The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is often presented as proof that good people go to heaven and bad people go to a "hell" where they are tormented by fire. It is easy to jump to this conclusion, but the parable actually has a different meaning or message altogether. First, here is the text of the parable, as found in Luke 16:19-31:

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.

Most would agree that at its simplest level the parable delivers this message: the wealthy are to be charitable to the poor. Beyond that, should we take the account as proof of torment in flames in hell and life in heaven? Or is it a parable conveying some other message?

In the account the rich man dies and is buried, and then is found in hell, "in torments . . . in this flame." And Lazarus dies and "and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom" (presumably in heaven, although there is no mention of heaven in the account).

There are problems here. For one, what happened to the resurrection for judgment that Jesus spoke of? For example, Jesus said in John 5:28,29:

Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, And shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.

In the account, neither a resurrection nor a judgment are mentioned. The rich man dies and then is found in torments: no resurrection, no judgment. Same with Lazarus; he dies, then is found being carried away by angels to "Abraham's bosom": no resurrection, no judgment.

There's another problem: we have every reason to believe Abraham is still in the grave, not in heaven. Jesus stated that no one, except himself, had gone to heaven or been in heaven:

And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven. (Jesus, in John 3:13)

The apostle Peter stated that even David, "a man after God's own heart" was still in the tomb, and had not ascended to heaven:

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 . . ." (Acts 2:29,34)

Abraham was in the grave when Jesus gave the account, and Abraham remains in the grave to this day. Only Jesus has been resurrected, to eternal life.

There is another problem: Jesus supported and quoted the Old Testament many times. But nowhere does the Old Testament teach torment in hell. Instead, we have verses that the wicked shall not "be": they will perish, they will be destroyed:

For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be: yea, thou shalt diligently consider his place, and it shall not be.  (Psalms 37:10)

When the wicked spring as the grass, and when all the workers of iniquity do flourish; it is that they shall be destroyed for ever. (Psalms 92:7)

As the whirlwind passeth, so is the wicked no more: but the righteous is an everlasting foundation. (Proverbs 10:25)

Knowest thou not this of old, since man was placed upon earth, That the triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment? Though his excellency mount up to the heavens, and his head reach unto the clouds; Yet he shall perish for ever like his own dung: they which have seen him shall say, Where is he? (Job 20:4-7)

The account skips the promised resurrection, it skips the judgment, it seems to presume Abraham is alive in heaven, and it teaches torment in flames in hell for the wicked, not destruction. Given all these discrepancies, it is difficult to accept the account as a story that could literally be true. Instead, the account reads much like the Greek mythology that was common at that time (and still is common, actually, having been adopted as truth by many churches).

Let's consider the account as a parable. Jesus staged the account in the common Greek mythology of the time, knowing His listeners would recognize it as such and look for the real meaning. Jesus gave a hint to the identity of the rich man when He said the rich man had five brothers. The Jews knew their genealogy well and realized the rich man symbolized them, the Jews: the ancestral father of their tribe, Judah, had five brothers. (The parents were Jacob and Leah, as recounted in Genesis 35:23.)

The Jews were rich owing to their covenant with God, promising them national blessings and inheritance of the Kingdom of God. Lazarus represented the gentiles, outside the rich man's gate, without access to the promises. The parable showed that those who were "in Abraham's bosom" - had the faith of Abraham, and believed and obeyed - would be the ones who would inherit blessings and the Kingdom of God.

Jesus gave a similar parable in Matthew 21:33-49. Here, a man [God] built a vineyard and rented it out to husbandmen [Israel, including the Jews] who failed "to render him the fruits in their seasons." They even killed the servants and the son he sent to collect what was due. Jesus warned "Therefore say I unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof."

The parable is about belief and repentance: believing Gentiles would be favored over unbelieving Jews. How did the "rich man" fail? He had lacked belief and so failed to repent. He figuratively begged Abraham for help, asking Abraham to send someone from the dead to warn his family. Abraham figuratively replied that they wouldn't believe even if someone rose from the dead.

Perhaps the parable was given about the same time as Lazarus (brother of Mary and Martha) was raised from the dead as recounted in John 11. If so, it would have been a glaringly pointed message to the Jews who knew the resurrected Lazarus was walking among them! What an invitation for some self-examination!

In Romans chapters 10 and 11 Paul wrote about Israel's failure due to unbelief and the opportunity their failure opened for the Gentiles. Here are a few passages:

Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. . .

But I say, Did not Israel know? First Moses saith, I will provoke you to jealousy by them that are no people, and by a foolish nation I will anger you. But Esaias is very bold, and saith, I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me. But to Israel he saith, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people. . . 

I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy. . .

Now if the fall of them be the riches of the world, and the diminishing of them the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fulness?. . .

Thou wilt say then, The branches [Israel] were broken off, that I [Gentiles] might be graffed in. Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off. And they also, if they abide not still in unbelief, shall be graffed in: for God is able to graff them in again. For if thou wert cut out of the olive tree which is wild by nature, and wert graffed contrary to nature into a good olive tree: how much more shall these, which be the natural branches, be graffed into their own olive tree? For I would not, brethren, that ye should be ignorant of this mystery, lest ye should be wise in your own conceits; that blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in.