The Rich Man and Lazarus and hell

Rich Man and LazarusFrom Life, Death and Destiny ( 1st Edition) by Warren Prestidge

What does the Rich Man and Lazarus teach us about hell?

In Luke 16:19-31, we find Jesus’ famous story about a rich man who went to torment after death, while Lazarus, a poor man who had passed a miserable existence outside the rich man’s gate, went to “Abraham’s bosom”. Does not this passage, then, teach that the wicked pass at death to torment in hell, while the righteous go immediately to bliss? My answer, and that of most reputable scholars today, is: no.

there is no doubt that this is a parable

First, there is no doubt that this is a parable, not a report of actual events.It begins the same way many parables do: “There was a (rich) man…” (verse 19; compare Lk 16:1, 15:11, 14:16).As Craig Blomberg puts it, therefore, this is undoubtedly “a fictitious narrative.”1 As with any parable, it is essential to distinguish between what it says and what it teaches. For example, the parable in the first half of this same chapter of Luke speaks of a steward cheating his master and says: good on him! But Jesus is not teaching that we should cheat our bosses.What He is teaching that we should give to the poor, in view of God’s coming reckoning.That, also, is what the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is teaching.The story is simply a vehicle for this teaching.

And a very effective vehicle, too. Why?

Because, second, here Jesus is making ironical use of popular and Pharisaic lore. This is not a story which Jesus has made up “from scratch”. He is using a story the Pharisees themselves might have used, but turning it against them. There is a consensus about this amongst scholars.

“In this parable Jesus is using a familiar folk-tale and adapting it to a new purpose by adding an unfamiliar twist to the end of it.The story of the wicked rich man and the pious poor man, whose fortunes were reversed in the afterlife, seems to have come originally from Egypt, and was popular among Jewish teachers.The picture of the fate in store for the good and the evil after death is also drawn from traditional Jewish sources…”2

“The general motif of this story found its way into Jewish lore, and it is attested in some seven versions.”3

“Probably…a parable which made use of current Jewish thinking and is not intended to teach anything about the state of the dead.”4

Third, as it stands the story is simply irreconcilable with biblical teaching elsewhere.

  1. This is the only place in the Bible where the dead are depicted as suffering in “hades” (or “sheol”, the Old Testament equivalent). Everywhere else, the word “hades” (verse 23) “has its Old Testament meaning, Sheol. It simply means death or the realm of death.”5 It is a place or state of “corruption” (Acts 2:27).“In the Bible, the ‘underworld’ is never hell but the place of the dead awaiting judgment.”6
  2.  Elsewhere in the Bible, punishment or reward occurs only at the second coming of Christ, the “day of the Lord” (II Thess. 5:1-3), “at the resurrection of the just” (Lk. 14:14).7 Yet this parable is certainly set prior to that day, for the brothers of the rich man are still alive on earth (verse 28).No resurrection or Last Judgment has occurred yet!

To warn the godless wealthy about their need for repentance in this life

No, Jesus is not endorsing the story’s paraphernalia. He is using it simply to meet his opponents, the Pharisees, on their own ground: using a story familiar to them, in order to convict them out of their own mouths, as it were, for both their indifference to the poor and their contemptuous dismissal of His own teaching and mission.Luke 16:14 says, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money…ridiculed him.” Now, Jesus turns the tables.But all that He actually endorses here is “Moses and the prophets” (verse 29).So then, “…it was not the intention of Jesus…to give a topographical guide to the underworld.” 8 “…he does not intend here to give a preview of life after death. On this almost all commentators agree.” 9

To conclude, this from Craig Blomberg:
One of the most misinterpreted of Jesus’ parables is the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31), which has been used repeatedly to provide in great detail a realistic description of life after death. In fact, the picture of the rich man in Sheol and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom separated by a chasm but able to call to each other across it is paralleled by popular Jewish and Egyptian folk-tales. Jesus may have simply adopted well-known imagery but then adapted it in a new and surprising way to warn the godless wealthy about their need for repentance in this life before their fate is sealed…10

  1. Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1987, p.23. []
  2. G. B. Caird, Saint Luke, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd, 1968, p.191 []
  3. I H Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1979, p.633 []
  4. G. E. Ladd, “Eschatology”, in The New Bible Dictionary, 1963, p.388. []
  5. E. E. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 1981, p.157 []
  6. E. Schweizer, The Good News According to Luke, London: S.P.C.K., E.T.1984, p.261. []
  7. Compare, e.g., Matt. 10:15, 25:31-46; Lk. 9:23-26; John 5:28-29; Acts 17:31; Rom. 2:16; II Tim. 4:8; Rev. 20:13. []
  8. G. B. Caird, Saint Luke, p.191 []
  9. E. E. Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, p.202 []
  10. Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, pp.22-23. []

About Warren Prestidge

Warren Prestidge (M.A., B.D. Hons) is a Baptist pastor. His first degree was in English and he has taught at Auckland University and at secondary school. Since 1981, he has pastored churches in Auckland and also lectured for the Bible College of New Zealand and Tyndale College. For two years he directed a Bible College in the Philippines. He authored Life, Death and Destiny. Warren’s wife Jackie, is a mathematics teacher. Warren and Jackie have three adult sons.


  1. There is a very long but useful treatment of this parable in LeRoy Edwin Froom’s, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, Vol. 1, pages 234-269. (This rare work was published in 1966 by Review and Herald Publishing Association Washington DC.)It endorses and develops the discussion above.

    Ray Bromham

  2. David the Hobbit says:

    While this is likely an old story that our Lord used as a parable, He would not have used something that was doctrinally incorrect. That would make Him a liar…and the devil is the Father of Lies; God can neither deceive nor be deceived. Also, Jesus promised the thief next to him on Calvary that that thief would be with Him in Paradise that day. Jesus most certainly believed in an interim afterlife as did St. Paul. Annihilationism and soul sleep are simply put…heresies.

  3. Elena Kulakova says:

    Excellent parallel with Luke 16:1-9, which is addressed to the disciples, indicating that the money given away is the money gained.

    This idea got pharisees into laughter. They obviously had a real problem with the issue of money, and did not see that the money stopped them from serving God.
    What kind of heart must someone have to laugh at this idea?? The only way to show how wrong they were was to tell them employing the authority of Abraham.

    In the end the Abraham points listeners to the TORA and the prophets, which is a part of the Old Testament, saying that they will not repent, because they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, but follow their own folklore instead.

  4. You havd said that Jesus “would not have used something that was doctrinally incorrect”. Are you sure you understand what you have just stated? It is important you know, to distinguish between the content of a parable which are used merely as props to set the stage for a lesson, and the actual lesson which it is intended to convey.
    Earlier in The very same chapter of Luke in which this parable is found, Jesus endorses the lord of the unjust steward commending him for his wisdom in his dishonesty, evenstating that the worldly are wiser than the children of light. Was Jesus here setting a new doctrinal and ethical imperative? And if the worldly are wiser than believers as Jesus Himself states, shouldn’t believers then strive to become more worldly? Notice He was using incorrect doctrine for the purpose of meeting the minds of His listeners, in order to get a specific central point to their understanding.
    In Matthew 25, Jesus gives the parable of ten virgins five who were wise and five foolish. Was He saying that half of the people in the world will be saved and half lost? Certainly not! For He Himself tells us elsewhere that the many will tale the broad way while the few take the straight and narrow way. But if you were to take the parable literally as to doctrine, you will have to agree that Jesus was teaching that exactly half will be saved and half lost. Your argument above therefore is not valid. To not see that both parables of Luke 16 are not about doctrinal soundness, but rather about stewardship and the danger of not being good stewards of the goods entrusted to us, by God, is to miss the point of both.


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