Luke 16b

The two characters 19
Both die and met their destiny 22
The rich man asks Lazarus for help and is denied 24
The rich man's request to warn his brothers 27
The conclusion of hopelessness 31
Discussion follows xx
Text (Extensive comments follow)
 19 ¶ There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: [The phrase, "certain rich man" is also in v1.]
 20  And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,
 21  And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
.22  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;
.23  And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
.24  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. [note below.]
 25  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.
.26  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.
.27  Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house:
 28  For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
 29  Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
 30  And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
.31  And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

The rich man burns and lazarus can't help him

    The Protestant Reformation corrected a number of errors that had crept into the church over the ages, but the condition of man in death is one which still needs careful consideration. Jesus told a story which seems to say that people go to their reward at death, some to burning torture and some to happiness.
   So are dead people unconscious, sleeping in their graves or are they somewhere else in either bliss or torment as this story seems to indicate? This is a fair question. Of course the Holy Spirit who inspired the prophets 2pe0121 is also the Spirit of Christ 1pe0110f whom He sent to guide us into all truth jn1613. If we can understand all the texts correctly, we will find them in harmony.

To understand this story we need to explore several questions:
   1.  Why did Jesus tell it?
   2.  Is this a parable that is, a symbolic description?
   3.  Even if the story were a parable, would it not be describing reality about death?
   4.  What circumstances of Jesus' listeners would He have been relating to in order to bring conviction to their hearts?
   5.  What does the story mean to us today?

1.  Why did Jesus tell the story?

   Abraham's final statement is the main point of the story. It is a clear rebuke to the Jewish leaders. Let me paraphrase it. "If your brothers (Pharisees listening to the story) have refused to hear the Scripture testimony of Moses and the prophets, they will not listen, even if someone arises from the dead." So consider the four reasons for the story v31:
Jesus wanted them to see their danger in persistent unbelief. The beggar's name is significant. Jesus had raised Lazarus of Bethany but the Pharisees, to whom the story was primarily addressed lu1401, still refused to recognize Jesus as the life giver, even though they claimed to believe in the resurrection ac2306-8. They would be at serious risk of rejecting Him even after His own phenomenal resurrection (John 12:42).
Jesus pointed out their misguided reverence for Abraham. The rich man, instead of calling on God, actually prays to Abraham for mercy as if the patriarch were in charge of his destiny. He calls him "Father Abraham" when only our Father in heaven is our spiritual father (Matt. 23:9; 6:9). The Jews imagined their spiritual and political status to depend on their lineage as sons of Abraham (Luke 3:8).
The story is a rebuke to the selfishness of the Jewish leaders and wealthy people who justified their imagined status with God by the theory that they were blessed because of their piety (John 9:2, 3).
It is recorded in the Bible as a blessing for you and me, too. We'll talk about that later.

   These descriptions of the underworld are radically different from what the rest of the Bible teaches about death. If they had revealed new truth, Jesus would certainly have explained. But no explanation is offered. Nothing indicates that the symbols are to be taken literally. In fact, the events surrounding the resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany confirm the information about death in the rest of the Bible. According to Jesus' explanation, Lazarus (not just his body) was in the tomb. Lazarus had not been in the depths of the earth or in heaven. The removal of the stone clarifies where Jesus' call was directed. Our Lord called Lazarus "forth," not down from heaven or, according to the theory popular at the time, up from the underworld (John 11:43).

2.  Is this a parable a symbolic description?

Yes. Consider the following:
A literal drop of water on the rich man's tongue would hardly solve his problem of burning in the torment of hell (Luke 16:24).
  As a literal story, the picture of Abraham has problems, too. Abraham's lap must be symbolic. Even those who believe that people go to their reward at death consider it so Ab-bosm.
Abraham accepted the prayer of the rich man and responded to it v27. A righteous person, on the good side of the gulf, would not have accepted reverence due only to God jn1033, ex2002f.
Abraham was not in the home of the saved. He had not yet received the reward of his faith. This assertion takes a bit of explanation. The Bible passage at the end of Hebrews 11 which reveals where he was (and still is) needs to be seen in context to be understood. You may wish to read through from the end of chapter 10 to the beginning of chapter 12. I'll quote significant verses:
   "Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward." (Hebrews 10:35). Jesus had not returned as expected and the Hebrew believers were getting discouraged. The basis for courage they needed is seen in chapter 11. There, they (and we) are directed to have faith in the promises of our reward. Abraham is one of the heroes, in the chapter, who were witnesses of the kind of faith the Hebrew Christians needed.
   Let's see what the passage says about Abraham. "By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise: For he looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God." (Heb. 11:8-10).
   So Abraham's faith objective was the heavenly city. In Rev. 21 we may see it coming down from God out of heaven at the end of the thousand years re2102 (also see jn1401ff). Has Abraham received this reward of his faith? Let's look at the conclusion of the listing of all the faithful ones in chapter 11. These Old Testament heroes had all died, comparing them to the Hebrew Christians, who were living at the time.
   "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." (Heb. 11:39, 40).
   The "good report" of the heroes is their testimony of faithfulness (compare nu1332). In Heb. 12:1 we see that they are thus witness of faith. Chapter 11, which tells of their fidelity, is a summary of the faith of the Old Testament heroes. In verses 40 and 41 (just quoted) we see that, although they had been faithful, they had not yet received their reward and been made perfect. The message for the Hebrew believers was that they should not be discouraged about a long wait because the heroes were still waiting. For us, it clarifies that the righteous dead are not in heaven. (On the cloud in Heb. 12:1, see our earlier discussion.)
   What does it mean to be "made perfect"? When Jesus comes, the bodies of the living righteous, which are subject to decay and death, will be changed. They will be forever free from decay (corruption) and the possibility of death (mortality). In this sense we will be "made perfect" 1co1550-55. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17 that the dead in Christ will rise from the grave at His coming. Then those who are living will be caught up with them. This is the same truth we find in Hebrews 11:40. The righteous people who are dead when Christ returns and those who are living get their reward at the same time. The city Abraham looked for the one with foundations "whose builder and maker is God" is in heaven (Rev. 21:9-14). He has not yet seen it.
   So where is He? Still sleeping (dead) in sheol/hades (the grave, ge4238) awaiting the call of Christ at His coming. How do we know? Because we are still waiting for our reward, too. No faithful person is rewarded before all are.
   This brings us back to Abraham with Lazarus sitting on his lap. It's a parable Jesus told. He was teaching the rich Pharisees the importance of unselfishness, and that they were apt to get the reward symbolized by the rich man in the parable (John 5:39). Let's look at more evidence that this is a parable.
Is the fire of hell burning now? See on re1411 and remember to return :-)
The story even argues against those who use it today to support the popular idea of where the righteous dead now are. Notice, near the end of the story, that the request was for Lazarus to be raised (taken up) to be on the surface of the earth where the brothers were. Today most Christians believe that righteous dead people spend the time between death and the resurrection, in heaven, not under the ground next door to hell as in our story.
Paul likely had doctrinal errors like this in mind when he wrote of "Jewish fables" tt0114.

3.  Even if the story were a parable, would it not be describing reality about death?

   To respond, we will (a) consider what the Bible teaches about death, and (b) look at another parable with a situation which, outside of its context, would not represent correct theology.

If taken literally, the story would contradict the rest of the Bible on the topic of death.
   Let's review what the Bible teaches about death. The explanation in Scripture is fairly simple:
As we just discovered in the case of Abraham, the dead do not go to their reward at death AbH, re2212. And Peter explained that David had not yet ascended to heaven ac0229-34.
Death is described by the metaphor of sleep until being awakened at the resurrection 1th0416, ps01715, jn0528f. When Lazarus of Bethany died, Jesus said he was sleeping and then explained that he was dead jn1111-4. It is described this way all through the Old Testament - 1ki1143, 1ki1431.
The dead do not know what is happening during their "sleep." ec0905,6,10; is3818f; ps14604. The second death, to be experienced by the wicked at the end of the thousand years, will be different re2006. It will be outer darkness mt2530 a night from which they will never awaken.

Jesus told other stories which would teach error if presented without the intended conclusions.
    In fact, He told such a parable just before he told about the rich man and Lazarus and he told another one in the next chapter.
In verses 1-9 of this chapter we see a manager for a rich man get fired. He then tells the clients to cheat on what they owe, and the rich man tells him he did the right thing! Please take a minute to look at the story as Jesus told it and the comments there v1ff. Jesus would certainly not have been recommending this behavior.In a parable in the next chapter, Jesus illustrates His point by describing a master with selfish expectations of his slave lu1707ff. It would teach the wrong lesson if seen as illustrating how to treat servants. His point was about faith.
    So, in its larger context,  the story of the rich man and Lazarus appears essentially between two others which would also teach false doctrine if isolated from their intended lessons.

4.  In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, what circumstances of Jesus' listeners would He have been relating to in order to bring conviction to their hearts?

   To answer we will look at (a) the immediate context always a good idea, (b) a teaching from the Jewish tradition which the Pharisees would have been familiar with, (c) confirmation of the philosophical idea in the writings of Josephus, and (d) pagan teachings which would have influenced the philosophical idea.

   The context (beginning with the conclusion to the parable of the unjust steward) "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man's, who shall give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon."
   Jesus was about to reinforce this counsel with our story about the rich man and Lazarus. First Luke's explanation: "And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him. And he said unto them, Ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God. The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it. . . . 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. . . ." (Luke 16:10-20).
   The Pharisees were followers of mammon v13. They had a wrong sense of value and had denied the reality of their own situation. Jesus told them the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as another appeal to their hearts. The chosen people had drifted far from the purity of doctrine that God had given, picking up ideas from Pagan religions. Jesus was talking to them in their own language. If they had not been familiar with the scenario of the parable, their focus would have been on the strange ideas rather than on the message. If they had not at least valued the pagan ideas about death, they would have scorned them as heresy using the encounter to turn the people away from Christ. It would have been brought up in the testimonies in His trial. And they would have missed the point of His message.
   This, I believe, is basically why He built His appeal on symbolism from this false theory. Like commending the dishonest steward for his greed, Jesus used the pitiful beliefs of the Pharisees to help them see their real need. He would not have been recommending their strange beliefs because He had told His disciples to beware "of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees." mt1611. He appealed to their pagan mentality also in jn0822f.
   The Pharisees had protested when Jesus told about the unfaithful steward v14, but after the hard-hitting parable about the rich man they apparently had nothing to say. If they had accused Jesus of false doctrine, He would have asked why they believed it. If they had approved, He would have asked why they rejected what "Moses and the prophets" taught about death.
   The word "Hades" is transliterated (spelled by the sounds in the original language) from a Greek term which means the grave. In Hebrew, it is sheol. As we saw earlier (1411d), the place of burning is not Hades/Sheol but Gehenna (Ge-enna). The two concepts have mistakenly been blended into one and loaded with speculative theories. The amalgamated definition of hell is then read back into the Bible passages making them say what the original language did not intend.
   In the same way, the Bible terms "soul" and "spirit" do not have the same meaning but are thought of as synonyms. This leads to misunderstanding when reading the texts that use them.

   A parable from Jewish tradition Jesus built His story on a parable His hearers would have known well. He changed it to bring home His point. The story they knew had become part of the Mishnah which is a set of rabbinic traditional rules compiled around AD 200. The Jewish Talmud was developed from the Mishnah.
From commentary accompanying Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Berakhoth

In a story in the Talmud, a girl who dies gets the angel of death to ask someone who is to die the next day to bring her comb and a vial of eye-paint. The angel is "Dumah." In the commentary, is the following explanation of him:

    "In rabbinic fokelore, this [Duma] is the name of the guardian angel whose task it is to announce to 'the glorious dead' in the celestial regions that 'so-and-so,' now pacing the earth below, is about to enter the eternal realms above. In the Talmud ('A.Z., 20b), he is described as being 'all eyes' and the absolute lord of the silence (dumah has that connotation) that opens with the grave, or She'ol (Hell); cf. Hag. 5a; Shab 152b. Dumah is the angel responsible for the heavenly soul about to be born into the lower world, 'a feather plucked from the pinions on high to be dropped into the lap of motherhood.'
    "The ancient Arabs also put their faith in an angel of that name. . . .
    "Generally speaking, it is the duty of the Angel of Death to deliver into the cavern of Dumah every soul whose term of life has ended. Each soul is placed in one of two categories: the righteous assigned to where all is bliss and the rest, the wicked committed to the place of 'doom.' . . .
   "In the realm of angelology, it is he who seizes the souls of the wicked and casts them down 'in the hollow of a sling' far into the depths of Hades. This he does week after week at the close of the Sabbath. . . .
    "To the author of the Zohar, Dumah was originally the guardian angel of Egypt fleeing from the Divine decree, as described in Ex. XII, 12, he was dispatched to the nether world as president of the spirits of the dead. In mythology, Dumah is the name of one of the seven gates of Hell, through which enter all that are guilty of slander."

The more direct commentary on the story reveals the Jewish thinking.

    ". . . we must still bear in mind that even the most allegorical of the tales have factual elements in them, and it is difficult to determine, in any given tale, where the author meant to report facts, and where he was merely allegorising. . . . But we can say that imagination also has its rationale, and aggadic tales, however, imaginative in form, are inherently rationalistic as pursuing a defined moral or religious aim. In this case, the Aggada, with all its imagery, seeks to impress upon the reader or listener the concept of 'life after death,' a fundamental tenant of Judaism and, as its corollary, the idea that 'the dead know,' and the central argument is whether this knowledge is restricted to their own world, or extends to ours as well."

FASC. 26, Translated with commentary by Rabbi Dr. A. Ehrman., p. 424.

From this commentary, note that:
Opinions about Dumah vary and have apparently evolved from mythology.
Concepts were apparently developed from mythology where Arabs held similar views. This is not to say that Islam teaches this today. I don't know.
To Dumah are attributed characteristics which the Sacred Scriptures teach belong only to God. "All eyes" would imitate God's ability to see all that happens. Handling the wicked, according to the Bible, is God's work ro1219, ps14520, is1311.
The doctrine that "the dead know" is in direct contradiction to the truth God had given to the Jews, and to us, through Solomon's book, Ecclesiastes: "For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward. . . ." (9:5). See on ec0905.
Although the Rabbinical concepts have, to some degree, changed, the Torah here has ancient roots which still influence Jewish doctrines. For example, you can see some differences between the Talmud comments and the explanation of Josephus below.

    Confirmation of the traditional view from the writings of Josephus Most of the terms and symbols in Jesus' story are also seen in the description of Hades attributed to the Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus. He had studied the three Jewish sects of the time: Pharisees, Saddusees, and Essenes and chose to be a Pharisee. He wrote around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem (A.D. 70). Although this was after the time of Christ, we see, from the document, that he was acting as a representative of his sect (or perhaps of Jews in general). Thus we get an idea of what the Pharisees Jesus spoke to believed. Josephus describes  both righteous and wicked being conscious in Hades,  their separation by a chasm,  unquenchable, unending fire, and  the Bosom of Abraham. (Part of the article is quoted later.)
   Josephus' objective appears to have been to improve the thinking of the Greeks, convincing them of the resurrection, a doctrine of the Pharisees. In his scheme, the time in Hades is between death and the resurrection. The doctrine of Purgatory was also developed from these ideas. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas taught the idea of an ever-burning, fiery Hell. In 1253 it was formalized as church doctrine.

   The pagan source of these ideas. Let's now move back in history to see where Jesus' listeners (and Josephus) got their ideas. Most of the historical notes which follow were drawn from a book, The History of Hell, by Alice K. Turner, 1993, 1995.
   The earliest accounts of the land of the dead come from Sumerian clay tablets. Sumer, in the location of modern Iraq, was conquered by the Akkadians and developed into Babylonia with the city of Babylon. I expect that these people developed from the post-flood rebellion against God involving the Tower of Babel (Gen. 11).
   We see the basic error which Satan promoted and that opened the door to all the pagan theories concerning consciousness in death or the immortality of the soul. In the garden of Eden he contradicted God's counsel, telling Eve, "You shall not surely die."
   Moving through the Egyptian "book of the dead" papyruses and Zorastrianism to the eighth century B.C. we find a visit to the land of the dead in Homer's Odyssey, a fictional account from classical Greece.
  The works of Plato from the fourth century B.C. have been a strong influence on subsequent religious beliefs including those of the Pharisees. In Jesus' day, Greek culture was popular, making the ideas of Plato attractive to people who wanted to be considered well educated.
   Most of Plato's writing on the topic is in the account of  the final discussion of Socrates supposedly reported to Plato by Phaedo who was present in the hours before Socrates drank the poison that ended his life. Some significant thoughts from this work and another one are:
  The soul and Hades, unlike the body, are eternal. Good souls are destined to go invisibly to God. Wicked souls are to be newly imprisoned in other bodies.
  The true earth is in a sphere above the surface of our earth. A tunnel is connected from it to the inside of our physical earth where Tartarus (hell) is located.
Tartarus has rivers for various purposes and a lake called Lake Styx. Souls who are not especially good or bad are purified for a year and released. Very bad, "incurable" ones remain forever. Those who are not so bad can ask those they wronged for forgiveness and, if it is granted, be released. (Notice who thus becomes their savior.) Socrates expressed some uncertainty but believed his ideas to be approximately correct.
  Plato's work, The Republic, includes the story of a soldier, Er, who has a near-death experience. He sees good souls ascend "by the heavenly way on the right hand" while sinners descend to be met by mean men who drag them off and whip them. After twelve days they proceed to the spindle where they choose the medium of their next incarnation.

   Many elements of this picture from Plato are in the description by Josephus. We may be reasonably sure that Josephus, who would have been a student of the Pharisees shortly after the time of Jesus, held essentially the same views as they did. This, with other evidence already mentioned, brings us to the conclusion that Jesus spoke to the Pharisees in terms and theories they believed.
   Even if Josephus was not the author of the "discourse," it must represent the appeal to the Greeks in terms of contemporary doctrine.
   Plato's idea of good souls going invisibly to God is part of the picture many Christians hold today. It was adopted and developed into the doctrine of purgatory by the church of the Middle Ages.
Excerpts from Josephus's Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades translated by H. Stebbing, D.D.

   Now as to Hades, wherein the souls of the righteous and unrighteous are detained, it is necessary to speak of it. Hades is the place in the world not regularly finished; a subterraneous region, wherein the light of the world does not shine. . . . This region is allotted as a place of custody for souls, in which angels are appointed as guardians to them, who distribute to them temporary punishments, agreeable to every one's behaviour and manners. 
   In this region there is a certain place set apart, as a lake of unquenchable fire. . . . 
   . . . there is one descent into this region, at whose gate we [Jews] believe there stands an archangel with an host; which gate  . . . those pass through that are conducted down by angels. . . ; the just are guided to the right hand, and are led with hymns, sung by the angels appointed over that place, unto a region of light, in which the just have dwelt from the beginning of the world . . . ever enjoying the prospect of the good things they see and rejoicing in the expectation of those new enjoyments . . . [with]  the countenance of the fathers and of the just, which they see, always smiles upon them, while they wait for that rest and eternal new life in heaven, which is to succeed this region. This place we call The Bosom of Abraham. 
   But as to the unjust, they are dragged by force to the left hand by the angels allotted for punishment, no longer going with a good-will, but as prisoners driven by violence; to whom are sent the angels appointed over them to reproach them and threaten them with their terrible looks, and to thrust them still downwards. . . . but where they see the place [or choir] of the fathers and of the just, even hereby are they punished; for a chaos deep and large is fixed between them; insomuch that a just man that hath compassion upon them cannot be admitted, nor can one that is unjust, if he were bold enough to attempt it, pass over it. 
   This is the discourse concerning Hades, wherein the souls of all men are confined until a proper season, which God hath determined, when he will make a resurrection of all men from the dead, not procuring a transmigration of souls from one body to another, but raising again those very bodies, which you Greeks, seeing to be dissolved, do not believe [their resurrection]. . . . And to every body shall its own soul be restored. . . . But for the unjust, they will receive their bodies not changed, not freed from diseases or distempers nor made glorious. . . . 
   For all men, the just as well as the unjust, shall be brought before God the Word; for to him hath the Father committed all judgment. . . . giving justly to those that have done well an everlasting fruition: but allotting to the lovers of wicked works eternal punishment. To these belong the unquenchable fire, and that without end, and a certain fiery worm, never dying, and not destroying the body. . . ." 

6.  What the story of the rich man and Lazarus means to us

   This is a question you might want to answer. At least you can add your thoughts to my own list:
Some Bible passages need careful study to understand their meaning.
We have a responsibility to those less fortunate than ourselves just as the rich man did.
God measures spiritual greatness differently than we tend to. Many of the most miserable on this earth will have the most splendid homes in heaven.
When we are convicted of new principles from the Word of God, we need to put them into practice. To resist the call of the Holy Spirit is to move farther from God.
In sharing truth, we meet people where they are. This does not mean approving ideas we know to be false, but it does mean moving slowly and avoiding a condemning attitude.

   One day, if faithful, we will be called from the grave or be transformed to be caught up to meet our Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:16, 17). What a glorious day that will be!

Click for a page of links to the above and other discussion of the state of the dead.

Previous, Luke 16a
Luke home
Commentary home