September 30, 2020

A Description of Heaven and Hell?

The Rich Man Being Led to Hell, David Teniers the Younger

The Rich Man Being Led to Hell, David Teniers the Younger

The story of the rich man and Lazarus has long been a fire-and-brimstone preacher’s dream. The reality of the afterlife in black and white terms. The issue of salvation in sharp perspective. The urgent necessity of making a decision for Christ before death, when a “great chasm” will be fixed between the blessed and the tormented. Heaven and hell. Eternal life with God or eternal torment. Plain and simple.

Some folks have even considered this the depiction of a real event and not a parable or fictional story. Back in seminary, I gave a sermon in my preaching class during which I mentioned this “parable.” My professor, who had ministered to generations of Scandinavian pietists with a firm literalist view of the Bible, came up to me after class and challenged me, as he had no doubt been confronted in his churches.

“Son,” he said, “What makes you think that passage is a parable? It doesn’t say it’s a parable, does it? Jesus was talking about two actual men and what happened to them. Heaven and hell are real, son. Don’t go saying they’re not.”

My professor knew full well that Jesus was telling a parable or folktale, but he was wisely preparing me for what I would face as a minister down the road. “You’d better be ready to have a good answer for that,” he warned. “And you’d better know how to deal with people with strong opinions who suspect that your seminary learning drained you of common sense.”

So, what about Luke 16:19-31, the story of Lazarus and the rich man? Did Jesus tell it to warn us about hell? Is this a realistic depiction of the afterlife and the issues that attend salvation? Or does it have a different message?

Dives and Lazarus, Aldergrever

Dives and Lazarus, Aldergrever

In Bible college, I was taught that “Hades” was the domain of the dead. It is not our final destination, but it is where all human beings (“souls”) spend the intermediate state between death and the resurrection in conscious existence. This domain has two compartments. One compartment is where the souls of the blessed dead live, and is called “Paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom.” The other compartment is a place of conscious punishment, a prison as it were, where the souls of the ungodly are kept, awaiting their judgment.

This is how dispensationalists (at least back then) read the Bible. The theological world is neatly organized — a place for everything and everyone, clearly delineated. Hades is the realm of the (conscious) dead and it’s paradise or prison. The Bible says so.

Though my teachers might have granted that Jesus was not giving a journalistic account of the experiences of two actual people here, nevertheless his depiction of the afterlife was accurate and real.

However, I don’t think that this is a story about the afterlife and the relative destinies of people like these.

First of all, it is difficult to show that “hades” means anything more than “the grave” or “the place of the dead” in Scripture.

Second, the imagery Jesus uses was common in both Hebrew and Greek folktales and probably shouldn’t be pressed as systematic theology.

Third, Jesus was likely using this folktale format to make his point here. The story is filled with hyperbole and legendary elements. For example, the portrayals of both the rich man and Lazarus are over the top to draw the widest possible difference between them. Then there is a detail that I noticed for the first time when I heard this text read on Sunday — Lazarus is not even buried when he dies, but is carried off by angels à la Elijah, whereas the rich man goes to the grave.

Fourth, this story is told in a context. Luke 16 contains teaching relating to money and possessions, and in the pericope immediately before our story, we read these words:

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed, and everyone tries to enter it by force. But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than for one stroke of a letter in the law to be dropped.” (Luke 16:14-17)

After these words, Jesus then gives examples of how they were ignoring the law — (1) the way they were practicing divorce (v.18); and (2) the story of Lazarus and the rich man.

The story reflects directly on the words about the Pharisess in vv. 14-17, portraying a man who: (1) loved money, and (2) justified himself in the sight of God and others (note his attitude and words to Abraham). In his tale, Jesus also picks up the themes of “the law and the prophets” and “the good news of the kingdom” (particularly in his reference to one raised from the dead). His story shows that “God knows [their] hearts” and that “what is prized by human beings is an abomination to God.”

In effect, this story provides a warning to Israel (with the Pharisees representing the nation) about how they were responding to God in Jesus, and suggesting the Great Reversal to come when God would bring judgment upon the nation, as in Luke 6:20-26. Luke Timothy Johnson gives an excellent summary of what the story of Lazarus and the rich man teaches:

SP LukeThe parable is therefore one of rejection. By having Jesus tell it to Pharisees whom he has characterized as “money-lovers,” Luke makes it apply directly to their own rejection. As the rich man had scorned the demands of the Law and the Prophets to give alms, so have they “mocked” Jesus’ teaching on almsgiving (16:9-13). And in spite of their claim to hold the demands of the Law, they reject the outcasts of the people (15:1-2), just as the rich man had rejected Lazarus. Therefore as the rich man is rjected from a place in the people (“the bosom of Abraham”), so they are to be rejected from the people. Finally, the parable points beyond itself to the larger narrative of Luke-Acts. The reader cannot miss the reference in 16:31 to the resurrection of Jesus, whom the leaders will reject yet another time when they refuse to hear the words of the apostles in the narrative of Acts.

– The Gospel of Luke: Sacra Pagina

This parable provides a good example of what we talked about last week when looking at Andrew Perriman’s narrative-historical view of heaven and hell, particularly as it is presented in the Gospels. Perriman himself has written about this parable HERE and HERE.

He agrees with the “folktale” genre of this story: “It is an account of the ‘afterlife’ quite unlike anything else in Jesus’ teaching—or in the rest of scripture, for that matter. It is an eschatological outlier.”

He suggests, as does Johnson as well as N.T. Wright in his Luke for Everyone commentary: that this story is not a story about heaven and hell, nor, on the other hand is it primarily a moral tale about riches and poverty. Rather it is about how Jesus is bringing the story of Israel to completion by fulfilling the Law and the Prophets, and how representatives of Israel like the Pharisees were missing the good news by continuing their ancestors’ unbelief and practicing injustice. So hard were their hearts that even Jesus’ resurrection would be unlikely to change that.

Indeed, Perriman suggests that Jesus may have told this story, using “afterlife” themes, to make his main point — that One will be raised from the dead and Israel is being called to listen to him.

Having said that, who could doubt that there is truth for us today in this story?

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

– Micah 6:8, NRSV


  1. Very good summary of this storied account in Luke 16.

  2. But, DANG. When I read that parable I WANT that insufferable Dives in HELL!! ;o)

  3. Richard Hershberger says

    Add to this that if we insist on taking this passage as a description of heaven and hell and who goes where, then we are forced to adopt a works theology of salvation.

    On a different note, i like the suggestion I have seen that naming the poor man “Lazarus” is a sly joke on Jesus’ part, working his friend into a story like some modern SF writers work their friends into their books.

    • @Richard….I do not see a works theology of salvation, Catholic though I might be. I see the sin of the rich man as a failure to even SEE the beggar as a human being, let alone seeing Lazarus and sharing even meager scraps with him due to Richie Rich’s love of money (and the security, power, and comfort it brings on earth!)

      I see a large gap between seeking out projects and good works to “earn” God’s favor out of fear of hell, and a basic love-driven response to those whose needs are not only clearly presented in front of our noses, but are also WELL within our ability to meet.

      I beat this phrase to death (ask my long-suffering husband…) but leaving overt mention of our Lord and Savior to the side for a moment, the most basic of human truths is that we are called to love people and use things.

      So much suffering and evil comes from those who love things and use people…..

    • I’m not sure it’s even works-righteousness. And though the attitude of the rich man is certainly portrayed as contemptuous of the poor man, the story really says nothing about either their faith or their works. It’s more like salvation by class: the poor get carried to heaven, the rich go straight to the place of torment. Most who use this as a fire and brimstone text conveniently skip over those facts.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        And those Social Justice types in the Eighties (whose Trinity was Marx, Lenin, and Castro) tunnel-visioned on “those facts” and ONLY those facts of Salvation by Class.

        But then, Pope John Paul II approached Marxism as a Christian heresy, taking “one piece of the pie” in isolation and turning it into “the whole pie”.

      • Yeah, that and the Magnificat. They talk about how God helps the down and out, but the successful will eventually pay. It doesn’t fit my systematic theology, so I don’t like it.

        Unless, of course, we realize that we already are poor, pitiful, blind, and naked. Then we can have the blessing of God.

  4. Thanks, Chaplain Mike. I think this parable is often a difficult one to get our heads around.

    That passage from Micah is one of my favorites from the Old Testament books.

  5. Clarence Jordan (who ran the Koinonia Farm intentional community in Georgia, before and during the Civil Rights movement) has a great take on this parable:

    “This is another of those Trojan horse episodes in which Jesus conceals His truth. It’s a story – it isn’t intended to be history. it is not intended to give us a glimpse into the afterlife… Jesus had to shift the scenery to get over there on the other side of the grave so He could finish His story. Otherwise, His hearers would have been so immediately threatened by truth that they’d have lynched him on the spot.

    “‘…You got the good schools. Lazarus got what was left. You got the good sections of town and the paved streets. Lazarus got what was left… You got the good things. Lazarus got the crumbs that had fallen from your table. Don’t you remember that?’

    “…This is really the cutting edge of the parable, this yawning chasm…. Who dug that ditch? Who dug that chasm? The rich man knows who dug it. HE DUG IT! And why did he dig it? He dug it to break up traffic. He dug it to keep guys with sores out. He didn’t want the value of his property to go down when sore people moved into his neighborhood. You know, you’d better be careful how you dig ditches to keep people out; you might want to cross them yourself one day.”

  6. Marcus Felde says

    I agree it is a mistake to take this as a teaching about the specific nature of perdition. I would say its point is the hopelessness of a life which is lived trusting in riches, the hopelessness of faithless lovelessness. “Teach [rich people] not to . . . set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” and “to do good,” is 1 Timothy 6:17’s commentary on the parable.

  7. This parable, like the others, exposes us.

    We all have a certain amount of comfort and and we all focus on ourselves primarily.

    Whatever hell is like, I know that because of Jesus and His great love for real sinners, like us, I won’t have to go there.

    • Steve –

      I am saddened that, as usual, you weren’t the first to comment on this article. 😉

      And the parable is about hades, not ‘hell’ (gehenna). 😀

      Blessings, my brother!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I really would like Steve to comment in English instead of Christianese.

        Every time he comments, he sounds like he’s giving a sermon.

        • HUG: “I really would like Steve to comment in English instead of Christianese.”

          Does “I am redeemed by the blood of the Lamb” work for ya? 😉

          Anyway, I agree with Steve. This is one of those “look in the mirror” kinds of stories. By pointing out the thoughts and desires of the rich man, his focus on his own anguish and pain when he clearly ignored the anguish and pain others were suffering, Jesus is asking me to have some self-reflection. What am I doing that treats the lowly even worse than they are? What am I doing that turns Jesus into “less than a dog”? What am I doing now that will remove my right to cry for relief when I need it?

  8. David Cornwell says

    The “reversal” taking place here is basically the theme played out in our pastor’s handling of this text yesterday. The story is a very dramatic one then lends itself to careful teaching and preaching.

  9. The Pharisees knew about the empty tomb, and still they paid good money to perpetuate the story that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body, which they knew was a lie. It’s not that they don’t believe in the resurrection. It that they just didn’t care. Sometimes I wonder why preachers don’t seem to, either…

    It just breaks my heart to hear this parable preached on without reference to the resurrection of Christ. This should not be a springboard for recapping “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.” “Get-out-of-hell-free” is not the Gospel. If I came up to you on the street and said, “give me you wallet or I’ll shoot you,” would you say that is good news? Not getting shot is good news, I suppose, but nonetheless, “Believe in Jesus or go to hell” is not. Preachers, please do not use this text as a club to threaten unrepentant sinners into submission. If the kindness of God doesn’t lead them to repentance (Romans 2:4), “drink the cool-aid or taste my pain” isn’t going to either.

    Sorry, just had to get that off my chest.

    • David Cornwell says

      Like “Evangelism Explosion” a few years ago, when the first questions was designed to scare you about hell. Mostly it just made people want to slam closed the door.

  10. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Some folks have even considered this the depiction of a real event and not a parable or fictional story.

    Dake’s Annotated Bible time. Dake’s notes taught that EVERY parable was a word-for-word depiction of a real event, accessed through Christ’s Omnipotence. Probable rationale is that Fiction = False and Christ could not tell a lie, so every one of them was true. No distinction between “false fact and true fiction”.

    This is how dispensationalists (at least back then) read the Bible. The theological world is neatly organized — a place for everything and everyone, clearly delineated. Hades is the realm of the (conscious) dead and it’s paradise or prison. The Bible says so.

    I can confirm that. I think dispys still read it that way, FACT, FACT, FACT, with any discrepancies explained by classifying them into Separate Dispensations. Like Calvin’s Institutes, a Perfectly-Parsed, Everything-Precisely-Defined System leaving no wiggle room for God.

    Indeed, Perriman suggests that Jesus may have told this story, using “afterlife” themes, to make his main point — that One will be raised from the dead and Israel is being called to listen to him.

    Before I got Re-Educated into Correct/Dispy, that’s how I first read it. “They will not listen to him, even if one should rise from the dead.” Jesus getting snarky.

  11. Patrick Kyle says

    While placing the narrative in context, both historically and in the text is helpful and bears some fruit, the idea that the passage has ABSOLUTELY no bearing on eternal states is a real reach and unfounded. It makes Jesus the promoter of false folk tales regarding our eternal destinies, reinforcing local ‘legends.’

    Another byproduct of radical reinterpretation like this is that it makes reading the Scriptures an exercise in futility for the average Christian, who lacks the proper background knowledge to even take away simple ideas from the text.

    • Could not disagree more Patrick. Jesus was perfectly free to tell stories and I’m sure his audience of non-experts would have not only recognized that but appreciated it. This story has nothing to do with the literal facts of the afterlife.

      • CM,
        This maybe more appropriate as a follow on to another post…

        Is there even such a thing as the “literal facts of the afterlife”? I know most of theology is defining what something is not. Can we define what the afterlife is and it still maintain orthodoxy? Or is there even a true orthodoxy to define (and unify around) concerning this?

        • Holy cow this is a burning question for me – and I didn’t even know it until you verbalized it.

        • It’s a good question, since most of the “information” we have is couched in metaphor and other kinds of imagery.

          • Interesting that one of the greatest questions we have as human beings – namely “what is our destiny?” – is shrouded in so much mystery. And by consequence so much misguided conjecture.

            Confound you scripture as he is seen angrily raising his fist skyward.

      • Yeah, but didn’t people back then take their own folk legends a bit more seriously than we do today? I mean, wasn’t that a prime source of epistemology for them? If, say, the Genesis narratives were evolved over time to give them a sense of identity as a people, and they truly identified themselves as the children of Abraham, isn’t there a sense that they were absolutely convinced the story was true and Abraham really was a real person? I mean, the kind of skepticism WE have today over a literal understanding of Genesis 1-11 is the product of things like the scientific method, which weren’t even invented until much later. While Jesus may have been referring to folklore, I think for many people back then, the story was about a commonly understood reality. While they may not have actually thought Lazarus and Dives were actual historical people, I don’t know if we can confidently assert that his hearers would be raising an eyebrow at the mention of eternal torment and think, “surely he couldn’t be saying that wicked men are punished in the afterlife… the God I worship would never do such a thing!”

        I mean, I agree that it isn’t the point of the story, but I’m not sure we can so easily dismiss Jesus’ use of these kind of details in his parables as completely incidental. I don’t think the historic church has taken this approach, but I’d certainly be open to being convinced by an early father who went that direction with it.

        • I don’t know quite how to answer that, Miguel. I haven’t studied it much, but I know that there were some developments in thinking about afterlife matters in the intertestamental period. Most everything we read in the OT just indicates we end up in the dust.

          I wonder what an ordinary Jewish person in Jesus’ day would have said if you asked, “When we die, if I end up on the torment side, will I still get to talk to Abraham?”

    • This is a major point many of us evangelicals (and I am one) don’t like to acknowledge. We argue for the perspicuity (or clarity) of Scripture. But that’s just it – While I understand the noble intention, Scripture is always not that clear to middle-class westerners in the 21st century (at least that’s the background I come from). This doesn’t mean we should take away Scripture from those who haven’t been to seminary. But it reminds us that it’s not simply a book to open up and glean personal promises for us.

      Now, having said that, I think God can and does speak very much to individuals utilising Scripture, even the ‘untrained’ (and I’m not so greatly trained). God can speak outside the context of Scripture. But to understand Scripture (and what Jesus was commenting on in the fuller context of Luke 16) it does tremendous help to engage with 1st century, second temple literature, etc. And to use the cultural context to teach the truth of God is very likely of Jesus. Paul was going around quoting pagan philosophical poets to communicate God’s revelation. Proverbs draws on older Egyptian proverbial writings. It’s highly likely that the Genesis origin’s account has many connections with other ancient origin’s accounts. Etc. This is very important – just as God would utilise our own context to communicate his truth today.

      I hope that makes some sense.

  12. I’ll just start typing and see where it leads me. What I noticed just now as I read this story was that the rich man, suffering in Hades, asks Abraham to send the man he treated worse than a dog (Lazarus) to come help relieve his suffering. When Abraham tells him no, he then asks for Abraham to send this mistreated man to go warn his brothers about the awful place he’s in and where they might be going.

    First, it strikes me that what Jesus is saying is, “The rich man dug his own hole, and now he wants the man he buried in his dirt to come help him out. But the hole he dug is too deep to receive comfort from the one he treated so poorly, so then he wants the man he buried with his dirt to help out his brothers…who are digging their own deep holes, holes so deep that the one they’re burying with their dirt can’t comfort them.”

    Second, as I think about that and the final lines of the story, I wonder if Jesus is drawing a bit of an analogy between him and Lazarus. Lazarus – treated worse than a dog; Jesus – treated like the worst criminal. The rich man digging his own hole by mistreating Lazarus; the Pharisees digging their own holes by mistreating Jesus. The rich man thinking that seeing a dead man will cause repentance; Jesus foretelling that the Pharisees’ hearts have been so hardened that not even that will make a difference.

    This leads me to believe this story has less – MUCH less – to do with Hades/hell/whatever and MORE to do with Luke 16:14: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus.” It’s more of a story to illuminate “You Jewish leaders know the truth and what you should be doing, and yet you don’t do it. You’re going to see something really amazing – a dead man resurrected – yet you’re going to ignore it because of your love for money, not God. Well, don’t come crying to me when you realize the pit you’re in.”

    Now, to pull this forward to present day…what things am I doing as a Christian that is me digging myself into a hole and burying Jesus with my dirt? How might I be mistreating Jesus as the rich man mistreated Lazarus? Am I loving God and others, or am I loving myself? Oh, Jesus…have mercy on me, for my hole is deep.

    • I am aware of the great contrast between those who dwell in ‘assurance’ and those who pray for ‘mercy’ for themselves and the whole world.

      I suppose some people must have earthly assurance of their salvation because they dwell in so much fear, but why is it that having been given that ‘gift’, they then turn on those that they see as ‘the lost’ as being beyond the mercy of God UNLESS ‘the lost’ fall into line with their own fundamentalist doctrine?

      It’s hard to explain, but when Pope Francis said, ‘who am I to judge. I too am a sinner.’,
      I felt a great sense of blessing that God had finally given a powerful voice to the tax collector in the temple through Pope Francis, and that it would become more clear to the world that what really pleased God wasn’t the hubris of the proud Pharisee who thought he had ‘got it right’, but the quietly spoken humbled words of the publican, who uttered the first ‘Jesus Prayer’:

      “‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”

      Assurance? They can have it.
      I’ll ask for mercy instead. And be thankful for the God who understood our need for mercy and came to help us in our need. I will trust Him to do what is right for all of His creation of which I am a part.

  13. I have always struggled with this passage for two reasons: 1) the idea of eternal hell bothers me, and I find it very hard to reconcile such an eternal state with what I know about Jesus and his love; even though Jesus speak about hell more than any other figure in the Bible, I’ve always hoped that what he meant by the words that have been translated into the doctrine of hell was something very different from that place of never-ending torment, not to say torture and 2) the passage stinks, not of salvation by works (after all, what work does Lazarus do to earn postmortem blessedness?), but damnation by apathy, as if Dives could have been saved if he’d just done something, or perhaps if he had suffered like Lazarus.

    I’ve felt for a long time that the passage couldn’t be meant as a description of what actually happens in the afterlife, but I’ve never known how else to take it, and never came across an interpretation that didn’t evacuate the passage of any coherent meaning in the attempt to treat it as other than “literally” true.

    The sermon I heard yesterday by the pastor of the Lutheran church where my wife serves as musician didn’t help me at all; his sympathies are with liberation theology, and he just twisted this text like soft dough into the pretzel shape that he wanted it to have. He was having a lot of fun, but I wasn’t as I listened to him preach.

    So I’m very glad to hear the treatment and interpretation offered in the above post, because it does justice to the text as it is written, not by tearing it out of context and making it say something it doesn’t, but by placing it in a wide context that illuminates its meaning in a way that rings true and leaves room for good news to be preached.


    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      > not of salvation by works …. but damnation by apathy,

      Human apathy is an illusion; it is an affect created, not a thing real. Apathy is self-involvement, indolence, and ultimately disregard and disrespect for ‘the other’. Damnation by apathy does not bother me at all.

      Apathy is the man who walked pass the man who had been beaten and left in the ditch by the side of the road. There is little distance between the man who walked by and the men who put the other man in the ditch; both can’t be bothered with the fact that the victim was a person. They’re apathetic.

  14. Thinking about this passage, it has occurred to me how much of the Magnificat can be found in it:

    He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
    and hath exalted the humble and meek.
    He hath filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he hath sent empty away.

    Given the theology of reversal found in the Magnificat, neither Lazarus or Dives is reaping rewards or punishment for good or bad deeds or lives; rather, through them God’s upside down kingdom is being enacted and revealed.

    • The themes of the Magnificat are pervasive throughout Luke’s Gospel. As Hannah’s song foretells the dynamics of David’s kingdom (1Samuel 2), so Mary’s song foretells the kingdom Jesus brings and manifests in his ministry.

  15. Dan Crawford says

    Look at this parable in the context of the parables of the Good Samaritan, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the Prodigal Son, and the man who thought he could hoard for the future, Compare them to the Magnificat and the marvelous gift to the Good Thief. You will learn that attempting to interpret it as being all about eternal punishment or some other contemporary obsession pales in significance to the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’ve preached through the lectionary cycle with Luke’s Gospel six times in my ministry – this year, I have finally been stunned at how radical and how powerful it is compared to the gospels I preached and I hear so often preached in our churches today.

  16. As a dispensationalist who loves this parable, I’d like to defend my species with a reference to a very fine essay by Darrell Bock (dispensationalist, DTS!) arguing very strongly that this is a … parable (It’s in the Sept. 1997 issue of Southwestern Journal of Theology, maybe online somewhere if someone wants to track it down).

    I’ve also read another writer liken the story to our “St. Peter and the Pearly Gate” stories and jokes, and also (if I remember correctly) that there is a similar story in Egyptian Wisdom literature.

    So while I think the general setting of the story (there is a place of punishment and a place of blessing in the afterlife) is true-to-life, I don’t think Jesus’ point is so much THAT, but to challenge his hearers (and Luke his readers) with their obedience to 1.) the Scriptures 2.) what the Scriptures say about the poor and, most importantly 3.) to Jesus himself. If you don’t respond in obedience to what you have now in the Scriptures (as manifested in this instance by your treatment of the poor and handling of wealth) you will certainly not respond rightly to the One to whom the Scriptures point (as manifested most clearly in the resurrection).

    I think I’m allowed to believe this is a parable and remain a dispensationalist, but I’m sure you all will enlighten me!

    Thanks for the post and the many good responses.

    PS: Kenneth E. Bailey has a published lecture on the parable in “Theological Review XXIX, 2008” which is brilliant, but that’s to be expected from him. (“The New Testament Job: The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man An Exercise in Middle Eastern New Testament Studies”)