fate.
Another aspect of Jesus’ parables is that, as analogies, each main player represents something in reality. Sometimes, the meaning is given (e.g. Matthew 13:37-39). At other times, it is left a mystery, for the enlightened to work out (e.g. Matthew 13:45-46). Even ‘straightforward’ parables such as the Good Samaritan and the unforgiving servant (Luke 10:30-37; Matthew 18:23-35), though they could be taken as good lessons for compassion or forgiveness, are representative of deeper or more general ideas. Jesus did not intend to teach them about Samaritans specifically, but used the idea of one to illustrate that compassion is not only for those you’re comfortable with. The unforgiving servant was reported to his own master, who, of course, represented God at the judgement.
So it is with the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Jews had a certain understanding of the afterlife, which Jesus understood and used to illustrate His point. The question of whether or not this was an accurate understanding of the afterlife is an entirely different issue, and will be addressed; however, the point is that it doesn’t matter whether their understanding was true or not. The story was an illustration, and, from what you will see from 100% of Jesus’ other parables, the basic elements of a parable are these:
- The story itself has little to do if anything with the point of it. In this case, you can be sure that Jesus is not teaching the Jews about what happens when you die;
- The main players represent something other than the characters portrayed. There should be clues in the story that will help to identify them.
So what is the story about?
Let’s begin by looking at the more or less immediate context.
Starting from several chapters before the current one, we see Jesus speaking lots of parables: generally aimed at the Pharisees and scribes who were present and listening, though usually addressed to His disciples. In chapter 16, He starts with a rather obtuse parable about being faithful, wise and shrewd with that which we are entrusted with. It is addressed to the disciples, but clearly in earshot of the Pharisees, because they were listening in and scoffing at Him.
He then makes a very transparent criticism of their motives.
Luke 16:15 – And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.”
Now read carefully the next three verses, the ones immediately preceding the story of Lazarus. There is no break, no change of subject, no indication that the audience or the setting was any different.
Luke 16:16-18 – “The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John; since that time the gospel of the kingdom of God has been preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.
“But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.
“Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries one who is divorced from a husband commits adultery.
Here we have the Pharisees, the “keepers” of the Law, whom Jesus had just pointed out as hypocrites. They were under to the Law, and bound to the Law. Works under the Law would not justify them (Romans 3:20ff) but would rather bring about God’s wrath (Romans 4:15).
On the other hand, the gospel of the kingdom of God was one of justification and freedom (Romans 4:16ff; Galatians 4:21-31).
The Jews were bound to the Law, and the Law must be fulfilled.
Matthew 5:17-18 – “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
One cannot simply break a covenant and be joined to a new one. It would be the same as divorcing one’s wife or husband. This is why Jesus told Nicodemus, a Jewish ruler, that he had to be born again (John 3:1ff). By implication, one had to die to the Law first.
Romans 7:1-6 – Or do you not know, brethren… that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man. Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God… But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter.
This then is the context and introduction to the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It is all about the Jews who are bound to the Old Covenant of the Law, and were not to be included in the New Covenant of freedom in the Kingdom of God unless they first died to the old and were reborn. They had enjoyed the privileges of God’s covenant for so long, but had squandered them in a way that would lead to God’s wrath being poured out on them.
The new gospel was being proclaimed, and people were ‘pushing at the doors’ to get in. First, however, the Law had to be fulfilled.
The Gentiles – not slaves to the Law, and hitherto excluded from its blessings – were now to be invited to the feast.
Jesus warns them of this on several occasions. His parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22:1-15) shows how God has called and called to the Jews to “come to the party”, but in their busyness of life they ignore the call. Thus the invitation is extended to those who are far off. As for the original invitees, they were left out completely. Notice the response of the Pharisees in verse 15: “Then the Pharisees went and plotted together how they might trap Him in what He said.” They might have been blinded to the deeper truths of the parables, but they certainly knew Jesus was speaking against them.
Luke 13:24-30 – “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. Once the head of the house gets up and shuts the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open up to us!’ then He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets’; and He will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you are from; depart from Me, all you evildoers.’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but yourselves being thrown out. And they will come from east and west and from north and south, and will recline at the table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.”
Jesus is occasionally less subtle. Upon seeing the faith of a (Gentile) centurion, he praises him up and compares him with the Jews:
Matthew 8:10-12 – …”Truly I say to you, I have not found such great faith with anyone in Israel. I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven; but the sons of the kingdom will be cast out into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
If this is Jesus’ theme, so now in Luke 16, it would be inconceivable that Jesus would suddenly decide to teach about the afterlife, any more than that He would teach about divorce in the previous verses. Rather, both teachings expand on this theme. The lesson on divorce reinforces the idea that the Old Covenant (the Law) is still binding on those who are bound to it. We would expect a similar idea, expressed in parable form, in the following verses.
Before looking at the details, let’s look at the possible meanings of this story – regardless of the context.
Could this be a story about Heaven and Hell?
I’ve already looked at the unlikelihood of this being a true story. Jesus never told anecdotal stories like that, particularly to those who scoffed at Him. Be that as it may, could it be possible?
If so, then your doctrine on Heaven and Hell would have to include the following features:
- People in Heaven and Hell have a clear line of communication with each other. There might be a chasm to prevent transmigration, but inmates of Hell would be able to dialogue with the other side, at least. Is this supported anywhere else in Scripture?
- Abraham quite possibly has the power to send people from Heaven back to Earth. Notice that when the rich man asked for Lazarus to be sent back to warn his brothers, Abraham did not reply that such a thing was not possible, or that at least he did not have the ability to authorize such a thing. He simply said there would be no point.
- Heaven and Hell are set up and operational while there are still people alive on Earth. I know many accept this as possible, but many who take the story as literal believe that Heaven and Earth are not established until after the judgement. The rich man’s brothers are clearly pre-judgement, alive, and able to repent.
- Heaven and Hell were operational before Jesus died. Yet look at the following two verses:
John 3:13 – “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man.
John 20:17 – Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'”
Even after the resurrection, Jesus had not yet ascended. He would not, in fact, until the Ascension! And yet, here is Lazarus, in Heaven?
Could this be a story about “the intermediate state”?
The fact that Lazarus was in Abraham’s bosom and not Jesus’ suggests to many that this is not really Heaven, but an intermediate “holding place” before Heaven is established after the judgement.
Once again, it suggests that such a doctrine of the pre-judgement state of the ‘dead’ would have to include visual and audible communications between the two places.
Even if this were true, it would certainly prove that this is not about Hell, and so any doctrine of Hell cannot draw on this passage.
Could this be a parable about nothing to do with the afterlife?
In any case, if this were a true story, to be taken literally, one might well wonder where all the other faithful dead were. The immediate image conjured up is that Lazarus is literally lying snuggled against Abraham’s breast, but it may well be a picture of Lazarus reclining in Abraham’s presence, in an intimate place of honour. So, maybe there were a two or three reclining there: Two or three people being comforted after death? Surely this has to be a parable?
Abraham is the father of the Jewish faith. The Jews called themselves the sons of Abraham (Matthew 3:9, Luke 1:73, Luke 3:8…). In Galatians 4:22-31, Paul outlines the whole of the conflict between the Old and New Covenants. Abraham had two sons: one born from slavery and one born from the promise and faith. The mother and child of slavery were cast out, and the child of the free woman was made heir.
To be comforted by Abraham’s bosom is tantamount to being comforted as Abraham’s true heir: a child of faith, receiving all of Abraham’s blessings.
The other child, though heir for a while, was cast out and would receive none of the blessings. Isn’t this a fair description of the story of the rich man and Lazarus?
Who are the players in this drama?
The rich man is unnamed. All Jesus’ listeners know about him is that he lived well, ate well, and wore good clothes. Not only good clothes, but “purple and fine linen” – clothing associated with royalty! He has received great blessings. Notice that he is not accused of having obtained them by any form of wickedness: Abraham says that he “received them” (verse 25). Abraham also calls him “child”, and he claims Abraham as his father.
Outside his gate is Lazarus: the name was common in those days: I would have called him Ted, except that the name’s meaning is based on the phrase “God has helped” – an apt name for such a helpless character who is delivered from his circumstances. Lazarus is portrayed as no more righteous than the rich man is unrighteous: while the rich man’s only “crime” deserving his fate was that he was rich and led a good life (wasn’t Abraham also rich?), Lazarus’ only “virtue” was that he was poor. Was he innocent of wrongdoing? Was he humbly accepting his lot in life? Did he call to God to help him? It doesn’t say! It has obviously nothing to do with the story! They were where they were and who they were – it has nothing to do with what they did. How then are we to derive meaning from this parable about the fate of the wicked or repentant? Surely that cannot be the point of the story at all!
On the other hand, who were the recipients of God’s blessing in the Jewish mindset? And who were the outcast, begging for scraps at the gates?
Matthew 15:22-28 – And a Canaanite woman from that region came out and began to cry out, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is cruelly demon-possessed.”… But He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!” And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she said, “Yes, Lord; but even the dogs feed on the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”…
Jesus makes it very clear that the ones to receive God’s blessings were the children (of Abraham). The rest were lucky to get the crumbs from their table, just as Gentiles were ‘lucky’ to get anything from the Jews.
At Jesus’ time, Gentiles were permitted only in the temple as far as the “Court of the Gentiles” – even to worship. Jews considered Gentiles, even Gentile Jews (Gentiles by race who worshiped the Jewish God), as inferior, like dogs.
The situation of the Jews and Gentiles is mirrored in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus: their situations had nothing to do with their merits, but were simply the way things were… up to a certain point. The death of the two characters brought a sudden, inexplicable change for both. The rich man finds himself in a place of torment, while the beggar finds himself being included in Abraham’s blessing.
This is the central theme of Jesus’ message to the world, and indeed many Old Testament prophesies: The former privileges had been abused, and would be taken from the Jews and turned over to the Nations. Isaiah 5 is about God’s vineyard that was forcibly taken from the Jews.
Isaiah 5:7 – For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel And the men of Judah His delightful plant. Thus He looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; For righteousness, but behold, a cry of distress.
Jesus draws on this parable and expands it.
Matthew 21:33-46 – “Listen to another parable…. Therefore when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those vine-growers?” They said to Him, “He will bring those wretches to a wretched end, and will rent out the vineyard to other vine-growers who will pay him the proceeds at the proper seasons.” Jesus said to them, “…the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it.” When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard His parables, they understood that He was speaking about them.
So, in the light of the context of the whole chapter, and the nature of the elements of the parable, it seems clear that the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is yet another hint given by Jesus that the time of the Jews was about to end. The Old Covenant of slavery was to become obsolete, and the New Covenant of freedom was about to start.
Of course, covenants are legally binding, like marriage, “till death do us part.” Divorce was out. So the Law and the prophets would have to be fulfilled. However, Jesus had already provided the solution.
Romans 7:1-4 – Or do you not know, brethren… that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives? … Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.
This is possibly why Jesus chose a story involving death to reverse their situations: He had just said that they were bound to the Law, and could no more change Covenants than divorce a wife. God is free to “remarry”, because both parties are now “dead”. The Gentile is now included in the blessings of Abraham’s covenant, while the Jew is outcast.
Galatians 3:9 – So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.
There is no way for people to cross over from one situation to the other. That’s not to say that Jews cannot become Christians, of course. Jesus said that his first priority in His mission was to reach the lost sheep of Israel: but they had to die to the Law.
Now here’s a nice little twist: The rich man pleads to Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his (the rich man’s) brothers. Abraham does not say “no”, but only that if those brothers would not believe Moses and the prophets, they would not believe someone resurrected from the dead. This is exactly what happened: twice!
The real man named Lazarus was in fact raised from the dead, and what was the response of the Pharisees?
John 11:47-48 – Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
… after which they plotted Jesus’ death.
Then, after the greatest of resurrections,
Matthew 28:11-14 – … some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’…”
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is not a true story, but a story of profound truth. It cannot logically be taken literally without severely contradicting clear teachings in the Bible on the nature of the afterlife. Neither can it be taken as a parable intended to explain the afterlife. What a pity that so many Christians cite this story when attempting to describe Heaven and Hell!
The parable is an ingenious description of God’s plan to fulfill His promise to cast out adulterous Judah, set up a new and glorious Covenant with all the nations, redefine “children of Abraham” and hence the whole concept of Israel and Jerusalem.
Galatians 4:22-26 – For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother.
The irony is that the Jews came from this literal Isaac, the “child of the promise”, but Paul states that it is not the Jews who are that child. Similarly, Ishmael, Hagar’s son (who, incidentally, was circumcised) who was cast out to become a gentile, is, according to Paul, representative of the Jews!
The Jews are now outside of the Covenant, suffering torments like the rich man. Though I don’t like to read too much into a parable, I am fascinated that, like the rich man begging that Lazarus give him some small comfort in his afflictions the Jews have often received help from other nations apparently more blessed. How many times has this rich man sought and received help from Christian nations? And yet there is this gulf that will always separate the two. Unless one dies, one cannot remarry: one cannot enter into another Covenant.
Whatever your views on the afterlife are, please don’t look to this parable to define your doctrine.