Rich Man and Lazarus


One passage of Scripture that raises questions in many people’s minds is the story that Jesus told about the rich man and Lazarus. Some Christians feel that when Jesus told the story found in Luke 16:19–31, He was sharing a glimpse of what takes place in afterlife. Others, citing many passages of Scripture that seem to contradict the picture of heaven and hell brought to view in this message, feel that Jesus was teaching an altogether different kind of lesson.

In Mark 4:33–34, we read that Jesus almost invariably gave His lessons as parables: “And with many such parables spake He the word unto them, as they were able to hear it. But without a parable spake He not unto them: and when they were alone, He expounded all things to His disciples.”

To begin with, this story says nothing about immortal souls leaving the body at death. Instead, the rich man, after he died, has “eyes” and a “tongue,” that is, very real body parts. He asked that Lazarus “dip the tip of his finger in water.”

If the story is to be taken literally, then at death, the good and the bad do not soar away as shadowy spirits. Instead, they go to their rewards as real beings with body parts. Yet, how could this be, as their bodies return to dust? Also, if this is a literal account, then heaven and hell must be close enough to each other that it is possible for a conversation to be held between the inhabitants of the two places—a rather undesirable situation, to say the least. Notice the reply of Abraham in answer to the rich man’s request that Lazarus be sent back to warn his brethren. “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” And, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” Luke 16:29, 31. Nowhere does this story speak of sending back disembodied spirits, not even in the matter of returning to warn men, but of rising “from the dead.”

Notice, too, that it speaks of those who are saved finding a place in Abraham’s bosom. Obviously, the language here is highly symbolic.

The Purpose of Parables

Clearly this story is a parable, and doctrines cannot to be built upon parables or allegories. A parable, like other illustrations, is generally used to make clear one particular point. To try to build doctrines on every part of the story would generally result in a completely unreasonable conclusion, if not utter contradiction. Certainly we would not expect to find in the illustration a proof for a belief the very opposite of that held by the speaker or writer. If we are to accept this story as literal, we must concede that men go to their reward at the time of death. Elsewhere, however, Christ states definitely that the time when the righteous receive their reward and the wicked are cast into the everlasting fire comes at the time of His return. “And, behold, I come quickly; and My reward is with Me, to give every man according as his work shall be.” Revelation 22:12 (See Matthew 25:31–41)

Daniel 7:9–11, 25–27 brings to view the Judgment as a future event. Until a decision has been made in the Judgment, is it reasonable to expect that individuals are confined to hell or that they receive the reward of being accepted into a heavenly bliss?

This story is a parable, designed to teach a lesson. The lesson Jesus was trying to teach is apparent from the remarks with which He prefaced the story. The Pharisees were covetous. They also regarded wealth as an evidence of God’s favor and poverty of His displeasure.

The Lessons Jesus Was Seeking to Teach:

1. In this life is the time when decisions for salvation are irrevocably made. There will be no future opportunity to change.

2. A contrast is being drawn between those who in this life make wealth their dependence and the poor who have depended upon Christ. A man’s value is not in his possessions; for all that he has belongs to him only as lent by the Lord. A misuse of these gifts will place him below the poorest and most afflicted man who loves God and trusts in Him.

3. The law and the prophets are God’s appointed agencies for the salvation of men. Christ was telling His hearers to give heed to these evidences. If they do not listen to the voice of God in His Word, the testimony of a witness raised from the dead would not be heeded. (This literally happened in the resurrection of Lazarus, just shortly before Christ’s death. (See John 11) Those who had rejected previous evidence as to His messiahship were so hardened, however, by their rejection of the evidence already available to them that this crowning miracle of Jesus’ ministry did not change their course toward Him.)

Another passage of Scripture that leads many to conclude that there is a transition at death and that death is not the end of life but rather the beginning of a new existence is Luke 23:43. Jesus, speaking to the thief on the cross just before His death, said, “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise.”

By comparing Revelation 2:7 with Revelation 22:1–2, we see that Paradise is where the “throne of God” is. Therefore, if Christ went to Paradise that very afternoon, He would surely have gone into the very presence of God. But Christ Himself, on the morning of the resurrection, declared to Mary as she fell at His feet to worship Him, “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to My Father: but go to My brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto My Father, and your Father; and to My God and your God.” John 20:17. This agrees perfectly with the statement of the angel to the women at the tomb: “Come, see the place where the Lord lay.” Matthew 28:6. He had lain in the tomb. It was for this reason that He said on the resurrection morning, “I am not yet ascended to My Father.”

The Punctuation Makes the Difference

Christ did not contradict Himself. Notice the punctuation of Luke 23:43. The whole meaning of this verse hinges on the placement of the comma. With this in mind, remember that the punctuation in the Bible is a relatively new addition. The early manuscripts of the Bible not only did not use the comma but actually ran the words right together in the line. Our translators, in using their best judgment, placed the punctuation marks we now have in our Bibles; but they were certainly not inspired.

The change of a comma can make a great difference in the meaning of a sentence. If you write, “The teacher says my boy is no good,” you mean one thing. You mean something very different, however, if you add two commas. “The teacher, says my boy, is no good.” The words are the same, but the meaning is not at all the same.

Christ did not promise that the thief would be with Him in Paradise that day. Jesus Himself did not go to Paradise that day but slept in the tomb. But on the day of the crucifixion, the day of apparent defeat and darkness, the promise was given. “Today” while dying upon the cross as a malefactor, Christ assures the poor sinner, “Thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.” Instead of losing any meaning, the word today takes on a real significance.

A similar sentence construction may be found in the writings of the prophet Zechariah. “Turn you to the strong hold, ye prisoners of hope: even today do I declare that I will render double unto thee.” Zechariah 9:12. The context shows that the rendering “double” was not to take place on that very “today” but was a future event. It is evident that “today” qualifies declare.” Even so, if the “today” of Luke 23:43, which is a parallel to the language of Zechariah, is allowed to modify “say,” there is no contradiction between the message to the thief and the words of Jesus to Mary.

During His last days on earth, Jesus told His disciples: “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto Myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” John 14:2–3. If, as many suppose, Christians go to be with Christ at death, why would we have Christ telling His disciples that He would return to receive them unto Himself? Would they not have, in fact, been with Him since death? If, after all, it was only their bodies they were coming to receive, why would they want to come back after bodies left here? Could not the Creator supply them with far better ones? (As a matter of fact, Paul does teach that the resurrected righteous receive a different body, a spiritual one rather than a fleshly one. (See 1 Corinthians 15:42–44; Philippians 3:20–21)

Pagan Religion and the Immortal Soul

The deception that when men die, they do not really die, found acceptance in ancient times by pagan religions. Those who practiced these religions claimed to have communication with the dead. Very early in Bible times this concept was condemned by God. “And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead? To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” Isaiah 8:19–20 (See Deuteronomy 18:9–12)

This practice of communing with the dead was abhorrent to God, and He commanded Israel that any who participated in this heathen practice were to be killed. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Exodus 22:18. In 1 Samuel 28 is the record of Saul, the first king of Israel, who, the night before his final battle, repaired to the witch at Endor. While to his human perception he was able to talk with Samuel, who was dead, 1 Chronicles 10:13–14 states that this was not the case. “So Saul died for his transgression which he committed against the LORD, even against the word of the LORD, which he kept not, and also for asking counsel of one that had a familiar spirit [one who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead], to inquire of it; and inquired not of the LORD: therefore He slew him, and turned the kingdom unto David the son of Jesse.” This appearance of a being who appeared to be Samuel was not just some human imposture, but the king was actually in communion with a demon.

At death, our bodies return to the dust and our breath returns to God who gave it. Christ referred to death as a sleep. (See John 11:11–14; Luke 8:52) If, rather than accept the simple statements of Scripture, we believe that the dead continue to exist as a conscious entity, we are left without a defense against the possibility of their returning to communicate with us. This, in turn, makes us susceptible to the possibility of Satan and his angels communicating with us while purporting to be a departed loved one. We must be aware of this deceptive doctrine and practice of Satan; for he will use it to mislead many. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” “And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light.” Ephesians 6:12; 2 Corinthians 11:14. Speaking most particularly of the time of the end, we read: “For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty.” Revelation 16:14

We need not be deceived, but our faith must be built on nothing less than the Word of God. “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” Isaiah 8:20

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