“The word parable by derivation means a placing of one thing beside another, from which has arisen the idea of comparison, although the idea is not essentially involved in the meaning of the word.” John Carter

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a familiar, though sometimes misunderstood section of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 16:19–31). Although other religions may use it to support false doctrines, a balanced analysis, in the light of the rest of Bible teaching, shows this to be invalid. Instead, it reveals how Jesus uses the parable to powerfully teach his audience some important lessons and highlights their relevance for us today.

In this article we will consider the parable in three sections. We will first provide an explanation for the claim that it supports other doctrines. Then we will consider what the true meaning of the parable is and finish by examining the application of one of its lessons to our situation today.

  1 Explanation of Doctrinal Claims

  It is claimed that this parable provides support for heaven-going and the existence of hell. The grounds for this are that the parable describes the beggar Lazarus being taken by angels to the bosom of Abraham at his death and that the rich man is said to experience fiery torments in hell (verses 22–23).

How then are these claims to be answered? There are many points that could be advanced in response, however we will consider just three main points.

First, whatever the parable is saying, it cannot be literally teaching heaven-going and the existence of hell, because it would then become inconsistent with the rest of Scripture. Many quotations could be provided to demonstrate this. One will be described here in detail.

Job 3:11–19 provides us with a description of what it is like to be dead and is in complete contradiction with the concepts of heaven and hell. In verses 11–12 Job’s sufferings lead him to question why he had not died at birth:“Why died I not from the womb?” Then in verses 13–19 Job describes what it would have been like if he had died:“For now should I have lain still and been quiet, I should have slept: then had I been at rest” . This description fits neither bliss in heaven nor torment in hell. Instead, the death state is likened to sleep—a still, silent rest. Verses 14–19 indicate that Job would not have been alone in experiencing this condition, had he died—“kings and counsellors of the earth”, “princes that had gold”, “infants which never saw light” would all experience the same. “The small and great are there”—all men from whatever status in life would end up in this same sleep-like state when they died. Most interestingly verse 17 says, “there the wicked cease from troubling”. If any group of people would be expected by Christian theology to be sentenced to torments in hell, it would be these. Yet they too are described as sharing the same condition of still, silent rest at death as Job. Clearly then, this reference completely contradicts the idea of the righteous receiving a reward in heaven or the wicked being punished in hell. Many other verses could also be presented, such as Psalm 6:5; 88:10–12; 146:4; Ecclesiastes 9:5–6; John 5:28–29; 11:11–14; 1Thessalonians 4:13. All demonstrate that the parable would be inconsistent with the rest of Scripture if it were teaching heavengoing and the existence of hell.

Having established this then, how do we explain the occurrence of “hell” and “Abraham’s bosom” in the parable? The answer lies in recognising that we are dealing with a parable. Therefore we are not justified in saying that, because certain features are mentioned in the storyline, they must be taken literally. While the story of the parable must have some similarity to the actual event it is representing, not every detail is meant to literally correspond. For example, no-one would suggest that the parable of the ten virgins means that exactly half of those at the judgment seat will be accepted or that they will all be women. Likewise it is not acceptable to say that the mention of “hell” and “Abraham’s bosom” provide a basis for literal doctrinal teaching. And on the basis of the earlier comparisons with Bible teaching, we can conclude that it is not meant as a literal teaching.

Our final point to consider is why Jesus would base a parable on something that was doctrinally incorrect anyway, without saying that it was untrue. The answer to this is found by looking at the audience to whom Jesus was speaking, the Pharisees, as we see from Luke 16:14–15. The historian Josephus, who was himself a Pharisee, records for us that the ideas of “hell” and “Abraham’s bosom” were actually the beliefs of the Pharisees at the time. So Jesus mentions these points in his parable because they were part of the beliefs of the audience to whom he was speaking. His purpose in doing so was not to support the ideas as doctrines, but to enable the lessons he was trying to teach the Pharisees to be driven home with maximum impact.

2 The True Meaning of the Parable

  The parable starts by describing the lives of the rich man and Lazarus (vv19–21). The rich man eats luxuriously and is “clothed in purple and fine linen”, while Lazarus, a diseased beggar, seeks crumbs which fall from the rich man’s table. The implication from the rest of the story is that the rich man took little interest in Lazarus’ plight. Who then do these characters represent? The rich man represents the religious rulers of Israel at the time—the listening Pharisees, the Sadducees etc. Lazarus represents the common people of the nation. The religious rulers made an outward show of being righteous (hence, dressed in purple and fine linen), but failed to provide the people with the spiritual food they needed (cp Luke 11:52). Instead they were more interested in gaining more riches and power for themselves (v14). The common people looked to the religious leaders for food, but instead were given the traditions of men and were despised.

In verses 22–23 the parable describes a dramatic reversal of fortunes. Both the rich man and Lazarus die, but now the rich man is despised, being tormented in hell, while Lazarus is elevated to the bosom of Abraham. Their situations represent God’s opinions of their actions during their lives and their potential destiny at the judgment seat. Contrary to the Pharisees’ opinion of themselves, God viewed them as abominable (see v15), because they were self-righteous and failed to teach God’s true ways to the people. As a result they faced rejection at the judgment seat. In contrast, the common people were responding to the teachings of Jesus and “pressing into the kingdom(v16). This part of the parable would have come as an enormous shock to the Pharisees, because they expected to be rewarded with a place in “Abraham’s bosom ”. So Jesus was able to impart his lesson with much greater impact by using the Pharisees’ own beliefs as the basis for the parable.

The parable continues in verses 24–26 with the rich man beseeching Abraham to send Lazarus to him to provide relief from his torments. Abraham says “no”, for two reasons. First his punishment was based on his actions during his life and secondly, Lazarus could not reach him anyway, because there was a great gulf separating them. In this section Jesus was teaching the religious rulers, that at the judgment seat the sentence they would receive would be both fair and irreversible. Fair, because it would be based on their actions during their lives and irreversible, because once judgment had been passed it would be too late to remedy the situation. Again, the way this message is conveyed achieves maximum impact, being directed at the Pharisees from the mouth of their revered father Abraham!!

The parable ends with the rich man asking as an alternative, that Lazarus might be sent to his five brethren to warn them. However, Abraham refuses and declares that if they did not respond to “Moses and the prophets”, then they would not change even if a dead man were to be raised and sent to them. This concluding section constitutes a final warning to the religious leaders. From the Old Testament they should have known their responsibilities to God and the people. If they did not respond to them, then not even the raising of a dead man would convert them. Interestingly, only a short time later a man called Lazarus was raised from the dead. The response of the religious leaders was not to repent, but instead to plot to kill Jesus in order to retain their religious power (John 11:47–48,53). The mention of the rich man having five brethren also suggests that of all the religious leaders, Jesus may have particularly had Caiaphas in mind. Caiaphas was a Sadducean High Priest and Josephus records that he had five brothers-in-law.

In conclusion then, the parable is not literally teaching the existence of heaven and hell, but constitutes a warning to the religious leaders about how God views their actions, and the future they faced because of them.

  3 Application of the Lesson to Us

  The lessons of the parable are not just restricted to religious leaders of Israel. The parable also has many lessons that are relevant to our personal situations today. One important lesson is our dedication to the service of others in the ecclesia. The religious leaders in Christ’s time neglected their service to the people, and became preoccupied with building their own finances and power. How dedicated are we in our service to others? Do we give much thought to the spiritual well-being of our brethren and sisters, or do we too become preoccupied with our own affairs?

Jesus emphasised the importance of this issue, when a lawyer asked him what was the greatest commandment in the Law (Matt 22:33–40). Jesus replied “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. Service to others is presented as one of the two greatest commandments, on which the whole of the law and the prophets hang. The apostle Paul also highlighted this lesson when he said, “Bear ye one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). The point is again reinforced by James in his epistle, where he says, Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction (that is, service to others) and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (Jas 1:27).

Service to our brethren and sisters is therefore of the greatest importance, and will be a key factor in determining our position at the judgment seat. This is portrayed for us in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matt 25:31–46). In the parable Jesus as judge accepts those at his right hand into the kingdom because they had given meat to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, taken in strangers, clothed the naked, and visited the sick in prison—all examples of rendering service to others. Those who were rejected received their sentence for failing to render the same service. Service to our brethren and sisters is regarded as service to Christ himself. We must then be continually asking ourselves what we can do to help others, physically and spiritually. If we do these things, we shall by the grace of God be invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”.