The story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16) is told as a parable – a simple story that carries a moral or spiritual lesson. The rich man “fared sumptuously every day” (v. 19). The beggar, Lazarus, subsisted on crumbs (v.20, 21). Both men died and passed to their reward.
The rich man finds himself in hell, tormented by flames. He can see Father Abraham in the far-off distance, with Lazarus “in his bosom.” This is just the opposite of what he expected. In his society, wealth was a mark of God’s approval, while the beggar bore the stigma of divine disfavor.
The rich man begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drop of water to cool his tongue (v. 24). Abraham denies the request, pointing out the impossibility of crossing the “great gulf fixed” between them. The rich man then pleads for supernatural intervention on behalf of his surviving brothers: “Send him [Lazarus] to my father’s house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment” (v.28).
In typical Middle Eastern reversal-of-fortune stories similar to this one, spirit beings cross the great gulf between the living and the dead, bringing messages from the great beyond. Here is where Jesus surprised His listeners with an unexpected twist. He has Abraham refusing the rich man’s plea. “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” In other words, “Your brothers have the Bible. If they pay attention to its message they won’t end up like you.”
The rich man pressed his request. “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent” (v.30).
Abraham’s words bring the story to a definitive end. “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (v. 31).
The message to us is clear. God has revealed truth in His written Word. If we are sincere in our relationship with Him, His Word should be sufficient. We don’t need supernatural manifestations or messages from the dead. We have the Bible. That’s enough.
You probably know people who want to believe that by telling this story Jesus was pulling back the veil to give us a glimpse of the afterlife. But Jesus was not relating an actual event. This is fiction, a made-up story like so many of His parables. It is not about death or hell or Abraham’s bosom any more than the parable of the wheat and the tares was about farming.
Two primary arguments have been raised against my suggestion that the story in question is a parable, that it teaches the importance of believing the truth as revealed in God’s written word, and that it does not reveal details of the afterlife.
First, a few people are convinced that the story depicts actual events. They believe the rich man and the beggar are real people, that the scenes Jesus described are literal, and that the rich man was actually able to carry on a dialogue with Father Abraham across the “great gulf fixed” between Abraham’s bosom and Hades. And what is it about the story that makes them certain that it depicts actual events? The fact that the beggar has a name.
Thus far, no one has offered either a biblical or a logical basis for this “name” criterion. There is simply the assertion that the story is real because the beggar has a name. Someone might insist, “It’s the only story Jesus ever told where someone has a name, so it must be a true story.” Must it, really? Is this a fact, or an opinion?
Second, some commenters insist that since the text does not explicitly introduce the story as a parable, it has to be a true account of the experiences of the rich man and the beggar. We have, of course, no biblical doctrine on which to base this particular assumption.
To follow this reasoning, we would have to conclude that the story of the shrewd steward, found earlier in Luke 16, is also factual. As are the stories of the ten virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), the houses built on rock and sand (Luke 6:48-49), the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:23-34), the good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-36), the great banquet (Luke 14:16-24), plus two of the three stories in Luke 15. Most of these are widely considered to be parables. You might argue that some of them could be based on real-life situations, but they obviously function as parables – stories told to teach moral or doctrinal lessons. But none of them is introduced as a parable.
While the story is not introduced as a parable, there is another clue that it is actually a parable anyway. Jesus introduces the main character as “A CERTAIN RICH MAN” just as He introduces the main characters in at least seven other parables recorded in Luke:
Luke 12:16 – ” And he spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of A CERTAIN RICH MAN brought forth plentifully….”
Luke 13:6 – “He spake also this parable; A CERTAIN MAN had a fig tree….”
Luke 14:16 – “Then said he unto him, A CERTAIN MAN made a great supper….”
Luke 15:11 – “And he said, A CERTAIN MAN had two sons….”
Luke 16:1 – “And he said also unto his disciples, There was A CERTAIN RICH MAN….”
Luke 19:12 – “He said therefore, A CERTAIN NOBLEMAN went into a far country….”
Luke 20:9 – “Then began he to speak to the people this parable; A CERTAIN MAN planted a vineyard….”
This common style, used by Jesus in parables, supports the view that the tale of the rich man and Lazarus is also a parable, and not a literal, true story.
If you believe that Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is a literal and factual account of actual events, please ask yourself these questions:
After the two men die, do they go to their destinations as “spirits” set free from their bodies? If so, how can the rich man experience physical pain?
If they are disembodied spirits, do they then undergo some sort of bodily resurrection that restored their physical organs so that Lazarus has a finger and the rich man has eyes and a tongue?
Is Abraham’s bosom a literal or geographical place, or is it figurative/symbolic? And what about Abraham himself? Has he been resurrected…or is he a figurative/symbolic character?
If this is a true story, how can both the rich man and Lazarus receive their rewards before the second coming of Jesus? In the light of this, what is the meaning of Jesus’ words in Revelation 22:12? (“Behold, I am coming quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.”)