Continuing our discussion of conditional immortality, what are we to make of Lazarus and the rich man?
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’
Traditionalists have often used the parable of Lazarus and the rich man to assert a doctrine of eternal torment. There are two problems with this. The first is that the parable is exactly that, a parable. The second is that even if we take the passage as literal rather than parabolic, the main points of the story contradict essential Christian doctrine. Let us deal with both problems one at a time.
The first problem with using the parable of Lazarus and the rich man to assert a doctrine of eternal torment is that the parable is a parable. As with all parables, the parable is a story that serves as an illustration to get a point across. Take, for instance, the parable of the dishonest manager in Luke 16:1-13 which precedes the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Christ tells us at the end of that parable just what the point of that parable was; namely, that we cannot serve both God and money. Yet nothing in the parable itself states this. In fact, in the parable the master commends the manage for his dishonesty!
We must also keep in mind what Christ told His disciples about parables in Matthew 13:10-16. Christ used them to keep the unseeing blind.
Then the disciples came and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And He answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
“‘You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’
“But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear.”
However, let us suppose we have taken the parabolic nature of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man into account. Let us suppose we agree that Lazarus and the rich man were just two more imagined characters like the master and his dishonest manager. Let us also suppose that even though there was no Lazarus and the rich man, yet what these two characters endured after death serves to show us a reality which everyone will face one day. That is, some will die and then be immediately carried to Abraham’s bosom, while others will die and then be immediately deposited into eternal torment.
If we do suppose this, then we have some very serious problems to contend with. Consider, for example, the rich man’s plea to send Lazarus to his brothers in order to warn them. Since when does Abraham have power over life and death, and who to raise from the dead and who not to raise?
Rather than chastising the rich man for presuming he had the power and authority to do what only God can do, Abraham instead informs the rich man that his brothers would not heed Lazarus’ warning even if Abraham were to send him back. Is Christ telling us that Abraham has the power to raise the dead?
Note also the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus over to him in order to dip a finger into some water to cool his tongue. Wait. Send Lazarus over here to this fiery, molten hot lava place in order to dip his finger into some water in this fiery, molten hot lava place?
Luke 16:24 And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”
Send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger into some water? Into what water?! Into water found in a fiery, molten hot lava place?
But the problems continue to mount, for who, while embroiled head to toe in flames, would complain that his tongue is hot? Who, upon burning their finger on a hot stove, cries, “Oh man, am I thirsty!”
The more we examine this parable the more we see Christ has either gone mad, or His parable is meant to be understood analogically. I am afraid far too many Christians have assumed things about this text without bothering to carefully consider what it is saying. They skim over it without taking the time to think about what it would mean if it were meant to be understood literally. Let’s see, wicked rich man, check. Fire, check. Anguish and Abraham’s bosom, check. Must be talking eternal torment. Next.
If we stop for a moment though to carefully consider what is happening in the parable, we find that nothing in it makes sense if it is speaking to eternal torment. Abraham has the authority and power to send the dead to visit people even though he refuses to do so. A man embroiled in flames is more concerned about his dry tongue than his scorching skin. An appeal is made to send Lazarus over to dip his finger into water located in a place consumed in molten fire. A great chasm has been fixed between two locations, and yet the residents of either location are able to both spy and speak to each other from their respective locations. The most troublesome of all though, no one who fails to believe the prophets will be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead. Really? You mean like Jesus?! Isn’t His rising from the dead the reason why all His people turn from not believing the prophets to believing them?
Let us suppose for a moment, just for a moment, that this parable has nothing to do with the state of people after death. Let us suppose instead, just for a moment, that the parable was meant to show us something about the self righteousness of the Pharisees instead.
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God. “The Law and the Prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and everyone forces his way into it. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the Law to become void. “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
Jesus told a parable in which He warned about trying to love both God and money. The Pharisees overheard Him tell this parable. They ridicule Him. He answers them with a stern rebuke. Immediately following His rebuke He tells them another parable. This one about a poor beggar named Lazarus and a rich man who goes nameless.
And you think this parable is actually about the state of people after they die?
Jesus is still rebuking the Pharisees in verse 19! He uses the parable of Lazarus and the rich man to do it. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is a parabolic rebuke of the Pharisees. The key to understanding what the parable is saying is found in verse 15.
For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.
The Pharisees loved to exalt themselves over other men. The biggest reason why they hated the tax collectors was because the tax collectors were the only people in Israel more wealthy than they. They exalted in their memorization of Scripture, in their long and loud public prayers, in their exaggerated robes and in their exaggerated religious behavior. They even exalted in themselves in the kind of food they ate and who they ate it with.
Recall that the Pharisees criticized Christ for eating with tax collectors and sinners. In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Christ has Lazarus covered in sores. If you know the Levitical law, then you know this made Lazarus ceremonially unclean. To touch him would have made the rich man ceremonially unclean. So while the rich man exalts in what he supposes is his present status of cleanness by feasting lavishly, Lazarus desires to be made clean. Like the repentant sinner who would not even lift his eyes to heaven, but instead beat his chest and cried to God for mercy, Lazarus desires to be made what he is not, while the rich man, like the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like other men, thanks God that he has not touched Lazarus and become unclean.
These same Pharisees, who had memorized every word of the Old Testament were nevertheless unconvinced by the message they had memorized. They knew every word Moses and the prophets had spoken, but they believed not one jot or tittle of it. Neither were they convinced by Christ’s own resurrection! Even though they knew for a fact Christ had risen from the dead, they nevertheless put the word out that the disciples had stolen His body. It was just as parabolic Abraham had said. If they were unconvinced by Moses and the prophets, they would be unconvinced should someone rise from the dead.