Lazarus and the Rich Man
In our posting, “Is Death a Friend?” I asserted as per 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 15 that the dead in Christ are dead and will remain so until Jesus Christ returns to raise them from the dead. I was asked to consider that the parable of Lazarus and the rich man indicates otherwise. I am going to address this, but first let me say that my heart goes out to those who wrestle with this topic emotionally. I know it is difficult. I empathize with this, but cannot fully relate, having never believed that those who have fallen asleep in Christ are really awake and are already enjoying eternal bliss. To me it is more comforting to know that my parents are not watching me, but for them the moment of Christ’s return will be as though it were the next moment after their deaths. It also strikes me as a matter of supreme justice that we all arrive at the same time. No-one is advantaged more than anyone else. Here is the parable:
Luke 16:19 There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,
21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 And 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.
25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
27 Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house:
28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
Parables are extended similes, comparisons presented for the purpose of making a point, and typically, only one point. In the preceding context of the above parable, Jesus is speaking to a group of Pharisees, confronting them for holding to traditions that violated the Law of Moses (in this case, a tradition regarding marriage and divorce, but the point was not so much that particular tradition as it was the act of holding any tradition over God’s written Word). This parable is part of that confrontation. The point of the parable is the last line, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” Jesus was not instructing the Pharisees regarding the nature of heaven and hell. He was confronting them for not listening to the law and the prophets by which they should have known who he was. They didn’t, and neither were they persuaded later when he rose from the dead.
The point of this parable is all that can be drawn from it. It is a story told for the purpose of making a single point. There was no actual person named Lazarus who was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. There was no rich man who went to hell. No conversation took place between Abraham and a man in hell. Parables are not the telling of actual events, and no conclusions can be drawn from them apart from their intended meaning.
To be effective, however, parables must be believable to the listeners. The parable of the prodigal son did not describe the life choices of a real person, but the scenario is believable. It is something that could have happened. The Pharisees, to whom the Lazarus parable was addressed, believed in immediate life after death and consequent rewards or punishment. They believed that Abraham was already in heaven. They believed that those who were deserving would be at the time of their deaths ushered immediately into Abraham’s presence. The basic scenario of the story Jesus told was believable to them, but that does not mean that the story indicates how things actually are.
Jesus Christ is the firstborn from the dead, the first to be resurrected.
Colossians 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.
Abraham, therefore, was not resurrected and already in heaven when Jesus told this parable. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter accurately proclaimed that David was not ascended into the heavens.
Acts 2:29 Men and brethren, let me freely speak unto you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulchre is with us unto this day…
34 For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand,
There will come a day when David, Abraham, and other Old Testament believers will be resurrected, but that day has not yet come, and Jesus was not trying to say it had any more than he was trying to give us an accurate depiction of heaven and hell.
If it is legitimate to choose any given detail from this parable and draw a conclusion from it, then logically, it is legitimate to do so with other parables as well, is it not? Let’s try this one:
Luke 18:1 And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;
2 Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man:
3 And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary.
4 And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man;
5 Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.
6 And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith.
7 And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?
The point of the parable is stated at the beginning, that men ought always to pray and not to faint. No additional conclusion can be drawn from it. Picking out details from the parable and drawing conclusions from them, could well lead us to the conclusions that God is an unjust judge with no regard for men, and the only reason He answers prayer is lest He be wearied by our continually troubling Him. This is obviously not a part of the intended meaning.
There is a difference between using details of a parable to prove a point and using them to illustrate a point. Using details of a parable to illustrate something you already know to be true is fine. Consider the so-called parable of the prodigal son. The singular point of the parable is to show the rejoicing that should accompany the saving of the lost. (See our posting, “Luke 15 and the Prodigal Son” for documentation of this.) No other conclusion can be legitimately drawn from this parable, but there are things in it that are illustrative of what we know from other sections of God’s Word to be true. We know that God is love (1 John 4:8) and that we have access to Him (Ephesians 2:18). We might, therefore, point to the love of the father in the prodigal son parable and the wide open doors of acceptance when the son returned to him and say, “That’s just how our loving God is when men come unto Him.” The details of the prodigal son parable do not prove our Father’s love, but they can be used to illustrate it.
So the details of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man are not proof that people go to heaven (or hell) immediately upon death any more than they are proof of the many other conclusions that could be drawn from them. They are not proof that heaven and hell are in such proximity that people in hell can see those in heaven and even carry on conversations with them. They do not prove that one gets to heaven by being carried by angels and sits on Abraham’s lap when he gets there. They do not show anything other than the stated message of the story, “If they [and this is directed at the Pharisees] hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
By the way, if this is your first time on our site, you might want to check out our home page to see where we are coming from and then go to the posted articles on the GIFT of righteousness. Just a suggestion, but for some of you, it could be life changing.