A Quick Look at the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

by Ravi Holy

Tom Wright is certainly not a universalist (nor has he made any clear statement on the possibility of post mortem repentance/salvation as far as I am aware) yet he is just as adamant as many universalists that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus does not teach or support the doctrine of hell as a place of eternal punishment. Indeed, he states that this parable, like ‘most of the passages in the New Testament which have been thought by the Church to refer to people going into eternal punishment after they die’ is not about Heaven and Hell at all. Rather, its message is the same as that of the parable of the prodigal son (and his brother) in the preceding chapter: ‘[resurrection] is happening all around and the Pharisees cannot see it’. This is remarkably similar to a classical universalist interpretation of the passage.

According to Hanson, Huie, Patching, Eby, Witherell and Martin, the rich man represents ‘the Jewish nation’ – or that portion of it that rejected Jesus and his message i.e. the priests or the Pharisees (to whom we can deduce that the parable was addressed from verse 14). Lazarus, meanwhile, represents the Gentiles who were, to the kind of people being attacked in the parable, mere beggars and outside the boundaries of God’s kingdom. It is important to understand that this is not inappropriate allegorisation. All of these commentators believe that the historical Jesus told (the whole of) this parable and that he was consciously referring to the Jews and the Gentiles and that his audience would have been painfully aware of this. Again, such a view is certainly consistent with verse 14. So, what was Jesus’ point here?

According to these universalist scholars, it was that the kingdom of God was soon to be ‘taken away from you [i.e. the Pharisees/Jews who rejected him] and given to a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom’ (as in Matthew 21:43). The former would duly weep and gnash their teeth as they saw ‘Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God’ while they themselves were ‘thrown out’ (as in Luke 13:28-29). To add to their torment, they would also have to watch ‘Gentile dogs’ ‘come from east and west… and… eat in the kingdom of God’.

In a sermon he preached on this parable, Charles Finney said ‘What can Universalists say or believe when they read such passages as this? What miserable shifts they must make to interpret these words!’ Yet it seems to me that the fact that this parable appears so soon after the other Lucan passage just quoted and that it is such a perfect dramatisation of the point made therein renders this interpretation quite credible. Indeed, one could even argue that Luke 13:28-29 (in conjunction with its parallel, Matthew 8:11-12) functions as the hermeneutical key to unlock this otherwise mysterious passage.



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