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The Rich Man and Lazarus
The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is the jewel in the crown of those who believe in a Hell immediately following death for a place for torturing sinners. This parable includes the one single occasion where someone is described as being in torment in Hades/Sheol out of 76 references in the whole bible. Does this single occasion nullify all 75 others? To some the answer is yes, and that’s because on the face of it, this parable appears to support their doctrine.
If asked why this is the only example of suffering in Hades, we might get some wafflely answer that Hades contains many compartments, and the Rich man was in the torture section. Lazarus on the other hand was in some other area of Hades called paradise, aka the Bosom of Abraham. However, there is no scriptural evidence for this idea.
Even the statement that this is a parable is denied by those wanting this to be a picture of Hell. They say it is a literal story of a real rich man and a real man called Lazarus. The flames are real, the physical torture is real, Abraham’s Bosom is real, and it’s a story that must be taken literally.
So why is it a real story not a parable? It has been said that because Lazarus is named, then it can’t be a parable but must be true life. Or because Jesus begins with "There was a certain rich man……" instead of starting "Suppose there was a certain rich man….. By this logic then Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are real historical figures, and the rescue of Princess Leia by Hans Solo escaping from the Death Star in the Millennium Falcon is a true life story.
Why this is a Parable and NOT a True Story
This is Parable Number Five. It’s the last one in a five part set that Jesus tells one after the other in a single setting, all of which describe the Kingdom of Heaven. Yet people accept the first four are parables, but not this last one. Illogical. Here’s how they all begin:
- Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep……Lost Sheep
- Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins…...Lost Coins
- There was a man…….Prodigal Son
- There was a rich man…….Shrewd Manager
- There was a rich man…….Rich Man and Lazarus
According to Jesus, He only spoke in parables to the crowds, Matthew 13:10, 13-14, 34-35. He was speaking to the crowds here; ergo he was speaking in a parable. That just about settles the argument then. But for those who don’t believe the word of God let’s analyse this parable piece by piece:
- Jesus tells us that the Rich man was clothed in purple and wore fine linen. If he was about to be cast into the flames of Hell, why did Jesus give us these ‘insignificant’ details? Why not say he lived in a big house, or drove an eight horsepower chariot? There is significance to these two details that are meaningless if we take this to be a literal story.
- Lazarus was carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom. Assuming that many patriarchs want to be at his bosom, how would they all fit? An average bosom is only 12 inches wide. Two could possibly fit. If this is a literal story, then this must be literally Abraham’s bosom. If Abraham’s bosom is a picture of paradise, then we have a parable don’t we, not a literal story.
- How can the rich man lift up his eyes and see Abraham? He is dead; his eyes are decomposing in his grave. Well he has a new body in Hell. So he has two bodies now does he? How does he see Abraham if his new eyes are boiling internally from the heat of the flames? He has a spiritual body now. How can real material flames burn a spiritual body? They are spiritual flames too. How can SPIRITUAL flames inflict a MATERIAL PHYSICAL pain on a SPIRITUAL body? It defies logic.
- For something to burn it requires sufficient heat energy to break down the bonds between molecules, releasing oxygen which in combination with available fuel, combusts producing an incandescent flame of exhaust gases emitting heat and light. If things that are spiritual are not made of material things, then fire is impossible in the spiritual realm. As heat energy is produced by dint of molecules vibrating in an increased excitation state, then are the concepts of heat, energy and temperature present in the spiritual realm? Perhaps Stephen Hawkings would be interested in a new branch of spiritual quantum theory. When God talks of fire, it is often spiritual fire because He is spirit. As spiritual fire is an impossibility by the definition of fire, then spiritual fire must represent something else and cannot be real fire somehow operating in a spiritual way.
- How can the rich man cry out to Abraham? Even assuming that his spiritual vocal cords are not consumed, when one is dead the soul dies too and our thoughts perish according to Psalm 146:4. Ecclesiastes 9:10 tells us that nothing happens in the grave anyway.
- Why did the rich man ask for just a drop of water for his tongue? That’s hardly going to have an effect on his tongue is it. Besides which, his tongue being inside his head would have been initially insulated from the flames. Far more pressing would be sorting out the burning skin. Why didn’t he ask for a spiritual wheelie bin full of water? Or better still, a spiritual hose pipe?
- How did the rich man expect Lazarus to administer this drop of water anyway? Wouldn’t Lazarus’s hand go all brown and crispy too? Wouldn’t the drop of water vaporise in the heat before it reached the rich man’s tongue? Ah but it would have been spiritual water; not affected by the flames. How could spiritual water not affected by the flames possibly have a cooling effect on a tongue that was heated by the flames?
- How could Abraham expect the rich man to remember his old life when there are no thoughts in the grave?
- Abraham then says that the gulf between them prevents anyone who wants to pass from his bosom to the rich man from doing so. Why in the world would anyone who being in paradise want to go to sit with the rich man and thus go up in flames themselves?
- In the Greek two different words are used for pass. From Abraham to the rich man the word is diabaino, but from the rich man to Abraham the word is diaperao in the sense of sailing or ferrying over. So why didn’t the rich man just jump in the water then?
- Why is the Rich man in Hell anyway? What sin has he committed? This parable tells us nothing other than he enjoyed his life of luxury. Don’t all these self appointed TV ministry leaders also live a life of luxury with their mansions, Honda Goldwings and private jets? Don't you also enjoy a life of luxury compared to those in the third world? Doesn’t the Word of Faith Movement keep telling us that prosperity is God’s blessing and a sign of a righteous life? So surely the Rich man must have been exercising his seed faith. He must have sown his 100 shekels and reaped a 10,000 shekel harvest loads of times. One does not get rich unless one ‘names it and claims it’, believes God for a talent of gold producing after its own kind; or ‘blabbed it and grabbed it’!!!
- The rich man has got some good things in his favour: he’s respectful to his elders and betters (calls Abraham ‘Father’), and he loves his five brothers too. There’s nothing here deserving Hell. Ah but he rejected Jesus as his saviour. The parable doesn’t say that. If this story is literal, then to suggest something that is not literally in the story is to literally destroy the literal story argument. Besides which Jesus has not yet paid the sacrifice, so how can this man be condemned for rejecting something that hasn’t happened yet?
- Why does Lazarus deserve to be in Abraham’s bosom? According to the Word of Faith types, he must have had sin and unbelief in his life to end up in poverty. Clearly he must have sown stingily and reaped stingy harvests, if he sowed at all. Perhaps he didn’t tithe off his salary then, and so God cursed him and told the Devil to go and steal his stuff. Proverbs 10:3 states The LORD does not let the righteous go hungry but he thwarts the craving of the wicked, and Proverbs 13:25 states The righteous eat to their hearts' content, but the stomach of the wicked goes hungry. Or What about Proverbs 6:10-11 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest- and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.
- Looks like Jesus got the two the wrong way round then, because on this evidence, Lazarus was a wicked useless waster who deserves Hell, and the rich man was an enterprising hard worker who loved his family.
It’s so obvious that this story is a parable as to take it literally makes no logical sense.
The Marvellous Prophecy Revealed
As with all of Jesus parables, every word is significant, but when taken literally, they often add no value or just make no sense. Jesus takes simple things and when the spiritual significance is understood, a whole new world of truth is opened up to us.
First we need to remind ourselves of some Jewish ancestry and the covenant inheritance line. Abraham was called by God to make his home in Canaan because He was going to separate for Himself a special people. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, and the covenant passed to Isaac. Isaac married Rebekah, and through her had two sons, Esau and Jacob, and the covenant passed to Jacob who God later named Israel. Jacob married Leah and had six sons, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar and Zebulon. He then married Rachel and had two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. He also married Rachel’s servant Bilhah and had two sons, Dan and Naphtali. He finally married Leah’s servant Zilpah and had two sons, Gad, Asher. Joseph had two sons in Egypt, Manasseh and Ephraim.
Just before Israel died, he told Joseph that his grandsons Manasseh and Ephraim, would now be reckoned as sons of Israel. Thus they would now share in the inheritance of Canaan alongside his other sons, with the exception of Levi who would not inherit the land, but would inherit the priesthood.
When the Israelites came into Canaan, the land was divvied up between the 11 tribes from Jacob and the two half tribes from Joseph. There followed a period of Judges before Israel had their first king, Saul. God later rejected Saul and David was made king. David was of the tribe of Judah in fulfillment of Jacob’s prophecy that the sceptre signifying rulership would not depart from the line of Judah "until he comes to whom it belongs" (Gen 49:10), that is, Jesus. Jesus was the end of the Royal line, and now heads the Royal Priesthood. Reuben was the firstborn but he was passed over for defiling Jacob’s marriage bed.
The throne passed from David to Solomon, then from Solomon to Rehoboam. Jeroboam, one of Solomon’s officials rebelled against Solomon. After Solomon’s death, Israel came to Rehoboam complaining about the harsh treatment by Solomon. Rehoboam took exception to this and his young officials advised him to say to the people:
1 Kings 12:10b-11 'Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but make our yoke lighter'-tell them, 'My little finger is thicker than my father's waist. My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.' "
The finger is significant because Jesus refers to it in this parable. After this Israel splits with Jeroboam being made king over the ten northern tribes, and establishing the capital in Samaria. Benjamin remains loyal to Judah. Jeroboam rejected the Levites as priests, so they came over to the side of Judah.
Some time later the ten northern tribes of Israel are conquered by the Assyrians. The Assyrians take most of them into exile and bring their own people to live in Israel. Consequently the Israelites intermarried with the Gentile nations, and the whole purity is lost. This is one of the reasons for the hatred of Samaritans in Jesus’ time, because they were not considered Jews but Gentiles. The ten tribes disappear from history, although many people’s to this day claim to be their lost descendants.
A few generations after Israel is exiled, the Babylonians attack Judah, kill just about everybody, except for a remnant that are then exiled back to Babylonia. This remnant numbers just a few thousand, which is a long way from Exodus where Israel boasted a standing army of some 800,000 men. After Babylonia falls to the Medes, the remnant of Judah, Benjamin and Levi are lumped together into an overall identifier of Jews. The Jews return from exile to Jerusalem, and remained until the time of Jesus.
During the time of Jesus, the Jewish population was outnumbered by Gentiles, be they Romans, Samaritans or Greeks. The Jews despised the Gentiles to the extent that if a Gentile even so much a brushed against a Jew’s clothing, some Jews would actually tear out the offending section of the cloth. Perhaps this is what Jesus was referring to when he talked of not sewing a patch of new cloth into and old item of clothing. Gentiles were usually referred to as dogs. This is also significant in this parable.
Now with regards this parable, given all their history, the Pharisees knew exactly who the Rich Man was, as well as the identity of Lazarus. They may not have understood Jesus parables, but they did know when He was talking about them.
The Rich Man is the Jewish nation, and his five identifiers made it clear to the Pharisees that He was talking about them:
- Jesus said he was dressed in purple. Purple is a royal colour due to the shear expense of the purple dye used to colour cloth. This reference is therefore to Judah, the royal line of Israel.
- Jesus said the Rich Man was dressed in fine linen. This is a reference to the priesthood and the tribe of Levi. Exodus 26-28 talks about the tabernacle and the clothing of the priests, all of which were to be made from fine linen.
- Jesus said the man was very rich. The Jewish nation has a tradition of being very rich. Abraham was very wealthy. When the Israelites left Egypt, they plundered the Egyptians. Solomon was extremely rich as God decided to bless Him with wealth in honour of Solomon’s request to be made wise rather than to have wealth. To this day, there is a layer of super rich Jewish aristocracy that head up large companies around the world.
- The Jews above all possessed the riches of Heaven. The Oracles of God, a Most Holy Nation, salvation comes from the Jews. God was their inheritance to the exclusion of everyone else.
- The final identifier is when the Rich Man said he had five brothers. This is a direct reference to Judah, who had five brothers Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar and Zebulon from his mother.
Lazarus is representative of the Gentiles and here are five identifiers:
- The reason that Lazarus is named is not because this is a real story about a man called Lazarus, but to make it obvious to the Pharisees that he represented the Gentiles. The English variant of the name comes directly from the Latin, itself derived from the Greek Lazaros, which in turn came from the Aramaic Lazar. The ultimate origin is the Hebrew name Eleazar sometimes spelt Eliezer, meaning "God's assistance" or "God (has) helped" (Exodus 18:4). Who is Eliezer? Genesis 15:1-4 After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: "Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward." But Abram said, "O Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir." Then the word of the LORD came to him: "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir."
- Eliezer was a Gentile, and he stood to inherit all the wealth and estate of Abraham. Once Abraham had Isaac, Eliezer lost out of the inheritance big time, and the Gentiles were now cut off. However he remained a loyal faithful servant to Abraham, and although not mentioned by name, most Jewish commentators attribute Eliezer to being the servant that Abraham entrusted to get a wife for Isaac from his own people.
- Lazarus is pictured as being in poverty because with regards to the inheritance he lost out, but more importantly, he did not inherit the ‘Holy Nation’, the priesthood, the favour of God.
- Lazarus was always at the Rich Man’s gate which is symbolic of the Court of the Gentiles. This was an area adjoining the temple into which Gentiles could come, but no further. Gentiles were excluded from the presence of God, held back by the Gate between the court and the temple.
- The reference to the dogs comes from the association of dogs with Gentiles. When Jesus met the Syrophoenician Woman who begged Him to deliver her daughter from a demon, Jesus called her a dog. When Jesus said it wasn’t fit for the children’s (Rich Man’s) bread to be thrown to the dogs, she said even the dogs ate the crumbs from the children’s table. Jesus said Lazarus longed to eat what fell from the Rich Man’s table. This food is not literal food, but the same food Jesus talked about elsewhere – the Word of God. The Gentles longed for a share in the bread of Heaven. The Syrophoenician Woman begged Jesus to help her. This is another reference to Lazarus being a beggar in this parable.
So now we know who Jesus was talking about, what is the point of the story?
The Jews never appreciated the riches that God had entrusted to them.
- What prophet of God did they not persecute? (Acts 7:52)
- They were a brood of vipers. (Matthew 12:34)
- Sons of the Devil. (John 8:42-44)
- The Jews were nothing but a wonton harlot, and worse than a harlot, because instead of receiving payment, she gave away her gifts. See all the lurid details in Ezekiel 16 and Ezekiel 23.
Notice that Ezekiel spoke to Judah, not Israel as Israel had long been taken into exile by Assyria. All these sins racked up over the centuries and Jesus pronounced judgment on the Jews accordingly. In AD70, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and notably the temple, so bringing an end to the Levitic Priesthood that will never be reinstated.
So why was the Rich Man in torment? The words rendered in English as torment or agony implying physical pain is from the Greek, odynao, which actually means to grieve, to be anxious, or sorrowing. The Rich man was NOT on fire, but was instead suffering emotionally at seeing his loss. What was his loss, what was he seeing? He was seeing Lazarus, the Gentiles now taking his place in the Bosom of Abraham. This Bosom is not a physical location, some near Heaven waiting room, but the Favour of Abraham. Lazarus was comforted because he at last had inherited the blessings of Abraham. He was now in Abraham’s favour. The Gentiles are the wild olive branches grafted into the tree. The Jews, the Rich Man, the cultivated olive branches have been cut off, to make way for the Gentiles. It’s all explained in Romans 11. And what happens to branches that are cut off? They are thrown into the fire, symbolic again of the Rich Man in the flame.
What’s the significance of the finger of water? Why not a bucket of water? This goes back to the reference in 1 Kings 12. Rehoboam said when Israel asked to be released from burden that his finger was thicker than his father’s waist. That is He wouldn’t lift a finger to help Israel, who ultimately became Gentiles. Luke 11:46, Jesus tells the experts of the law that they weighed people down with burdens and wouldn’t lift a finger to help. So here’s the turn around. The Jews wouldn’t lift a finger to help the Gentile, and now the Rich Man is begging Lazarus to move a finger for him.
Who has the refreshing water now? It’s Lazarus, the Gentiles who have the wellspring of living water, not the Jews. So here they are pictured begging for a drop of the Water of Life that we have in Jesus.
The Chasm that cannot be crossed represents the Jordan Valley. When Israel needed to cross the Jordan, God had to dry it up as it could not be crossed. For the Jew crossing the Jordan is always symbolic of entering the Promised Land. Now the Gentiles are pictured in the Promised Land on the other side of the water and the Rich Man, the Jews cannot cross over to it. This is the significance of the Greek word diaperao to sail or ferry over, which in our bibles is just rendered to pass over.
Abraham said, no one wanting to cross from his side to the Rich Man’s could either. This is all in agreement with Paul’s teaching on the law and how once in Christ we cannot resubmit ourselves to the law even if we wanted to.
Finally we have the reference to the Rich Man asking Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them. Abraham said they have Moses and the prophets and they certainly wouldn’t listen to someone back from the dead. This is so true today. Even though the Jews have the word of God, they do not see Jesus prophesised by Moses and the prophets. Jesus said they all spoke about Him, but they can’t see it. Lazarus rising from the dead to warn them is symbolic of the Gentile who was dead to God, now as though rising from the dead, alive to Christ, and still the Jews will not listen. How many millions of Gentiles around the world love God through Jesus? How many Jews submit to Christ? Very very few, because even today, they do not see Him.
Every bible commentary we see degrades this parable to a simple teaching that with riches comes responsibility, and we are in danger of Hell if we live selfish lives. Or that the Pharisees being careless of the poor would get their comeuppance, with the poor inheriting heaven. Still others believe this is a story of real figures showing the different fates of those believing or rejecting Jesus in this life.
None of these ideas come anywhere close to the marvellous promise of Jesus concerning our inheritance in Him. By ignoring the ‘insignificant details’ such as being clothed in purple and linen, or the reference to beggar, dogs, crumbs from the table, the true meaning is completely missed.
Yes those that do reject Christ will appear before God at the Great White Throne. It's only then that thay will face the judgement and the consequences. However, torment in Hell immediately following death without yet being judged is a pagan doctrine absobed into the church. It is so unfortunate that the early church took the Greek word Hades instead of Sheol because the Greek mythological Hades bears no resemblance to Sheol whatsoever.