The Lord’s 5-part parable beginning in Luke 14 and running through chapter 16 is the longest running accusation He ever had against the Pharisees. Most of these stories are misinterpreted in some manner or another but each one is an accusation against the hypocritical Pharisees. No parable of the Lord’s has likely been more misused than the satirical story of the rich man and Lazarus.
The rich man and Lazarus is not a teaching on eternal torment or heavenly bliss. I’ll explain some of the symbolism and what is being taught but this article is not exhaustive. Most of us misinterpret what the Lord is saying here due to our ignorance of the cultural climate and the teachings of the Pharisees.
As background, it is important to understand that the Pharisees lived in relative opulence while the “everyman” Israelite lived in poverty under the oppression of the Romans. The Pharisees taught the poor that it was virtuous to be poor, that they should embrace being poor, because in the “afterlife”, they would be rewarded by having their fortunes reversed. They also esteemed their rabbinical teachings over the law and made God’s Word of “none effect”. One way that they made God’s word of none-effect was that they borrowed Pagan ideas on the “afterlife” from the Babylonians and Egyptians and shunned the teachings of Moses and the prophets which clearly declare in (Gen. 3, Ez.18:20, Ecc.9:5-10, Ps.146:4, etc.) the Old Testament, that death is actually the absence of life and not life in another form.
“Now a certain man was rich and he dressed in purple and cambric, daily making merry splendidly." 20 Now there was a certain poor man named Lazarus, who had been cast at his portal, having ulcers, 21 and yearning to be satisfied from the scraps which are falling from the rich man's table. But the curs also, coming, licked his ulcers." (Lk.16:19-21)
At the beginning of this story, this “certain” rich man is described for us. He is clothed in “purple and fine linen” and eats sumptuously. Other than that, we know nothing of him. Lazarus is described as being poor, with dogs licking his wounds, and he is sustained on the crumbs which fall from the rich man’s table. We are also told that when Lazarusdied, “angels carried him away to Abraham’s bosom”. Nowhere else in Scripture are we told of a place called “Abraham’s bosom”. The rich man (by contrast) is buried, while Lazarus himself is carried away by angels to this place. Notice that. Lazarus is physically carried away. He isn’t buried like the rich man. What were the OT and NT words ,respectively for “grave”? “ Sheol” and “Hades”. In this story, “hades” which simply means “the grave” or “unseen” is translated as “hell” by most versions.
“Now the poor man came to die and he is carried away by the messengers into Abraham's bosom. Now the rich man also died, and was entombed." 23 And in the unseen, lifting up his eyes, existing in torments, he is seeing Abraham from afar, and Lazarus in his bosom." (Lk.16:22-23)
Lazarus is being comforted in the “unseen”, while the rich man is in “torments”. Why? We are told nothing of the supposed righteousness or faith of Lazarus (unless being poor and having dogs lick your wounds is virtuous) and similarly, we are told nothing of the supposed wickedness or lack of faith of the rich man. What is more important, we are told absolutely nothing of the saving work of God which is where salvation originates or the channel of salvation, the Lord Jesus Christ. Remember, Jesus had yet to go to the cross. I have heard a preacher say that “Lazarus wasn’t literally poor and the rich man wasn’t literally “rich” but that the conditions described are indicative of their righteousness and faith. If that were the case and we are to believe that their afterlife circumstance is determined by their righteousness or faith, then shouldn’t the roles be reversed? Should we not take that to mean that Lazarus was poor in faith and righteousness and the rich man rich in faith and righteousness? That argument makes no sense and is the result of wrongly dividing the word of truth and taking things literally which are figurative (such as the story as a whole) while taking things which are literal and interpreting them figuratively (such as individual words).
“And he shouting, said, 'Father Abraham, be merciful to me, and send Lazarus that he should be dipping the tip of his finger in water and cooling my tongue, for I am pained in this flame.'" 25 Now Abraham said, 'Child, be reminded that you got your good things in your life, and Lazarus likewise evil things. Yet now here he is being consoled, yet you are in pain." (Lk.16:24-25)
Where in Scripture are we told that Abraham is in charge of people in the afterlife? Pleadings by the rich man for comfort are being made to Abraham in this story, not God. Are we not specifically told in Deuteronomy 18:11 that anyone who “consults with the dead” is “detestable to the LORD”? Yet are we to believe that Jesus has given new instructions and new revelation to…His…enemies? Did Jesus reveal that we are actually alive when we are dead (in opposition to all Old Testament teaching) and that it is ok to consult with the dead? I don’t think so. I think it is far more likely that Jesus is brilliantly demonstrating in front of the Pharisees, the multitude and His disciples how the Pharisees are ignoring “Moses and the Prophets” also known as the Old Testament.
“Yet he said, 'I am asking you then, father, that you should be sending him into my father's house, 28 for I have five brothers, so that he may be certifying to them, lest they also may be coming into this place of torment.'" (Lk.16:27-28)
The description of the dress of the rich man seems odd if we are learning what brought him to be in torment, does it not? What if the style of his dress is symbolic of something deeper that may be lost on us but would be immediately known by the Lord’s audience at the time? The Pharisees had taken the place of Moses in teaching the people according to Matthew 23:2. They were at the time, Israel’s aristocracy. They were a class which was a melding of priest and king. When the tribe of Levi (the tribe of priests) is described in Leviticus, they are described as dressing in “fine linen”. Judah was the tribe from which the line of kings descended from. Purple is a royal color designating regal standing. It seems that the rich man represents 2 of the 12 tribes of Israel. Who does the rich man request that Lazarus warn to avoid this torment? You would think that perhaps he would want his wife and children warned (if he had any) however, he requests that his “five brothers” be warned. If the rich man represents 2 tribes, could each of the “five brothers” represent 2 tribes as well? The coupling of tribes with the five brothers and the rich man would equal 12; the number of the tribes of Israel.
“Yet Abraham is saying to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets. Let them hear them!'" 30 Yet he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if someone should be going to them from the dead, they will be repenting.'" 31 Yet he said to him, 'If Moses and the prophets they are not hearing, neither will they be persuaded if someone should be rising from among the dead.'" (Lk.16:29-31)
Interestingly, Abraham tells the rich man that his brothers have the Old Testament (“Moses and the prophets”). The rich man says, “no.” He knows they won’t believe because he didn’t believe what Moses and the prophets said either. They all believed that death was actually life somewhere else. They all chose not to believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah. Abraham said that they would not believe if someone rose from the dead. This is amazing when you consider that shortly after this story, Jesus raised…from the dead…a man…named…Lazarus. What was the Pharisees’ reaction? They plotted against the Lord wanted Lazarus killed (see John 12:10)!! Jesus was later crucified and rose from the dead. What was the action taken by the chief priests and Sanhedrin? They bribed the Roman guards of Jesus’ tomb to say that His disciples stole His body (see Matt. 28:12)!!
One of the key condemnations the Lord makes against the Pharisees in the story of the rich man and Lazarus is their hypocrisy. The Pharisees managed to hold onto their relative wealth while keeping the everyday Israelite in poverty by insisting that it was ideal to poor in this life because they would be rewarded in the next. So, Jesus, here; takes this ridiculous claim to its logical conclusion. While the poor Lazarus is comforted in the afterlife, He casts the rich man as in torments. Because logic would tell you that if you will be rich in the next life because you are poor in the current life, then the inverse must also be true. This was brilliant and while the true meaning of this parable is lost on most of us, The Lord’s intended audience heard it loud and clear.
“And in all this, between us and you a great chasm has been established, so that those wanting to cross hence to you may not be able, nor yet those thence may be ferrying to us.'" (Lk.16:26)
“Yet He, answering, said to them, "A generation, wicked and an adulteress, for a sign is seeking, and a sign will not be given to it except the sign of Jonah the prophet." (Matt.12:39)
What about this chasm between Lazarus and the rich man? It is commonly taught (but not found anywhere in Scripture) that in the “realm of the dead”, there is a dividing line (a chasm) between the righteous dead and the wicked dead. Again, nowhere in Scripture is this to be found. However, twice before in the Old Testament we find a literal gulf of water preventing Israel from moving toward “good things”. First, in the Exodus account, the Red Sea stands before the children of Israel and their escape of the Pharaoh. God through Moses parts the Red Sea making a way for Israel to cross over. Next, in Joshua 4, The LORD dried up the Jordan River so that Israel could cross over. These two crossings of a gulf were to signs for Israel to believe. The gulf between Lazarus and the rich man is symbolic of unbelief. When Jesus pronounced to the Pharisees that no sign would be given except the sign of Jonah (concerning His death, burial, and resurrection) what had just happened? The Pharisees had continuously ascribed the miracles of Jesus to the work of demons. He had just used 5 loaves and several small fish to feed over 4,000 people and still they asked for signs and would not believe.
Israel nationally rejected their Messiah and after Israel was set aside by God (until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled) they have been in torment since A.D. 70. God’s chosen people have been some of the most persecuted people in the history of the earth. We see that because the rich man and his 5 brothers (the 12 tribes of Israel) did not believe, they are in torment.
“even as it is written, God gives them a spirit of stupor, eyes not to be observing, and ears not to be hearing, till this very day." 9 And David is saying, Let their table become a trap and a mesh, And a snare and a repayment to them:" 10 Darkened be their eyes, not to be observing, And their backs bow together continually." 11 I am saying, then, Do they not trip that they should be falling? May it not be coming to that! But in their offense is salvation to the nations, to provoke them to jealousy." 12 Now if their offense is the world's riches and their discomfiture the nations' riches, how much rather that which fills them! 13Now to you am I saying, to the nations, in as much as, indeed, then, I am the apostle of the nations, I am glorifying my dispensation, 14 if somehow I should be provoking those of my flesh to jealousy and should be saving some of them. 15 For if their casting away is the conciliation of the world, what will the taking back be if not life from among the dead? " (Rom.11:8-15)
Will Israel forever be in torments? According to the Apostle Paul, God (not Israel out of their “free” will) gave them eyes that they would not see. It was not Israel’s time to believe when Jesus was heralding His earthly ministry. Israel will believe though as will everyone else, in due time (1 Tim. 2:3-6) according to God’s plan across the ages of time.