The Case For Luke 16:19-31 As a Parable (Even Though Annihilationism Doesn’t Require It)

Is Luke 16:19-31, the story of the rich man and Lazarus, a parable? Yes. Or at least I believe that the case for interpreting it that way is much stronger than the case for the alternative.

Is this interpretation necessary for one to be an annihilationist? No. And I cannot emphasize that enough.

This story, whatever it is, depicts the intermediate state. Verse 23 tells us that the rich man was in hades, the place of the dead prior to resurrection and final judgment. It does not tell us what happens after judgment. Neither side’s view of hell is dependent on whether or not this is a parable.  1 For more on hades, see “Do Evangelical Conditionalists Believe in Hell? That Depends on What You Mean by ‘Hell’“.

In fact, there have been annihilationists who have believed it to be a true story, such as the early church father Irenaeus of Lyon. Irenaeus speaks about this story in Book II, Chapter 34 of Against Heresies, where he notably talks about how nothing lasts forever apart from God’s will, and how God will not will the wicked to exist forever. 2 Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 34,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 1, eds. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Christian Literature, 1885), 411-412. 3For more on Irenaeus, see Chris Date, “Deprived of Continuance: Irenaeus the Conditionalist“. Some annihilationists, such as Roger Harper, even incorporate a literal interpretation of the story into their larger, annihilationist eschatological framework. 4 For example, see Roger Harper, “A Place of Torment: Reading the Rich Man and Lazarus Literally“. And, on the flipside, many traditionalists have considered this a parable as well, both in recent times and in centuries past. 5 Robert Yarbrough, “Jesus on Hell,” Hell under Fire, eds. Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson, (Zondervan, 2004), 74. 6 John Gill, “Luke 16,” John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, (n.p., n.d.), reproduced at Studylight.org Commentaries, n.d., https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary/john-gill/luke/16 (accessed May 26, 2022). 7 John MacArthur, “The Rich Man and Lazarus (2008 Resolved Conference),” preached at the Resolved conference on June 13, 2008. Reproduced at Grace To You, n.d., https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/CONF-RC08-10/the-rich-man-and-lazarus-2008-resolved-conference (accessed on Jun 11, 2022). 8 Jonathan Edwards, “Sermon VI: The Warnings of Scripture Are in The Best Manner Adapted to the Awakening and Conversion Of Sinners,” Works of Jonathan Edwards: Vol. 2, (1995), 180, reproduced at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d., http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.pdf (accessed on June 19, 2022).

Why, Then, Does This Issue Matter?

In one sense, this question is not even about hell per se (for the reasons cited above). However, it is often part of the case for an annihilationist interpretation, even if the case can stand without it. 9For more on this, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Luke 16:19-21“. See also Chris Date, “Lazarus and the Rich Man: It’s Not About Final Punishment“.


Furthermore, many on both the traditionalist and evangelical conditionalist sides would say that annihilationists have a smoother systematic theology if the unsaved are not tormented in the intermediate state (with exceptions, such as Harper, as noted above). Not that everything in the Bible is smooth, but it is a point to consider. And this story being a parable is one of the requirements for a view that the Bible does not teach conscious suffering in the intermediate state. 10 Technically, there are other forms of fictional stories that are told to make a point, and if this is one of the those, then the outcome is the same if it were a parable. But the discussion around this passage’s historicity is almost always about it being a true story versus a parable, since Jesus tells many parables.

More practically, because this passage is appealed to predominantly when discussing hell and final punishment, a forum regarding hell would be where many people would think to look for material and discussions on the passage. Therefore, I am happy to oblige.

What Does This Response Contribute to the Discussion That Other Rethinking Hell Articles Do Not?

It is no secret that there have been several articles at Rethinking Hell about this passage. I myself even discussed the parable issue some in the article “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Luke 16:19-31 (The Rich Man and Lazarus)“. Nevertheless, my aim here is to focus on this one particular question of whether this story in Luke 16:19-31 is a parable or not. This will provide a focused yet relatively comprehensive response to this one question for those seeking it. In doing so, I will also address arguments against the parable interpretation that have not been addressed previously.

Also, because of the way that arguments both for and against the parabolic interpretation tend to intertwine, rather than making a positive case followed by responding to rebuttals, the ordering of my arguments will be more thematic in nature.

Lastly, keep in mind that, like many theological doctrines, the case for the parable interpretation is cumulative in nature. I am not necessarily saying that any one argument definitively proves it is a parable. However, the more pieces of good evidence there are – especially when coupled with the weaknesses of the case for this being a true story – the less reasonable it becomes to interpret it as anything but a parable.

Refuting Arguments Based On The Rich Man’s Introduction In Luke 16:19

There are two arguments that I have found to come up from time to time regarding the way the rich man is described. These arguments attempt to establish that, unlike in parables, Jesus is making clear that the rich man was a real person.

Both arguments fail for similar reasons. Like most arguments against Luke 16:19-31 being a parable, the arguments below are based on the idea that some element of the story is unique and not found in other parables of Jesus – only for that attribute of the story to clearly be found in other parables of Jesus.

Both arguments are also largely relegated to online discussions with laypersons. However, one notable exception is John Wesley, who cited both of these arguments as to why he believed the story of the rich man and Lazarus to be true history. 11 John Wesley, “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” ed. Thomas Jackson, reproduced at Words of Wesley, n.d., http://www.wordsofwesley.com/libtext.cfm?srm=112 (accessed on May 26, 2022).

The Fact That Luke 16:19 Is About a “Certain” Rich Man is Meaningless

The first claim is that Jesus says the story was about a “certain rich man” (KJV, emphasis added). Because it was a *certain* man, Jesus is therefore letting the reader know that it is not a made-up man, but a real one.

The problem with this argument is that other parables describe people the same way. Case in point: in that very same chapter, Jesus starts the previous parable, about the unjust steward, with “there was a certain rich man” (KJV).

Now, you may notice that in many translations, Luke 16:1 does not say “certain.” However, that is also true for Verse 19. And those that do translate Luke 16:19 as a “certain” rich man likewise do so for Verse 1.

Even just reading the English translations, it should be clear to the reader that the rich man in Luke 16:19 is no more a “certain” rich man than the rich man in Verse 1. But nobody says Luke 16:1-8 is a true story and not a parable.

For good measure, the Greek is, for all intents and purposes, the same for both passages. They are structurally the same introduction.

Furthermore, this language of “certain” people and things also comes up in Luke 18:2, with the parable of the widow and the unjust judge: “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man” (NASB, emphasis added). 12Interestingly, KJV omits “certain” in this verse, while applying it to Luke 16:1 and 16:19. The NASB does the exact opposite.

In that passage, it uses the same word translated as “certain” in some translations of Luke 16:1 and 16:19, which is the Greek word tis. But despite it being about a “certain” city, we are told in Luke 18:1 that this is a parable.

Parables can speak of “certain” persons and things and still be parables.

Many Parables Also Start Out Speaking of Past People And Things

A similar argument is that this is a true story because Jesus says “there was a [certain] rich man” (emphasis added). Because Jesus said “there was,” it means there actually was such a person.

I think there is a reason why I hadn’t seen this argument until recently, despite my familiarity with traditionalist literature on hell. One could argue that it is the weakest of all arguments against the parable interpretation (I consider it to be #2). But if you spend enough time on social media, you will see this fairly often.

Among the problems with the logic of this argument, flaws that even some (if not many) who hold the non-parabolic view can already see, is that other parables also start out that way. As noted above, Luke 16:1 starts out pretty much the exact same way as 16:19. So does the parable of the widow and the unjust judge (“in a certain city there was a judge…” – Luke 18:2). For all intents and purposes, the parable of the prodigal son has the same effect (“A man had two sons” – Luke 15:11).

It is easy to disprove the idea that if a parable starts out by saying there was a person, in the past tense, it therefore somehow means that it definitely was a real person and that the story is not a parable.

The Rich Man and Lazarus is Structured Like Other Parables

The idea that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is a parable did not rise out of nowhere. The story reads like a parable in many ways.

Overall Context

Jesus tells this story after a string of other parables. He tells it right after a parable that is also about a “certain rich man,” and one before that that shares several points in common. It would seem quite fitting if the next story that he tells about something happening somewhere, which is also the last such story in this part of Luke’s narrative, might also be a parable.

Introduction (Verse 19)

As already noted in the rebuttal above, rather than the rich man’s introduction being unique, it is actually the same introduction as the very parable that preceded it (which also introduced us to a [sometimes “certain”] rich man). Rather than the phrasing being evidence against the parabolic interpretation, it is evidence in favor of the parabolic interpretation.

This general approach to introduction is also similar to other parables, such as the parable of the prodigal son in the previous chapter, which begins by telling us that “a man had two sons” (Luke 15:11).

To quote John MacArthur (who is a traditionalist):

It [Luke 16:19-31] is introduced, for example, in the way that parables are regularly introduced. ‘Now there was a certain rich man.’ That’s very typical of the introduction of parables. You see the same introduction at least six times in the gospel of Luke. The style here is clearly that of a parable. 13 John MacArthur, “The Rich Man and Lazarus (2008 Resolved Conference)”.

Eschatological Reversal

A recurring theme in the Gospel of Luke is that of eschatological reversal, where some who are believed to be blessed are ultimately rejected, and some who seemed rejected are ultimately blessed by God. This is a common theme throughout Luke’s Gospel (and other Gospels to some extent). We see it in passages like Luke 13:28-30.  We also see it in other parables, like the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:12-21 and the parable of the banquet in Luke 14:15-24.

Here, we see a story that actually speaks of an eschatological reversal. Does this mean that it must be a parable? Not at all. But this is background to take into account when looking at other points as we continue.

General Similarities to the Parable of the Prodigal Son

In both the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and in the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus does not tell us explicitly that it is a parable. In both cases, it starts with what is essentially “once upon a time.” It then tells a relatively lengthy story (compared to many other parables). Within the story are two contrasted individuals. Although there is debate on exactly what the two brothers represent in the parable of the prodigal son, there is at least some parallel between the relationship that the Jews and Gentiles have with God. 14 I myself belief the two brothers represent both individuals in relation to God, as well as Jews vs. Gentiles. In the case of the rich man versus Lazarus, there are definitely parallels of this sort (not the least of which is Abraham’s involvement, discussed below).

Finally, both then end with the fatherly protagonist figure giving a sort of memorable punchline, followed by no further recorded commentary by Jesus nor any further explanation by the narrator.

In the parable of the prodigal son, the emphasis is on how it is worth celebrating when a sinner repents. This is represented by the father saying his younger son was dead but is now alive again (using the imagery of the permanent loss of a loved one who dies and the seemingly miraculous way the son had come back). 15 For more on the use of death and life language in the parable of the prodigal son, and why it does not lend weight to claims that the Bible uses “death” to mean conscious separation from God, see “Prolepsis and Hell: A Matter of Life and Death – Part 3“. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the ending sounds very much like it is alluding to the hard-heartedness of the Jewish authorities, even in light of when Christ rises from the dead. More on this below.

The Ending Sounds Like A Punchline to Make The Main Point

Jesus rose from the dead. The unbelieving Jewish authorities still did not repent. They had Moses and the Prophets but this did not lead them to repentance (cf. John 5:39-46). Instead, Jesus points out how utterly wicked and godless they actually were (cf. Matthew 23).

Likewise, the rich man wants Lazarus to go to his brothers so they would repent of their wickedness. Abraham tells him that they have Moses and the Prophets. When the rich man says Moses and the Prophets have not been enough, but that someone rising from the dead would be, how does Abraham respond, thereby closing out the story?

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.’

Is it coincidence that this happens to be how the story ends? Maybe. Maybe it just worked out really well, and this real-life conversation happened to speak in a way that conveniently foreshadowed Jesus’s resurrection and the unbelieving Jews’ response to it.

Or maybe, that subtle-as-a-freight-train foreshadowing and allusion to Jesus’s resurrection and rejection by the Jewish authorities was done on purpose. Maybe that was the main point. While many Jews repented simply at the preaching of John the Baptist, others among God’s chosen people, who had his special revelation, were so hardened that they would not repent. And as such, they would not repent even if someone rose from the dead.

With an ending punchline like that, there is good reason to think that this is a parable.

Jesus Giving People Names (Lazarus and Abraham) Does Not Mean It Is A True Story

One of the most common arguments against the parabolic view, if not the single most common, is that in no other parable does Jesus speak of real people or give anyone a name. Therefore, it must not be a parable.

This argument is one of the more respected arguments. Unlike many others, it is found in traditionalist literature and not mostly just social media. 16 e.g. John Calvin, Commentary on A Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke: Volume II, trans William Pringle (Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 184,  reproduced at Internet Archive, n.d., https://archive.org/details/harmonyrevelatio02calvuoft (accessed on Novemeber 16, 2022.

Ezekiel 23 and the Parable of the Two Sisters

First, it should be noted that there is precedent for names in parables, which we see in Ezekiel 23. God gives Ezekiel a parable about two sisters named Oholah and Oholibah. In the story, these sisters are harlots who engage in graphic sexual promiscuity to make a point about Israel’s spiritual infidelity towards God in worshipping other gods. 17 Credit to Bro Bird, author of Wholly Smoke: The Myth of Eternal Torment, for pointing this parable out to me online.

Although one could argue that the style of this story differs somewhat from Jesus’s parables, fundamentally it serves the same purpose. God tells a fictional story in order for the listener to take away a point about something spiritual. The differences in style are more along the lines of simply being somewhat more direct (such as naming the sisters’ sexual partners with the names of the surrounding nations). And like a parable, many elements serve a purpose to the story but don’t have a direct parallel to real life. For example, Verse 20’s infamous reference to the sisters’ lovers’ genitals and emissions is not an analogy to anything specific in real life; it exists mainly for shock value and for emphasis that these sisters in the story were really, really lustful.

Assumptions About Parables, and Luke 12:16-20

This issue of style segues into the second major problem with the objection based on using names: it is laden with assumptions.

It is not as though there is some authoritative handbook of what can and cannot be in a parable, and giving people names is part of the list of forbidden actions. It is certainly not obvious that a parable must not have names in it. Even if it is unique among Jesus’s New Testament parables, why couldn’t Jesus do something unique in this parable? In fact, the non-parabolic view already has Jesus do something He does nowhere else in the Bible; in that view, he tells a story about two real, specific individuals experiencing the afterlife (albeit in the temporary intermediate state).

At best, the name argument could perhaps lend a little bit of weight to the non-parabolic interpretation, giving it an edge if all else were equal (which is not the case).

That said, the entire argument that Jesus doesn’t use names elsewhere in the New Testament is itself built on a very shaky foundation. This is because the parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:16-20 features none other than God himself in a speaking role (verse 20).

Yes, “God” is more of a title than a proper name, but there is only one being who rightly is addressed by that title. Jesus brings in God himself and has him speak and interact with the main character of the parable. Even if we think of Jesus using a title rather than name, God is nevertheless a real, specific, living being and yet Jesus brings him into this fictional parable. This certainly would seem to penetrate any (assumed) barrier between real, specific individuals and parables.

The Symbolism of Using Abraham and a Man Named Lazarus

The name Lazarus has deep connections to the themes of Luke that would give it significance in a parable. The name Lazarus means something along the lines of “the help of God” or “God has helped.” 18 Joseph Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Rev. ed. (American Book Company, 1886). 367, reproduced at Google Books, n.d., http://books.google.com/books?id=7wVNDAjFkRoC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage
&q&f=false (May 14, 2022).
  19 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. 12), ed. John Rogers Pittman (J.F Dove, 1823), 158, reproduced at Google Books, n.d., https://books.google.com/books?id=sqcHAQAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=vol%20xii&f=false (accessed May 14, 2022).
20 E.H. Plumptre, The Gospel According to St. Luke, found in The New Testament Commentary for Schools, ed. Charles Ellicott,  (Cassell, Petter, Galpin, & Co, n.d), 270, reproduced at Google Books, n.d. https://books.google.com/books?id=ZrQCAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed May 14, 2022). Given Luke’s themes of eschatological reversal, there is good reason to believe that it is not coincidence that a story involves a man named “God has helped” being the one whom the world saw as rejected, only to end up being blessed by God.

Similarly, while Abraham was a real person, his use in a fictional story would be loaded with significance to a Jewish audience. It is not as though Jesus said the parable was about Steven, son of Daniel, son of Naphtali, who lived in the north side of Nazareth. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were of tremendous importance to Jews of the time. Jesus appealed to this often (e.g. Matthew 8:11, Luke 20:27). And Abraham is the father of them all and the one with whom God made the covenant  (Genesis 15, cf. Galatians 3:16-18). To use him as the representative of God’s blessings for God’s people makes perfect sense.

Lazarus is Almost Certainly Not The Lazarus From John 11

Some (mostly on social media) have suggested that it is a true story because we know Lazarus was a real person who died. After all, Jesus’s friend Lazarus dies in John 11, and remains dead for several days until Jesus brings him back to life.

However, there is good reason to think that the Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is a different Lazarus.

First of all, two people can have the same first name. Jesus even had two different disciples (out of 12) named Judas (Luke 6:12–16). It’s not that strong of an argument to say that since both are named Lazarus, both are the same person.

Beyond that, we get a few ideas about John 11’s Lazarus that weigh against the idea that he was the beggar from the story. Lazarus in John 11 has two sisters who seem to love him very much. They have a home and the resources to care for guests and to give him a proper burial in a tomb with wrappings (as opposed to a pauper’s grave). Why would they have not let him live with them if he was down on his luck, rather than letting him be a starving beggar? 21 It also has occurred to me that if Luke and John are speaking of the same Lazarus, that means that Lazarus would have gone from a life of pain and misery to God’s paradise, only to be ripped back from it after four days when Jesus raised him to life in John 11. Of course, this is a potential problem even if the Lazarus in John 11 is a separate person, if he was indeed in paradise/heaven after his body died. This could potentially raise a lot of questions about how the intermediate state works that go beyond the scope of this article, but I did want to note that it did cross my mind, in case it crossed yours as well.

Although it is theoretically possible that such a person died as a beggar with sores that stray dogs would lick, it is very unlikely. What little information we have about the two men weighs against that idea. At the very least, the case that it is the same person is not anywhere near strong enough to give it any real weight when interpreting the passage.

Jesus Wouldn’t Lie!

This is such a bad rebuttal that I wasn’t sure if I should even dignify it with a response. Nevertheless, it is common, so it was worth mentioning.

No one would say Jesus is lying here. In order to lie, one has to attempt to deceive. Parables do not attempt to deceive. They do not attempt to make the listener think that something is true when it isn’t true.

There is no real argument as to why this passage being a parable would make it a lie. It mainly seems to just be that since Jesus said it happened, therefore he must have meant that it literally happened.

That would, of course, make many parables into lies because many of them are told as stories and not explicitly as hypothetical examples. And as noted above, specific claims from the introduction (like it being a “certain rich man”) do not mean that Jesus was saying it was a true story – unless he was doing so for all the others.

But they are not lies because the listener is expected to understand what is happening, and because contextual clues would have been obvious. Saying Jesus would be lying here, if it were a parable, would be like saying that someone who goes to a costume party dressed as a cowboy is lying because they actually work in software sales.

It is worth noting that, at least within the Gospel narratives, Jesus is not shown to always identify his parables explicitly. In some cases, the Gospel author does it (e.g. Luke 18:1). Other times, it is never said explicitly by anyone. And one such instance is in the parable of the prodigal son, which was part of the same speech where Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus (or at least Luke presents them together as such). So why is it not a problem for Jesus to speak this way just two parables earlier in the same narrative?

Other Variations Of This Claim

Now, the claim that Jesus wouldn’t lie is also used in arguments that even if it is a parable, Jesus must still be describing the intermediate state as it is in real life. That largely goes beyond the scope of this discussion, but it is easy enough to point out that it suffers from largely the same problem. One must show there would be an attempt to deceive in order to say it would make Jesus a liar. But if there were fables and popular Jewish folktales that Jesus would be subverting, as arguments against a conscious intermediate state usually incorporate, then there is no intent to deceive, nor would we expect the original listeners to have misunderstood the reference (even if many of us do nearly 2,000 years later). 22 For more on some of these ideas and potential references, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Luke 16:19-21“.

Saying “you must believe my interpretation or else you’re calling Jesus a liar” is rarely anything but emotional manipulation and meaningless bloviating. This is no exception.

Further Issues That Draw A Non-Parabolic Interpretation Into Question

The thing about a parable is that, as the saying goes, it does not have to stand on all fours. Just as not every element is symbolic of something in real life, likewise not everything has to totally be realistic or make perfect sense.  For example, trees don’t really talk in real life (cf. Judges 9:7-15). The story is just meant as a backdrop to make a serious point. So if something seems kind of unusual, that’s okay. It is ultimately just fiction meant to make a point.

Real-life stories don’t have that advantage. They are subject to far more scrutiny.

Now, can God do things in ways we would not reasonably expect? Obviously, yes. But there is something to be said about interpretations being preferable when they don’t require as much assumption or as much saying “well God technically could do it (even if there is no reason to).” If you hear hooves of animals galloping down a city street, and you live in North America and not on the outskirts of a Zambian savannah, then it is better to guess that they are horses and not zebras.

Lazarus Resting On Abraham’s Bosom – A Logistical Nightmare But Great Symbolism

In this story, Lazarus is in Abraham’s bosom (Verses 22-23). The simple and straightforward interpretation is just that Lazarus actually was physically resting on Abraham, much as how John (i.e. the disciple Jesus loved) did with Jesus (John 13:23-25). That was a common thing for close, heterosexual male friends to do back then.

Some have surmised from this passage that there was a place in the afterlife called “Abraham’s Bosom.” However, there is increasing scholarly resistance to the idea that there was a place in Jewish thought called “Abraham’s Bosom” that Jesus could have been referencing. There really doesn’t seem to be any evidence of such a thing (at least that I am aware of), and the Bible likewise never speaks of such a place other than in this verse.

It should be noted that my position is not remotely unique to annihilationists. Many literal, conservative Bible translations don’t even say “Abraham’s Bosom” anymore, in order to avoid confusion with a place called “Abraham’s Bosom” (e.g the ESV says “Abraham’s side”; see also the NET, NASB 2021 update, Holman Standard Christian Bible, and more).

The whole idea of “Abraham’s Bosom” being an ethereal, heavenly realm seems to be based just on Luke 16:22-23. But even within the passage itself, why would we think that it is the name of a heavenly, ethereal place, and not literally Abraham’s chest? Abraham himself is shown to be present and talking in this story, so it’s not like he wouldn’t be there to physically recline on.

Not to mention, the very next verse speaks of the rich man seeing Abraham and then speaks of Lazarus in “his bosom.” Technically, if Abraham is the object, his bosom is logically “Abraham’s” bosom. But if Abraham’s Bosom is meant as a proper noun and a figurative title for a place, and not just a part of Abraham’s body that Abraham himself possesses, then it seems quite odd to speak of it as “his bosom.” People just don’t normally speak that way. I’m not a linguist and am not sure I could concretely explain why this is, but I imagine many reading this will understand this intuitively, now that the wording of Verse 23 has been pointed out to them.

So why should we have any inking at all that “Abraham’s Bosom” is figurative for a heavenly realm in this passage? There is nothing to indicate anything other than that Lazarus is actually being shown direct, physical affection from Abraham himself.

But if that is the case, then why would Lazarus be considered so special? There is no limit to the number of people who could theoretically fit comfortably in God’s eternal kingdom, but Abraham is not like that because he is a flesh and blood human. He can only be in one place at one time, and he can only have so many people literally rest on his body at one time.

For the purposes of a parable, Lazarus being there sends the message that the poor beggar, who seemed rejected by society (and probably the unbelieving Jews themselves) is deeply honored by God while the worldly rich man is seen as refuse. God does not judge by human standards. But if this is real life, why is Lazarus so special, over and against King David, Abraham’s actual sons, Sarah, Moses, the prophets, John the Baptist, etc.? Why would he get to be the one to recline with Abraham himself – if this is a real-life story? Even if they take turns, you’d think the list of those ahead of him would be pretty long.

The Rich Man’s Reaction In Hades

How does a person who is being burned alive have a sustained conversation with somebody?

Now, for a parable, this is okay. It’s meant to convey that he is suffering, but it also allows for conversing because the conversation is really the meat of the story.

But in real life, that just doesn’t happen. Being burned with fire is about the worst physical pain a person can experience. That’s why it can’t be done for very long without the person dying. It strains credulity to think the rich man is having this conversation with Abraham while even just a small part of his body is on fire.

Furthermore, there also is the issue of the rich man being in the intermediate state of hades (verse 23). How does he have a body that can be burned and tormented in the first place?

Perhaps one might say that since he is just a spirit/soul that therefore the pain is not as bad. But how would that even work? Surely you would need special fire to afflict an immaterial being. So why is the special spirit-fire made to torment so much less than earthly fire on flesh?

And how would a disembodied spirit have a tongue that could be cooled by water (verse 24)?

To make sense of this as a real-life historical account requires many assumptions and ad-hoc solutions, such as people being given temporary bodies in the intermediate state. 23e.g. Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Eternal Perspectives Ministries, 2004), 59. Of course, even then, those solutions pose problems. If the dead are given temporary bodies – which is taught nowhere in scripture – why is his temporary body still in pain but not in too much pain to talk?

I’m certainly not saying that we should interpret every passage of scripture as a parable if it is difficult. Sometimes the Bible is difficult to understand (cf. 2 Peter 3:16). But when there is at least some reasonable case for a passage to be a parable, then it makes a big difference when a non-parabolic interpretation requires us to jump through numerous hoops that a parable does not.

Conclusión

Keep in mind that this is a cumulative case. Even if one particular point is not conclusive, it all adds up. When you factor everything in, it becomes very difficult to justify the claim that this is not a parable.

When you factor in the many points that make sense as symbols, the way the story parallels other parables, the obvious foreshadowing of Jesus’s resurrection at the end – as well as just some of the problems with the interpretation that this is a real-life story – the case for this being a parable is the best case by far.

It would be one thing if there were some clear and undeniable biblical teaching or other logical necessity that required this to be a true story. But what such situation is there? I don’t think many would say there is, even among those who disagree with me here.

Of course, that this passage is a parable is only part of the discussion. But like many ideas about what the Bible says, the idea that this is a real-life account and not a parable might sound good and even very pious on the surface, but it does not stand up to a detailed analysis of the God-breathed text.

Liked it? Take a second to support Rethinking Hell on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

References
1 For more on hades, see “Do Evangelical Conditionalists Believe in Hell? That Depends on What You Mean by ‘Hell’“.
2 Irenaeus of Lyons, “Against Heresies, Book 2, Chapter 34,” The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Volume 1, eds. Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Christian Literature, 1885), 411-412.
3 For more on Irenaeus, see Chris Date, “Deprived of Continuance: Irenaeus the Conditionalist“.
4 For example, see Roger Harper, “A Place of Torment: Reading the Rich Man and Lazarus Literally“.
5 Robert Yarbrough, “Jesus on Hell,” Hell under Fire, eds. Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson, (Zondervan, 2004), 74.
6 John Gill, “Luke 16,” John Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible, (n.p., n.d.), reproduced at Studylight.org Commentaries, n.d., https://www.christianity.com/bible/commentary/john-gill/luke/16 (accessed May 26, 2022).
7 John MacArthur, “The Rich Man and Lazarus (2008 Resolved Conference),” preached at the Resolved conference on June 13, 2008. Reproduced at Grace To You, n.d., https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/CONF-RC08-10/the-rich-man-and-lazarus-2008-resolved-conference (accessed on Jun 11, 2022).
8 Jonathan Edwards, “Sermon VI: The Warnings of Scripture Are in The Best Manner Adapted to the Awakening and Conversion Of Sinners,” Works of Jonathan Edwards: Vol. 2, (1995), 180, reproduced at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, n.d., http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.pdf (accessed on June 19, 2022).
9 For more on this, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Luke 16:19-21“. See also Chris Date, “Lazarus and the Rich Man: It’s Not About Final Punishment“.
10 Technically, there are other forms of fictional stories that are told to make a point, and if this is one of the those, then the outcome is the same if it were a parable. But the discussion around this passage’s historicity is almost always about it being a true story versus a parable, since Jesus tells many parables.
11 John Wesley, “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” ed. Thomas Jackson, reproduced at Words of Wesley, n.d., http://www.wordsofwesley.com/libtext.cfm?srm=112 (accessed on May 26, 2022).
12 Interestingly, KJV omits “certain” in this verse, while applying it to Luke 16:1 and 16:19. The NASB does the exact opposite.
13 John MacArthur, “The Rich Man and Lazarus (2008 Resolved Conference)”.
14 I myself belief the two brothers represent both individuals in relation to God, as well as Jews vs. Gentiles.
15 For more on the use of death and life language in the parable of the prodigal son, and why it does not lend weight to claims that the Bible uses “death” to mean conscious separation from God, see “Prolepsis and Hell: A Matter of Life and Death – Part 3“.
16 e.g. John Calvin, Commentary on A Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke: Volume II, trans William Pringle (Calvin Translation Society, 1845), 184,  reproduced at Internet Archive, n.d., https://archive.org/details/harmonyrevelatio02calvuoft (accessed on Novemeber 16, 2022.
17 Credit to Bro Bird, author of Wholly Smoke: The Myth of Eternal Torment, for pointing this parable out to me online.
18 Joseph Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Rev. ed. (American Book Company, 1886). 367, reproduced at Google Books, n.d., http://books.google.com/books?id=7wVNDAjFkRoC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage
&q&f=false (May 14, 2022).
19 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. 12), ed. John Rogers Pittman (J.F Dove, 1823), 158, reproduced at Google Books, n.d., https://books.google.com/books?id=sqcHAQAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q=vol%20xii&f=false (accessed May 14, 2022).
20 E.H. Plumptre, The Gospel According to St. Luke, found in The New Testament Commentary for Schools, ed. Charles Ellicott,  (Cassell, Petter, Galpin, & Co, n.d), 270, reproduced at Google Books, n.d. https://books.google.com/books?id=ZrQCAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed May 14, 2022).
21 It also has occurred to me that if Luke and John are speaking of the same Lazarus, that means that Lazarus would have gone from a life of pain and misery to God’s paradise, only to be ripped back from it after four days when Jesus raised him to life in John 11. Of course, this is a potential problem even if the Lazarus in John 11 is a separate person, if he was indeed in paradise/heaven after his body died. This could potentially raise a lot of questions about how the intermediate state works that go beyond the scope of this article, but I did want to note that it did cross my mind, in case it crossed yours as well.
22 For more on some of these ideas and potential references, see “Introduction to Evangelical Conditionalism: Luke 16:19-21“.
23 e.g. Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Eternal Perspectives Ministries, 2004), 59.