The Parable of Lazarus:
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16:19‑31)
This parable mentions that the rich man found himself in Hell. This word was translated from Hades. This parable refers to some kind of torment in Hades. But—does it say that it is everlasting? No, it does not.
And whatever happens in Hades will eventually come to an end—because Hades is going to be “emptied out”! John records a vision in the Book of Revelation, which is described as happening after 1,000 years of Satan’s captivity:
The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:13‑15)
So whatever was happening in the parable to the rich man, it was not his ultimate destiny. Revelation 20 declares that his ultimate destiny is the “second death.” In Matthew 10:28, Jesus referred to this destruction of not just the body, but the soul itself. And He connected it there to the word Gehenna.
Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell [Gehenna].
Over the centuries, commentators have looked at the parable of Lazarus in two quite different ways. In fact, under one set of assumptions this passage is declared not to be a parable—not a metaphor with a lesson—at all. This scenario suggests that Jesus’ story is a literal description of the Afterlife, and that the two men mentioned are two actual individuals. In this approach, the primary emphasis is that the main purpose of the story is to emphasize the sufferings of torture in an ever-burning Hell, so that people will be warned to avoid it.
Others approach the story with the assumption that, like the previous story in the chapter (the parable of the unjust steward) and the three stories in the previous chapter of Luke (the 99 sheep, the lost coin, and the Prodigal Son), it is a parable. In fact, it is clearly stated that Jesus told this story not to his disciples, but to the Pharisees. Thus it is not unreasonable to assume that it is a metaphor, a fictional story told for another purpose entirely. According to this scenario, even the details of the features of Hades are taken to be figurative rather than literal. This is similar to a description of Sheol in the Old Testament. This passage in Isaiah prophetically describes the death of the King of Babylon:
The grave [Sheol] below is all astir to meet you at your coming; it rouses the spirits of the departed to greet you—all those who were leaders in the world; it makes them rise from their thrones—all those who were kings over the nations.
They will all respond, they will say to you, “You also have become weak, as we are; you have become like us.” All your pomp has been brought down to the grave, along with the noise of your harps; maggots are spread out beneath you and worms cover you. (Isaiah 14:9-11)
Did Isaiah really intend to paint a picture of the Afterlife in Sheol as one of a place where the “leaders of the world” actually sat on thrones, and would “rise to greet” the king of Babylon? Or is this an elaborate poetic metaphor, used to paint a picture of the ignominy of the end of the king of Babylon?
Here’s how one author clarifies the importance of understanding when a biblical passage is a parable rather than photographic reality:
Parables are not to be taken literally. They are to be understood “figuratively.” The real meaning is not in what they literally say, but in what the symbols and figurative language represent. That’s why they are called “parables.” This is axiomatic! Let us turn to some parables for proof of this point:
The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:32)
“…this thy brother was dead…”
Comment: He wasn’t literally “dead.” He came home again “alive.” God did not resurrect him from the dead. The Resurrection is yet future. So the prodigal was NOT literally dead, but from the perspective of his father, he was as good as dead or he could have been considered Spiritually dead.
Parable of mote in brother’s eye (Lk. 6:39-42). “Now why are you observing the mote in your brother’s eye, yet the beam in your own eye you are not considering?”
Comment: A beam is a long piece of timber. How is it possible to have a long piece of timber in one’s eye? I know people who could fit it into their mouth, but eye, never. This parable is about morality, not body organs and building materials.
Is it not obvious that the literal, physical language in all parables must be interpreted as a higher, spiritual lesson? If the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is both literal and an historical fact, then it contradicts not only the laws of physics and logic, but also literally hundreds of plain verses of Scripture.
What if the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is just such a poetic metaphor? What if the description of the Rich Man seeing Lazarus “in Abraham’s bosom” was not meant to be taken as a literal scenario in the Afterlife, but as a metaphor for something more elaborate? Many Bible commentators have suggested that the characters of Lazarus and the rich man are intended to stand for “groups of people.” Jesus spoke this parable to the Pharisees, and the distinct possibility is that he was using the rich man’s blessings in life as representing the spiritual favor that the Jews had possessed through knowing God and having the scriptures.
By the same token, Lazarus would then represent those who were not part of the “chosen people,” outsiders who had been cut off from the blessings of God by ignorance. The implication would then be that if pious Jews such as the Pharisees didn’t fully appreciate their blessings, in the future they might find themselves cast out while the outsiders would find God’s favor.
Even if, in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary, this parable was intended to depict a real scene somewhere in the Underworld, where the soul of the rich man is being tortured in the roaring flames of an ever-burning Hell, why would he ask only for a drop of water for his tongue? Immersed in flames, why wouldn’t he ask for a bucket of water to cool his body!?
It seems highly possible that the kind of torment he was in is being symbolized more in “mental” than physical terms. Picture someone in the Middle Ages, condemned to death by burning at the stake. He is in a dungeon of the Inquisition, but can see out a small window the stake upon which he is doomed to be burnt. Perhaps he can even see others put to death there, and, if close enough, might even feel the tremendous heat waves from the executions. Surely he would be in mental torment—the kind that leaves your mouth like cotton!
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. (Hebrews 10:26‑27 NIV)
Notice that this doesn’t say the fearful expectation would be of “eternal torture by fire.” Instead it is of a fire that will consume the wicked. Moses was amazed when he saw a bush that could burn without being consumed. Hebrews does not say the wicked will be like such a bush, burning but never “burning up.” It states clearly that the fire will consume them.
But wouldn’t someone in torment look forward to death with desire, rather than with fearful expectation? No—even in concentration camps in Germany during the Holocaust, where conditions were horrifying, most struggled to keep alive, and to avoid the ultimate executions.
Especially when death is expected to come by fire, the realization that it will take only a few minutes certainly doesn’t lessen the terror of the anticipation of the excruciating pain of flames.
Ultimately, even if those hearing the parable of Lazarus were intended to envision a real place where the rich man was in torment, there is nothing in the parable itself that is comparable to the common doctrine of an ever-burning Hell, where never-ending torture awaits anyone who is “unsaved” at death.
Whatever this parable is about, it is undeniable that it very specifically addresses certain groups of people. Jesus directed it at the Pharisees, religious leaders of the time. Both of the main characters are obviously Jews, living in a society in which the Old Testament scriptures were common knowledge. Abraham notes that the rich man’s brothers “have Moses and the Prophets.” Therefore, even if the intent of this story was to describe real details of the Afterlife, there is no way to apply what is in this scene to the fate of those who have never known God at all.
Finally, there is no information in the parable that allows us to draw any conclusions about why these two men had such different fates. If the purpose of the parable was to warn people of the torments of Hell, where is the advice on what one needed to do to avoid that? We are told nothing about the spiritual condition of the rich man, about any sins that he may have committed, about his attitude toward God. We are only told that he was wealthy, and had sumptuous banquets. And we are told nothing about the spiritual condition of Lazarus, about any good deeds he may have done, nor about his attitude toward God. We are only told that he was poor, hungry, and covered with sores. Surely Jesus did not intend listeners to come away from hearing the parable with the notion that it is evil to be rich and godly to be poor.
From careful consideration of the details of the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and the related scriptures quoted above, it is clear that this passage cannot be used to establish:
- Anything at all about the fate of those who do not know about or understand the expectations of God.
- That there is an ever-burning Hell.
- That human souls are tortured forever in such a Hell.
If someone is attempting to prove that there is such a Hellish future for the billions of humans throughout history who have not had Jesus as Savior, the parable of Lazarus isn’t the place to look.