This article demonstrates that the scene depicted in “Lazarus and the Rich Man” (Luke 16:19-31), takes place in the so-called “intermediate state,” and not in Hell as the place of final punishment. Therefore, it does not tell us anything about the nature of Hell, despite being frequently appealed to by critics of Conditional Immortality and Annihilationism.
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Lazarus and the Rich Man: It’s Not About Final Punishment

I cannot count the number of times I have witnessed critics of conditionalism point to Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man as a challenge to our view. I understand and respect one explanation offered by some of my fellow conditionalists, even if I don’t yet affirm it: They would say that the parable borrows from a then-contemporary Jewish folktale of sorts in order to teach a moral lesson having to do with social inequality and is not intended to communicate anything about the conscious suffering of people like the rich man in the story. Unfortunately, however, traditionalists who find this explanation dubious think their challenge stands. Because of this, when my view of final punishment is objected to on the basis of this parable, I stress a different point: It’s not about final punishment.

Here is the parable in question, as recorded in Luke 16:19ff:

19“Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. 20And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, 21and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 22Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and *saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. 24And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ 25But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. 26And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ 27And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29But Abraham *said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30But he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ 31But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Now, when reading the text, pay special attention to the bolded portions. For at least three reasons it is very clear that this parable has nothing to do with final punishment at all, even if it is to be taken literally.

1. The rich man and Lazarus are dead.

Verses 19-21 very briefly tell the story of Lazarus and the rich man in life, and then in verse 22 both die. The rich man is explicitly said to have been buried. There is no mention of the second advent, the resurrection, or the judgment; the bodies of both men are in the ground when the proceeding scenario takes place. Traditionalists who challenge conditionalism by arguing from this parable unwittingly deny the resurrection from the dead unto judgment.

Even if we were to assume that Jesus is recounting an actual event rather than telling a parable—as some insist, for various reasons—then, at best, this is an account of what happened to two men while dead and buried. It’s not about final punishment.

2. The rich man is in Hades.

Verse 23 says that whereas Lazarus is taken to Abraham’s bosom upon his death—believed by many to be the abode of the righteous dead1—the rich man is taken to Hades. In the New Testament this Greek counterpart to the Hebrew Sheol never refers to the eternal state following resurrection unto judgment. It refers to the grave, or perhaps as Thayer called it, “the common receptacle of disembodied spirits.”2 Robert Jamieson said it is “not the final place of the lost … but as we say ‘the unseen world’.”3

In Acts 2:27 Paul quotes the psalmist as saying of the Messiah, “You will not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow your Holy One to undergo decay.” John Gill commented on this verse, saying that “he believed [his Father] would not leave his soul, as separate from his body, in Hades … but would quickly return it to its body.”4 Jamieson called Hades in this verse the soul’s “disembodied state.”5 Albert Barnes wrote, “That [Christ] went to the region of the dead is implied, but nothing further.”6

What’s more, in Revelation 20:13 “death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them; and they were judged, every one of them according to their deeds.” There is a strong argument to be made for conditionalism from this passage, but I’ll save that for another day. The point is that the apocalyptic symbolism portrays the dead coming out of Hades to be judged. This imagery communicates the “resurrection of judgment” of John 5:29, after which the reprobate receive their final punishment in the lake of fire. Again, traditionalists who challenge conditionalism by arguing from this parable unwittingly deny the resurrection of the dead.

Even if we were to take literally every detail in this story which Jesus tells, then at best this is a description of what literally takes place as the disembodied souls of the unrighteous dead experience torment in the intermediate state, awaiting resurrection unto judgment. It’s not about final punishment.

3. The rich man’s brothers are still alive.

In verses 27-28 the rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to the rich man’s house to warn his living brothers, so that they would not share his own fate in Hades. In verse 30 he suggests to Abraham that if Lazarus were to go to the rich man’s brothers from the dead then they will repent; and in verse 31 Abraham assures the rich man that his brothers would not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead. Traditionalists who challenge conditionalism by arguing from this parable unwittingly communicate that the eternal state is one in which some of the damned suffer in souls separated from their dead bodies while others who are not saved are walking around in bodies which haven’t died, are not suffering, are blissfully ignorant of their need for repentance.

No matter how we take Jesus’ story—whether as familiar folklore, unique parable, or historical narrative—it is talking about the intermediate state. The grave. The first death. Awaiting resurrection. While others are still living. No matter how you slice it, it’s not about final punishment.

Traditionalists concede.

For perhaps these reasons many traditionalists recognize that this parable is concerning the intermediate state and not the final one. Kenneth Boa and Rob Bowman write: “The term Hades in this passage clearly means a netherworld or underworld where the dead exist.”7 John Blanchard says that, when people die, “the souls of the righteous go immediately into God’s presence … What happens to the souls of the wicked? One of the clearest answers to this question comes in the story Jesus told about the rich but godless man” in this passage.8 Even the infamous Robert Morey tells us that “’Paradise’ was understood to refer to that part of Hades which was reserved for the righteous dead … popularly known at that time as Abraham’s bosom (Luke 16:19-36).”9

Yeah, but…

But are there not questions which conditionalists still need to answer that are in some way relevant to this passage? Yes. Once traditionalists recognize the obvious, that this parable is arguably about the intermediate state, there are still a few questions they might legitimately pose to conditionalists. Of course, I think there are good answers to them, which I will discuss in future posts here at Rethinking Hell. But for now, I encourage our traditionalist readers to read the text again, and instead of isolating the rich man’s torment in fire from the rest of the parable, pay attention to what is going on. It’s not about final punishment.

Notes:

  1. For example, Robert Morey identifies Abraham’s bosom as conscious bliss on the part of the righteous dead (Death and the Afterlife [Bethany House, 1984], 207). Kenneth Boa and Rob Bowman call it “a place of rest for the righteous” (Sense & Nonsense About Heaven & Hell [Zondervan, 2007], 31). John Calvin says that “believers, when they die, make a nearer approach to the enjoyment of the heavenly life. Still … the glory of immortality is delayed till the last day of redemption” (Calvin’s Bible Commentaries: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part II [Forgotten Books, 2007] 166-167).
  2. Dictionary and Word Search for hades (Strong’s 86).” Blue Letter Bible. 1996-2012. Retrieved 22 June 2012.
  3. Jamieson, R. “Commentary on Luke 16.” Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible.
  4. Gill, J. “Commentary on Acts 2:27.” The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible. 1999.
  5. Jamieson, R. “Commentary on Acts 2.” Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible.
  6. Barnes, A. “Commentary on Acts 2.” Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament.
  7. Boa, K., & Robert Bowman, Jr. (2007). Sense and Nonsense about Heaven and Hell (Zondervan), 31.
  8. Blanchard, J. (1995). Whatever Happened to Hell? (Crossway), 84.
  9. Morey, R. (1984). Death and the Afterlife (Bethany House), 207.
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  • A Name

    Dr. Craig L. Blomberg who has been Distinguished Professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary in Colorado since 1986 puts it this way in his book “Interpreting the Parables”:

    “The restrictions against unlimited allegorizing and the fact that the source for much of the imagery of the parable probably was popular folklore should warn against viewing the details of this narrative as a realistic description of the afterlife.” [206]

    I was looking for it because it reminded me of an episode of Unbelievable? where James White was debating someone on the topic of if Jesus was a Calvinist. What a silly debate question. If I remember correctly on that episode they talk about how this parable was a retelling of another parable but it was being kind of twisted on it’s head to say something different. Anywho, it’s something interesting to think about.

    • Chris Date

      (That debate was with David Instone-Brewer, author of The Jesus Scandals, whom I plan on interviewing on the Rethinking Hell podcast in the not-too-distant future.)
      Yeah, while I do not yet affirm this explanation, I’m sympathetic to it. But because many traditionalists won’t countenance the possibility, when discussing conditionalism I try to make the more important point made in this post.

      • A Name

        True. Good point. I look forward to hearing that interview.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=502681121 Doug Economou

    Here is the correct interpretation of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCc6e8yms_Q&feature=fvwrel

    Watch all 3 parts.

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  • Tom

    You wrote:
    They would say that the parable borrows from a then-contemporary Jewish folktale of sorts in order to teach a moral lesson having to do with social inequality and is not intended to communicate anything about the conscious suffering of people like the rich man in the story

    Can you give me information about “then-contemporary Jewish folklore” – is there any example of such a tale from that time?

    • Joseph Dear

      Hello Tom,

      One such example is a story found in the Palestinian Talmud about a rich
      tax-collector named Bar Ma’jan. In it, a poor student of the Law (the good guy)
      and a rich tax collector (the scum of the earth in 1st-century Judaism) both
      die, and in the afterlife, the tax collector suffers while the student of the
      law is in paradise.

      Joachim Jeremias (not an annihilationist as far as I know) tells us some about
      it. While talking about how Jesus also uses it both here and in the parable of
      the great feast (Luke 14:15-24), he tells us:

      “Jesus was using some well-known story material, namely the story of the rich
      tax collector Bar Ma’jan and a poor scholar, which appears in Aramaic in the
      Palestinian Talmud. That Jesus knew this story is confirmed by the fact that he
      used it again: he used its ending, as we shall see later, in the parable of the
      Rich Man and Lazarus” (141).

      There are two parts to it. It is the second part, after they die, that we see
      the relevance to the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.

      “We have already told the beginning of the story, how the scholar’s
      funeral was unattended while the tax collector was buried with great pomp. Now
      here is the end of it. One of the poor scholar’s colleagues was allowed to see
      in a dream the fate of the two men in the next world: A few days later the
      scholar saw his colleague in gardens of paradisal beauty, watered by flowing
      streams. He also saw Bar Ma’jan the tax collector standing on the bank of a
      stream and trying to reach the water, but unable to do so.” (145)

      You can actually read a snippet of the Neusner translation which has the story
      in it see pages 181-182):

      http://www.amazon.com/The-Talmud-Land-Israel-Volume/dp/0226576914/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1345830761&sr=8-2&keywords=jacob+neusner+talmud+31#reader_0226576914

      It obviously differs in some details, but the core ideas are there (except
      flipped, since the rich man wasn’t a tax collector but was presumably just a
      normal rich man, and being rich was believed to be God’s blessing for
      righteousness back then). Timing is never quite a sure thing, seeing as how the
      Talmud came after Jesus, but it at least appears that the story that ended up
      being incorporated into the Talmud was around and about in Jesus’ time.

      Furthermore, 17th-Century theologian John Lightfoot goes verse by verse and finds all sorts of parallels between the parable and material found in the Babylonian Talmud. Some are a little tenuous, but some are relevant. He points out how the Talmud tells
      of a rabbi smitten with sores for refusing to help a poor person (Lazarus, the
      poor person, is covered in sores) (159). The idea of departing to “Abraham’s
      Bosom” also is found in the Talmud when speaking of the death of a Rabbi (164).
      He cites parable about a generic good man and a generic bad man who die, and
      for whom one can’t reach water (sounds very similar to Bar Ma’jan, but less
      detailed; perhaps it was an older prototype from which Bar Ma’jan was based)
      (166-167).

      So then, those are some examples of stories from the time that Jesus may have
      borrowed from.

      Works Cited

      Jeremias, Joachim. Rediscovering the Parables. New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966.

      Lightfoot, John. Hebrew and Talmudical Excercitations Upon the Gospels of St. Luke and St. John. The Whole Works of Rev. John Lightfoot. Ed. John Rogers Pittman. Vol. 12. London: J.F Dove, 1823. Preterist Archive. Web. 22 Jan. 2011.

      The Talmud of the Land of Israel: A Preliminary Translation and Explanation. Trans. Jacob Neusner. Vol. 31. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

  • http://www.yuriyandinna.com/ Yuriy Stasyuk

    Great points, I have always noted this myself.

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