The story of the rich man and Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19-31, is one of the most commonly cited passages of scripture that is said to teach that hell is a place of eternal torment. However, being commonly cited does not mean that it actually means what they say it means.
Now, we’ve gone over elements of this passage in some detail already on this blog. My goal here is to give an overview, to put in one place a more introductory explanation, primarily for those who are fairly new to the hell debate and are not as familiar with the case for conditional immortality.
So, what about this passage?
Why Is It Such a Popular Prooftext?
The reason that this verse is so often cited is because, initially, it sounds just like the traditionalist view. A bad guy dies and goes to the bad place. In two of our most popular translations (KJV and NIV – prior to 2011), it says he goes to “hell” (more on that later). In “hell,” there is fire and torment, and he can’t get relief or escape. That sounds just like the hell many of us have been raised with.
However, as we all know from having lived life, things are not always as they initially seem to be. In this passage, two major points need to be considered. The first is simple and refutes any argument that this passage teaches eternal torment. The second is more speculative, but worth mentioning. It need not be the case that both are true. If either one is true (and the first one is quite strong and clear), then this passage does not teach that hell is place of eternal torment.
The Rich Man Isn’t Actually in Hell
Where is the rich man after he dies? Is he in his eternal destination?
No. The answer is no. The rich man is not in hell, if by hell we mean the place of final punishment for the unsaved. As mentioned above, two popular translations say he is in “hell” in Verse 24. But this is misleading. And this is not just me saying this. Most translations don’t use the word “hell” in Verse 24 because the word used does not refer to the final destination of anyone. The NIV (prior to 2011) and KJV are in the minority. 1 The word used in the Greek word hades. When Jesus speaks of hell as we think of it, the final place of the wicked, he uses the Greek word gehenna, a different word and place altogether.
The word hades, broadly speaking, refers to the place of the dead between death and the resurrection (or resurrections) that occur prior to the beginning of the eternal state. 2 In Revelation 20:13-24, we see what will happen with hades. Both death and hades are emptied. Yes, the context is highly symbolic. But whatever is precisely meant, it is clear that hades is not a permanent state of affairs. I myself think this is meant to be symbolic of the resurrection. Whatever the case, no one is said to go to hades and stay there forever.
If the rich man is in hades, i.e. the intermediate state between death and resurrection, then this story does not tell us what hell is like. Who is to say that the unsaved do not go to a place of suffering between death and resurrection? This does not mean that after they are let out of this place at the resurrection that they must then return to a similar state for eternity. Although it is probably a minority overall, many conditionalists do believe that the soul lives on after death, and that the unsaved will spend the intermediate state in torment, even though their final fate is destruction. 3
The context within the story of the rich man and Lazarus also implies that it is speaking of the intermediate state prior to the resurrection and judgment. Neither Lazarus nor the rich man are said to be at the resurrection. Instead, they die, and they go to a place right after. Furthermore, the rich man’s brothers are still alive on this side of eternity (or at least the rich man believes this to be the case). This is evidenced by the fact that he expects them to be able and willing to repent if shown a dead man rising from the grave (verses 27-28, 30).
Even if we take the story of the rich man and Lazarus as being a true story (as opposed to a parable), or at least reflective of the true nature of things, nevertheless the rich man is not in the final state to begin with. Therefore, this passage cannot tell us whether or not hell is a place of eternal torment.
Reasons to Believe That This is A Parable
Even when taken as a literal, historical story of two dead people, the story of the rich man and Lazarus does not prove eternal torment. But should we take it as a literal, historical story to begin with? Or, is this story a parable? If it is a parable, should we nonetheless take the backdrop as descriptive of the afterlife nonetheless?
There are a number of reasons to take this story as a parable. And this is not only the claim of conditionalists. As traditionalist Robert Yarbrough concedes, while defending the traditional view, no less: “It is widely accepted that this story is parabolic and not intended to furnish a detailed geography of hell.” 4 A lot of people think this is a parable, and I think they are right to do so.
Let us begin with the end. The rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers to repent. What is Abraham’s response? It is written: “But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead'” (NASB, verse 31). And to whom does Jesus say this? Pharisees. He said it to Pharisees who did not respect him, Pharisees who would not repent even if he rose from the dead (which we know he later did). This sure sounds like Jesus’s many other parables in which the real point is given at the end. Like the rich man’s brothers, those who have Moses and the prophets but will not repent would never repent even if someone (Jesus) rose from the dead.
The beggar is named Lazarus. The fact that he is named is sometimes used to argue that this isn’t a parable (because apparently Jesus isn’t allowed to use names in parables or something). But the name itself is significant. The name Lazarus means something along the lines of “the help of God” 5 or “God helps.” 6 The rich man is nameless and faceless, but the beggar, the one whom everyone thought God hated, is ultimately the one whom God helps.
Who could the rich man and Lazarus represent? One reasonable choice is the Jews, from whom the unrepentant Pharisees came, and the gentiles. After all, the Jews were God’s chosen people, given every spiritual blessing. The gentiles, on the other hand, were spiritually poor. They were Lazarus. And yet, Jesus was bringing salvation to not only the Jews but to gentiles. Although the gentiles were (spiritually) poor, from among them would be many like Lazarus – those whom God helped. And although the Jews had every spiritual blessing, from among them would be those who, despite having Moses and the prophets and thus being rich, would not repent and be saved – even if someone rose from the dead.
Furthermore, the story comes at the end of a string of parables that Jesus has told, including one that that also speaks of a rich man (or more specifically, “a certain rich man”). 7 It doesn’t make much sense for Jesus to randomly break from telling parables to telling a lengthy, real-life story about two people (something he does nowhere else in the Bible). Now, the fact that it doesn’t make much sense to me does not mean that it must be false. But it does seem much smoother and simpler to imagine that Jesus was simply telling another parable – one with a point that seems so obvious to us now that we live in the age after his resurrection.
Reasons to Believe That This is Parable Is Not Based on Real Life
One might counter that even if it is a parable, parables elsewhere use real life and the real nature of things as the backdrop. If this is so, we would expect that Jesus was using the real nature of the afterlife to tell the story, even if the story itself is fictional. But this particular story is different from the others. First of all, the fact that it involves the intermediate state alone makes it different from all other parables (or literal historical narratives) that Jesus gives. There’s no completely analogous situation for us to compare it to.
As far as the specifics go, it has many parallels with folktales that were well-known at the time. This has been pointed out by a number of authors, some or all of whom are traditionalists. 8 9 10 Most notabe is its similarities to a story about a tax collector named Bar Ma’jan. 11 12 It is a reasonable possibility, at least, that Jesus is using a well-known fictional story, and not the normal state of things, as the backdrop of the parable.
What elements would Jesus be adopting? In the story of Bar Ma’jan, the tax collector (a pariah in Jesus’ day) and a teacher of the law (highly respected) die and are buried. In the afterlife, the teacher of the law is in paradise while the tax collector is in a state of torment. Most notably, just like the rich man who asked for water to cool his tongue, the story of the tax collector ends with him unable to access water.
What Jesus could very well be doing is taking this popular tale, one that his audience would have been very familiar with, and turning it on its head. Being rich was believed to be a sign of God’s favor (so long as you weren’t a tax collector). In this story, however, although the rich man is not a tax collector, he nonetheless is the Bar Ma’jan. The teacher of the law figure is a seemingly nameless beggar, someone who would have seemed accursed. Instead, he is Lazarus, the one God helps. It is eschatological reversal. The first are last and the last are first. This is a major theme in Luke. 13
This would be of great significance when spoken to an audience like the Pharisees. They were used to the winner being on their side. And yet, Jesus would be saying that they are the Bar Ma’jan! The rich man, their representative, is the one who ends up in the place of suffering and cannot access water.
Of course, the fable would be the backdrop, not the end in itself. Jesus would add elements that were specific to his audience (e.g. Abraham), as well as possibly other elements from folktales that would later be written down in the Talmud. And in the end, this fable would be the backdrop (I believe) to the punchline at the end, that if they wouldn’t repent after reading Moses and the prophets, they wouldn’t repent even if Jesus rode from the dead.
I am not dogmatic about this story being a parable based on Bar Ma’jan and perhaps other folklore. However, Jesus’s story does have enough similarities to be noteworthy. And this does not in any way impugn the Bible or Jesus. Anyone who says this makes Jesus a liar is letting their own theological biases about hell cloud their normally sound judgment about what a lie is. 14 All parables are fictional, made up stories. In the end, this one may differ from how other parables use natural, earthly things to make their point about the things of God. However, it still ultimately serves the same purpose as other parables by telling a clearly fictional story to make that point about the things of God.
Things to Take Away
To recap, the story of the rich man and Lazarus doesn’t even claim to be about the eternal state. Beyond that, there is reason to believe it is a parable which used a well-known fable as its backdrop, which means that it doesn’t even tell us what the intermediate state is actually like.
As you continue studying this topic, you will find many more instances like this. A passage is given to you and is said to teach eternal torment. And it looks like it indeed teaches eternal torment – until you look into it deeper. Here we had a passage that has someone dying and going to an afterlife full of fire. I can absolutely understand why people who have been taught from childhood that bad people die and go to a place of fire forever will see this passage and think it is teaching what they already believed. But it does not. This is why it’s a good idea to open up your Bibles and rethink hell.
- Translations that do not say “hell” in Verse 24 include the NASB, the ESV, the NKJV, the ASV, the HCSB, and many others.
- For more on this, see Joseph Dear, The Bible Teaches Annihilationism, VII, pages 33-42, http://www.3ringbinder.org/uploads/1/9/1/0/1910989/the_bible_teaches_annihilationism__1st_edition_pdf_version__final.pdf (accessed April 30, 2016).
- For examples, see Irenaeus of Lyon, Against Heresies, II. xxxiv., found in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Vol. 1, eds. Alexander Robertson and James Donaldson (1885, reprint Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1903), 411-412, reproduced at Google Books, n.d., https://books.google.com/books?id=fyUMAAAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed April 30, 2016).
- Robert Yarbrough, “Jesus on Hell,” Hell under Fire, eds. Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson, (Zondervan, 2004), 74.
- John Lightfoot, Hebrew and Talmudical Excercitations Upon the Gospels of St. Luke and St. John, found in The Whole Works of Rev. John Lightfoot: Vol. XII, ed. John Rogers Pittman, (J.F Dove, 1823), 158, reproduced at Preterist Archive, n.d., http://www.preteristarchive.com/Books/pdf/1684_lightfoot_works_12_1823.pdf (April 30, 2016).
- Glenn Peoples, “Why I Am An Annihilationist,” rightreason.org, n.d., http://www.rightreason.org/article/theology/annihilationist.pdf (accessed April 30, 2016).
- The Greek description of the “certain rich man” is virtually identical in Luke 16:1 and Luke 16:19; translations differ with Luke 16:19 as to whether it is “a certain rich man” or merely “a rich man.”
- Peter Toon, Heaven and Hell: A Biblical and Theological Overview, (Thomas Nelson, 1986), 42.
“It is possible that in creating this parable Jesus has adopted a folk tale of a rich man and a pious poor man whose fortunes are reversed in the afterlife.”
- Edmund Flood, More Parables for Now, (Dimension, 1981), 48.
“A legend about a rich man and a poor man that had been circulating in the East for some centuries could be turned into something that could help those around him to understand what he was saying.”
- John Lightfoot, 159, 164-167.
- Joachim Jeremias, Rediscovering the Parables, (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966), 141, 145.
- English Text of the story ban be found in The Talmud of the Land of Israel: A Preliminary Translation and Explanation (U of Chicago, 1984), Sanhedrin Tractate, Chapter 6, pages 181-182.
- Peoples 19.
- A lie requires an intent to deceive. Alluding to a well-known fictional story in the course of telling another clearly fictional story does not entail an intent to deceive. It is no more an act of deception than wearing a costume to a costume party. Those who say that Jesus would be lying if it is based on Bar Majan (or even if it is a parable) are basically saying that Jesus would be deceiving them because they were not aware of Jesus’s meaning, being 2,000 years removed from the audience he was speaking to. I would hope most of you can see the flaws in that line of thinking. It does also bring up some bigger questions about the clarity of the Bible and require us to come to terms with the fact that things in the Bible are not always being easy to understand (which the scriptures themselves admit – e.g. 2 Peter 3:17 – and which is self-evident by virtue of the fact that most of us need scholars of ancient languages to translate it for us before we can even start to read it).