While the story of Lazarus and the rich man is referred to by some Christians as if it were an actual historical account of two men’s post-mortem fates, both the context and the content of the story indicate otherwise. When examined more closely, it is evident that both Jesus and Luke intended this story to be understood as a parable by their listeners/readers. This fact has been noted by a significant number of mainstream NT scholars both past and present. For example, Robert W. Yarbrough (an “evangelical” Christian and advocate of the traditional doctrine of an “intermediate conscious state” between death and resurrection) concedes in his essay, “Jesus on Hell,” that it is “widely accepted that this story is parabolic and not intended to furnish a detailed geography of hell.” He goes on to refer to the story as a “parable” in the same paragraph (Hell Under Fire, pg. 74). But what is a parable? Answer: The word “parable” is a transliteration of the Greek para bole’ (“cast beside”), and is essentially a short and simple tale based on familiar things meant to convey a more profound spiritual truth. As a parable, it is neither literal nor historical; as soon as we try to make a parable literal, it ceases to be a parable, and loses its intended purpose and meaning. Any objection that this story is not specifically called a parable is invalid, since only 11 of the 26 parables recorded in Luke’s gospel are actually named parables by Luke. But what about Christ’s use of a person’s name (“Lazarus”) in this sixth and final parable? Answer: There is no rule that says a parable can or cannot contain the mention of an identifiable person. A named character is simply not the test of a parable. Furthermore, the rich man is never identified by name, which should tell us that Jesus is not simply recalling an actual event with actual people. His use of the name “Lazarus” is not to provide a historical detail, but to convey something that is important to the message of the parable.
If one seeks to understand this story literally, however, and as describing the actual historical experience of two people’s “disembodied souls” after death (though the word “soul” is not even used in this passage), one would have to admit that they can be “carried” by angels (though they are often spoken of as being “immaterial” in nature by those who believe in their existence); that they have eyes, bosoms, fingertips and tongues (and apparently nerves if they can experience a burning sensation); that, in spite of the “great gulf” that is said to be between them (evidently so wide that no one could cross it), Lazarus and the rich man were close enough to see and converse with each other; that Lazarus was literally in “Abraham’s bosom” (even though Abraham was said to be dead, buried and sleeping with his ancestors in the grave – Gen 15:15; 25:8). Furthermore, one must wonder whether it is even conceivable that our Heavenly Father would “reward” the righteous by confining them to a place where, for ages, they would have to see the agony, smell the smoke, and listen to the shrieks of condemned souls as they begged for relief while being burned in fire (though exactly how an immaterial soul can be burned with fire is a mystery). For those who have been made perfect in agape love, the very act of having to watch people writhe and moan in fiery torment without any hope of relief would itself be a punishment. Fortunately, since this is a parable, there is no need to interpret this passage as teaching that this has ever been, or ever will be, the case.
What is the context of the rich man and Lazarus parable? This parable is closely connected to the preceding parables Jesus told, beginning in chapter 15. There, Luke tells us the reason for these parables: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them!’ So he told them this parable, saying…” (Luke 15:1-2) Jesus then proceeds to give them a series of parables. Each story pertains to the original situation in Luke 15:1-2, to which Jesus is responding. Given this context, it is likely that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus should be viewed in a similar manner.
Now, being true to the nature of a parable, all of Christ’s parables were based on things with which his first-century Jewish audience would have been very familiar, and contained recognizable elements of first-century Jewish society, culture and beliefs. Though the “spiritual message” of the parable was hidden to those without eyes to see and ears to hear, it was, on the surface, a story to which his audience could immediately relate. This is a significant point to keep in mind when reading this parable. This means that Christ told the story of the rich man and Lazarus with the full understanding that his target audience (i.e., the Pharisees) would have been well acquainted with the details and imagery of the story. In other words, it was a story to which they could relate, with specific details they would understand and certain happenings with which they would be familiar. But this fact begs the question: How could they have been familiar with a story like this? How is it possible that they could relate the fantastic imagery and details of this story to something of which they were already knowledgeable? There is nothing in the Old Testament that speaks of Sheol (the Hebrew equivalent to Hades) as containing a place of conscious torment for the wicked, and a place of comfort for the righteous. There’s not a word in the books of the Law and Prophets about the grave having two compartments for good and bad people that are separated by an un-crossable gulf, or about angels whisking anyone off to a place called “Abraham’s Bosom” after they die.
In light of what the Hebrew Scriptures taught (and especially of what they’re silent), how could the Pharisees have been acquainted with the content of this unusual story told by Jesus? Jesus knew the Old Testament scriptures, and never strayed from them. Since he certainly didn’t get the content of the parable from anything in the Old Testament, did he just pull the content out of his head? Did he make it all up? Or did he perhaps reveal something to them that was completely new to their ears? No, the Pharisees knew what Jesus was talking about. They were very familiar with the imagery and subject matter. However, their knowledge was not based on anything in the inspired Scriptures. And that is precisely the reason why this fictional story proves their understanding of the afterlife as being unscriptural and of non-divine origin. The content of this story was based not on God’s inspired word, but was derived from extra-biblical sources and traditions that became part of the Jew’s religious tradition after their inspired Hebrew scriptures were completed.
J. L. Mosheim, in his legendary Church History (Century I, pt. I, chap. ii), describes the permeation of such uninspired views among the Jews during the period between the testaments:
Concerning the passage under consideration, the New Bible Dictionary says the following: “Probably the story of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16:1-9) is a parable which makes use of current Jewish thinking and is not intended to teach anything about the state of the dead” (New Bible Dictionary, “Eschatology,” pg. 388). Similarly, in The Gospel of St. Luke, G.B. Caird comments that Jesus was “using a familiar folk-tale” (Penguin Books, p. 191). Caird adds, “the story of the wicked rich man and the pious poor man, whose fortunes were reversed in the afterlife, seems to have come originally from Egypt, and was popular among Jewish teachers.” Concerning this story, F.W. Farrar declares: “It is inconceivable to ground the proof of an important theological doctrine on a passage which confessedly abounds in Jewish metaphor” (Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2, p. 1038). Similarly, the Scotch Presbyterian commentator, James Macknight (1721-1800), has this to say on the parable:
The parable incorporates Jewish views of the afterlife which developed during the intertestamental period (and which likely originated during the Babylonian captivity). Jesus was neither teaching the Pharisees something new, nor endorsing as truth what they already believed. Some take exception to the idea that Jesus would use a false idea as a basis for his teaching, since they think it would mean Christ was sanctioning the false teaching. However, the truth or falsity of the story in a parable is irrelevant; it is the lesson conveyed through the story that is the intended point (for example, the Old Testament parable of Jotham in Judges 9:7-15 does not require that the trees of the forest literally entered into political discussion). Christ was simply incorporating their own unbiblical beliefs (which they’d derived from pagans) into a fictional parable directed against them. By adopting their own uninspired eschatological beliefs for the purpose of his parable, Jesus more forcefully lampoons their pseudo-piety.
Jesus casts the self-righteous, money-loving religious elite into the role of the “rich man,” and the degraded and spiritually poor “tax collectors and ‘sinners” into the role of Lazarus. The rich man’s descent into torment, and Lazarus’ welcome into “Abraham’s Bosom,” speaks of God’s covenantal rejection of those who self-righteously thought of themselves as being spiritually rich (priding themselves on having the blessings of the covenant, but hording them) and his gracious acceptance of those who received the gospel of the kingdom with joy (i.e., those whom Jesus said were entering into the kingdom of God before the scribes and Pharisees – Matt 21:31-32). And just as the situation of Lazarus and the rich man was radically reversed after their deaths, so the situation of the two groups represented in the parable was radically reversed when the dispensation of the Law and Prophets (i.e., the old covenant, which the author of Hebrews says was “growing old” and “ready to vanish away” in 68 AD – Heb 8:13) came to a final end. Less than forty years later, God’s righteous judgment fell upon those whom the “rich man” represented when the Jewish nation was overthrown by the Romans (see Luke 11:49-51, 19:41-44, 21:20-24, 32). In contrast to this, all who had embraced the gospel of the kingdom by faith in Christ (and thereby became true “children of Abraham”) were spared from this fearful calamity, and were granted entrance into the then-established Messianic kingdom (21:28).