Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man

In my two-part series entitled "Life After Death" (http://thathappyexpectation.blogspot.com/2014/06/life-after-death-part-1-nature-of-man.html), I advanced the position that the Bible reveals that human beings are (presently) mortal beings who do not - and cannot - exist apart from their physical bodies. According to this position, people are not "immortal souls" who "live on" after death in either heaven or "hell." Instead, death marks the end of all functional activity (or "life"). When a person dies they become a corpse rather than a "disembodied spirit." We do not continue to consciously exist anywhere, and the only way we can experience "life after death" is by being resurrected (i.e., restored to a living, embodied existence).

Despite all that has been said in defense of this position, most Christians remain convinced that there is "life after death" apart from a resurrection. One of the main "proof texts" given in support of their position is the story of the rich man and Lazarus (found in Luke 16:19-31). I don't think I've ever been in or observed a discussion of this particular subject without this particular text being brought up. But does this passage contradict the position I've defended? Was Christ narrating a true story when he spoke of the post-mortem fates of Lazarus and the rich man? While this passage is frequently referred to by Christians as if it were an actual historical account of two men's post-mortem fates, both the context and the content of the story indicate otherwise.

Consider the following: If one were to understand this story literally, and as describing the actual experience of two deceased persons, one would have to conclude that dead people can be "carried" by angels. Now, there would be nothing problematic about this if one believed (as I do) that dead human beings are corpses. But most Christians believe that, at death, human beings are introduced into an immaterial, "disembodied state" of existence. But is it even coherent to speak of a non-physical, disembodied thing being "carried" anywhere by other beings? It would certainly seem that for something to be "carried" somewhere implies that it has mass and corporeality. A literal reading of this story would also entail that non-physical, disembodied persons have eyes, bosoms, fingertips and tongues (and apparently nerves if they can experience the burning sensation that the rich man thought a single drop of water would momentarily alleviate). It would entail that, in spite of the "great gulf" that is said to be between them (which was evidently so wide that no one could cross it), Lazarus and the rich man were close enough to see and converse with each other. And finally, it would entail that Lazarus was literally in "Abraham's bosom," even though Abraham was said to be dead and buried, and sleeping with his ancestors in the grave (Gen 15:15, 25:8), and in need of being restored to a living, embodied existence through the resurrection.

But for the sake of argument, let's assume that this story is to be understood as a literal, historical account of two people's actual, post-mortem experiences. If this is the case, are we to believe that Lazarus is going to stay at "Abraham's side" for all eternity? And is the "rich man" going to be tormented in Hades for all eternity? I doubt this is what any Christian would confess to believing, when pressed. In fact, if anyone were attempting to use this passage to try and prove that Lazarus and the rich man aren't going to be resurrected (but are instead going to remain in Hades for all eternity), most Christians would probably point them to passages in Scripture that teach a universal resurrection and the ultimate destruction of death. But if that's the case, how then does this passage teach "an eternal state of punishment for the lost," as so many Christians understand it? Even if one understands this story literally, the place in which Lazarus is in comfort, and the place in which the rich man is in torment, are only temporary states! Even the "great gulf" will no longer exist after the place in which it exists has ceased to be.

Furthermore, Hades must be a pretty hellish place for those more godly and tender-hearted souls who cannot help but feel compassion for those undergoing such torments, while being unable to do anything to alleviate their suffering! One must wonder whether it is even conceivable that our heavenly Father would "reward" the righteous by confining them to a place where, for ages, they would have to see the agony, smell the smoke, and listen to the shrieks of tormented souls as they begged for relief while being burned in fire (though exactly how an immaterial soul can be burned with fire is indeed a mystery). For those who have been made perfect in agape love and truly love their neighbor as themselves, the very experience of having to watch their neighbors writhe and moan in fiery torment without any hope of relief would itself be a cruel punishment. Fortunately, there is no need to interpret this passage as teaching that this has ever been, or ever will be, the case. When examined more closely, we find that Jesus intended this story to be understood as a parable, not as an actual historical account.

That this story is a parable has been noted by a significant number of mainstream Christian scholars both past and present. For example, Robert W. Yarbrough (an advocate of the traditional doctrine of hell) concedes in his essay, "Jesus on Hell," that it is "widely accepted that this story is parabolic and not intended to furnish a detailed geography of hell." He goes on to refer to the story as a "parable" in the same paragraph (Hell Under Fire, pg. 74). But what is a parable? The word "parable" is a transliteration of the Greek para bole’ ("cast beside"), and means, "a statement parallel to (or "cast beside") its real spiritual significance; a figure of likeness in action." It is essentially a short and simple tale based on familiar things meant to convey a much deeper and profound spiritual truth. As a parable, it is neither literal nor historical; as soon as we try to make a parable literal, it ceases to be a parable, and loses its intended purpose and meaning.

What is the context of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus? This parable is closely connected to the preceding parables Jesus told, beginning in chapter 15. There, Luke tells us the reason for these parables: "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, "This man receives sinners and eats with them!" So he told them this parable, saying…" (Luke 15:1-2) Jesus then proceeds to give them a series of parables. Each story pertains to the original situation in Luke 15:1-2, to which Jesus is responding. Notice the transitional word that Jesus uses before the parable of the lost coin, which connects it to the previous parable of the lost sheep (v. 8). Notice also the first verse of chapter 16 ("And He said also unto his disciples..."). The word "also" refers back to all that went before in this series of parables, and now Jesus is continuing with the same train of thought with the fourth parable. Notice also the introduction of the third and fourth parables (cf. Luke 12:16):

"There was a certain man..." (15:11)

"There was a certain rich man..." (16:1)

Just a few verses later (after an interruption by the Pharisees and a few words regarding the Mosaic Law) Jesus concludes with the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as a final rebuke toward the self-righteous, money-loving Pharisees. Notice the strikingly similar way Christ begins this final parable in the series:

"There was a certain rich man..." (16:19)

Any objection that this story is not specifically called a parable is invalid, since only 11 of the 26 parables recorded in Luke's gospel are actually named parables by Luke. It may also be objected that Christ uses a person's name ("Lazarus") in this sixth and final parable. However, there is no rule that says a parable can or cannot contain the mention of an identifiable person. A named character is simply not the test of a parable. Seeing that "Lazarus" is the only character who is named, it is likely that this is meant to convey something that is important to the message of the parable.

Being true to the nature of a parable, all of Christ's parables were based on things with which his first-century Jewish audience would have been very familiar, and contained recognizable elements of first-century Jewish society, culture and beliefs. Though the spiritual message of the parable was hidden to those without eyes to see and ears to hear, it was, on the surface, a story to which his audience could immediately relate. This is a significant point to keep in mind when reading this parable. This means that Christ told the story of the rich man and Lazarus with the full understanding that his target audience (i.e., the Pharisees) would have been well acquainted with the details and imagery of the storyIn other words, it was a story to which they could relate, with specific details they would understand and certain happenings with which they would be familiar. But this begs the question: How could the Pharisees have been familiar with a story like this? How is it possible that they could relate the fantastic imagery and details of this story to something of which they were already knowledgeable?


The word "Hades" is used by the authors of both the Septuagint (or LXX) and the NT as the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word "Sheol." As any well-read student of the Bible would know, there is nothing in the Old Testament that speaks of Sheol as containing a place of torment for the wicked, and a place of comfort for the righteous. There's not a single word in the books of the Law and Prophets about Sheol being a place in which disembodied souls reside, or as having two compartments for good and bad persons that are separated by an un-crossable gulf, or about angels whisking righteous people off to a special location called "Abraham's Bosom" after they die.

Far from teaching this idea, Sheol was used by the inspired writers to refer to the grave in a general sense. It is the "domain of the dead," where those whose life has left them reside and eventually return to dust. If what the Old Testament teaches concerning Sheol (Hades) is true, then either (1) Christ was very much mistaken when he told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, or (2) Christ did not intend this parable to convey any truth about what actually happens to people after they die. Since option (1) should be considered out of the question for the believer (and would be for most Christians), it follows that (2) must be correct. Christ simply did not intend this parable to teach what many Christians think it teaches.

Jewish Myths

In light of what the Hebrew Scriptures taught (and especially of what they're silent), how could the Pharisees have been acquainted with the content of this unusual story told by Jesus? Jesus knew the Old Testament scriptures, and never strayed from them. Since he certainly didn’t get the content of the parable from anything in the Old Testament, did he just pull the content out of his head? Did he make it all up? Or did he perhaps reveal something to them that was completely new to their ears? No; the Pharisees knew what Jesus was talking about. They were very familiar with the imagery and subject matter. However, their knowledge was not based on anything in the inspired Scriptures. And that is precisely the reason why this fictional story proves their understanding of the afterlife to be unscriptural and of non-divine origin.

The content of this story was not based on anything found in the Law and the Prophets, but was instead based on the Pharisee's beliefs concerning the afterlife - beliefs which were derived from extra-biblical sources and traditions that had become part of the Jew's religious tradition during the intertestamental period. The New Bible Dictionary says the following: "Probably the story of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:1-9) is a parable which makes use of current Jewish thinking and is not intended to teach anything about the state of the dead" (New Bible Dictionary, Eschatology, page 388). In The Gospel of St. Luke (Penguin Books, p. 191), G.B. Caird comments that Jesus was "using a familiar folk-tale." Caird adds, "the story of the wicked rich man and the pious poor man, whose fortunes were reversed in the afterlife, seems to have come originally from Egypt, and was popular among Jewish teachers." Concerning this story, F.W. Farrar declares: "It is inconceivable to ground the proof of an important theological doctrine on a passage which confessedly abounds in Jewish metaphor" (Smith's Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2, p. 1038).

Similarly, the Scotch Presbyterian commentator, James Macknight (1721-1800), has this to say on the parable:

"It must be acknowledged that our Lord's descriptions are not drawn from the writings of the Old Testament, but have a remarkable affinity to the descriptions which the pagan poets have given. They represent the abodes of the blessed as lying contiguous to the region of the damned, and separated only by a great impassable gulf in such sort that the ghosts could talk to one another from the opposite banks. If from these resemblances it is thought the parable is formed on the pagan mythology, it will not at all follow that our Lord approved of what the common people thought or spoke concerning these matters, agreeably to the notions of Greeks. In parables, provided the doctrines inculcated are strictly true, the terms in which they are inculcated may be such as are most familiar to the people, and the images made use of are such as they are best acquainted with."

J.L. Mosheim, in his legendary Church History (Century 1, pt. 1, chap. 2), describes the permeation among the Jews of these fables during the period between the testaments:

"Errors of a very pernicious kind, had infested the whole body of the people. There prevailed among them several absurd and superstitious notions concerning the divine nature, invisible powers, magic, &c., which they had partly brought with them from the Babylonian captivity, and partly derived from the Egyptians, Syrians, and Arabians who lived in their neighborhood. The ancestors of those Jews who lived in the time of our Savior had brought from Chaldaea and the neighboring countries many extravagant and idle fancies which were utterly unknown to the original founders of the nation. The conquest of Asia by Alexander the Great was also an event from which we may date a new accession of errors to the Jewish system, since, in consequence of that revolution, the manners and opinions of the Greeks began to spread among the Jews. Beside this, in their voyages to Egypt and Phoenicia, they brought home, not only the wealth of these corrupt and superstitious nations, but also their pernicious errors and idle fables, which were imperceptibly blended with their own religious doctrines."

Quoting the Evangelical Alliance (UK) report on Hell, author and theologian Robin Parry makes the same point:

"From a literary critical perspective, most now recognize that it is based on a well-established Near Eastern folk tale, of which several versions has been produced in Jewish Literature at the time, and in which the central concerns were avarice, stewardship and pride rather than the mechanics of heaven and hell." (The Evangelical Universalist, 146)

The truth is that the parable incorporates Jewish views of the afterlife which likely developed sometime after the Babylonian captivity. Concerning the beliefs of the Pharisees in Jesus' day, the Jewish historian Josephus states: "They believe that souls have an immortal rigor in them, and that under the earth there will be rewards or punishments, according as they have lived virtuously or according to vice in this life; and the latter are to be detained in an everlasting prison (eirgmon aidion), but that the former shall have power to revive and live again" (D. Ant. 18.14-15). Here we find that the Pharisees believed the subterranean place of punishment for wicked immortal souls was an "eternal (aidion) prison." And in another place (B. War 2.162-64), Josephus states that the Pharisees "say that all souls are imperishable, but that the souls of good men only are removed into other bodies, but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment" (the the words translated "eternal punishment" are aidios timoria, and should not be confused with the words kolasin aionios in Matthew 25:46, which are also rendered "eternal punishment" in a number of English translations).

In contrast to the doctrine of the Pharisees, Josephus states that the Sadducees "take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades."

From these quotes it is evident that the rewards and punishments which the Pharisees thought would be meted out to people in the afterlife would take place in Hades. So evidently the Pharisees to whom Christ spoke would have heard Jesus as saying that the rich man went to a place (Hades) that they believed was an "eternal prison" where he would undergo "eternal punishment."

Jesus was neither teaching the Pharisees something new, nor endorsing as truth what they already believed. He was simply incorporating their own unbiblical beliefs (which they'd derived from pagans) into a fictional parable directed against them. Even if the Pharisees to whom he spoke continued to believe that the wicked were punished in Sheol/Hades, we have no reason to think Christ would have attempted to correct their mistaken view. It simply wasn't Christ's mission to personally and directly correct the superstitions and erroneous beliefs to which the Jewish people held in the first century. It's also unlikely that the disciples would have understood Christ to have been putting his "stamp of approval" on the Pharisaic opinions on which the parable was based, especially once they realized it was a parable directed against the very persons who believed and taught such things. By formulating a parable out of their own erroneous beliefs about the intermediate state, Christ more forcefully rebuked his unbelieving opponents. It is as if Christ said to the Pharisees, "Since you believe the dead are rewarded and punished in Hades (contrary to what is said in your own inspired Scriptures), then allow me to introduce the testimony of your beloved patriarch, Abraham, to condemn you according to your own false beliefs." And that is just what he does when he represents the rich man as pleading with Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them of this "place of torment" (vv. 27-28). Christ has Abraham respond to this request with the following words: "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them."

What's especially ironic is that Moses and the Prophets don't utter one syllable about Sheol/Hades being a "place of torment" for the wicked. The idea that anyone in Sheol/Hades was in a state of torment would have been foreign to anyone whose belief regarding man's postmortem state was based on what God had revealed to the Jewish nation up until this point. Aside from a few figurative references to those in Sheol, it would've been thought to be a state of utter unconsciousness (and even in the non-literal references to Sheol, the dead are not said to be in torment).[2]The rich man seems to recognize this fact, for he decides this plan of action wouldn't be effective (v. 30). When the rich man declares that his brothers will repent if someone goes to them from the dead, Abraham responds, "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead." And of course, when the real Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus later during his ministry, that's exactly what happened. Rather than this miracle leading to their repentance, the unbelieving Jews were strengthened in their resolve to have Jesus put to death (John 11:45-53).

Some may take exception to the idea that Jesus would use a false idea as a basis for his teaching, since they think it would mean Christ was sanctioning the false teaching. However, the truth or falsity of the story in a parable is irrelevant; it is the lesson conveyed through the story that is the intended point (for example, the Old Testament parable of Jotham in Judges 9:7-15 does not require that the trees of the forest literally entered into political discussion and finally invited a bramble to be king). Moreover, Christ sometimes made reference to false beliefs without any disclaimer that they were false. For example, in Matthew 12:27, Jesus could make reference to "Beelzebub" (literally "lord of the flies") for the sake of argument, without committing himself to a belief that this pagan god of Ekron (2 Kings 1:2) had a literal, personal existence. Nor did Jesus always make it a point to correct erroneous beliefs held to by his contemporaries, even when it was his own disciples who held to the mistaken belief (such as the idea that someone could sin and bring judgment upon themselves before they were even born; see John 9:1-3). Furthermore, the nature of all parody is to demonstrate faulty thinking on the part of the persons parodied. Having become more familiar with what the Pharisees likely believed in Jesus' day, we can reasonably conclude that it is the beliefs which are being criticized just as much as those who held to and taught them.


The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable. This means it is a non-historical, fictional story that conveys a deeper truth.[1] To read this parable as if it's teaching us anything about what happens when people die is to cease to read it as a parable. It would be no different than reading a morality tale featuring talking, anthropomorphic animals existing in a fantasy land and thinking that the author is trying to tell us something about what animals are actually like. Christ told this parable without the slightest suggestion that he believed that Hades was a place of torment for deceased, disembodied persons. The fact that Christ made use of a certain Jewish belief (a belief which likely originated during the intertestamental period of Israel's history and was a part of the Pharisee's oral tradition in Christ's day) for the purpose of a satirical parable directed against the Pharisees is no evidence that Christ sanctioned as true the unbiblical beliefs on which the parable was based. Jesus wasn't telling this fictional story to teach the Pharisees doctrine. By framing a parable based on the Pharisees' own beliefs regarding the intermediate state of the dead, Jesus condemned not only their covetousness and self-righteousness, but also their unwillingness to "hear Moses and the Prophets." For with regards to the state of the dead, there is nowhere in "Moses and the Prophets" that the beliefs of the Pharisees are taught or revealed.

[1] The following is an example of how this parable may be understood: Jesus casts the self-righteous, money-loving religious elite of Israel (represented by the scribes and Pharisees) into the role of the "rich man," and the degraded and spiritually poor "tax collectors and 'sinners'" into the role of "Lazarus." The rich man's descent into torment - and Lazarus' welcome into "Abraham's Bosom" - speaks of God's covenantal rejection of those who thought of themselves as heirs of God's covenant blessings while self-righteously excluding others and rejecting their own Messiah, and his gracious acceptance of those who, in full recognition of their sinfulness, humbly embraced Jesus as the Messiah and received the gospel of the kingdom with joy (i.e., those whom Jesus said were entering into the kingdom of God before the scribes and Pharisees – Matt 21:31-32). It was the former group who would ultimately prove themselves unworthy of entrance into the much-desired "age to come," while the latter group will be graciously welcomed into Christ's kingdom.

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