A Place for Torment:
Reading The Rich Man and Lazarus Literally
The literal reading of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (the RML parable) in Luke 16:19-31 takes literally the settings of this life and Hades. In this reading, when Jesus spoke of the Rich Man in Hades, he spoke of a literal place beyond death, a place in which the man was in conscious torment, able to feel and think and speak. The parable is seen therefore to give us information, albeit limited, about this place, which Jesus called Hades.
Other Biblical information about Hades can be derived from other New Testament passages: Acts 2:24-27 indicates that Hades is a holding place for human souls after death, to which Jesus went but which could not hold Jesus in its power. These verses quote from Psalm 16, showing Hades to be the Greek translation of the Old Testament Hebrew Sheol, the place of the dead, the grave. Revelation 20:11-15 shows that, at or after the Final Judgement, Hades ceases to have a use or an existence as a holding place, and is thrown into the lake of fire. Hades is shown to be the holding place for human souls pending the Final Judgement. Hades is interim and not eternal.
Conditionalists understand and teach that the fate of the unrighteous beyond Final Judgement is to be destroyed, to have no life, no existence, at all. This destruction of body and soul happens in the place named Gehenna by Jesus in Matthew 10:28, also understood to be the lake of fire, the second death, in Revelation 20 and 21. This clear and simple conditionalist teaching about humans post-judgement is not affected by any teaching about humans prejudgement. Conditionalists can and do have different understandings of Hades while holding firmly to the same understanding of Gehenna. Conditionalists are united about there being no eternal conscious torment in ‘hell’ while varying on whether there is intermediate conscious torment in Hades.
Here we outline five broad advantages to conditionalists in adopting an understanding of Hades derived in part from a literal reading of the parable of the Rich Man and Hades, an understanding of Hades as a place of intermediate conscious torment.
1. Advantage of taking seriously the nature of Jesus’ parables
Jesus’ parables have a number of common features which are consistent with a literal reading of the RML parable:
a) Parables are located in ‘the real world.’ The parable of the Good Samaritan takes place on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Other parables take place in a vineyard, in grazing for sheep, in a woman’s house, in a family home and a far country, in a kitchen where bread is made… Parables are not mythic or apocalyptic stories with mythic settings and creatures. Parables do not contain beasts with multiple heads; there are no thrones on glass floors. Parables may be set in generic human places, sometimes caricatured, but they are ‘real world’ places recognisable to any human.
Any human, therefore, can find a resonance with the parables of Jesus. Myths and apocalyptic visions are, largely, only properly understood by those familiar with the same mythic ‘world.’ Hence the difficulties of modern understanding of Revelation and Daniel 7. Jesus’ parables are different. Their context does not need to be explained. Parables are set in the real world.
It is possible to understand the setting of Hades in the RML parable as a literary reference to other similar mythic stories, of people who have returned from or seen the abode of the dead, found in writings from neighbouring Middle Eastern cultures at a similar time to the Gospels. Richard Bauckham1“The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels,” New Testament Studies 37 (1991) 225-246. and Kim Papaionnou2The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus Kim Papaionnou Pickwick (Wipf and Stock) 2013. argue along these lines. They conclude that, because of these parallel stories, ‘Hades’ is more a literary device than a reference to a ‘real place.’ Furthermore, they argue that Jesus is demythologising the contemporary stories by denying that any communication is possible between the abode of the dead and this world. ‘Don’t think that any information about humans after death can be derived from any of these stories’ is understood to be part of the message of Jesus.
Another understanding is that Jesus continued his practice of using ‘real world’ settings for his parables and that, therefore, Hades is part of the ‘real world,’ into which Jesus had uncommon insight. The RML parable is unique in naming a place beyond death, but that isn’t sufficient reason to conclude that Jesus thought it was any less real than the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Indeed the conclusion can be drawn that only Jesus can give reliable information about life beyond death. His having Abraham say that there is no crossing out of Hades does indeed undercut the claim of other contemporary stories to convey truth about life beyond death, but this depends on us taking literally and seriously the message, articulated by Jesus, of the uncrossable chasm. Bauckham and Papaionnou do indeed derive information about Hades from the parable, the information about the uncrossable chasm. Only the words of Jesus give reliable information about humans beyond death, in a real place which he called Hades.
b) Parables often contain a dual promise – warning message. The parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins teaches the promise of wisely gaining ‘extra oil’, the promise of inclusion into the wedding feast and the warning of not gaining this oil, the warning of exclusion from the wedding feast. The parable of the Talents teaches the promise to those who make use of what they have been given and the warning to those who are too afraid to make use of what they have been given. The parable of the Good Samaritan contains the commendation of the compassionate Samaritan and the corresponding disapproval of the callous Priest and Levite. Even the parable of the Prodigal Son / Generous Father teaches the promise of welcome to those who turn back to God, being included in the celebration, and the warning to those who prioritise judgement over mercy, excluding themselves from the celebration. The RML parable has a similar dual promise – warning message, heavenly inclusion for poor Lazarus and the exclusion of Hades for the callous Rich Man.
As a corrective to an allegorical approach to parables which sought to find meaning in all the varied details, C. H. Dodd taught that parables have one point, not many. Dodd’s corrective has been largely accepted but strict insistence on each parable having a single point can obscure the dual, inclusion – exclusion message in many parables. Bauckham and Papaionnou have stressed that the RML parable has a single point – to follow Scriptural teaching on care for the poor – and argued that, therefore, the corresponding warning about not following this teaching is of no importance or is a rhetorical detail about which no conclusions should be drawn. The literal reading of the RML parable, on the other hand, shows the dual promise – warning similar to other parables. To argue that the parable does give us valuable information about a future beyond death to be avoided, as well as a future to be embraced, is not to return to allegorical interpretation. The message of the need to care for the poor is strengthened, in a way typical of Jesus, by a clear, dramatic, portrayal of the danger of not caring for the poor. The literal reading does not take Hades as symbolic of something else, but as a real place integral to the promise – warning of Jesus.
c) Parables are told for those with ears to hear. Parables do not need a key from outside the parable to unlock the understanding. Parables do not need a particular level of knowledge or intellect. Parables need to be listened to with the ears and understood with the heart (Mth 13:15), to be heard and held fast in an honest and good heart, so that they bear fruit with patient endurance (Lk 8:15) Any block in taking in a parable is more in the heart than the head. The simple reading of a parable is therefore the one most likely intended by Jesus.
The literal reading of the RML parable takes Jesus’ words about Hades at face value, as would an ordinary hearer. The Bauckham – Papoiannou reading relies on people having knowledge of similar stories in neighbouring cultures. Some of Jesus’ contemporaries would have had such knowledge, although not all. For the parable to be understood by all with ears to hear, including those with no knowledge of similar stories, the meaning must not depend on such knowledge.
The literal reading understands Jesus to be warning about a tormented fate in a real place beyond death. The Bauckham – Papoiannou reading is open to the criticism that it makes Jesus out to be offering a false warning to those without the sophistication or knowledge not to take his parable literally. It is better for conditionalists to put forward an interpretation which is open to less criticism and is more in line with Jesus’ teaching about parables.
d) Parables are independent stories which were recorded as in a particular context but were probably told in multiple contexts. Some parables are recorded in different Gospels in different contexts, probably because they were told in different contexts. The context can therefore illuminate the parable but is not determinative of the parable.
The literal reading of the RML parable takes seriously the context of teaching to Pharisees but sees the parable also as understandable outside of this context. The Bauckham – Papaionnou reading, on the other hand, stresses the context of teaching to Pharisees as a reason for arguing that the only message is about not paying lip-service to the Scriptures. It is argued that teaching about Hades, which is apparently irrelevant to the context, cannot be part of Jesus’ intention. Yet the parable itself makes no reference to Pharisees as such. Rather it seems to be a warning to all callous rich people, irrespective of their strict attention to minute details of the Law or not. Conditionalists can use a reading of the RML parable which does not make an unusual stress on the context.
2. Advantage of consistency with other teaching of Jesus
The Gospels include teaching of Jesus which accords with the literal reading of the RML parable.
a) In Luke 13:28 Jesus says, ‘There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.’
This warning follows a similar warning to ‘enter by the narrow door’ before the owner of the house, who ate and drank with the people and who warned and taught in their streets, comes and locks the door. The owner of the house appears to be Jesus, speaking of his Second Coming. Verse 28, following, appears also to apply to Jesus’ Second Coming. Jesus is warning of a consequence beyond this life, in very similar terms to the RML parable, albeit apparently here seeing the consequence in the era of the Second Coming rather than in the era of Hades, before the Second Coming, as in the RML parable. Verse 28 could also have originally been a separate teaching, recorded here by Luke because of the similarity with the ‘narrow door,’ in which case the distinction between the eras may not have been a sharp distinction. Whether the throwing out, to a place where those welcomed in can be seen, happens in Hades or at the Second Coming, Luke 13:28 teaches a fate beyond death about which Jesus warns. The literal reading of the RML parable shows a very similar fate beyond death about which Jesus warns. Warning people about such dire consequences beyond death was part of Jesus’ teaching.
b) Encouraging people to look forward to consequences beyond death was particularly part of Jesus’ teaching in relation to the use of money. In Matthew 6:19-21 Jesus encourages people to store up treasures in heaven rather than on earth. The literal reading of the RML parable is seen to be a vivid example of someone who stores up treasures on earth and reaps torment in Hades. The parable in Luke illustrates the teaching in Matthew.
Jesus words to the rich young ruler (Mark 10:21, Matthew 19:21, Luke 18:22) make a similar point of gaining treasure in heaven through giving wealth to the poor. In Luke 12:33 Jesus exhorts all his disciples to sell possessions and give to the poor in order to gain treasure in heaven. It was common for Jesus to teach about use of money in this world by pointing people to consequences beyond this world. If the RML parable is read not to include a consequence of good use of money beyond this world, it becomes less characteristic of Jesus. The literal reading of the RML parable is more characteristic.
c) An aspect of the teaching of Jesus, which is mostly obscured by translators, is his use of two words to talk about the abode of the unrighteous / unrepentant beyond death: Hades and Gehenna. These two words are very often translated by the same word ‘hell’ on the assumption that they are two different names for the same place. Conditionalists know that the ultimate fate of the unrepentant, after Final Judgement, is destruction, like chaff or weeds in a fire, in Gehenna. Conditionalists also know that there is an interim period, Hades, before Final Judgement. Most conditionalists have concentrated on the Biblical teaching of destruction in Gehenna and have not given concerted attention to the Biblical teaching of Hades. As the RML parable is specifically about Hades, the literal reading encourages study of Hades as distinct from Gehenna.
Some conditionalists, rightly keen to explain the wrong, but very widespread, teaching of eternal conscious torment, argue that there is no torment at all after death, neither in Gehenna nor in Hades. It is possible also to argue that there is torment in Hades, as indicated by the literal reading of the RML parable, which in no way diminishes the truth that Gehenna is a place of destruction not torment.
3. Advantage of consistency with good practice in reading and understanding Scripture
Conditionalists argue from Scripture, despite their opponents often accusing them otherwise. Certain features of good Biblical hermeneutics support the literal reading of the RML parable:
a) Literalism. Conditionalists rightly stress the literal reading of ‘destroy’ ‘perish’ ‘die.’ Reading the RML parable also literally is more consistent with this good conditionalist practice.
b) Simplicity. Conditionalists point out that the traditionalist reading of key verses is convoluted. Ockham’s Razor, the principle that, when presented with competing hypothetical answers to a problem, one should select the answer that makes the fewest assumptions,3Definition from Wikipedia is a good principle of Biblical interpretation. If the parable can be read by conditionalists with fewer assumptions, appearing to be less convoluted, this would normally be the preferred reading.
c) Jesus as the fulfilment of the Hebrew Scriptures. In teaching about ‘an eye for an eye,’ about divorce, about the nature of God (as conveyed in parables about the Kingdom of God) Jesus receives and welcomes Old Testament teaching, while making it fuller. Jesus fulfils the Old Testament not only by embodying the Messianic prophecies but also by making the teaching fuller. This is the logical outcome of Jesus being more than a prophet, but the Son of God.
The Bauckham – Papaionnou reading takes the approach that Jesus only repeated the teaching of the Old Testament about Sheol, the place of the dead for which the New Testament, Greek, name is Hades. They see the dominant Old Testament understanding of Sheol / Hades to be of ‘soul sleep,’ an unconscious state. Their reading argues that ‘soul sleep’ must also have been Jesus’ understanding and his words about the Rich Man in torment in Hades must have a point other than to give insight into the nature of Hades.
Sleep is one aspect of the picture of Sheol in the Old Testament, but it is not the only aspect and is not necessarily the dominant aspect. The Old Testament has no coherent teaching about Sheol but, rather, glimpses into the nature of Sheol. Several passages talk of Sheol as a place that is unpleasant, to say the least, more unpleasant than being asleep. Sheol is sometimes described as the fate of all people, sometimes as the fate of the wicked. Psalm 139:8 indicates that God is present in Sheol and people can be conscious of His presence there, as anywhere. Philip S Johnston concludes ‘the underworld in Israel’s canonical literature can be summarized as an infrequent theme and an unwelcome fate.’4Shades of Sheol – Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Apollos IVP 2002) p85. The Bauckham – Papaionnou reading is more definite about all souls sleeping, unconscious, in Hades, than is warranted by the sketchy OT material.
The literal reading of the RML parable, on the other hand, sees Jesus taking the Old Testament teaching of Sheol, including teaching about its unpleasantness, particularly for the wicked, and making it fuller by revealing and warning of more torment for the wicked, the callous. This unpleasantness, torment, is not necessarily for all people. In the RML parable, one particular man is in torment in Hades, with no indication of others with him suffering the same fate. It could be that, for some, Hades is a place more of sleep, whereas for others, the wicked, it is a place of torment. This understanding echoes with Jesus teaching about an ‘outer darkness’ with weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, which can imply a different inner darkness which is not so tormented. We do not have much information about Hades. Partly because of this lack, it is better not to rule out the possibility of torment for some in Hades, as glimpsed in the Old Testament and seen more clearly in Jesus’ teaching.
Jesus is shown to fulfil the Old Testament, confirming Moses and the prophets, while underlining and expanding them in a fresh way.
d) N. T, Wright has convincingly argued that, for a teaching to be accepted as genuinely from Jesus on historical grounds, it should meet the double criteria of similarity and dissimilarity with the culture of his time. The similarity shows that the teaching is not anachronistic while the dissimilarity shows that the teaching is distinctive enough to have been preserved and treasured in its own right.5N. T. Wright Jesus and the Victory of God SPCK 1996 p131-133. For instance, the nature of the Messiah as Suffering Servant / Son is witnessed in Isaiah, but was clearly different from the general contemporary understanding. The literal reading of the RML parable meets both criteria. The teaching about Hades fits into the broad use of the name Sheol / Hades in 1st Century Palestine while also being distinctive.
4. Advantage of shedding light on other passages pertinent to the conditionalist – traditionalist debate.
The literal reading of the RML parable can inform the reading of other Scriptural passages in which Hades, or torment after death, are described. Limited space here means highlighting only one such passage: Revelation 14:9-11. This passage has been much quoted by traditionalists to support their view and, sometimes, conditionalists have struggled to give a simple conditionalist reading.
In Rev 14:9-11 people are described as being in torment or affliction. The word here is the same as the word ‘torment’ in the RML parable. If the torment in the parable is literally in Hades, is the torment in Rev 14:9-11 also in Hades? Other indications that this is indeed Hades are that, in the sequence of the chapter, verses 9-11 are before Final Judgement, that day and night still exist while Rev 21:23 shows that the sun and moon no longer exist beyond Final Judgement, and that the Lamb is present, whereas beyond Final Judgement people are excluded from the presence of Jesus.6cf Psalm 139:8 affirming the presence of God in Sheol / Hades (The literal translation of the time phrase uniquely found in Rev 14:9-11 is also ‘for ages and ages’ rather than ‘for ever and ever.’)
The literal reading of the RML parable is therefore also advantageous to conditionalists in pointing to a simple way of rebutting traditionalist claims that Rev 14:9-11 refers to eternal conscious torment. Rev 14:9-11 is before, not after, Final Judgement. Rev 14:9-11 is not about eternal punishment, but about interim torment or affliction. There is a Biblical, conditionalist, place for torment, called Hades by Jesus in the RML parable, and it most certainly is not eternal.
5. Advantage of giving the Christian message a stronger warning and a more welcome hope.
Conditionalists are criticised for diminishing the seriousness of sin and its consequences and can, similarly, be criticised for diminishing the joys of Paradise.
If the Conditionalist warning is ‘Turn to Jesus in repentance and faith, or else, when you die, you will sleep, unconscious, be judged and then destroyed,’ this is perceived by critics as not a strong enough warning. Soul sleep, followed by judgement and annihilation, is seen not to do justice to the urgency of Jesus’ warnings, nor to the human need for a strong motivator. The inveterate wicked are likely to continue in their ways. Those contemplating suicide may even be encouraged to go ahead, into the oblivion they seek.7I work as a Prison Chaplain and talk fairly often to men contemplating suicide.
If the Conditionalist warning, partly based on the literal reading of the RML parable, is ‘Turn to Jesus in repentance and faith, or else, when you die, you will suffer for ages and ages in Hades, be judged and then destroyed’ this is likely to be more accepted as a strong warning. Of course it is not as strong as the Traditionalist warning of eternal torment, but that warning, as well as being unbiblical, is also now clichéd and widely discredited.
If the Conditionalist promise is ‘Turn to Jesus in repentance and faith and, after you die, you will sleep, unconscious, for ages, before being judged as someone already forgiven, and then enjoying a new body in the new earth and new heavens,’ this fails to meet the human need for a better future immediately beyond death, a future, most people hope, which includes reunion with loved ones. This message is also perceived as being too different from the traditional Christian teaching of ‘going to heaven when you die.’ This could well be one reason why Conditionalism waned so remarkably after the First World War and has still not regained the standing it had at the end of the 19th Century. If the Conditionalist promise is ‘Turn to Jesus in repentance and faith and, after you die, you will be with Jesus in Paradise (/ Third Heaven), experiencing rest and joy with many others, for ages, before being judged as someone already forgiven, and then enjoying a new body in the new earth and new heavens,’ this meets the human need for life immediately beyond death. This message builds on the foundation of Jesus saying to the repentant thief, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise,’ using also material in Revelation about souls in the heavens, and indications in the Old Testament that God can deliver souls from Sheol.
The stronger warning and promise, based more firmly on Jesus and drawing more widely on Scripture, may well help people to see Conditionalism as truly Good News, to be welcomed wholeheartedly.
|“The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels,” New Testament Studies 37 (1991) 225-246.
|The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus Kim Papaionnou Pickwick (Wipf and Stock) 2013.
|Definition from Wikipedia
|Shades of Sheol – Death and Afterlife in the Old Testament (Apollos IVP 2002) p85.
|N. T. Wright Jesus and the Victory of God SPCK 1996 p131-133.
|cf Psalm 139:8 affirming the presence of God in Sheol / Hades
|I work as a Prison Chaplain and talk fairly often to men contemplating suicide.