Scripture has much to say regarding the after-life. For a full understanding of this subject, other articles focusing on specific related topics such as the soul, hell, and eternal security are available on this site and should also be consulted. This article focuses primarily on the wide-spread doctrine which has been base entirely on a single passage found in the Gospel of Luke known as “The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus“.
As a student of biblical languages and interpretation I am constantly amazed at how many doctrines regarding the after-life are solely based upon this specific parable. Applying the three-fold rule employed by systematic theologians for compiling sound doctrine, this one scripture passage hardly qualifies. To satisfy the reliability of any doctrine, these three things must ALL exist and agree:
- It must be taught by Jesus Christ in all four Gospels.
- There must be evidence that it was also taught by the
Apostles or practiced by the church recorded in ACTS.
- It must be further expounded upon in the Epistles.
Obviously, applying this principle of establishing sound doctrine, this parable fails to qualify as a substantial source for which to base dogma regarding the after-life. Careful biblical scholars will discern this, while those whose habit it is to merely rely on what they have been taught by others, will likely not employ due diligence in personal research.
My personal in-depth research has revealed that this story predates Christ’s revision of it recorded by Luke. It is primarily a parody of a pre-existing belief in the oral traditions of the Pharisees concerning the Bosom of Abraham. The significant point being that this story comes NOT from accepted divinely inspired Old Testament Scripture, but from an ancient Egyptian folklore dated 330BC, carried by Alexandrian Jews, & then Judaized in two pseudepigraphical books, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah (100BC- 20AD?) & the Book of Enoch (200-70BC?).
It is the information contained in these pre-existing folklore that the Pharisees derived their concept of the after-life which Jesus addresses in this parable. From the connection of Abraham saying the rich man’s family would not believe even if Lazarus was raised, (which in John’s Gospel, a man named Lazarus was actually raised from the dead by Jesus), to the priest’s ultimate failure to believe in the resurrection of Christ, Jesus completely turns the tale into a rebuke of the Pharisees’ ideology that scorns poverty as a curse from God, while wrongly teaching that wealth is God’s endorsement of righteousness.
Rather than Jesus presenting a teaching about the after-life, he uses this pre-existent story taken from the oral traditions of the Pharisees, to point out the infidelity of the Jewish nation, the err of their self-righteousness, and the eventual rejection of their true Messiah. Prayerful consideration of the following information should result in godly discernment regarding the real design and true intention of this parable.
Jews of old (dating back to the 1st Temple era) considered it a mark of special honor and favor for one to be allowed to lie in the bosom of the master of the feast, and it is by this illustration that they pictured the next world. They conceived of the reward of the righteous dead as a sharing in a banquet given by Abraham, “the father of the faithful”, and of the highest form of that reward as lying directly in “Abraham’s Bosom”.
It is important for biblical scholars to remember that by the time Jesus began His earthly ministry, Judaism had split primarily into two main factions regarding the after-life. One group held no hope of a resurrection, believing that the ultimate rewards of God to the righteous were to be fulfilled here in this present realm by granting material success, and from honor bestowed by family. The worse punishment, they taught, was to be cut off from family and by virtue of such judgment, cut off from God as well. This group were called Sadducees.
The second group were of the Pharisees, & they believed in an after-life with eternal reward for the righteous, and punishment for the wicked. But, as mentioned above, their dogma came primarily from Egyptian mythology and pseudepigraphical literature, NOT the inspired scriptures.
In the First Temple period, “Sheol” in the Hebrew Old Testament, or “Hades” in the Greek Septuagint, is primarily a place of “silence” to which ALL men go, the righteous and wicked alike. However, during the exile in Babylon ideas of activity of the dead in Sheol began to enter Judaism. The Old Testament prophets were constantly rebuking the Jews for being so easily influenced by the pagan practices & mythologies of their surrounding cultures. A systematic comparison of Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman mythologies reveals great similarity to each other, and the adapted oral tradition of the Jews. Very little corresponding evidence however, can be found in divinely inspired Scripture.
During the Second Temple period (roughly 500 BC – 70 AD) the concept of a Bosom of Abraham first occurs in Jewish papyri which refer to the “Bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”. This reflects the belief of Jewish martyrs who died expecting that: “after our death in this fashion Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will receive us and all our forefathers (family) will praise us” – 4 Maccabees 13:17. Other early Jewish works adapt the Greek mythical picture of Hades to identify the righteous dead as being separated from unrighteous in the fires by a river or chasm.
In the pseudepigraphical Apocalypse of Zephaniah the river has a ferryman equivalent to Charon in Greek myth, but is replaced by an angel. On the other side in the Bosom of Abraham : “You have escaped from the Abyss and Hades, now you will cross over the crossing place… to all the righteous ones, namely Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Enoch, Elijah and David”. In this myth Abraham was not idle in the Bosom of Abraham; he acted as intercessor for those in the fiery part of Hades.
The pseudepigraphic Book of Enoch describes travels through the cosmos and divides Sheol into four sections: for the truly righteous, the good, the wicked awaiting judgment at the resurrection, and the wicked that will not ever be resurrected. However, since the book is attributed to the hand of Enoch, who predates Abraham, naturally the character of Abraham is not featured.
Finally, I find it quite interesting (if not highly suspicious) that when the New Testament writers make reference to the after-life abode of the wicked dead, they use the exact word “HADES” taken from Greek mythology, rather than creating a new word. I can only conclude that just as Jesus used parables to communicate spiritual truth by drawing analogy to what was already familiar to His audience, references to an after-life abode of the wicked are also an attempt to describe the indescribable in already familiar terms.
A literal interpretation is not necessary in the faithful communication of God’s truth regarding the after-life. To stress such may be misleading and tends toward confusion. Most of the terminology in the Book of Revelation is figurative or symbolic, and conjecture about what is to come should be left to “even so, come Lord Jesus, come”.
Constant advancements and discoveries in technology and science move us closer to clarity on things the ancients could never begin to conceive. But, while we are better educated and have more available today than ever before to assist our study of Scripture, so much of it by design, remains a mystery. We would therefore do well to refrain from dogmatic statements regarding things that have insufficient scriptural support.
“Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him” – 2Co. 2:9.