"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 Hell, 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 fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone else cross over from there to us.’ He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, 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’ (NIV)
Sometimes in the Bible it is obvious when a parable is a parable, and when real events are real events. Sometimes the reader can easily distinguish between things to be taken literally and things to be taken figuratively.
But this is not always so simple. Many times when Jesus spoke in parables people misunderstood and took him literally. For example, Jesus once said, when visiting the temple in Jerusalem, "Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days". Those listening all thought he was speaking literally about the real temple and objected "It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?". Yet the Gospel writer notes "But the temple he had spoken of was his body" (John 2:20). In other words he was talking figuratively, in a kind of parable.
Even Jesus’ own disciples were often confused by his figurative speech and parables. For example on another occasion he told his disciples to "be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees" and they misunderstood, thinking that he was reproaching them for having forgotten to buy bread. Then he explained to them that he was talking figuratively; the yeast was the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 16:6-7,11-12).
It is easy to smile at these mistakes by the people of Jesus’ day, and forget that we are reading the account including the explanation! Without the explanation we would probably be just as confused as those to whom Jesus first spoke the words.
The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is one of the best known in the Bible because it is unique in several ways.
Before looking at Luke 16:19-31 in detail it is probably necessary to support the assertion made above that the Bible teaches that "the dead know nothing".
That phrase is actually a quote from the Bible (Ecclesiastes 9:5). Similar comments can be found in Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 and 9:10. These verses are so clear, and so clearly contradict popular church teaching about the ‘immortal soul’ (a phrase never found in the Bible), that many modern Christians reject the book of Ecclesiastes as being ‘the work of a man without faith’. This is extremely short sighted as it is not only Ecclesiastes but almost every book in the Bible which contains this teaching. If someone rejects Ecclesiastes, because they find its teaching unpalatable, they will eventually have to do so with the entire Old Testament and then the New Testament as well.
It is not going to be possible to cover the entire subject of life, death, and the nature of man in a few lines. If you are not sure what the Bible teaches on this subject it would be better to write to the address on the back cover for a copy of the leaflet Life After Death. However the main points of Bible teaching are as follows:
There are some complications to the simple explanation above because of the way that Bible translations sometimes reflect church traditions rather than the literal text. So a phrase which conflicts with traditional beliefs such as "do not go near a dead soul" (Numbers 6:6) is translated as "do not go near a dead body". When Joshua "struck all the souls with the edge of the sword" (Joshua 10:28,30,32,37,39) it is translated "people". And so on.
One solution to this problem is a concordance (such as Young’s, Wigram’s, or Strong’s), but in many countries these cost more than a month’s wage. Alternatively some readers use two Bibles, a modern one for general reading, and an older version for checking difficult passages. Either way it is worth noting in the margin of one’s Bible the literal meaning of the text, so that it can be remembered the next time it is read.
Back to Luke 16....
So the picture of the afterlife given in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus contradicts all the Bible verses given above.
Something that is even stranger, given the popularity of Luke 16 in the churches as a proof text on heaven and hell, is that it also contradicts church traditions.
If Abraham is really in a place where one can communicate across a chasm with the wicked, burning in another part of the underworld, then he is not in heaven. Luke16:22-26 clearly has nothing to do with the popular picture of heaven.
Some churches have attempted to get round this by saying that the Bosom of Abraham was under the earth when Jesus spoke but is in heaven now. Apart from the lack of any Bible support for such an idea, what exactly does it achieve?
If we are going to understand Luke 16:19-31 we have to do so in the context of the rest of the Bible.
But first, it is worth noting that the Parables of the New Testament are not simple stories like the fairy tales that we tell children. They can be, and were intended to be, difficult to understand:
"This is why I speak to them in parables: ‘Though seeing they do not see, though hearing they do not understand’" (Matthew 13:13)
"Although I have been speaking figuratively, a time is coming when I will no longer use this kind of language but will tell you plainly". (John16:25)
The explanation of Luke 16:19-31 which will follow requires a little thought, but then God gave us brains that we might use them:
"Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16)
"Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults." (1Corinthians 14:20)
Here is an example of a parable that is more than just a simple ‘story’:
In Matthew 13:24-30 there is a parable about a farmer who finds weeds growing in his field. The interesting thing about this parable is that it is one of very few where Jesus later (13:36-39) explained the meaning to the disciples:
There is no confusion here because Jesus himself gave the identification of the characters in the parable. We now turn to some of the parables in Luke which lead up to that of the Rich Man and Lazarus:
In Luke 14:16-24 Jesus tells a parable about a man sending out invitations to a feast. But the invited guests are too busy with business to accept the invitation. The host then becomes angry and invites the poor and outsiders instead.
It is easy to see that the characters in the parable are all real people, or groups of people:
Also it was based on real life circumstances. When he told this parable Jesus was actually present at a banquet (see 14:1), and his audience included exactly the kind of people who were excluded in the parable (14:7).
In Luke 15:11-16 we have another parable. The mention of the far country and pigs in v.15 suggests the same subject:
Again, real people, real local circumstances.
In Luke 16:1-13 we have a much more complex subject. This parable is often misread as teaching that churches should imitate the world when handling money. But Jesus makes it clear that he is talking about "the Pharisees who were lovers of money" (v.14). When they laughed at the parable he turned to them and said "You are the ones!" (v.15).
Instead of the bills being literally money owed to God, the Pharisees were reducing what the people owed to God in terms of worship and righteousness (v.17). It appears that Jesus particularly had in mind the Pharisee practice of selling letters of divorce (v.18).
This information allows us to reconsider why the master had "commended" his servant for conspiring with his creditors to cheat him (v.8). What master in real life would do this? This cheated master can only be speaking with bitter irony. Certainly, in the next verses, Jesus had nothing good to say about the dishonest manager (vs.10-13).
The key to understanding this strange ‘commendation’ (v.8) is in the Old Testament. The "eternal dwellings" (v.9), refer to the "eternal home" of the grave (Ecclesiastes 12:5). And the so-called "friends" waiting there, are those already dead (Psalm 49:11-14). Therefore:
The master’s bills = God’s laws
Eternal dwellings = the grave
Again, the parable concerns real people, real local problems and contemporary issues. And, most importantly, the key to the answer was in the Old Testament.
We now come to the last of the parables in this section of Luke, the one with which we are concerned. One important point: there is no break between the "You are the ones!" (Luke 16:15) spoken to the Pharisees and the Lazarus parable. This suggests that the Pharisees were the audience of this parable as well.
Who are the characters?
It seems easiest to start where there is likely to be most agreement, that Abraham is the Abraham of Genesis.
Next easiest is Lazarus. There is only one person of this name found in the Bible, namely Lazarus of Bethany, the brother of Mary and Martha who was raised from the dead by Jesus in John 11:1-44. Comparing the parallel accounts of the anointing in Bethany in John 12:3 and Matthew 26:6 we find that Lazarus’ other name was Simon, and that he had been a leper. The leprosy must have been healed when Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, but he was still known as "Simon the Leper".
This explains why the Lazarus in the parable was "full of sores" (Luke 16:20). The begging had nothing to do with poverty, it was because he was unclean. According to the Law of Moses, Simon would have been ceremonially unclean and could not enter his own house in Bethany; "he must live outside the camp" (Leviticus 13:46).
So we have two men, both Jews, both called Lazarus, both beggars, both lepers, both of whom died, and both of whom would not convince people by their resurrection (compare Luke 16:30-31 and John 12:10).
This is too many coincidences for them not to have been the same person. So: Abraham= Abraham and Lazarus = Lazarus. This would lead us to expect the Rich Man is also someone known to the audience of the parable.
Who was the Rich Man?
Reading through the story we can find the following clues to the identity of the Rich Man:
It is not obvious to the modern reader who this Rich Man is. But it should be clear that the picture is much too detailed to simply be ‘a representative of all rich men’. But the Pharisees listening would have known immediately whom Christ was referring to. There was not any chance of their mistaking it, because only one man in Israel dressed in purple and fine linen. A man who fitted exactly all the clues which Jesus gave as to the identity of the Rich Man.
As in Luke’s previous parable of the Dishonest Steward, the key to the meaning lies in the Old Testament. In Exodus 28 we find the instructions given to Aaron for making the high priest’s garments; "blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen" (note Exodus 28:5-8,15,31,39). The Pharisees could not fail to understand that the man dressed in purple and fine linen was the Jewish high priest.
The Name of the Rich Man:
The high priest when Jesus spoke this parable was Caiaphas. We know from the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote a detailed account of the period in Antiquities of the Jews, that Caiaphas met all 4 of the first qualifications of the Rich Man of Luke 16:
Summary so far:
We have established the identity of all the characters:
But what does the parable mean?
At the Rich Man’s Gate: "At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores, and longing to eat from the Rich Man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores." (vs. 20-21). As we noted in considering the real Lazarus, when a Jew contracted a disease they became ‘unclean’. They were at most allowed only into the outer court of the temple. This meant the unclean were no longer allowed to eat from the sacrifices offered in the inner court. In this way Simon of Bethany was barred from eating at the table of Caiaphas in Jerusalem. There is similar language in Matthew 15 when the Canaanite woman (who was a ‘Gentile dog’ as far as the Pharisees were concerned) said to Jesus "Even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table" (Matthew 15:27).
It may be that before he died Simon the Leper literally did beg outside the temple. But the meaning here is deeper than begging for food. Jesus is saying that the weak, the unclean, and the poor, were all denied spiritual food by the ruling caste of high priests.
"The time came when the beggar died, and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side" (v.22 NIV).
Now this is where the story starts to become difficult. Nowhere else in the Bible does it say that when men die they go to Abraham’s side. In older Bibles it reads "bosom of Abraham", meaning the lap of Abraham.
Today there are a hundred and one different theories about death. Many people seriously believe when they die they will go up to the gates of Heaven, to be met by the Apostle Peter. Others believe other things. But the idea that the dead go to sit 'in the lap' of Abraham is something that nobody today believes.
But people did believe it in Jesus' day. Mentions of "the bosom of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" have been found in burial papyri (cf. papyrus Preisigke Sb 2034:11). In early Rabbinical legends "the Bosom ofAbraham" was where the righteous went. (cf. Kiddushin 72b, Ekah 1:85). It is not in the Bible of course, but it was popularly believed.
While the NIV has "to Abraham's side", the literal AV rendering "to the bosom of Abraham" is better as the 'Bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob', was a specific concept in contemporary popular belief.
Another source showing what Jews of Jesus' day believed is a book called 4 Maccabees, which was probably written by Jews in Egypt about a generation after Christ. In this work of fiction Abraham, Isaac and Jacob receive and welcome Jewish martyrs into the world of the dead:
"After our death in this fashion Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will receive us and all our forefathers will praise us" (4 Maccabees 13:17).
Again, this is not Bible teaching, only popular superstition.
The Rich Man in Hell: The story becomes even more difficult when we read the next verse: "The Rich Man also died and was buried. In Hell where he was in torment he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus in his bosom. 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'." (vs. 23-24)
Even with the most fertile imagination it is difficult to believe that from Hell one can see people in Heaven and talk to them. But the story gets stranger still: "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 fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone else cross over from there to us". (vs. 25-26)
Nothing else in the Bible prepares us for this description of Hell. Again the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus turns out to be unique.
Which Hell? We need to clarify what the word 'Hell' means here, as in English Bibles (unlike many Asian Bibles) two words have been confused into one.
'Hell' in the English Bible can be one of two words in the original Greek text:
The problem is that in Luke 16:23 the ‘Hell’ described does not fit either of these Bible definitions. In fact the word is Hades, but it clearly does not fit with the Hades of "silence" (Psalm 31:17), where Jesus was laid (Acts 2:25-28 quoting Psalm 16:8-11). There are 9 other mentions of Hades in the New Testament, 50 in the Old. All these other references present Hades as the grave. Luke 16:23 is the odd one out.
The source for the unusual Hades in Luke 16:23, as with the source for the ‘Bosom of Abraham’ itself, lies outside the Bible in the myths of the 1st Century. Many Jewish myths survive today (eg. in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Talmud, etc.). In these works a variety of fantastic pictures of Hades are given that have no connection with the Old Testament. One of the closest to the picture given in Luke 16:23-24 is in a work called The Apocalypse of Zephaniah.
False Beliefs about Hades: It needs to be said that The Apocalypse of Zephaniah has nothing to do with the Zephaniah who wrote the book of that name in the Bible. The real Zephaniah lived in the days of King Josiah about 620BC. The so-called Apocalypse of Zephaniah on the other hand, was written by an unknown Jewish author, and probably a Pharisee, some time around 150AD. In other words, the book is a fake.
It is interesting however because the myth shows us what many Jews in Jesus’ day believed. The details are not exactly the same as in Luke 16:23-24; for example in the Apocalypse of Zephaniah the chasm between the fiery part of Hades and the part given to Abraham has a giant river running through it. In fact the author recounts the fictional Zephaniah’s journey across the river in a boat steered by an angel:
"You have escaped from the abyss and Hades, you will now cross over the crossing place... then he ran to all the righteous ones, namely Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Enoch, Elijah and David" (Apoc. Zeph. 9:2).
Another difference is that in Luke 16 only Abraham is mentioned. In the Apocalypse of Zephaniah all three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, are in the side of the underworld reserved for the righteous, along with Enoch, Elijah and David.
But the differences are minor, and there are enough common points, and more in many other Jewish myths, to suggest that the content of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable has some relation to contemporary Jewish ideas, and in particular to popular Pharisee teachings.
The Pharisees and the ‘Sinners’ We have established above that the picture of Hades, the Bosom of Abraham, and the chasm between them, represents the Pharisees’ teaching, or at least popular Jewish belief, rather than Jesus’ own teaching.
All this is, however, only half of the Pharisees’ teaching. The other half concerns the Pharisees’ ideas about exactly who would go to be with "Father Abraham" (Luke 3:8), and who would go to the fiery side of Hades. According to the Pharisees all the ‘sinners’, meaning publicans, tax-collectors, the poor, the crippled, the blind, the lame, lepers, people with other skin diseases, the insane, and, of course, Gentiles and Samaritans, would burn in the fire. Only those who followed all the rules of the Law, as did the "righteous" - meaning the rich and respectable, the scribes, the experts in the Law, the rulers of the synagogues, the priests and high priests, and of course the Pharisees themselves - would depart to be with "Father Abraham". "Our father Abraham" is a common phrase in the Jewish Mishnah (e.g. Aboth 3:12; 5:2,3,6,19; 6:10; Taanith 2:4,5)
What the Pharisees did NOT teach: But note that the Pharisees did not teach that the righteous went to Heaven. Even they knew that "no man has ascended into Heaven" (John 3.13). Heaven was for God alone (Psalm 115:16) and to teach otherwise would have been blasphemy.
The Pharisees also did not teach that Abraham’s Bosom was the final destination of the righteous. The Pharisees taught a resurrection and judgment on earth. Abraham’s Bosom was only a waiting station.
With the above in mind it is surprising that so many people quote the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus as proof of the doctrine of heaven going. Not only does the story not mention the word heaven once, this description of Abraham’s Bosom bears no resemblance to any ideas about Heaven taught anywhere.
We have shown that the teaching about Hades and Abraham’s Bosom is not from the Bible, but from contemporary Jewish superstition. This helps us on the fundamental principle that the Bible does not contradict itself - but creates an even bigger problem: Surely Jesus would not approve false teaching?! - the idea itself is abhorrent.
The answer, "Well, it was only a parable." solves nothing. Even in a parable we would expect consistent teaching. It would have been equally possible for Christ to have told the parable in a way that fits with Old Testament teaching. Christ certainly did not need to refer to Hades, the great chasm, Abraham’s Bosom, and "Father Abraham". So we have to conclude that Christ had a good reason to do so.
An Unacceptable Solution: Another answer is, "Jesus was accommodating himself to his listeners to get the message across". But this also will not do. Admittedly there are examples of Christ speaking to the poor and the simple in terms that they would understand. But never to the disciples, and certainly not to the Pharisees, did Christ ‘accommodate’ his words to false teachings in order to make other points understood. Neither would his disciples. Paul even specifically warns about the various Jewish books, such as Apocalypse of Zephaniah, which circulated in the first Century: "Pay no attention to Jewish myths" (Titus 1:14) Yet we still have to explain why the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is so badly at odds with the rest of the Bible.
"If I drive out demons by Beelzebub" The answer may be in observing how Jesus dealt with the Pharisees on an earlier occasion. In Matthew 12:22 Jesus heals a demon possessed man who was blind and mute. But when the Pharisees heard this they said, "It is only by Beelzebub, the Prince of demons that this fellow drives out demons." (v.24).
Now Jesus could have responded to this slander in several ways. He could have quoted Exodus 4:11 to show that it is God who makes man blind or mute, not demons. He could equally have quoted 1 Kings 18:27 and 2 Kings 1:3 to show that Baal-Zebub, the God of Ekron, had failed to prove his existence in the days of Elijah. But he didn’t. Instead Jesus counters with irony: "If I drive out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your people drive them out? So then they will be your judges". (Matthew 12:27)
The comment "so then they will be your judges" is a powerful rebuke. In saying this Jesus threw the falseness of the Pharisees’ teaching right back at them. Back in the days of the prophet Elijah, his way of dealing with the prophets of Baal was not much different (see 1 Kings 18:27). Elijah mocked them to show Israel how false they were.
So if Jesus makes use of Pharisee beliefs in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus we need to ask, "Does Jesus confirm them, or ridicule them?"
Jesus contradicts the Pharisees’ beliefs: The first contradiction has already been mentioned. In the Jewish myth Zephaniah was able to cross by angelic boat from one side of Hades to another. Jesus contradicts this: "a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone else cross over from there to us" (v.26)
Another contradiction is that in the myth Abraham, Isaac and Jacob intercede for those in torment in Hades. As they looked at all the torments they called out, praying before the Lord Almighty saying, "We pray you on behalf of those who are in all these torments so you might have mercy on all of them." And when I saw them, I said to the angel who spoke with me, "Who are they?" He said ‘Those who beseech the Lord are Abraham and Isaac and Jacob". (Apoc. Zeph. 11:1-2).
But Jesus contradicts this. Instead he has Abraham refusing to help relieve the Rich Man’s suffering: "now he is comforted and you are in agony" (v.25)
Another contradiction is that in other Jewish myths Abraham is credited with the ability to do what the Rich Man asks (v.27) and resurrect the dead. For example in the 1st Century Jewish fiction The Testament of Abraham the patriarch Abraham pleads for the dead and returns 7,000 to the living. "Then Abraham arose and fell upon the earth, and [the Angel of] Death with him, and God sent a spirit of life into the dead and they were made alive again." (Testament of Abraham ‘A’ 18:11).
But Jesus again contradicts the myths, and has Abraham refusing to raise Lazarus: "They have Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them" (v.29). This reflects Jesus’ own condemnation of the Pharisees in John 5:39.
Jesus Ridicules False Teaching: There is only one solution left that will explain why Jesus should deliberately choose to tell a parable drawn from the Pharisees’ superstitions. This is that Jesus was showing the teaching to be false by exposing it.
And how? By making the main characters in this parable real people: Caiaphas and Simon of Bethany.
According to the Pharisees’ view of the universe, Simon, as a leper (and therefore a "sinner") should after his death at Bethany have descended to be tormented in the fiery part of Hades. Caiaphas on the other hand, would, as high priest, at the very top of the Jewish religious hierarchy, be guaranteed a pleasant welcome by Abraham on the other side of the underworld. And yet Jesus told them a version of their teaching which had the beggar Lazarus received by Abraham, while the wealthy high priest, clothed in purple and fine linen, descended into the flames!
To add ‘burning coals’, Jesus told how the high priest called on "Father Abraham" to show mercy, and Abraham refused. (The mythical ferryboat across the chasm in Hades was not in service!). Nor was Abraham inclined to help the Rich Man who had enjoyed such a good life on earth (v.25).
Then, as a final rebuke, Jesus has Caiaphas ask Abraham to send Simon the Leper back to the house of Annas in Jerusalem to warn his brothers-in-law. But again Abraham refuses, twice. "They will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead". (Luke 16:31)
In this refusal Christ has Abraham promising Caiaphas the same torment in the fire for his entire household: Eleazar, Jonathan, Theophilus, Matthias, and Annas the Younger, and no doubt his father-in-law Annas the Elder also.
No wonder, then, that this is the last of the series of parables in Luke Ch.14-16 either addressed to the Pharisees, or with the Pharisees present. In the next verse (Luke 17:1) the Pharisees are gone, and Jesus is left alone with the disciples.
The only thing that is literal about the parable is the prophecy of Luke 16:31 that was fulfilled in John 12:10 when Caiaphas and his family tried to kill Lazarus rather than accept the fact that Jesus had raised him from the dead.
Scripture quotations taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Inc.
Quotations from Apocalypse of Zephaniah, 4 Maccabees, and Testament of Abraham taken from J.H. Charlesworth, THE OLD TESTAMENT PSEUDEPIGRAPHA, 2 vols., Copyright © Doubleday, New York 1983.
References to ‘Bosom of Abraham’ in Kiddushin 72b and Ekah 1:85 are cited from L. Ginzberg, LEGENDS OF THE JEWS, republished John Hopkins, 1998, Vol.5, p. 269.
Quotations from Josephus taken from JOSEPHUS COMPLETE WORKS, translated by William Whiston, republished Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, 1966.
But note that ‘The Discourse to the Greeks on Hades’ found in this edition of Josephus is not genuine. It is by Hippolytus of Rome c.400AD, and is based on Luke 16.
Cover illustration: Caiaphas rending his clothes in anger (detail from Giotto ‘Christ before Caiaphas’)
ISBN: 81-87409-56-8, (second printing December 2000)
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