It’s everyone’s favorite biblical parable! Well, at least for those who are looking to explain what happens when we die. A favorite—do doubt. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misunderstood stories in the Bible.
While many people believe this was Jesus’ way of telling us that the dead go on to live as disembodied spirits, was it? Is that really the message that Jesus was trying to convey?
A close evaluation of this story may actually suggest something different. For those who are not familiar with the tale, it appears in Luke 16:19-31. I will now provide a brief sample from The Death Myth, in order to briefly explain the parable.
“Essentially, the story goes as follows: there is an unnamed wealthy man who encounters a poor beggar named Lazarus on his way to and from his estate, on what is apparently a regular basis. The rich man “lives in luxury every day,” while Lazarus is financially destitute and is living on the streets outside the rich man’s property. To make matters worse, Lazarus is most likely a leper (v.20), and is regarded by others as being even lower than the dogs that came to lick his wounds. Though not directly stated, it is clearly inferred that the rich man cared nothing for Lazarus and was quite content to maintain their radically different living conditions. Thus, the story tells of a cruel-minded person of means and a kind-hearted person of poverty. For this reason, it is strongly implied that Lazarus was religiously faithful and the rich man was spiritually bankrupt.”
As the story progresses, we learn what becomes of these two men after they die. Good old Lazarus goes on to a place of peace and comfort, called “Abraham’s bosom.” Meanwhile, the rich man heads to the dark side of the underworld, called “Hades.” The script had been completely flipped; the suffering man had been rewarded with a good life, and the nasty miser was now being treated to a life of torment.
This parable is one of the central texts used as evidence that the soul continues to live apart from the body during the “interim period”—that is, the time between death and the resurrection (i.e. where the dead are right now). It seems so straightforward. Good people die and go to a good place, and bad people die and go to a bad place. And this happens immediately after death.
Not quite. There are serious problems with using this parable in such a way. The first problem is the most obvious one—this parable is, well, really a parable! Jesus’ favorite teaching method was to use short, fictitious stories (parables) to teach people important lessons about real life. The stories themselves were not literally true, but they were most definitely spiritually true. The events didn’t happen, but the lessons they reveal are very real.
I know of no other parable that is taken literally in all of Scripture. Not one. And to be sure, this story is absolutely a parable. It is chock-full of imagery, like chasms and fire. It follows a string of other parables within the Gospel of Luke (the Lost Sheep, the Lost Son, the Shrewd Manager, etc.). It even has unknown, or even purposely unnamed, characters. We don’t know who Lazarus was; this was almost certainly not the Lazarus that Jesus raised from the dead. The “rich man” isn’t even given a name. If being named (or unnamed) is what determines whether or not a character really existed, then it appears that at least half of the story is fictional right out of the gate.
Friends, this parable is viewed literally by many people for one reason: a literal reading would lead us to believe that we will live apart from our bodies when we die. Beyond this story, the evidence for that belief is quite scarce, and is also typically based on more metaphor.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that a literal reading of this parable goes against the most common belief about the state of the dead: that believers die and go to heaven. Both cannot be true at the same time. We might go to Abraham’s bosom, or we might go to heaven, but we can’t do both. The same applies to Hades and hell. That’s for sure.
What, then, is the purpose of Jesus’ story? If it doesn’t tell us what happens during the interim period, what does it tell us? In my mind, it tells us two major things.
First, it tells us that there is going to be life after death (ultimately), and that the choices we make now will determine what that life looks like. As I have said many times, the whole discussion of the afterlife within the Bible revolves around the return of Jesus and the resurrection. At that time, we will receive the reward or punishment that is due to us.
Along with that, it also shows that there will be a “reversal of fortunes” that occurs in the afterlife. Those who righteously suffered will be exalted, while the unrighteous will be debased.
Second, the story tells us that there will never be enough evidence to appease those who desire more and more of it. The rich man begs (as Lazarus once did, ironically) Abraham to send a messenger to warn his family that they are heading for their doom as well. Abraham told him no; absolutely not! They had the Scriptures to learn this lesson from. Besides, they wouldn’t change anyway. Not even if a dead person rose to pay them a visit! (see Luke 16:29-31 for this dialogue)
There will never be enough “proof” for some people. Many who saw the risen Christ didn’t even believe it!
Jesus’ parable of the Rich man and Lazarus has a rightful place as one of his finest teaching tales. It warns all of us about unbelief, and the incredible results of it. It shows us that all people will one-day be righteously judged and appropriately sentenced. It even shows us that God has already offered all the proof we need, and that a rejection of that proof will result in an afterlife of anguish and separation from God.
It does not, however, illustrate what literally happens to each of us at the moment we die. In other words, this parable is really a parable.
Thank you for reading! If you found this blog interesting, please see all the other posts on this site. You can purchase The Death Myth by clicking here.