The parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus is often used to justify the teaching of eternal suffering in hell. This article explores if this is reasonable and how the parable should be understood best.
A superficial reading of the parable might bring readers to the conclusion that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31) is a clear preview of the afterlife. But such an understanding contradicts the Old Testament teaching about Sheol, doesn’t fit into the context of the verses and undermines that salvation comes through Jesus alone.
First of all, it need to be clarified that the Greek word ᾅδης (Hades)(the Greek equivalent to the Hebrew word שְׁאוֹל (Sheol)) in Lk 16:23, which is sometimes falsely translated to hell, does not carry the modern idea of hell at all. Lazarus and the rich man were both in Hades. Hades is only a temporary place, for good and bad people which will be ultimately destroyed (Rev 20:14). Therefore, this parable cannot be used to teach about an eternal place of suffering for the wicked because Hades includes good and bad people and it’s not eternal.
Claiming that this parable teaches specific instructions about the afterlife is highly problematic and unbiblical for five reasons. Why?
- Because it contradicts the teaching of the Old Testament.
- Here are some of the claims that the Old Testament makes about Hades:
- For there is no activity or planning or wisdom in Sheol where you are going (Eccl. 9:10)
- The dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward. (Eccl. 9:5)
- Further, it is declared of man:
- His breath goeth forth, He returneth to his earth. In that very day his thoughts perish. (Ps. 146.4)
- In death there is no remembrance of Thee. In the grave who shall give Thee thanks? (Ps. 6:5)
- Hades in the Old Testament is depicted as a place of nothingness, of no life. Whoever claims that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus actually depicts how Hades will be like, plainly contradicts the teachings of the Old Testament about Hades.
- Because it ignores the context of the chapter.
- Chapter 16 starts with the parable of the shrewd manager in which Jesus praises the shrewd money management of the manager. (Luke 16:8)
- Then Jesus talks about being faithful with entrusted wealth. (Lk 16:11)
- Then he warns of serving mammon. (Lk 16:13)
- The parable of the rich man and Lazarus addresses the pharisees that are lovers of money. (Luke 16:14)
- The whole chapter has one topic: how to deal with money and the danger of wealth.
- Therefore, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus should first of all be understood as a warning about the use of wealth.
- Using the parable and interpreting it first of all as a roadmap about the life after death ignores the biblical context of the parable.
- Because it undermines that salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
- If we assume, for the sake of argument, that the parable teaches about life after death, then we need to do it consistently.
- What is it that brings Lazarus to the good side of Hades and what brings the rich man to the bad side? The rich man is judged because he was selfish with his wealth. Lazarus is saved because he was poor and suffered in life. Lazarus was not saved because he had faith in Jesus or something like that. If the parable would be about life after death, then it would say that the majority of rich people (which tend to live in the Western world), will go to hell because they use their wealth in selfish ways and the poor people will go to heaven because they suffered in this world already.
- But Jesus taught that he alone is the only way to the father. (John 14:6)
- Jesus is the only entrance into the future kingdom of God, there is no salvation outside of him.
- Because it contradicts Romans 11:26
- The rich man in the parable must be an Israelite because he calls Abraham “father” (Lk 16:24) and Abraham calls him “son” (Lk 16:25). Also, the brothers know the law of Moses (Lk 16:29) which was known only by the Israelites.
- Romans 11:26 claims that all of Israel will be saved.
- So if the parable would teach details about life after death, it would contradict Romans 11:26.
- Because it portrays a hideous vision of heaven.
- If the parable would reveal details about life after death, then the saved ones would eternally see the suffering of the lost ones
- Imagine spending eternity within eyesight of the torture of people we loved in this world, it is a cruel vision of heaven and certainly not compatible with the vision of the future kingdom that the Bible teaches.
Therefore, the nature of the parable does not allow it to be taken as an actual detailed description of the future life. If the parable doesn’t teach about the afterlife, what does it teach?
From the earliest days, interpreters have focused on the parable’s moral impact with its denunciation of the wealthy who neglect the poor. This understanding of the parable has a long tradition in the Old Testament (Is 58:6-7; 61:1), fits well in the biblical context of chapter 16, and goes along with the New Testament teaching of generosity towards the poor (1 Tim 6:8-10; James 2:5-7).
This parable is first of all a warning to the rich to not neglect the poor! Most scholars agree that likely Jesus used a known folk-tale and modified it. Jesus use of the folk-tale does not mean that he endorsed every detail about the folk-tale. When he talked about Beelzebub (Mt 12:24) and Mammon (Mt 6:24) he used common folk-themes as well, without endorsing every detail about it as truth. Therefore, not every detail of the parable should be taken literally. The parable must not be understood as a detailed description of the life after death. “That is just not the concern of the parable, and we must remember that parables are vignettes, not systems, and certainly not systematic theologies. This is not a literal description of how judgment will take place” (Snodgrass 2018:429).
The parable makes one more really important point which we should not miss. The original listeners would have deemed the rich man as blessed by God, and Lazarus as cursed by God. Wealthiness was seen as a sign of blessing, just like Abraham was blessed with wealth by God. The rich man was an Israelite and was buried in a proper way. Lazarus was poor which was usually understood as a punishment of God. The street dogs licked his wounds (Luke 16:21) which made him ritually unclean. He was not even buried. Every Israelite would have assumed that the rich man goes to heaven and that Lazarus goes to “hell”. But Jesus, as he does so often, reverses everything. The reversal of the conditions of the two men fits with the reversals in so many other parables of Jesus. Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom signifies God’s identification with the poor and does not permit the hearer to think Lazarus is cursed because of his condition. As so often, Jesus identifies with the poorest, the least and the broken. If God loves the poor and the oppressed, then he’ll judge the selfish behavior of the rich who cause such pain to the poor. This parable is a mirror of what was going on in the ministry of Jesus. The poor and least were welcomed by Jesus. And Jesus judged the rich and self-righteous by warning them and calling them to repentance.
“The themes of reversal and judgment must be given their due. The parable is a warning to the rich and emphasizes the importance of what humans do with the present, and it still teaches that humans will be judged for the way they lived and that the consequences will be serious” (Snodgrass 2018:432).
Summary of what the parable teaches:
- Being rich isn’t a sign of God’s favor.
- God identifies with the poor; he is the God of the poor and least.
- We need to be responsible with money entrusted to us.
- Don’t ignore the needs of a needy person right in front of you.
- Selfishness and greed will have consequences when God will judge everyone.
Snodgrass, K. 2018. Stories with intent: a comprehensive guide to the parables of Jesus. Kindle ed. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.