The Rich Man and Lazarus
The rich man and Lazarus story in Luke 16 is a very misunderstood parable. It is important to understand it correctly.
This parable has many mistakenly believing that hell is a literal place where people are conscious and suffering the torment of physical fire – sent there by God. Here is the full KJV account of the rich man and Lazarus:
“There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And 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 thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” (Luke 16:19-31)
Understanding this parable correctly is important to determine the correct meaning of hell, punishment and torment. And to avoid a wrong impression of God’s character. Points to keep in mind:
- It is a parable; a teaching device.
- It is obviously highly-symbolic
- Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom?
- Cooling a hot tongue with tip of a finger dipped in water?
- People talking to each other between heaven and hell?
- It must correspond to the truth of the character of God.
- The context of the whole Bible must be taken into account.
- Associated word meanings (hell, punishment, torment) must be considered.
Parables are meant to teach and illustrate fundamental truths. The details themselves are not always significant and one should be careful about using them as a basis for doctrine. Jesus was not teaching about the state of death or when rewards would be given. To use this parable to teach that people receive rewards or punishment at death contradicts Jesus’ teaching:
“For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works.” (Matt 16:27)
Jesus was making a distinction between this life and the next and showing the foolishness of neglecting spiritual preparation. The rich man represented those who misuse life’s opportunities. For him it was “eat, drink and be merry” and don’t worry about the future or care for those less fortunate. Christ desired His hearers to understand that it is impossible for men to secure salvation after death. This life is the only opportunity to prepare for eternity.
The point of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (the reason it was given in the first place) was to show how stubborn and unbelieving the Jewish leadership were – they would not believe even if one rose from the dead.
“… neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” (v31)
Note that, in the parable, Abraham was not recorded as saying “If they hear not Moses and the prophets they will burn in hell.”
And an amazing part of this is that, shortly after speaking this parable, Jesus actually raised someone from the dead who just happened to be named Lazarus (and who did not complain about having to leave Paradise). It has been noted that, when raising Lazarus, Jesus said “come forth” [from the grave], not “come down” [from heaven].
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