Throughout the New Testament there is only one passage that associates the popular view of the after-life with a direct discourse by Jesus. Viewed within its proper context it is clearly a parable and NOT a teaching; it is intended to be understood in terms of allegory and NOT as literal. Since it appears ONLY once, it is therefore NOT to be considered as suitable support for sound doctrine.
My personal in-depth research has revealed that this story is a parody of the Pharisee belief concerning the ‘Bosom of Abraham’, and 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 their ultimate failure to believe in the resurrection of Christ, it is clear what was the original intent. Rather than Jesus presenting a teaching about the after-life, He uses this pre-existent story taken from the folklore (oral traditions) of the Pharisees and based on pagan mythologies, to point out the infidelity of the Jewish nation, the err of their self-righteousness, and warn of 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 honour 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”.
The significant point of this story comes NOT from accepted divinely inspired scripture, but from
a blend of several pagan mytholgies and primarily, from two pseudepigraphical books, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah & the Book of Enoch. It is the information contained in these that the Pharisees derived their concept of the after-life that Jesus addresses in this parable.
It is important for biblical scholars to remember that by the time Christ began His earthly ministry, Judaism had split 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 worst punishment, they taught, was to be cut off from family and by virtue of such judgment, cut off from God as well. This group was called Sadducees.
The second group were 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 pagan myths and pseudepigraphical literature, NOT the inspired OT 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 the 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 inspired scripture.
During the Second Temple period (roughly 500 BC – 70 AD) the concept of the ‘Bosom of Abraham’ first occured 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. This, and NOT scripture, is the source of such imagry.
In the pseudepigraphical Apocalypse of Zephaniah the river has a ferryman equivalent to Charon in Greek mythology, 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 also describes travels through the cosmos and divides Sheol into four sections: a paradise for the truly righteous; a place of purging for the good; a prison for the wicked awaiting judgment at the resurrection; and the abode of the wicked who will never be resurrected. However, since the book is attributed to the hand of Enoch, who predates Abraham, naturally the character of Abraham is not featured.
Conducting a further examination of this specific parable, it should be understood that the Bible consists of different types of writing. As we read and study the Bible, we should recognize each type of genre, or in other words, literary style. We wouldn’t read a recipe the same as we would a suicide note. A court summons is not a comic strip. Subway graffiti is not a fictional novel. A love letter is not an encyclopedia article. They are all different types of writing, produced by different authors, for different audiences. They also invoke different responses, and to properly understand each, these things must be considered.
Many types of writing are also contained within the Bible. The Bible contains legal codes, such as those you can read in the books of Moses. You will find poetry in the psalms and elsewhere. There are also prophecies, histories, hymns, letters, and speeches in the Bible. There are allegories, metaphors, similes, epics, riddles, and wise sayings. Bible students call yet other sections didactic, apocalyptic, and eschatological. Parables, or parabolic passages, concentrated in the Gospels, are merely one of these many genres and must be distinguished as such from all the others.
As scripture, they are all inspired by God. They are “God-breathed” and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that those who belong to God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” – 2 Tim. 3:16-17.
We must be especially careful to interpret these different literary genres—parables included—for what they are, within their proper contexts. We need to learn as much as we can about who wrote them, why they were written, and to whom.
Legal codes and delicate poetry are different. Sweeping epics are not scientific texts. Letters may whisper personal details about their writers even as they defy being used to nail down historical or prophetic dates. Metaphors aren’t meant literally. Failure to understand the literary style can lead to misunderstanding and misinterpretation.
How, then, should we interpret Jesus’ parables?
Jesus’ parables have been called “heavenly stories with earthly meanings,” or “earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” But there is more to them than that. Both the Hebrew word ‘masal’ and the Greek ‘parabole’ are broadly used of proverbs, allegories, riddles, illustrations, and stories. They can refer to any striking speech formulated to stimulate thought.
Bible Interpreter C.H. Dodd, in his 1935 classic Parables of the Kingdom, defined a parable as
“a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought” (page 16).
The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states that parables are “almost always formulated to reveal and illustrate the kingdom of God”.
Outside the Gospels, the Greek ‘parabole’ appears in the New Testament only in Hebrews 9: 8-9, where it says the tabernacle and sacrifices were “symbolic” for the present time, and in Hebrews 11:19, which says that Abraham, “figuratively speaking,’’ received Isaac back from death after proving he was willing to sacrifice his son.
Early Hebrew rabbis included many parables in their writings. These parables began or ended with, and explained, Old Testament texts. Jesus’ use of parables differed markedly. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes, “the NT parables almost never function in this way [to explain Old Testament passages]: Jesus came NOT to exegete OT Scripture, but to reveal the new age of God’s kingdom”.
Christ’s “contrast parables’’ (the rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31; or the Pharisee and the tax collector, Luke 18:9-14) illuminate how much God loves even the lost and dispossessed and welcomes them into fellowship with him. Jesus Himself proclaimed, “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost” – Mt. 18:11.
Jesus was a master storyteller. His parables contain striking images, dramatic action and bold character development, all built around universal themes that have touched people for two millennia. Yet His parables offer minimal detail. Often Jesus provided no clear explanations for the stories, leaving them open to multiple interpretations through the ages. Neither were His parables formed from original thought; many were extnesions of popular stories already widely circulated. He purposed to reveal the unfamiliar by use of the quite familiar; He used the natural to explain the supernateral, the material realm to illustrate the spiritual realm.
So how can we rightly know what the parables of Jesus truly mean? Some interpreters make the mistake of reading more into some parables than Jesus ever intended. Conversely, there are those who fail to catch what some parables clearly emphasize.
To many, the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man found in Luke 16:19-31 is interpreted as proving that all who die without having come to faith are automatically damned to perpetual torment. In it, Abraham tells the rich man there is a great gulf fixed that keeps those in torment separated from those who are with Abraham. Before the story begins, however, we must back up a few verses to acknowledge of whom Jesus was talking to when he told this story, and what was the subject that prompted Him to tell it.
In Luke 16:14, we read: “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him”. Jesus was talking to a group of Pharisees, and what Luke wants his readers to know about the Pharisees in connection with this passage is that the Pharisees were lovers of money. They believed material wealth was a fruit of righteousness.
This is the proper context of the story. A group of Pharisees who were lovers of money were ridiculing Jesus because of what He was saying. We have to go back to Luke 15:1 to grasp the entire episode: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, `This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’ So he told them this parable… Now there was a certain rich man, and he was clothed in purple and fine linen, faring sumptuously every day”.
For convenience’ sake, this rich man has been commonly called ‘Dives’, which is simply Latin for rich man, and is therefore not truly a name, for it is not fitting to name him whom the Lord left nameless. Along the coast of Tyre there was found a rare shell-fish (Murex purpurarius) from which a costly purple dye was obtained, each little animal yielding about one drop of it. Woolen garments dyed with it were worn by kings and nobles, and idol images were sometimes arrayed in them. This purple robe formed the outer, and the linen the inner garment. The byssus, or fine linen of Egypt, was produced from flax, which grew on the banks of the Nile. It was dazzlingly white, and worth twice its weight in gold (SEE – Genesis 41:42 ; Exodus 26:31-33 ; 28:5 ; 1 Chronicles 15:27 ; 27:7 ). The mention of these garments and a continual banqueting indicates a life of extreme luxury.
The parable continues: “a certain beggar…” [literally, one who crouches]. It is used thirty-four times in the New Testament, and is everywhere translated “poor” save here and at Galatians 4:9. In the last stages of life Lazarus had become an object of charity, but there is nothing to indicate that he had been a habitual beggar named Lazarus. This is the only name which occurs in all of our Lord’s parables. It is derived from Eleazar, which means, “God, a help”. The name is symbolic of destitution, and many words indicative of beggary are derived from it. Lazarus “was laid at his gate full of sores”. In the Middle East today, the gates of the rich are still the resorts of the poor.
“And desiring to be fed with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table; yea, even the dogs come and licked his sores.” The contrast here is sharp. Lazarus is naked and clothed with sores instead of rich apparel, and desires crumbs instead of a banquet. That he limited his desire to crumbs suggests a freedom from both worldly lust and envy. Whether he got the crumbs is not stated. His sufferings may have been as unmitigated on earth as those of the rich man were in Hades (verse 24), and it is certain that even if he received the crumbs they did not count as a gift, being mere refuse, utterly worthless in the sight of the rich man.
The very point of the parable here, is that the rich man gave him NOTHING.
The dogs also suggest a contrast. The rich man is surrounded by loyal brethren and attentive servants, while Lazarus is the companion of dogs, the scavengers of the streets, who treat him with rude compassion as one of their number, soothing his sores with their saliva.
“And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and that he was carried away by the angels into Abraham’s bosom”. (It is the office of angels to minister to the heirs of salvation according to Matthew 24:31; Mark 13:27; Hebrews 1:14). “And the rich man also died, and was buried”.
In death as well as in life the two men stand in contrast. The rich man passes from view with the pomp and pageantry of a burial (2 Chronicles 16:13, 14), an earthly honor suited to a worldly life. But Lazarus passes hence with the angels, a spiritual triumph suited only to one accepted of God.
“And in Hades, he lifted up his eyes, being in torments (Rev. 14:10?), and seeing Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom…” Hades (Greek), or Sheol (Hebrew), was the name given to the abode of the dead between death and the resurrection. In it the righteous enjoy a ‘paradise’ (Luke 23:43). The joys of Paradise were conceived of as those of a feast, and the expression “Abraham’s Bosom” is taken from the custom of reclining on couches at feasts. As a guest leaned upon his left arm, his neighbor on his left might easily lean upon his bosom. Such a position of respect to the master of the house was one of special honor, and indicated great intimacy (John 1:18 ; 13:23). What higher honor or joy could the Jew conceive of than such a condition of intimacy and fellowship with Abraham, the great founder of their race? – Matthew 8:11.
“And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.” The smallness of the favor asked indicates the greatness of the distress, as it does in verse 21, where crumbs are desired. There is a reciprocity also between the desired crumbs and the prayed-for drop, which contains a covert reference to verses 4 and 5. Had the rich man given more, he might now have asked for more. The friendship of Lazarus might have been easily won, and now the rich man needed that friendship, but he had neglected the principle set forth in verse 9, and had abused his stewardship by wasting his substance upon himself.
Again, the former condition of each party is sharply reversed. Lazarus feasts at a better banquet, and the rich man begs because of a more dire and insatiable craving. Thus the life despised of men was honored by God, and the man who was exalted among men is found to have been abominable unto God. Jesus is reinforcing that which should be realized by all men about their Creator – God is no repsecter of persons, meaning He does not dicriminate.
“But Abraham said, Son, remember that in your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things: but now here he is comforted and you are in anguish”. The woes received by Lazarus are not spoken of as his. He neither earned nor deserved them and in its small details he had shown great faithfulness (Rev. 7:13-17; 1 Cor. 4:9; 2 Cor. 4:7).
The rich man had the stewardship of wealth, with its accompanying obligation of generosity. This obligation he had esteemed as too contemptibly small to deserve his notice; but in neglecting it, he had inadvertently been unfaithful in much. This has been the sin of omission on the part of the rich man, and his sin of commission answered as a complement to it, for he had been guilty of that money-loving self-indulgence which was condemned by Jesus and justified by the Pharisees (verses 14, 15).
No other crime is charged against the rich man, yet he is found in torment. But the rich man during his lifetime had been so deceived by his wealth that he had failed to detect his sin. Moreover, as he indicates in verse 28, a like deception was now being practiced upon his brethren. Thus the parable justifies the term “unrighteous” which Jesus had given to mammon in verses 9, 11.
“And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that they that would pass from hence to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from thence to us”. We have here a clear statement of the separation which parts the good from the evil in the future state. But it must be just as clearly understood that the coloring and phraseology of this parable is derived from rabbinical teaching founded upon pagan mythologies, NOT divinely inspired scripture. Christ made use of a then current, but erroneous Jewish notion, to teach a valuable lesson, and that therefore it is not safe to draw any inferences from the narrative relative to the future state in an after-life.
Although it is argued by some that Jesus would have certainly used the occasion to correct the err in the pre-existing story, this would not have been necessary because His audience would have already recognized the story and its pagan sources.
Just as the popular fable of the tortise and the hare teaches the virtue of perseverance without having to “correct” the wrong notion that a totise and a rabbit could actually converse and engage in a literal race, neither did Jesus need to point to this story’s base in mythology.
“And he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment”. Deceived by his wealth, the rich man looked upon his earthly possessions as real and substantial, and, like rich sinners of today, he had foolishly simply disregarded the affairs of the future life. Aroused by the sudden experience of the awful realities of the after-life, he desires to make it as real to his brethren as it had now become to him.
In endeavoring to carry out his desire the rich man proceeds on the theory that the testimony of the dead in reference to the realities of the after-life are more trustworthy and influential than the revelations of God himself, given through His inspired spokesmen. This dishonoring of God and his law was to be expected from one who had made mammon his real master, even though professing (as the context suggests) to serve God. The singleness of his service is shown in that he, though practically discharged by one master–mammon, cannot even now speak respectfully of God. Indeed this presents an insight into the hearts of the Pharisees.
Some commentators make much of the so-called repentance of the rich man, supposedly manifested by his concern for his brethren; but the Lord did not. Besides the natural feeling for his brothers, the rich man knew that their presence in torment would add to his own. His concern for his brethren is not told to indicate repentance. It is mentioned to bring out the point that the revealed will of God of itself, and without anything more, makes it clearly inexcusable for a man to lead such a selfish life.
“But Abraham said, they have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them“. Scripture is a sufficient guide to godliness and a failure to live rightly when in possession of it is due to lack of will, and NOT to a lack of knowledge. (2 Tim. 3:1; Jn. 1:45; 5:39-46; Lk. 24:27).
“And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one go to them from the dead, they will repent.” In the true spirit of a Pharisee, he sought a sign for his brothers (Mt. 12:39; Mk. 8:11,12). But the guidance of Scripture is better than any sign.
“And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, if one rise from the dead”. These words might seem like an overstatement of the stubbornness of unbelief were they not amply verified by the literal facts. Jesus had already raised at least two from the dead as witnesses to his divine power, and He was about to raise a third, who, with startling suggestiveness, would bear this very name of Lazarus (Jn. 12).
But despite all these witnesses, the majority of the Jews disbelieved then, and continued to disbelieve in Him even after His resurrection. They went so far as to seek the death of Lazarus that they might be rid of his testimony (John 12:10). This is also the case with Christ’s resurrection. It is true that he did not appear in person to those who disbelieved in him, but they had clear knowledge of his resurrection (Mt. 28:11-15), and it was considered as sufficient proof to ALL men – Acts 17:31.
To paraphrase Abraham’s reply to the rich man: “Look, friend, you refused to trust in the Messiah, trusting your wealth instead; so there is no place for you but right where you are. You won’t even admit that you need forgiveness. You still want exactly what you always wanted, everybody else zipping around waiting on you hand and foot. You can’t cross this chasm because you won’t go any place where you’re no better than a beggar. We can’t get where you are to help you because you are precisely nowhere. You made your own chasm to separate yourself from who you are and who you could have become through the Messiah, because you won’t come to Him to have life. You still think like you always thought—that you are something special and Lazarus is a nobody. And now you’re still so convinced you’ve got it all together that you can’t even see that you’ve been the nobody all along and Lazarus is with me, now somebody forever. You’ve still got just what you’ve always had – nothing; nothing that matters. Now you want Lazarus to run some errands to warn others like you? Are you kidding? They won’t listeneither. They’ve got Moses and the Prophets who told them Messiah would come. If they won’t listen to them, you think they’re going to listen to Lazarus? Forget about it. What’s that? If someone comes back from the dead they’ll listen to him? Oh really? Well, guess what? That’s just what Jesus is about to do, raise a man named Lazarus from the dead; later He will come back from the dead Himself, and yet you still won’t put your trust in Him.”
Even if you don’t fully agree with my paraphrase of this passage, you should accept one thing: it is risky to base any doctrine about the after-life on one passage alone, and especially on one in a story designed to make a completely different point altogether. This story is primarily about the refusal of the Jewish leaders to believe in Jesus and the willingness of others to do so. It is also about the reversal of common assumptions about riches being a sign of God’s favor.
Many modern interpreters have abandoned the allegorical approach. They try to reject the temptation to read their own ideas into the parables, which they believe has led to centuries of abuse of Jesus’ message. These interpreters believe that each parable has only one main point.
Others argue that a parable might make several main points, one for each of the main characters in the story. This was the case with parables in classical Greek literature, and this is how Jesus’ listeners, in the culture of his day, would have looked at his parables.
The story of the rich man and Lazarus is a good example. It’s hard to wrench from this parable exact details about the afterlife. Jesus was drawing on images about the afterlife from Jewish folklore based on pagan mythology and other traditions, which his listeners would have realized, to show the gulf between arrogant people in this world and those who by humble submission to God will come to experience eternal life in the kingdom of God.
I also 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 based in primarily pagan mythologies 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 more than confirmation. Most of the terminology of Revelation is either figurative or symbolic, and conjecture about what is to come should be left to “even so, come Lord Jesus” – Rev. 22:20.
To properly comprehend scripture, one must apply the three-fold rule of systematic theology for compiling sound doctrine:
1. It must be taught by Jesus in ALL four Gospels.
2. There must be evidence of it being practiced by the church in ACTS.
3. It must be further expounded upon in the Epistles.
Under such scrutiny 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 is to merely rely on what they have been taught by others, will likely not employ due diligence in conducting any adequate personal research.
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 God’s design, remains a mystery.
We would therefore do well to refrain from dogmatic statements regarding things that have insufficient scriptural support. “But as it is written, 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.
For more on the subject of what scripture actually teaches regarding the after-life please read my other articles featured on this blog-site.