From the July/August 2021 issue of Discern Magazine

What Is the Real Meaning of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus?

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man can seem to tell of men going to heaven and hell after death. But is that the real meaning and lesson of this parable?

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The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is one of Jesus’ most misunderstood parables. You can read it in Luke 16:19-31. This parable is often interpreted as being about the immediate fate of the dead. After all, a surface-level reading seems to show the beggar Lazarus dying and going to heaven while the selfish rich man dies and descends to hell.

But a problem with this explanation of the parable is that there are several scriptures—many of them from the mouth of Jesus Himself—that contradict the idea that people go to heaven or hell immediately after death.

How should we understand this parable? Is it really about what happens to people right at the time they die? Or did Jesus intend for us to learn a completely different lesson?

What did Jesus say about death?

Jesus made clear statements throughout His ministry about what does and doesn’t happen after a person dies.

In John 11, Jesus resurrected His friend Lazarus (the brother of Mary and Martha, not the character in the parable). Before doing so, He told His disciples: “Our friend Lazarus sleeps, but I go that I may wake him up” (verse 11). When the disciples were confused about what He meant, Jesus clarified that He meant Lazarus was dead (verses 13-14).

Jesus likened death to sleep—a state of unconsciousness. Jesus’ words harmonize with other scriptures that show the dead have no conscious thoughts (Ecclesiastes 9:5). So it would be contradictory for Jesus to teach that the rich man and the beggar Lazarus were very much awake after they died.

What did Jesus teach about going to heaven?

Jesus made a clear statement about going to heaven: “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven” (John 3:13). The New English Translation is even clearer: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven—the Son of Man.”

So it would be strange and inconsistent for Jesus to say in one situation that no one has gone to heaven and then later say that Lazarus the beggar went to heaven.

What did Jesus say about hell?

In Matthew 10:28, Jesus said: “But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.” Jesus associated hell with destruction. When something is destroyed, it ceases to exist. Jesus described hell as a place of complete destruction rather than a place with conscious and tormented dead individuals. This is consistent with how other biblical writers described the fate of the wicked (Malachi 4:3; Romans 6:23). You can learn more about this topic in our online article “Eternal Torment?

So these statements give us a clear understanding of Jesus’ teaching. After death people don’t immediately go to heaven or hell. Instead, they await a future time when they will be resurrected from the dead (Luke 14:14).

What moral lesson was Jesus teaching?

When examining a parable, we have to recognize what a parable is—and is not. A parable is a short, fictitious story designed to teach a moral or spiritual lesson.

Many are surprised by Jesus’ comment that He did not use parables to make it easy for the crowds to understand, but so they wouldn’t understand (Matthew 13:11-15). He often had to explain the meaning of parables to His disciples.

When Jesus wanted to teach something clearly, He didn’t use parables (as we see in His above clear statements about death, heaven and hell).

Jesus designed His parables to be somewhat ambiguous on the surface (Luke 8:10). This, by itself, should show us that we have to be careful about interpreting a parable through a mere superficial reading. Instead, we must dig deeper to identify the core moral lesson Jesus was talking about—and not get lost in the details of the fictional story He used to deliver that lesson.

As an analogy, we can think of a parable as the wrapping paper concealing a gift. Instead of getting caught up in the details of the wrapping paper (what it looks like, how it’s wrapped, etc.), we should really be concerned with the gift inside.

So what was the core lesson Jesus taught with this parable?

We have to begin by looking at the context in which He gave it. Right before He told this parable, Jesus had been in a conflict with the Pharisees.

“Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him. And He said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God’” (Luke 16:14-15).

Jesus was dealing with people who were fixated on the accumulation of wealth and who hypocritically put on a false front of being righteous before people. However, internally their hearts were unrighteous. Simply put, these people pretended to be righteous, but in reality were full of greed and lack of concern for others. Their “righteousness” was just a show. Jesus used the parable of Lazarus and the rich man to warn of the pitfalls and dangers of living a life driven by greed and a lack of love for others.

The context of the parable was not about death or what happens after death. The context was the danger of greed and hypocrisy.

The real meaning of the parable

There are two main characters in this story—the rich man (who lived a posh life and ate well every day) and a poor man named Lazarus (who was covered with sores and it seems was unable to work to feed himself).

Instead of helping Lazarus, the rich man coldheartedly ignored his suffering.

They both eventually died. Jesus then transitioned the story to the afterlife. Here, the roles are completely reversed. Lazarus is healed and in a state of comfort, while the rich man is in a state of mental distress. (Considering the biblical timeline of the resurrections, this seems to refer to the short time discussed in Revelation 20:14-15 when the wicked who have already had their opportunity for salvation are raised and condemned to the second death in the lake of fire.)

The rich man begs Lazarus to comfort him, but it’s too late, and there’s nothing he can do to help. The rich man even begs that someone warn his brothers to repent and change their lives so they can avoid the same fate.

The spiritual lesson is profound: Get your priorities correct now. Instead of being greedy and hypocritical, prioritize loving God and serving other people above all other things—now. Don’t put it off, because you never know when your life will end.

An additional lesson this parable teaches is a principle Paul wrote about later in 1 Corinthians 1:27: “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty.”

At the beginning of the parable, Lazarus was as weak and powerless as any human being could be, while the rich man was wealthy and mighty. But in the end, those roles were reversed. Lazarus’ humility and righteousness resulted in his standing beside Abraham, and the rich man’s greed and lack of compassion led to his being brought very low.

The meaning and lesson of Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus is relevant to all of us today!

For more insight on this parable, read our article “Lazarus and the Rich Man: Proof of the Existence of Hell?


Sidebar: Reading the Parable Through the Prism of What the Bible Teaches About Life After Death

Modern ideas about heaven and hell are shaped more by ancient Greek philosophers and the medieval imaginations of Dante Alighieri and others than they are by the Bible.

So modern readers filter this parable through the bias of these popular (but unbiblical) beliefs. This is why so many view the parable of Lazarus and the rich man as a story about going to heaven and hell after death. People read the parable in a way that reaffirms these paradigms about life after death.

But instead we should read the parable from the perspective of what the Bible teaches about death and the resurrection. If we understand that the Bible actually teaches that the dead will be brought back to life in different resurrections after Christ returns, we read the parable in an entirely different way. (See our online article “What Are the Resurrections?”)

“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” (Luke 16:22).

Both Lazarus and the rich man eventually died. Many scriptures tell us that all remain in the grave until they are resurrected (Isaiah 26:19; John 5:28-29; Acts 24:15). God’s people will be gathered by angels at the first resurrection of the dead when Jesus Christ returns to earth (Matthew 24:31; Mark 13:27; Revelation 20:6).

“And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:23).

This scene takes us more than 1,000 years into the future. Revelation 20:14 shows that after Jesus’ millennial rule, the wicked will be resurrected to condemnation. In the parable the rich man can see the one he knew as a poor beggar standing next to Abraham as a glorified son of God.

“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’” (Luke 16:24).

The rich man has been resurrected and judged for knowing but rejecting God’s offer of salvation. He is not found in the Book of Life and is now awaiting his death sentence in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15; see “Unpardonable Sin” and “What Is the Lake of Fire?”). He is mentally anguished by the flame of fiery death he will soon be facing (Matthew 13:49-50). Notice that his fear and anxiety cause his mouth to become dry, and he asks for water. If he were already engulfed in flames, he would definitely ask for more relief than a droplet of water on his tongue.

“But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And 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’” (Luke 16:25-26).

Abraham is pictured teaching the primary lesson of the parable. The tormented rich man will pay the price for his greed, hypocrisy and lack of love for others. There is nothing either Abraham or Lazarus can do to save him. He was about to face the wages of his sin, eternal death (Romans 6:23).

“Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but 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’” (Luke 16:27-31).

Here the rich man begs for Lazarus to go visit his brothers to urge them to repent. Because he was unconscious in death, he doesn’t realize that thousands of years have passed and by this time his brothers had long ago had their opportunity to repent.

When we view this parable through the context of Scripture, we understand that it’s not meant to be taken as a literal record of a real future conversation that will take place. It’s a fictional story told to make a point.

The point is simple but profound: Live righteously now. Don’t put it off, because you may just run out of time.

About the Author

Erik Jones

Erik Jones

Erik Jones is a full-time writer and editor at the Life, Hope & Truth offices in McKinney, Texas.

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