Is the story of the rich man and Lazarus found in Luke 16 an eyewitness account of Hades?
Many think so.
But in reality, as vivid and disturbing as the details of the rich man’s torments are, none of the characters in the story were permitted a leave of absence so they could tell the world of his new surroundings, which would be necessary for the parable to be a true eyewitness account.
Various stories of people who had visited the underworld were circulated in Jesus’ time, and we still hear of new stories today. But a pivotal motif in these stories is that the persons who have gone on these post-mortem tours invariably come back to us with their tales. That’s how their experiences become known to us. They return. Some leave us temporarily and are brought back, some are among the departed yet manage to revisit us temporarily, but in some shape or form, they return.
However, in the account of the rich man and Lazarus, there is no such return. A request for a return is made by the rich man to allow for Lazarus to be sent to warn his brothers, but the request is denied. This is where the story sets itself apart from the others. In the popular telling of such stories, the request is invariably granted and the individual returns to relay new, hidden, shocking information to the living. This story has a different end. Abraham rejects the rich man’s request, “They have Moses and the Prophets, let them listen to them”.1 Lazarus stays put. To this the rich man remains persistent that what is needed is an eyewitness description of his fate, he objects “No, Father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent”.2 Once again, Abraham refuses to comply.
Richard Bauckham writes,
“The means of revelation which the reader expects it to acquire as the story proceeds are denied it. The story in effect deprives itself of any claim to offer an apocalyptic glimpse of the secrets of the world beyond the grave. It cannot claim eyewitness authority as a literal description of the fate of the dead. It only has the status of a parable. It is part of a story told to make a point. The point is no more than the law and the prophets say – and that no more than the law and the prophets is required”.3
Twice Abraham’s refusal redirects our attention to Moses and the prophets. Why is that? Are the rich man and Abraham talking past each other? Surely the fate of the rich man is brand new territory, why doesn’t Abraham grant his request? Or does he?
First, hopefully without sounding too abrasive by stating the obvious, neither Moses nor any of the Prophets ever returned from the grave with a message detailing the afterlife. Not in any way that would mirror what the rich man was requesting. Nobody will be sent from the underworld to converse with his brothers. That’s not the way it’s done, neither with Lazarus, with Moses, nor anybody else. “As the cloud fades and vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol4 does not come up; he returns no more to his house, nor does his place know him anymore.”5
NT Wright summarizes,
“The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is to be treated precisely as a parable, not as a literal description of the afterlife and its possibilities. It is therefore inappropriate to use it as prima facie evidence for Jesus’ own sketching of a standard post-mortem scenario”.6
However, even though Abraham is determined to reject the rich man’s method of jolting his brothers to attention, he does in fact point out they have been issued sufficient evidence. They have the word of God, and the plea placed on Abraham’s lips is to redirect focus to the scriptures. Wright continues,
“This statement (Lk16:31) looks on to the eventual resurrection of Jesus himself, warning that those who have not believed the scriptures (Moses and the Prophets)7 will not be convinced by such an event, and thus foreshadowing the risen Jesus’ insistence that the meaning of the resurrection is to be found in the scriptures”.8
You see, while treating the parable as a literal eyewitness account is fraught with issues that serve to capsize OT scriptures, we needn’t swing the pendulum too far to the other extreme and throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. In the one hand, the request itself being made to Abraham is a little misleading. Abraham doesn’t have the authority or power to grant resurrection or even temporal revival. It’s not Abraham’s call.9
Yet on the other hand, all is not lost. “The possibility is envisaged that Lazarus might return from the dead, but Abraham forbids that it should happen”10 but the very possibility of resurrection is left on the table. A theme of optimism and anticipation can be drawn from the story. Lurking behind the parable is the “story without precedent”.11 Is there really life after death? Yes. This was achieved Easter Sunday, by the One who has the authority to take up His life again12 That which was once a one-way passage has been breached. And of this resurrection fact, we have many eyewitness accounts!13
- Luke 16:29
- Luke 16:30
- Richard Bauckham, The Fate of the Dead, Brill, Leiden Netherlands, 1998. p.117
- Sheol: Old Testament equivalent to Hades
- Job 7:9,10
- NT Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, p.437
- parentheses mine
- Wright, Resurrection of Son, p. 347
- If one takes Abraham as the literal person, then the request is misdirected to one who doesn’t have the ability to fulfill it. If one sees Abraham as a metaphorical stand-in for an authority figure it adds to the likelihood of the story being parabolic.
- Wright, Resurrection, p. 438
- term borrowed from NT Wright
- John 10:18
- 1st Corinthians 15: 4-8