The story of the rich man and Lazarus has long been a fire-and-brimstone preacher’s dream. The reality of the afterlife in black and white terms. The issue of salvation in sharp perspective. The urgent necessity of making a decision for Christ before death, when a “great chasm” will be fixed between the blessed and the tormented. Heaven and hell. Eternal life with God or eternal torment. Plain and simple.
Some folks have even considered this the depiction of a real event and not a parable or fictional story. Back in seminary, I gave a sermon in my preaching class during which I mentioned this “parable.” My professor, who had ministered to generations of Scandinavian pietists with a firm literalist view of the Bible, came up to me after class and challenged me, as he had no doubt been confronted in his churches.
“Son,” he said, “What makes you think that passage is a parable? It doesn’t say it’s a parable, does it? Jesus was talking about two actual men and what happened to them. Heaven and hell are real, son. Don’t go saying they’re not.”
My professor knew full well that Jesus was telling a parable or folktale, but he was wisely preparing me for what I would face as a minister down the road. “You’d better be ready to have a good answer for that,” he warned. “And you’d better know how to deal with people with strong opinions who suspect that your seminary learning drained you of common sense.”
So, what about Luke 16:19-31, the story of Lazarus and the rich man? Did Jesus tell it to warn us about hell? Is this a realistic depiction of the afterlife and the issues that attend salvation? Or does it have a different message?
In Bible college, I was taught that “Hades” was the domain of the dead. It is not our final destination, but it is where all human beings (“souls”) spend the intermediate state between death and the resurrection in conscious existence. This domain has two compartments. One compartment is where the souls of the blessed dead live, and is called “Paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom.” The other compartment is a place of conscious punishment, a prison as it were, where the souls of the ungodly are kept, awaiting their judgment.
This is how dispensationalists (at least back then) read the Bible. The theological world is neatly organized — a place for everything and everyone, clearly delineated. Hades is the realm of the (conscious) dead and it’s paradise or prison. The Bible says so.
Though my teachers might have granted that Jesus was not giving a journalistic account of the experiences of two actual people here, nevertheless his depiction of the afterlife was accurate and real.
However, I don’t think that this is a story about the afterlife and the relative destinies of people like these.
First of all, it is difficult to show that “hades” means anything more than “the grave” or “the place of the dead” in Scripture.
Second, the imagery Jesus uses was common in both Hebrew and Greek folktales and probably shouldn’t be pressed as systematic theology.
Third, Jesus was likely using this folktale format to make his point here. The story is filled with hyperbole and legendary elements. For example, the portrayals of both the rich man and Lazarus are over the top to draw the widest possible difference between them. Then there is a detail that I noticed for the first time when I heard this text read on Sunday — Lazarus is not even buried when he dies, but is carried off by angels à la Elijah, whereas the rich man goes to the grave.
Fourth, this story is told in a context. Luke 16 contains teaching relating to money and possessions, and in the pericope immediately before our story, we read these words:
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” (Luke 16:14-17)
After these words, Jesus then gives examples of how they were ignoring the law — (1) the way they were practicing divorce (v.18); and (2) the story of Lazarus and the rich man.
The story reflects directly on the words about the Pharisess in vv. 14-17, portraying a man who: (1) loved money, and (2) justified himself in the sight of God and others (note his attitude and words to Abraham). In his tale, Jesus also picks up the themes of “the law and the prophets” and “the good news of the kingdom” (particularly in his reference to one raised from the dead). His story shows that “God knows [their] hearts” and that “what is prized by human beings is an abomination to God.”
In effect, this story provides a warning to Israel (with the Pharisees representing the nation) about how they were responding to God in Jesus, and suggesting the Great Reversal to come when God would bring judgment upon the nation, as in Luke 6:20-26. Luke Timothy Johnson gives an excellent summary of what the story of Lazarus and the rich man teaches:
The parable is therefore one of rejection. By having Jesus tell it to Pharisees whom he has characterized as “money-lovers,” Luke makes it apply directly to their own rejection. As the rich man had scorned the demands of the Law and the Prophets to give alms, so have they “mocked” Jesus’ teaching on almsgiving (16:9-13). And in spite of their claim to hold the demands of the Law, they reject the outcasts of the people (15:1-2), just as the rich man had rejected Lazarus. Therefore as the rich man is rjected from a place in the people (“the bosom of Abraham”), so they are to be rejected from the people. Finally, the parable points beyond itself to the larger narrative of Luke-Acts. The reader cannot miss the reference in 16:31 to the resurrection of Jesus, whom the leaders will reject yet another time when they refuse to hear the words of the apostles in the narrative of Acts.
This parable provides a good example of what we talked about last week when looking at Andrew Perriman’s narrative-historical view of heaven and hell, particularly as it is presented in the Gospels. Perriman himself has written about this parable HERE and HERE.
He agrees with the “folktale” genre of this story: “It is an account of the ‘afterlife’ quite unlike anything else in Jesus’ teaching—or in the rest of scripture, for that matter. It is an eschatological outlier.”
He suggests, as does Johnson as well as N.T. Wright in his Luke for Everyone commentary: that this story is not a story about heaven and hell, nor, on the other hand is it primarily a moral tale about riches and poverty. Rather it is about how Jesus is bringing the story of Israel to completion by fulfilling the Law and the Prophets, and how representatives of Israel like the Pharisees were missing the good news by continuing their ancestors’ unbelief and practicing injustice. So hard were their hearts that even Jesus’ resurrection would be unlikely to change that.
Indeed, Perriman suggests that Jesus may have told this story, using “afterlife” themes, to make his main point — that One will be raised from the dead and Israel is being called to listen to him.
Having said that, who could doubt that there is truth for us today in this story?
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
- Micah 6:8, NRSV