The parable of Lazarus and the rich man makes some profound points. But does it really provide a description of the afterlife and an ever-burning hell?
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is found in Luke 16. Jesus Christ had been talking with His disciples about being faithful with unrighteous mammon (worldly riches), and that no servant can serve two masters: “You cannot serve God and mammon” (verse 13).
Lazarus and the rich man: A story with a pointed lesson
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard these things and derided Christ (verse 14). He pointed out that “what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (verse 15). It was in this context that we find the story of the rich man, who was very wealthy and ate sumptuously every day, but who declined to give food to Lazarus (verses 19-21).
The story continues in verses 22-25: “So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then 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.’”
Many have been taught that this parable proves that people have immortal souls and then at death go immediately to heaven or hell. Instead of looking at this story like other parables, they take its descriptions of the afterlife literally. However, as The New Bible Dictionary points out: “It is doubtful whether this parabolic use of current ideas can be treated as teaching about the state of the dead” (1982, p. 346).
But even if one takes the story literally, does it really say what is popularly believed? Let’s examine the story carefully.
Abraham’s bosom and Hades?
The first thing to notice is that the beggar was not brought up to heaven by the angels, but rather to Abraham’s bosom. Jesus explained that “no one has ascended to heaven” (John 3:13). The beggar’s togetherness with Abraham has to occur after the return of Jesus Christ. This is when the Bible says the angels gather the dead in Christ, and this occurs at the resurrection (Matthew 24:30-31).
The resurrection of the just will also include Abraham. Hebrews 11:13 tells us Abraham and the other men and women of faith died not having received the promises. They are still waiting in their graves to be resurrected. Since both Lazarus and Abraham are pictured together as being alive, this has to be after the resurrection of the just.
In John 5:28-29, Christ said: “Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation [judgment].”
More than one resurrection
As the above passage shows, the Bible actually speaks of more than one resurrection. There are, in fact, three major resurrections indicated in Scripture.
- At the return of Jesus Christ, a first resurrection to eternal life will take place for all of God’s faithful servants who have died throughout the ages (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
- After the 1,000-year reign of Jesus Christ on the earth, there will be a second resurrection to physical life for the majority of all people who have ever lived (Revelation 20:5, 12).
- There will be a third resurrection for the incorrigible to a brief period of consciousness, in which they will receive the righteous judgment of God—their destruction in the lake of fire, reaping eternal death, also called the second death, from which there is no further resurrection (Revelation 20:13-15).
Interpreting this parable of Lazarus and the rich man to mean that the dead are conscious in an ever-burning hell or in heaven would be a clear contradiction of the broader context of the entire Bible. The story is consistent with other scriptures in the Bible.
Abraham and Lazarus are shown to be together, which happens after the resurrection of the just. The rich man was not just, and in this story, he is resurrected for only a brief period of consciousness before being burned up in the lake of fire. He asked for Lazarus to cool his tongue as he was in torment, perhaps anticipating the flames (which will melt the heavens and earth with fervent heat—2 Peter 3:10). The Greek words translated torment can mean physical or mental torment.
Abraham also tells the rich man in Luke 16:26: “Besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.” Abraham and Lazarus were now spirit immortal beings, and they could no longer die, but the rich man was resurrected to physical mortality and was about to die again forever.
Hear the warning of Lazarus and the rich man
The rich man, unaware of the passage of time, asks Abraham to visit and warn his five brothers that they don’t end up in the same situation as he was in—to be burned up forever. In verses 29-31, Abraham tells the rich man that his five brothers have Moses and the prophets, and that they should hear them. But the rich man insists that “‘if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”
That is a major lesson of this parable of Lazarus and the rich man; we all better heed the words that are found in the books that Moses wrote and in the books of the prophets. We must repent of breaking the laws of God. That was the warning to the Pharisees; and even now in the days before the return of Christ, we, too, are admonished to “remember the Law of Moses, My servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments” (Malachi 4:4).