The Rich Man and Lazarus and Hell
An extraordinary story is recorded in Luke 16:19-31. A rich man lived in luxurious splendor, while at his gate lay a beggar who would have been content with no more than crumbs from the rich man's table. The beggar's only comfort came from dogs who licked his sores.
The rich man died and was buried. The beggar died and was carried by angels to "Abraham's bosom."
In hell (Hades) from flames of torment the rich man cried to Father Abraham, ". . . have mercy on me, and send Lazarus [the beggar], that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue. . . ." The response brought a reminder that in their lifetime the situation was reversed. Before death the plutocrat thought nothing about the need for one man to help another.
Pleas persisted asking that Lazarus be sent to warn the rich man's brothers lest they also end up in torment. Abraham advised that they had Moses and the prophets. The rich man insisted that his brothers would believe one who came from the dead, but Abraham was unconvinced.
Here the story ends, but not the controversy!
Is this a literal incident, or is this another of the several parables that are found in Luke's Gospel? If this were an occurrence, there is good reason to believe that there are countless sinners suffering eternal torment in hell's flames, screaming to heaven for relief. At the same time the righteous rest in Abraham's bosom enjoying security. There is an impassable chasm between them and hell — impassable to everything but screams of agony.
If this is a parable a moral lesson can be gleaned from it. Careful study may allow an interesting and appropriate allegorical interpretation to surface when assigning symbols to the main characters in the illustration.
A review of each incident in the story will enable us to determine whether we are given the description of an actual event.
“And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom ... (Luke 16:22).”
The story begins with what is obviously figurative language. Literally, there would not be room for many saints in Abraham's bosom! At the onset one is forced to acknowledge the use of symbolism in this narrative.
“… the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments…” (Luke 16:22, 23).
If this was an occurrence, the rich man's body was laid in the grave while he was deposited in the flaming torment. To escape punishment he would either have to transfer to Abraham's bosom, which the story itself describes as an impossibility because of the "fixed gulf," or he would have to die. Those who believe that the rich man actually lived contend that the torment to which he was sentenced is eternal. This means he is there today almost 2,000 years later, screaming to Father Abraham and suffering as agonizingly as ever with no relief in sight.
Each of these possibilities conflicts with other passages of Scripture that describe death and punishment.
1. The Bible teaches that those who die, whether righteous or not, remain in their graves. They do NOT retain consciousness. They do NOT proceed immediately to heaven or hell.
“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest (Ecclesiastes 9:10).”
“His breath goeth forth, he returneth to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish (Psalm 146:4).”
“For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6).”
2. If man goes to his reward or punishment immediately at his death, there would be no purpose in a resurrection. The Bible teaches that the dead will be resurrected. This means that those who died do not have their reward yet.
“Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise. Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust: for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead (Isaiah 26:19).”
“And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2).”
3. The determination of whether a man goes to heaven or hell constitutes judgment. This event occurs at the second coming of Christ, not when a man dies.
“I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom (2 Timothy 4:1).”
“And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Thessalonians 1:7, 8).”
“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31, 32).”
4. The resurrection of the righteous and judgment take place simultaneously. Man does not go to his reward before being resurrected and judged.
“Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51, 52).”
“For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17).”
5. Were it true that the righteous soul receives his reward in heaven immediately after death, surely righteous men such as Job would have been aware of it. The Bible describes him as being "perfect and upright" (Job 1:1). Speaking about his anticipated experiences following his decease, Job writes:
“O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time and remember me (Job 14:13).”
“If I wait, the grave is mine house: I have made my bed in the darkness (Job 17:13).”
Other righteous men of old have not yet received their reward. If they have not, it is reasonable to conclude that no one has.
“Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both. dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day . . . For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand (Acts 2:29, 34).
Hebrews 11 opens a report on men of faith by mentioning Abel, Enoch, Noah, and Abraham. Verse 13 reports, "These all died in faith, NOT HAVING RECEIVED THE PROMISES…"
The chapter continues by describing the struggles of others who defended their faith though it cost their lives.
“And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, RECEIVED NOT THE PROMISE: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect (Hebrews 11:39, 40).”
Since they who have been declared worthy to receive eternal life have not yet been made perfect because God provided something better for us, it follows without question that no Lazarus has gone to his reward. The story is a parable.
6. To believe that the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus was an occurrence suggests that every man's soul, whether righteous or wicked, is immortal. This means that even the wicked live everlastingly, albeit in torment. The Bible does not support such a teaching. To the contrary, the Scriptures say that the soul that sins will die.
“The soul that sinned, it shall die. . . .(Ezekiel 18:20; see also verse 4).”
“For the wages of sin is death . . . . (Romans 6:23).”
“Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death (James 1:15).”
The "death" that is mentioned in connection with the punishment of the wicked indicates that the soul will not be preserved to endure endless torture.
Conversation Between the Rich Man and Father Abraham
In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, we read of pleas by the rich man to have Lazarus deliver a mere drop of water onto the sufferer's tongue. This request was denied. The rich man then implored Abraham to send Lazarus to warn the rich man's brothers to avoid his terrible fate. This plea was also denied.
Those insisting that the story is an actual occurrence allege the existence of communication between heaven and hell. The tormented are pleading for the resident(s) of heaven to offer them relief. Someone in heaven is having to state reasons why these petitions cannot be granted.
This is hardly the bliss we anticipate. "For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind" (Isaiah 65:17).
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away (Revelation 21:4).”
Once we receive immortality, we will not be hearing pleas from distant areas where former friends and relatives are perpetually singeing, blistering, and toasting; but never burning.
A "Certain" Rich Man
It is suggested that reference to a certain rich man, traditionally named Dives, and to a certain beggar, named Lazarus, gives weighty evidence that a narration of the actual experiences of specific individuals is offered. The name "Dives" is not mentioned in the Bible.
This account is found in a succession of parables that begin similarly. In Luke 15 there are three parables. The third one begins, "A CERTAIN man had two sons."
Chapter 16 begins with a parable about ". . . a CERTAIN rich man, which had a steward . . ." (verse 1). In chapter 19 a story is identified as a parable about "… A CERTAIN nobleman (who) went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom . . ." (verse 12). There is every reason to receive the impression that the information given about the rich man and Lazarus is another parable.
The Meaning of the Parable
Recognizing that information given in the Bible concerning death, the resurrection, and judgment, differs from the account given of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it becomes necessary to determine the lesson in this apparently fictitious story.
A number of parables given by Jesus seemed designed to do no more than emphasize a moral principle. All three illustrations (the 10 virgins, the talents, the sheep and the goats) found in Matthew 25 warn of the need to prepare for the second coming of Jesus. They are prophetical.
To be sure, there is a weighty moral lesson to be gleaned from the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. It is stated in the latter part of Luke 16:31, "… If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead." At any given moment any man has all he needs to find his way to the throne of God. If the teachings available through the Bible fail to convince a person of his need to find God, a more spectacular approach will likely enjoy no better success.
Beyond this, assignment of symbolism in the parable reveals part of the plan of God. Jesus told other parables to describe God's plan, and they will aid in our analysis of the one in question.
In Matthew 21:28-32 we read about two sons who were asked to work in their father's vineyard. One refused, but later he changed his mind and went to work. The second son agreed to go but failed to present himself. Jesus closes the illustration with the question, "Whether of them twain did the will of his father?"
The response was, "The first."
Interpreting this parable for the chief priests and elders, Jesus pointed out, “… the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him (Matthew 21:31, 32).”
This parable is followed by one in which a householder let out his vineyard to wicked husbandmen. Each time a servant attempted to collect the owner's share of the harvest, he was sorely mistreated.
Finally, the landlord sent his son, thinking that surely the son would receive respect. Instead, the greedy husbandmen resented the presence of the heir and killed him.
The husbandmen were destroyed.
“And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them (Matthew 21:45).”
Matthew 22 opens with a parable of a wedding feast. In this story, the invited guests responded by offering reasons to be excused. The king then sent his servants into the highway to get as many as they could, both good and bad, to attend the marriage feast. Since this story follows the theme of the preceding two, it is logical to conclude that this also refers to the chief priests and Pharisees.
The Rich Man
In each of the three parables just cited, those who were expected to receive God's glory were turned aside in favor of others who had been considered less worthy. The son who agreed quickly to work, the husbandmen who were given opportunity to take part in a profitable venture, and the guests who were first honored with a marriage invitation all failed to appreciate their advantaged position. They symbolize the chief priests and elders of the people. Since these men were leaders of Israel, it may be concluded that the rich man symbolizes the descendants of Jacob.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus tells of an aristocrat who lived "sumptuously every day." This accentuates the lush pampering he enjoyed, while only dogs licked the oozing sores of the nearby but scorned Lazarus
God's lavish concern for Israel is reported throughout the Old Testament.
“For the Lord's portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance. He found him in a desert land, and in the waste howling wilderness; he led him about, he instructed him, he kept him as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings: so the Lord alone did lead him, and there was no strange god with him. He made him ride on the high places of the earth, that he might eat the increase of the fields; and he made him to suck honey out of the rock, and oil out of the flinty rock; butter of kine, and milk of sheep, with fat of lambs, and rams of the breed of Bashan, and goats, with the fat of kidneys of wheat; and thou didst drink the pure blood of the grape (Deuteronomy 32:9-14).”
“Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine. Then washed I thee with water; yea, I thoroughly washed away thy blood from thee, and I anointed thee with oil. I clothed thee also with broidered work, and shod thee with badgers' skins. And I girded thee about with fine linen, and I discovered thee with silk. I decked thee also with ornaments, and I put bracelets upon thy hands, and a chain on thy neck. And I put a jewel on thy forehead, and earrings in thine ears, and a beautiful crown upon thine head. Thus wast thou decked with gold and silver; and thy raiment was of fine linen, and silk, and broidered work; thou didst eat fine flour, and honey, and oil: and thou wast exceeding beautiful, and thou didst prosper into a kingdom (Ezekiel 16:8-13).”
A student of Scripture is aware that these riches did not literally flow from heaven into Israel's vault. Rather, this metaphorical writing speaks of richer spiritual values such as those listed in Romans 9:4, 5:
“Who are Israelites; to whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises; whose are the fathers, and of whom as concerning the flesh Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever. Amen.”
This should provide adequate evidence that Israel may be symbolized by the rich man of our parable. This nation was the object of the kind of generosity that only God could provide.
Lazarus, the Beggar
Now we seek a nation or group of people who may be compared to the pauper of our parable. He wanted to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table.
In Matthew 15:21-28 is found a report of a woman of Canaan who begged of Jesus, "Have mercy on me, 0 Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil.”
Jesus ignored her. His disciples advised that He send her away. She was a Gentile. Jesus returned sufficient consideration to explain that He was ". . . not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel," and that it would hardly be appropriate to ". . . take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs."
The words used in her reply could identify her with the beggar, Lazarus. "And she said, Truth, Lord; yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master's table."
The children of Israel were keenly aware of the attention God focused on them ever since He called Abraham from his home country. This awareness swelled their arrogance. They flaunted their self-righteousness and chanted about their religious superiority. Their overdeveloped self-esteem compared to the unworthy Gentiles was demonstrated in several incidents.
On one occasion two men went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, a sect of the Israelites. The other was a publican, a Gentile. The Pharisee spoke eloquently of his virtues, expressing no personal need. He was happy because he was not like the lowly publican.
Following the call of Matthew (Matthew 9:9) Jesus sat down to eat. He was joined by publicans and sinners. This immediately provoked an eruption from the sacrosanct sect. "Why eateth your master with publicans and sinners?" they piously questioned.
These among other incidents demonstrate that the religious distance between Israelite and Gentile was at least as great as the economic distance between the opulent epicure and the unwanted vagrant of our parable.
The death of the two principals in this parable may represent the changes brought about in the relationship between Jew and Gentile by the Gospel. Israel appeared to be the logical recipients of the grace of God. It did not turn out that way. The Gentiles were more receptive.
“But what if God, desiring to exhibit his retribution at work and to make his power known, tolerated very patiently those vessels which were objects of retribution due for destruction, and do so in order to make known the full wealth of his splendour upon vessels which were objects of mercy, and which from the first had been prepared for this splendour?
Such vessels are we, whom he has called from among Gentiles as well as Jews, as it says in the Book of Hosea: "Those who were not my people I will call My People, and the unloved nation I will call my Beloved. For in the very place where they were told 'you are no people of mine,' they shall be called Sons of the living God." But Isaiah makes this proclamation about Israel: "Though the Israelites be countless as the sands of the sea, it is but a remnant that shall be saved; for the Lord's sentence on the land will be summary and final"; as also he said previously, "If the Lord of Hosts had not left us the mere germ of a nation, we should have become like Sodom, and no better than Gomorrah."
Then what are we to say? That Gentiles, who made no effort after righteousness, nevertheless achieved it, a righteousness based on faith; whereas Israel made great efforts after a law of righteousness, but never attained to it. Why was this? Because their efforts were not based on faith, but [as they supposed] on deeds. They stumbled over the "stumblingstone" mentioned in Scripture: "Here I lay in Zion a stumblingstone and a rock to trip them up; but he who has faith in him will not be put to shame" (Romans 9:22-33, New English Bible).
Israel's Transition from "Wealth" to "Hell"
The advantages received by Israel from God were explained when identifying this nation with the rich man. This favored nation lost her lofty status by rejecting the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus first commissioned His disciples to go to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel." After giving them instructions, He warned of the opposition they could expect to encounter among their own people.
“Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles (Matthew 10:16-18).”
John observed about Jesus that "He came unto his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:11). This statement is amplified in a lengthy discussion between Jesus and His countrymen found in chapters six through eight of John. This entire passage serves well to acquaint one with their swelling antagonism toward Jesus. A short reference offers a worthy sample:
“I know that ye are Abraham's seed; but ye seek to kill me, because my word hath no place in you. They answered and said unto him, Abraham is our father. Jesus saith unto them, if ye were Abraham's children, ye would do the works of Abraham. But now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth, which I have heard of God: this did not Abraham. He that is of God heareth God's words; ye therefore hear them not, because ye are not of God (John 8:37, 39, 40, 47).”
Another straightforward exchange between Jesus and His countrymen is found in Matthew 23:13-39. The latter part of the last paragraph describes Israel's removal from the choice spot she occupied in receiving God's favors. "0 Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not! Behold, your house is left unto you desolate" (Matthew 23:37, 38).
The exchange in positions of advantage between Jew and Gentile is summarized in Romans 11. "Let their eyes be darkened, that they may not see, and bow down their back always. I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles . . ." (verses 10, 11).
And if some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert grafted in among them, and with them partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree; boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be grafted in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith . . . (verses 17-20).
For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery . . . that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in (verse 25).
Lazarus' Transfer to "Abraham's Bosom"
Earlier it was pointed out that among the advantages enjoyed by Israel were the "adoption" and "covenants," and the "promises" (Romans 9:4). Most of these had to do with the covenant made by God with Abraham when he was first called to become the father of the great Hebrew nation. It is interesting to observe the unfolding of these promises with the preaching of the Gospel.
“For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith (Romans 4:13).”
“Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us ... that the blessings of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise (Galatians 3:13, 14, 26, 29).”
The mention that poor Lazarus was carried by angels into Abraham's bosom supports the symbolism in this parable. Abraham's bosom has reference to the Abrahamic promises made available to the Gentiles. They are now the children of Abraham, heirs of promises made to him, through faith in Christ.
Evidence found in the Bible leads to no other conclusion than that the story of the Rich Man
20 and Lazarus is a parable. It does not describe an actual incident. The experiences of the principals in the story could not have actually happened. Man does not go to hell, nor to "Abraham's bosom" at the moment of death.
Along with the moral lesson taught, the parable can be interpreted allegorically. The rich man represents Israel, and Lazarus symbolizes the Gentiles. At death these two men exchanged positions of advantage. The rich man who previously fared sumptuously every day was now in torment. The deprived Lazarus found himself in Abraham's lap.
Before the preaching of the Gospel, God heaped riches upon Israel. The Gentiles were left out, regarded as dogs.
The preaching of the Gospel found no acceptance with Israel. They resisted it. Consequently, the offer of God's grace went to the Gentiles who were receptive. Israel found they were, because of their blindness, excluded from the blessings of the Holy Spirit. The Gentiles who accepted Christ were made heirs of the Abrahamic promises. The lessons are clear and are given for us to learn.
Just as the brothers of the agonizing rich man had Moses and the prophets to enable them to get their lives in order, so we have the Word of God. It is ours to accept! It will enrich our lives!
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