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Luke 16, Lazarus, The Rich Man and Hell.

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

A couple videos ago I talked about Sheol and Hades and based it the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man from Luke 16:19-31. If you haven’t seen that then I’d recommend you start with that as this follows on from it. This will be a detailed look at the parable, its main message and why it doesn’t say what many people think it says about hell. This is the passage:

''There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.'
But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.'
And he said, 'Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.'
But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’
He said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.'" '
Luke 16:19-31

Before we really dig into the passage it is important to think of the context it fits in both in its chapter and within the gospel of Luke as a whole. Often times discussions of doctrine get caught up in single verses and we forget that a) we don’t naturally communicate in single sentences and b) we can easily make single verses say what we like because the context often clarifies what a single sentence really means.

The purpose of the book of Luke is for the reader to have certainty for what they have been taught. It is thought Luke was a physician and wrote for an educated Jew or Roman depending on your tradition. I’d argue many of the events recorded make more sense from a Jewish perspective than if it was written for a Roman.

The passage itself fits in a series of Jesus’ teaching known as parables. Jesus is dining in the house of a Pharisee and so religious leaders, those that know how parables work, are his main audience. Pharisees were educated religious elite who were renowned for being wealthy and often ignoring the plight of the poor. If you engage with the hell debate online, it is regularly debated whether this is a parable or a true story. Though a few well watched American pastors say it is a true story rather than a parable, most commentators agree it is better understood as a parable due to its situation in Jesus’ teaching.

The story starts just like the two other parables in chapter 16 but also other parables going back to the start of the meal in Luke 14, “There was a rich man”. It would be odd then that this is a narrative from Jesus thrown into a series of parables. These parables all focus on the danger of wealth, compassion for the poor and the cost of discipleship when following Jesus.

Parables are important as they are the main mode of Jesus’ teaching recorded in the gospels. Jesus explains why this was his method to the disciples in Matthew 13 that the spiritual truths Jesus brought were hidden in plain sight. That the disciples were able to see and understand, whilst many listening would not turn because they no longer sought God and he quotes Isaiah 6:9-10:

“This people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes THEY have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.”

Throughout the bible there is a balance of God’s sovereignty and humanity’s free will held in tension. We like to set one against the other, but the bible allows for both. It is why Arminianism vs Calvinism will continue until Jesus’ returns because both are easily defended biblically. I’m sure there is more than one video needed to discuss the topic of free will but I see a tension here – that humanity willingly ignores that truth hidden in plain sight and it is only those who seek God humbly, without requiring God to be made in their image, who will have the truth revealed to them. But this Revelation also works in line with God revealing himself through his spirit. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:7:

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you”

If the teachings of Jesus aren’t making sense to you, or you disagree with him, maybe you need to ask through prayer what it is you should find. You may also, need to be aware that your disagreement with Jesus could just mean that you are wrong.

Parables use imagery, metaphor and in the case of The Rich Man and Lazarus, potentially known Rabbinic tales[1] of the time. Kenneth Bailey, author of Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes says about parables,

“A parable is an extended metaphor and as such it is not a delivery system for an idea but a house in which the reader/listener is invited to take up residence…If the parable is a house in which the listener/reader is invited to take up residence, then that person is urged by the parable to look on the world through the windows of that residence.”[2]

Once you realise there is more to the parable than is often presented, it becomes a far more interesting story than just talking about the afterlife. The parable is so often referenced as an explanation of hell or at the very least used to emphasise the fire and torment people are meant to face in hell but they regularly miss the point that Jesus was making. This point we will discuss in a moment.

Before I do move on, there are people who have done a far more thorough analysis of this parable than I have time to do here. If you want to see more of how I view the parable then Joseph Dear of Rethinking Hell writes more here . If you are inclined to think the parable should be taken literally, then there is a good and challenging read by Roger Harper, an Anglican vicar and Canon, here.

What is Jesus telling us about the world and our lives through this story?

If we are to take this literally as a story of salvation and damnation then we must ignore everything else in the New Testament that talks about us being saved by grace through faith[3] or that our being made right with God comes from faith in Christ and not by works of the law[4]. Jesus repeatedly says that it is those who believe in him that will be saved[5] and though our works should flow from our faith[6], those works are not salvation in and of themselves.

Ignoring the poor at your gate is a sinful thing to do, and Jesus repeatedly points to the difficulty the rich will have in accessing heaven[7] because of the lack of generosity and trust in their riches. Just to be clear here, being poor does not save you just as being rich doesn’t necessarily condemn you. That said, it could be argued that why the poor man is saved and the rich man is in torment can be assumed – Lazarus relied on God as Lazarus means ‘God is my help’ and the rich man assumed his riches were a blessing from his piety, like the Pharisees, but didn’t live in a righteous manner. Righteous living, Jesus says, means serving the poor man at his gate.

The pharisees expect, because this is a known tale, to see the rich man in paradise but Jesus flips the story on its head.

In verse 24, the rich man says he is in agony in fire and asks for Lazarus’ finger to be dipped in water to cool his tongue. Many who see this as a literal picture of hell start discussing the types of bodies that people must have in hell and begin to connect this picture to Mark 9 and the unquenchable fire of Gehenna (see my previous post) and miss the main point of this verse. The main point is that the rich man is extremely arrogant. Remember the audience is wealthy Pharisees! Not only has he ignored Lazarus on earth and allowed dogs to lick the man’s sores rather than having compassion, when he sees Lazarus being comforted by Abraham, he is jealous. So much so that instead of asking to be taken out of the torment he calls for Lazarus to be brought to him! This blindness to the situation he is in and the selfishness of bringing Lazarus down with him is the main point. The rich man is so fixated on himself that he would rather pull Lazarus down, than be lifted to paradise.

Abraham’s response to the rich man is there is no way that the rich man can get out or be comforted by Lazarus which leads the man to think about his brothers. Given the arrogance of the previous comments, this thinking of his brothers is likely to be another form of selfishness in wanting his family name to live on. This final call for Abraham’s intervention brings us to the main point. If someone cannot hear Moses and the Prophets – the entirety of Jewish Scripture – and love their God and their neighbour[8], then there is no way they will recognise someone coming back from the dead. This is an amazing line! Who is Jesus talking about in this last verse? He has made his audience become the rich man – his audience was pharisees – lovers of money and he had just condemned them a few verses before by saying

“You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” [9].

The rich man is a picture of the pharisees who neglect the poor at their feet because they have neglected all that Moses and the Prophets have taught them – to love God and to love their neighbour. Not only that, they have missed that Moses and the Prophets point to one who will come back from the dead and they are talking to the promised one, Jesus, who will fulfil the law and the prophets through his death and resurrection.

In summary, this parable is about not letting your love of money lead you away from loving your neighbour and loving the Lord your God with your mind, body and strength in this life. But we have so much more than just Moses and the Prophets now, we know that there is one who comes back from death to point us to eternal life with God.

Surely it is a bit about hell?

Not really. The closest it can point to is that stage between death and resurrection –Hades – and if taken literally then there is some form of consciousness that experiences agony or comfort. If this is literal, then there is an even starker warning that being rich comes with a responsibility for our neighbours that many of us don’t want to contemplate – but it doesn’t mean eternal suffering, eternal duration has to be read into this text especially as the rich man’s brothers are still alive and this is before resurrection[10]. There are a few theological issues that I think come up when this is taken as a literal picture of Hades but I think that is for another conversation. Perhaps with Roger Harper himself once I’ve read his book.

So to conclude, I will agree with The Gospel Coalition, a group who are by no means in agreement with me on hell but we can at least agree on the purpose of this parable:

“The most important lesson this parable teaches is a warning about money. Wealth calcified the rich man’s heart. Though wealth doesn’t always have this effect, who can deny that it often does? As many have realized, either we will own our money, or it will own us. You cannot serve God and money, as Jesus said a few verses before (Luke 16:13).”[11]

I hope that you see that money will not save you, but Jesus can. Not only will he save you from your own selfishness and pride, but he will also restore you to better relationships with those around you. On top of that, if you believe in him, you will not perish but you will have eternal life. And that, is what this project is all about – without Jesus we’re all dead.

[1] Fudge quotes a multitude of authors to make his case but most notably NT Wright from Jesus and the Victory of God, “The story carries clear echoes of well-known folk tales to which Jesus is giving a fresh and startling twist…The parable is not, as often supposed, a description of the afterlife, warning people to be sure of the ultimate destination.” He shows this through Robert Morey who also agrees that this was a common rabbinical tale at the time and Hugo Gressmann who states there were at least seven versions of the story in Jewish literature. (Fudge, 2011)

[2] (Bailey, 2008)

[3] Ephesians 2:8

[4] Galatians 2:16

[5] John 3:16 is the most famous

[6] See the whole book of James

[7] Mark 10:21, Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22

[8] Mark 12:28-34

[9] Luke 16:14-15

[10] See Daniel 12:2

[11] Peter Gurry,

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