I remember the feeling of sheer terror as a child hearing this parable being preached from the pulpit by my great-grandfather. As he thundered about the way in which the high temperatures of Hell were nearly unbearable for the rich man, he also pled to us to receive Christ as savior so that we would not have to go there when we died.
It has taken me decades to think through this issue with both prayer and Bible study to guide me. Bible study has now become a life-long pursuit and profession. My primary goal about the issue of Hell or any other major topic from Scripture is to know the truth. I want to be accurate in my understanding of biblical topics as well as accurate in my teaching, preaching, and writing on these topics. I have prayed for discernment as a prayer theme throughout my adult life.
Having said all of this, I will go on record as saying that I could be wrong about many of my conclusions. But if I am wrong, it will not be for lack of prayer, proper research, or because I just want to create my own truth. I believe the Bible to the core. I believe that I will answer to God for how faithfully I handled His Word. I do not want any part in disseminating false doctrine or teaching. With that introduction to form a context for what I am about to write, I proceed.
The question at hand is in the title of this article. The title implies that I do believe it is a parable and not an actual story. Nonetheless, every parable has at least one important lesson or spiritual truth. Therefore, with respect for God and His Word, I will share why I believe this passage to be a parable.
The story certainly begins like a lot of Jesus’ other parables. To compare, notice the beginning of Luke 18:1-3 which reads, “In a certain city there was a judge…and there was a widow in that city.” The passage about the rich man in Luke 16 begins similarly: “There was a certain rich man… there was a certain beggar.”
What sets this apart from other parables is that several names are mentioned, including one of the two main characters: the poor man named Lazarus. There is no rule about parables not having names mentioned. Other fictional stories with a moral point from the ancient world would use names of people. It is the fact that Jesus wasn’t in the habit of doing this with those parables which are recorded in the gospels.
Rather than making too much of Lazarus’ name at this point, I do see support for the use of a name when we take step back and look at the big picture of what is happening. Lazarus was a very poor and sick man. He was a beggar. He laid near the gate of the rich man’s estate just hoping from some “crumbs from his table.” Jesus repeatedly taught principles like “the last will be first” and “the first will be last.” I believe that using a personal name for this poor man whose name would have been completely unimportant in his life before he died, demonstrates that God knew his name. Not only did God know his name, but he had better things in store for him in the next life.
The rich man was comfortable, clothed in the finest clothes, ate the best foods, and enjoyed his earthly existence all while ignoring the needs of those around him. A man of his stature could have easily done something to make Lazarus’ life more tolerable. He could have given him food, helped him get medical attention, and even possibly given him a job as a servant.
Is it too much to point out that the only mercy we see Lazarus getting in his life before death was from dogs that were licking his sores? The terms “dogs” is often used in the New Testament as a derogatory term to describe Gentiles.
It is worth mentioning that the setting for this story after they both die is “Hades,” not “Gehenna.” Gehenna is the term that Jesus used for Hell. Hades was a Greek term similar to Sheol in the Old Testament. It was the place of the dead for both saints as well as sinners. There is no place anywhere else in Scripture that portrays Hades the way this story does. However, there are ample examples in Greek literature of a place of conscious torment. It would have been a somewhat familiar idea to the Greek dominated culture of the time to hear such a setting for this story. What would have been more shocking and disturbing to the Pharisees was the way in which the fates of the rich man and the poor man were flipped after they died.
Jesus uses the term “Hades” here knowing that every Jew listening to it would recognize this term for what it was. He was painting a picture of two great contrasts—one before death and one after death.
My, how the tables have turned. Now it is the rich man who is a beggar. He has no interest in crumbs from the table; he just pleads with Abraham for a drop of water. Like he denied Lazarus on earth, he is denied in Hades.
It is interesting how the rich man appeals to Abraham for help. He even calls him “Father Abraham.” Its as if he is appealing to his lineage for help here. Again, he doesn’t get any help or mercy. Meanwhile the poor man is being comforted on the other side of Hades.
Hades is pictured here as a place divided by a great chasm. However, the chasm isn’t so great that the rich man cannot yell across loud enough to have a conversation with Abraham. And although he is burning in flames, he is still able to converse. Does this have the feel of a real story? Or is there a deeper truth here that Jesus is trying to make that too many Christians have missed by putting too much emphasis on the fire itself.
How could Abraham or the poor man live in comfort while witnessing the agony of their neighbors that are apparently close enough with which to see and talk? Also, if this was a literally true story, there should have been millions of people on both sides of the chasm, making a literal conversation all the more difficult. The logical problems begin to really mount the more we look at the details of the story, that is, if we believe it to be a literally true story. However, if we accept the story as a parable with literally true applications, we can learn much.
There is one more problem I encountered when trying to envision this as a literally true event. Those who believe in a literal Hell with actual flames of fire and bodies that are especially created by God to feel pain throughout the eons of eternity, those same people have taught that in Hell, there is the absence of all that is good. God is not there (even though He is omnipresent). If God is there, He somehow withdraws His presence in such a way that there is no goodness. There is no fruit of the Spirit. There is no love, joy, or peace. There is no hope. There is nothing positive. Yet, in this parable, the rich man seems to have a sincere evangelical fervor. He desires to see his brothers saved from this plight. The rich man has a selfless concern to see people that he loves/loved avoid the same judgment that came down on him.
In fact, if this is a true story, it seems that the rich man is improving on a certain level. Instead of focused on his riches and power, he is now concerned about the affairs of people on earth who might still be avoid this treacherous place. If he is improving…if there is room in Hell for the compassion of others, then Hell seems more like the traditional view of purgatory. If the Luke 16 story is true history, and it is a place of repentance (or at least regret) and compassion, then there might be hope to get out. I am not trying to prove anything about purgatory here. I just don’t see this parable harmonizing with other teachings on Hell from the Bible or the Church.
If we take a step back even further, we get a picture of the context within the gospel of Luke. There is a series of at least 5 parables that are given before this story. The parable just before this story is also about a rich man. Right between that parable and the one pertaining to our present focus is a statement “The Pharisees, who dearly loved their money, heard all this and scoffed at him.” There are other parables that follow this story later in Luke.
The rich man wanted to reach out and warn his brothers of this place. He is denied his request and given the answer, that if they did not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither would they listen or obey if someone rose from the dead to warn them. There seems to be a foreshadowing here of Jesus’ own resurrection.
It isn’t lack of sufficient evidence that keeps people like the Pharisees from accepting the gospel. Jesus performed miracles in front of them. They outright rejected him anyway. Rather than deny His miracles, they would accuse Jesus of performing miracles with the power of the devil or that He was breaking the Sabbath. Clearly this message, this story, was intended for the Pharisees and those throughout history that deny or reject Jesus despite having the Scriptures that point to Him.
When Jesus taught, He often taught using parables. Every Bible college and seminary student is taught that a parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. The reference to “earthly” just means that the terms and characters and details of the story are familiar enough to listeners and readers that they do not need explanations. It does not mean that every detail of the story has an earthly parallel. People are not sheep and goats any more than they are wheat and chaff.
The heavenly meaning, or you might say, the spiritual application, is the real point of these stories. We should not get so bogged down with the packaging of these stories that we miss out on the important contents. As we unwrap the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, we see several applications:
1. The rich may have better standing and greater comfort on earth during their lives, but that elevated standing does not necessarily follow them beyond the grave.
2. The poor of this earth may find themselves in a better standing on the other side. This is consistent with what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere in the gospels (the first shall be last and the last shall be first). It is not their poverty that saves them, but their humbled position makes it easier for them to see their true spiritual needs and look to Christ for forgiveness.
3. There may come a time in the future that we may experience regret. The time to act is now, not later, when we cannot do anything about it.
4. We should show compassion and generosity to those in need now while we can.
5. Those who reject God’s grace, usually do so because of their willful rejection, not because of lack of evidence.
In conclusion, I believe that there is sufficient evidence to see this story that Jesus told as a parable. That does not minimize the message. In fact, if we see the story in the correct literary light, we are free to really focus on the depth of meaning and application that was clearly intended, rather than getting distracted by surface details like smoke and fire.
So why does Jesus use the name “Lazarus” in the story? We do not know for sure.
Perhaps there was a real beggar in that community named “Lazarus” that the Pharisees knew. Every community has at least one poor beggar or person with health problems or other issues that set them back. Even if he didn’t refer to an actual person that the Pharisees knew, Jesus may have used a real name to show that from God’s vantage point, this poor man had value. He had a name. God knows the name and much more, of every person that is poor, homeless, ill, abused, ridiculed, or ignored by most of humanity.
Lazarus was a fairly common name in the Old Testament, often in the form of Eleazar. This name from which Lazarus is derived means "God has helped" in the Hebrew. We know that in this story, God helps the poor man even though he was ignored by the unnamed rich man whose fate was damnation.