The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

In all the Bible there is only one passage that at first seems to suggest conscious suffering in death: Luke 16:19-31. The inspired testimony of the rest of Scripture teaches that death is a sleep and punishment is future. The purpose of this parable was not to describe the state of the dead, but it does teach several other important points.

It definitely teaches that every person will reap what he sows. God will not bend the rules in order to spare those who have consistently spurned His grace. The parable teaches that it is in this life that men decide their eternal destiny. While they are alive God's grace is offered to all people. But if they selfishly waste their lives, and fail to take eternity into consideration now, they have lost their opportunity for eternal life. There will be no chance to repent after they die.

The parable also is a warning to those who trust in their riches rather than in God. And it shows that the time is coming when those who are poor in this world's goods but have trusted in God, will be exalted.

When the parable is closely examined, it is doubtful that anyone would claim its details as the basis for a doctrinal position on the subject of life after death. The details certainly do not present the beliefs of those who teach the immediate torment of a bodiless "soul" at death.

For example:

  1. In the parable, there is no mention of a bodiless soul at all. The rich man was in hell with a body. He had eyes, a tongue, etc. No one believes that the bodies of the wicked go into the flames as soon as they die.
  2. Nobody believes that Abrahams's literal bosom is the abode of the righteous dead. In keeping with the nature of the allegory, this is obviously a figure of speech. Incidently, the angels will gather the saints (verse 22), but according to Matthew 24:31, that takes place at the coming of Jesus, not at death.
  3. Another point is that paradise and hades are here pictured to be so situated that their inhabitants may hold normal conversation with each other across the gulf. But the Bible says that for the redeemed, the former earth will "not be remembered, nor come into mind" (Isaiah 65:17).
  4. The rich man's request in verse 24 is hardly characteristic of someone in his condition. His whole body is on fire, and all he asks for is that Lazarus dip the tip of his finger in water and then come and touch his tongue! How much relief could he expect to get from that? Especially after Lazarus has to traverse the gulf and make his way through the flames to get to him. How much moisture did he think would be left on his finger after such a journey? No one believes that this type of thing takes place between the righteous and the wicked after death.
  5. In speaking of the request for Lazarus to go and warn the rich man's living brothers, the Bible says that Lazarus would have had to have "rose from the dead." (Verse 31). Far from supporting the idea of conscious communication or mobility in death, this gives support to the fact that in order for Lazarus to do anything at all he would have to be resurrected!
  6. In the parable, Jesus points us to the source of divine instruction: "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them" (verse 29). That is where we must look to learn the fate of the wicked.
Jesus made the details of His story so obviously unreal that no one would take them literally. He wanted His hearers instead to focus on the lessons brought out in the parable.

Apart from the intended point or moral of the story we cannot base doctrinal beliefs on the incidentals of an allegory. For instance, a thistle cannot ask for the daughter of a cedar for the wife of its son (2 Kings 14:9). Neither can trees go forth to anoint a king over themselves (Judges 9:8-15). When dealing with parables, ask yourself, "What is the speaker trying to illustrate by this parable?" Then if you want to know about the nature of trees or the nature of dead people, go to a passage where that is the topic of discussion.