- Luke 16:19-31
- The rich man and Lazarus
- This is a stock passage cited by many religious groups to prove that souls of the departed go to torment in hell or bliss in heaven.
- It is noteworthy that this passage mentions neither heaven nor souls.
- Since this passage is cited as a literal description of actual events (and not as a parable) it is helpful to show that even the immortal soulist cannot take this passage as a literal description. The following is the evidence:
- The passage speaks about bodies not souls. E.g., eyes, bosom (vs. 23) tip of finger and tongue (vs. 24).
- Souls are said to be immaterial (the material body being left in the grave), how then could Lazarus (if really a soul) be carried by angels? (vs. 22).
- The passage states that there was a great gulf fixed between Abraham and the rich man, yet they could both see and converse with each other (vs. 26). Is the great gulf to be taken literally?
- Is heaven literally a place where conversations can be carried on between those enjoying bliss and those agonizing in hell?
- How could Lazarus go literally to Abraham's bosom? Abraham (as now) was unquestionably dead and without his reward. (Heb. 11:8, 13, 39, 40).
- It is sometimes asserted that parables are simple stories. It is then argued that they should be read simply, (i.e., literally), therefore Lazarus and the rich man must be historical figures and the narrative must have occurred as written. Such a view is not supported by the Master's statements about his parables;
- ". . . Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables: That seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand. . . " (Mark 4:11,12).
- "But without a parable spake he not unto them: and when they were alone, he expounded all things to his disciples." (Mark 4:34).
- Stress is often placed upon words "there was a certain rich man" to emphasize the historical character of the language used. But in Luke 16:1 the parable of the unjust steward commences with the same language. Must this parable be read literally? (Similar language is used in other parables - see Luke 12:16)
- Some take exception to Jesus using a false idea1 as a basis for his teaching. Firstly because it is seen as "sarcasm", and secondly because Christ would be sanctioning false teaching.
- The charge of "sarcasm" is based more on the popular adage that "sarcasm is the lowest form of humour" than the reality that parody as a genre is using frequently and scathingly throughout the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament prophets but there are also instances in the New Testament of biting parody being used to show the falsehood of popular beliefs (e.g. Matthew 23:16-17).
- As to the second objection, it can be noted that the truth or falsity of the story in a parable is immaterial2, and the lesson conveyed through the story is the intended point; e.g. Jesus makes reference to Beelzebub (literally "Lord of the Flies") in Matthew 12:27 without committing himself to a belief in Baalzebub the god of Ekron (2 Kings 1:2). A stronger point however is that the nature of all parody is to demonstrate faulty thinking on the part of the persons parodied so comparison of the 1st Century Jewish ideas1 with the message of the parable suggests that it is exactly those ideas which are being criticised as much as those who taught them.
- Further objection to reading this passage as a parable is argued on the grounds that Jesus did not definitely call it a parable. This objection is not valid since only 11 of the 26 parables recorded in Luke's gospel are actually named parables.
- Some Church of Christ members hold the view that disbelievers go to hell (left hand side of the divided state of hades) whereas idol worshippers go straight to the lake of fire. It should be pointed out that this view puts Abraham in the lake of fire and not in hades since it is recorded that Abraham "was gathered unto his people" (Gen. 25:8) and his people were idol worshippers. (Joshua 24:2).
- In an effort to support their interpretation of Luke 16, Church of Christ preachers assert that bodies never go to hades. This assertion is false. In Acts 2:27, 31 the writer cites Psalm 16:10 where the Hebrew word for "hell" is "sheol". The Hebrew parallelism (where the writer expresses the same thought in slightly different words) of verse 10 indicates that "thou wilt not leave my soul in hell" is equivalent to, "neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption". Clearly then, "my soul" is synonymous with "Holy One". Therefore, bodies are placed in hades.
- Although the issue to be settled in a consideration of this passage is whether or not it provides support for the doctrine of the immortality of the soul and heaven the place of reward for the righteous, it is useful to be able to explain what the passage does mean. The following is a suggested exposition:
- vs. 14,15 - The Pharisees deride Jesus after his attack on materialism. The Pharisees were noted for their asceticism3 regarding externals, but Jesus pointed out their covetous designs.
- vs. 16 - The Pharisees had long been locked with the Sadducees in a bitter disputation over the oral and written traditions. Their conduct had resulted in the exclusion of publicans, sinners, and the Lazarus class from spiritual food which ought to have been provided by the chief priests. They had taken away the key of knowledge. (Luke 11:52,46). But with the coming of John, the kingdom was preached and every man pressed into it. (See Luke 7:29,30). Even the Pharisees and Sadducees, desirous no doubt, of a kingdom in which they would be prominent, went out to hear John. They were indicted as a "generation of vipers" and told to "bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance." (Matt. 3:2, 7-10).
- vs. 17 - But lest it be thought that God's demands on men had slackened with the teaching on the kingdom and every man pressing into it, Jesus told his hearers, "It is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail."
- vs. 18--Jesus cites the teaching of the law on adultery as an example, and in so doing, condemns the notorious loose-living of the Sadducees.
- vs. 19 - "Which was clothed" is in the imperfect tense and means to be habitually clothed.
- Purple is a color which is used in Scripture for the following: priestly garments (Ex. 39:2,24,29); royal apparel (Judges 8:26; Esther 8:15); and is synonymous with wealth in Rev. 18:16.
- Fine linen was used extensively in the priestly garments such as the ephod, robe, mitre, and bonnet. (Ex. 39). Linen is used as a symbol of wealth in Rev. 18:16.
- Only one class in Israel was habitually clothed in purple and linen and fared sumptuously every day4 - the High Priestly class of Sadducees.5 Caiaphas is likely the unnamed (for obvious reasons) rich man.
- vs. 20 - Lazarus is the only character personally named in the parables of Jesus, implying that Lazarus must have been known to the audience. This parable of Jesus might have been uttered after he received news of the death of his friend, Lazarus. The parable was given at Pereae, east of the Jordan at Bethabara (where news of Lazarus' death came to him, John 11:6 cf. John 10:40; 1:28). It was an easy day's journey from Bethabara to Bethany.
- vs. 21 - Lazarus was typical of all Jews of this day. They were deprived of even the most meager crumbs of the bread of life from the rich man's table. (i.e., High Priestly class, but Caiaphas in particular).
- However much Lazarus might patiently await the rich man's (Caiaphas) condescension, the High Priest was incapable of dispensing even spiritual crumbs."6
- vs. 22- 31 - Lazarus dies and in the parable, the premature death of Caiaphas is made to follow. In hades they meet but in situations reversed. Caiaphas requests Abraham (with whom he claimed privilege by virtue of ancestry, (Matt. 3:9)) to warn his five brothers. The five brothers are the five brothers-in-law of Caiaphas, the Sadduceean High Priest.7 Caiaphas was son-in-law of Annas who had been deposed by the Romans for openly resisting them. The request is refused on the grounds that they had not heard Moses and the Prophets (e.g. in their attitude to adultery and resurrection, Luke 16:18; 20: 27-38) nor would they respond if one rose from the dead. The resurrection of Lazarus further incensed the Pharisees, chief priests8 and Caiaphas who feared their loss of power. (Jn. 11:47- 57).
- The parable condemns Caiaphas the chief Shepherd of Israel for his selfish irresponsibility in neglecting the spiritual and material needs of Jews in Israel. Lazarus represents this neglected class.9 The parable is a further indictment of the Sadducees (who denied the resurrection of the body and were about to reject the miraculous resurrection of Lazarus) in their disbelief of Moses and the prophets. The parable is presented in terms of the popular belief of the Pharisees about the death state.
- If this passage is a literal description of an actual place, then the question arises as to where did those men, women and children who lived and died PRIOR TO Abraham go when they died since Abraham's Bosom could not have existed prior to Abraham's death?!
- Do those who believe in Abraham's bosom really believe that this is a place where the righteous deserve to be? Remember that both Abraham and Lazarus could see and hear the sorrowful pleadings of the rich man from across the "great chasm". Can one imagine "rewarding" the righteous by confining them to a place where for centuries they would have to see the agony, smell the smoke, and listen to the shrieks of the damned as they scream for relief on the other side of the "great chasm"? For the righteous, the very act of having to watch these unfortunate wretches writhe and moan in the fire would itself be a punishment. Is it possible that having to witness such a sight for aeons can be described as a "reward," or a "comfort" (v. 25)?
- Some absurdities to consider if we are to accept this passage literally:
- Can there exist a "great chasm" that is so great that no one can pass across it, and yet the inhabitants on both sides are able to carry on a conversation with each other without difficulty?
- If you were being tormented in flames of fire, as the rich man was, would you request only a "drop of water" to quench your agony? Would not a jug or jar, or even a handful of water be more logical?
- Do you believe that the rich man was so stupid as to expect righteous Lazarus to leave the comfort of "Abraham's bosom" and spend time visiting the rich man in flames of fire?
- How is it that Abraham knew the contents of the writings of "Moses and the prophets" (v. 29)? Is Abraham omniscient, or are there copies of the Holy Scriptures in this place that Abraham had an opportunity to peruse?
More absurdities to consider...
- "In this parable, Jesus was using a familiar folk-tale and adapting it to a new purpose by adding an unfamiliar twist to the end of it."10 "This parable is not theology. It is a vivid story, not a Baedeker's guide to the next world. Such stories as this were current in Jesus' day. They are found in rabbinical sources, and even in Egyptian papyri."11 Also see comments from The New International Greek Testament Commentary by I. Howard Marshall
- An undisputable indicator of the connection with 1st Century Jewish teaching is indicated by Christ using the word "father" for Abraham in the mouth of the rich man (v. 27) despite his own command to call no man "father" (Matthew 23:9, compare the encounter between Jesus and the Scribes and Pharisees in John 8:31-59). "Our father Abraham" is a common phrase in the Mishnah (e.g. Aboth 3:12; 5:2,3,6,19; 6:10; Taanith 2:4,5)
It is also useful to show from surviving Jewish texts of that period that what is described in Luke 16:19-30 is drawn from, and in parody of, popular 1st Century teachings concerning a division in the underworld between the fires of Hades and the paradise where Abraham and other patriarchs dwelt.
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' (cf. papyrus Preisigke Sb 2034:11), was a specific concept in contemporary popular belief. (Kiddushin 72b and Ekah 1:85 are cited in L. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, republished John Hopkins, 1998, Vol.5, p. 269).
Jewish Martyrs believed that: "After our death in this fashion Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will receive us and all our forefathers will praise us" (4 Maccabees 13:17 in J.H. Charlesworth, The OT Pseudepigrapha, Doubleday, 1983).
Other early Jewish works describe the heavenly realm as being separated from the fires by a river (not substantially different from the chasm of Luke 16). In one apocryphal work this river could be crossed only in an angelic boat: "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" (Apocalypse of Zephaniah 9:2. Charlesworth, op. cit.).
The same 1st Century Jewish work also shows the popular belief concerning the role of Abraham as intercessor for those in torment in the fiery part of 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).
In another work Abraham causes some of the dead to return from Hades to life "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).
Note: Many editions of the Works of Josephus still contain a "Discourse to Greeks Concerning Hades" which bears an uncanny resemblance to Luke 16. The reason for this is because the real author is Hippolytus (4th Century) who was using Luke 16 as his source. Return
- Similarly, the Old Testament parable of Jotham (Judges 9:7-15) does not require the trees of the forest to enter into political discussion and finally invite a bramble to be king. Return
- See, for example, Matt. 9:14; 23:23; Luke 18:12. Also Flavius Josephus, Antiquities, Book XVIII, chapt. 1, section iii, pp. 376, 377 in Josephus: Complete Works, trans. by William Whiston, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1966). Return
- Some interpretations suggest that the rich man represented the Pharisees, but the Pharisees did not fare sumptuously every day. They generally lived austere lives and fasted twice a week. (Lk. 18:12). Return
- At the time of Jesus the Sadducees had much political power derived from their wealth, office and political connections. They were unpopular with the public because of their avaricious spirit. Special hatred was felt toward the chief representative, the family of Annas. See Flavius Josephus, Antiquities, Book XIII, chapter 10, section vi, p. 281 and Book XVIII, chapter 1, section iv, p. 377, also Wars of the Jews, Book 11, chapter 8, section xiv, p. 478, in Josephus: Complete Works, trans. by William Whiston, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1966). The Sadducees had installed booths in the outer court of the temple in Jerusalem which increased their wealth by currency exchange and sale of sacrificial animals. (See John 2:13-16; Matt. 21:12,13.). Return
- The Lazarus class was like the Gentile dogs who hoped for crumbs from their Master's table. (Matt. 15:27). Return
- Josephus records, "Now the report goes, that this elder Ananus [Annas] proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons, who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. . ." Antiquities, Book XX, chapter 9, section i, p. 423. Elsewhere, Josephus gives the names of Annas' five sons as Eleasar, Jonathan, Theophilus, Matthias, and the younger Annas. Return
- If as Josephus records, the five brothers were to succeed to the high priesthood after Caiaphas, they would be the most eminent members of "the chief priests." (In addition to the ex-high priests the title was applied to members of those families from which the high priests were usually chosen.) See J.D. Douglas ed., The New Bible Dictionary, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman's Book Co., 1962), p. 1124. Return
- Ezekiel's condemnation of the priests of his day appropriately underlies Jesus' censure of Caiaphas: "Woe be to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves! should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: but ye feed not the flock. The diseased have ye not strengthened, neither have ye healed that which is sick. . . but with force and with cruelty have ye ruled them." (Ezekiel 34:2-4). Return
- G. B. Caird, The Gospel of St. Luke (Penguin Books), p. 191. Caird also comments that "the story of the wicked rich man and the pious poor man, whose fortunes were reversed in the afterlife, seems to have come originally from Egypt, and was popular among Jewish teachers. ...It was not the intention of Jesus to propagate a strict doctrine of rewards and punishments...or to give a topographical guide to the afterworld." Return
- The Interpreter's Bible - Volume VIII (New York: Abingdon Press) p. 290. Return