The Rich Man and Lazarus: A Picture of Heaven and Hell?

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”  (Luke 16:19-31)

This passage is the fire-and-brimstone preacher’s dream come true.  The issue of salvation presented in stark, contrasting terms.  The reality of an eternity with God or separated from Him in a place of intense physical misery, with a great gulf fixed between the two locations.  The urgency to make a decision right now as to where your eternal future will lie.

In the dispensational way of looking at things that a lot of you are probably familiar with, Hades is the realm of the dead.  Not their final destination, but a holding chamber, as it were, where the souls of the dead would consciously await the resurrection at the end of the age.  This place is separated into two distinct regions: one called “Paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom” where the blessed dead would wait to enter into eternity with God, and the other called “Sheol” where the not-so-blessed dead would await judgment and eternal separation from God.

Only the most ultra-super-hyper-literalist types would think that this story refers to an actual rich man and an actual beggar named Lazarus.  But a lot of you who read this story no doubt think that these are types for every person who has ever walked the face of the earth.  Will you be like the rich man, caring about nothing but your own wealth and comfort, showing no concern for the things of God or the needy in your midst, and ending up in hell?  Or will you be like Lazarus, who had nothing in this life and at the end was taken up to Abraham’s bosom to spend eternity with God?  That’ll preach!!!!!

Not so fast, my friend.

What if Jesus had something completely and totally different in view when he told this parable?

Some considerations:

–First, it is very difficult to show from Scripture that Hades refers to anything other than just “the grave” or “the place of the dead”.

–Jesus was using folktale elements to make a point here.  Notice that he draws the widest possible contrast between the rich man and Lazarus.  Notice also that Lazarus is not actually buried when he dies, but is instead carried off by angels a la Elijah, whereas the rich man is buried.  Bet you didn’t notice that detail, did you?

–Note also that this story does not exist in a vacuum.  Luke has placed it in a specific context.  Jesus has just finished telling the parable of a shrewd manager who, on the eve of his firing, did some creative bookkeeping to help people who were in his master’s debt.  He follows it up with some well-known sayings about money, including “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

The Pharisees know that Jesus is talking right at them.  Luke records their reaction thus:

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.

“The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing their way into it. It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.”

–Luke 16:14-17

Jesus then goes on to give two specific examples of how they were ignoring the law: the way they practiced divorce (verse 18), and our story.

The story points back to the words about the Pharisees in verses 14-17 by portraying a man who (1) loved money, and (2) justified himself in the eyes of others (note his words and attitude toward Abraham).  The story carries the themes of the Law and the Prophets (verse 29) and the good news of the kingdom of God (particularly in his reference to one raised from the dead in verse 31).  The story knows that God knows their hearts, just as he knows the heart of the rich man, and that what people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.

What if this story was actually providing a warning to Israel, as embodied by their religious teachers the Pharisees, and pointing toward the coming judgment that God would bring upon the nation?  Instead of being about heaven and hell and the urgency for the individual to make a decision for Jesus, this story is about how Jesus is bringing the story of Israel to completion by fulfilling the Law and the Prophets while Israel’s representatives the Pharisees are continuing their ancestors’ unbelief by rejecting the good news of the coming kingdom and by practicing injustice.  So hard were their hearts against Jesus that not even his resurrection from the dead (to which verse 31 is a rather hard-to-miss reference) would change them.

More to the point, the story says, using unique afterlife imagery, that One will be raised from the dead and we are called to listen to Him.

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