I almost decided to change the title of this article for the sole reason that the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus is not about the final fate of the wicked. Luke 16:23 tells us that the rich man was in hades. In the New Testament, the word “hades” is the Greek counterpart to the Hebrew word Sheol. These terms never refer to the final fate of the wicked in either the Old or New Testament. Instead, it always refers to the grave, or, as Thayer called it, “the common receptacle of disembodied spirits” (http://biblehub.com/greek/86.htm). The point here is that this is not the final fate of the wicked. Instead, as most have deemed it, this would describe an intermediate state before the wicked and righteous are sentenced to their eternal fates.
Furthermore, this story obviously takes place before the final resurrection. This was not some futuristic story of the finality of the wicked and righteous. This story, as it was told by Jesus, had already taken place. This means that there is no way that this could be speaking of the finality of the wicked because the story takes place before the resurrection of the dead. It is only after the resurrection of the dead that a final judgment on the wicked and righteous can take place (Acts 24:15; Mt. 25:31-46; Jn. 5:28-29). Regardless of your view on eschatology, this story that Jesus told took place before the resurrection of the dead. Therefore, it cannot be about the final fate of the wicked. In other words, at best, this story could only be applied to an intermediate and temporal state. It could not be applied to a final fate. Thus, pressing every detail of this story as true, one still must concede that this is not a story about the final fate of the wicked. Any attempt to do such would be a misapplication.
Of course, the above information assumes that the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus was an actual historical event and not just a parable. I do not believe that this point can be sustained and I will explain why. There are three major arguments as to why some believe this is an actual story and not a parable.
The first argument is that Jesus never calls this a parable. For example, there are clear times when Jesus’ stories are designated as parables. Examples of this would include: The Sower and The Seed (Luke 8:4); The Prosperous Farmer (Luke 12:16); The Barren Fig Tree (Luke 13:6) and The Wedding Feast (Luke 14:7). Since the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus is never explicitly called a parable in Luke, then the argument concludes it must not be a parable.
However, the fallacy with this reasoning is that it assumes that in order for a parable to be a parable, then the text must somehow explicitly say such. This is simply not true. There are many stories in the New Testament, especially in Luke, that are unanimously accepted as parables even though they never explicitly say so (e.g., Lk. 7:41-43; Lk. 10:25-37; Lk. 15:11-32; Lk. 16:1-8; See also: Mt. 25:1-3; Mt. 25:14-30; etc.). Therefore, one cannot conclude that The Rich Man and Lazarus cannot be a parable on the basis that the text doesn’t explicitly say so.
The second argument is that Jesus uses real names in this story, such as Abraham and Lazarus (Lk. 16:20, 25). Therefore, since real names are used, this must be a real story and not a parable. I disagree with this conclusion because to say that this story cannot be a parable because it uses real names is a presupposition built upon assumptive criteria, not proven criteria. In other words, where does the Bible ever state that in order for a parable to be a parable real names cannot be used?
I could just as well assume that any story that had a literal location or literal group of people named must be a real story and not a parable. Yet, there are stories that, once again, are unanimously accepted as parables but speak of real places and/or real groups of people. For example, the parable of The Good Samaritan speaks of Jerusalem (Lk. 10:30), Jericho (Lk. 10:30), a Levite (Lk. 10:32) and a Samaritan (Lk. 10:33). Does this mean that this can’t be a parable because it uses real places and real groups of people in the story?
With self-imposed criteria, one can either (incorrectly) quality or disqualify a story from being a parable at their own subjective choosing. For example, the parable of The Wise and Foolish Virgins is the only parable to mention virgins (Mt. 25:1-3). Therefore, should I conclude it isn’t a parable since none of the other parables mention virgins? The fact remains that there’s no objective biblical criteria that someone can point to in order to disqualify The Rich Man and Lazarus from being a parable simply because it uses real names any more than there’s objective biblical criteria that someone can point to in order to disqualify The Good Samaritan because it mentions real places and real groups of people. Therefore, one cannot conclude that The Rich Man and Lazarus cannot be a parable on the basis that it uses real names. This argument is founded upon self-imposed, subjective criteria. It is not founded upon biblical, objective criteria.
The third argument is that parables never use a non-truth to illustrate a truth. Therefore, even if this is a parable then all of the events in the story are actually real. In other words, think of the “based on a true story” idea. This argument states that even though The Rich Man and Lazarus may not be a true story itself, all of the ideas presented in the story are true. Once again, I believe that this argumentation is very flawed. The fact of the matter is that a parable can use a fictitious story with figurative language in order to teach truth.
In Judges 9:7-15, Jotham tells a parable about trees going to anoint a king over themselves. The trees have a discussion with a fig tree, a vine and bramble. This parable was given in order to teach several lessons such as the contrast between Gideon’s refusal of the kingship and the arrogant claim of the son of his concubine; the other sons (or many respectable members of the community) had qualities which entitled them to rule; it was left to the mean ‘bramble’ to claim the rank of king.
It was also a warning to the Shechemites of the dangerous character of their upstart chief; his protection was worthless if they trusted him, and if they did not he would be their ruin. Finally, this was a rebuke of the Shechemites for their ingratitude towards the house of Gideon. Obviously, the parable itself is a complete non-truth. Trees don’t go and talk to each other and have discussions with vines. However, there was a truth to be illustrated. Therefore, a parable can indeed be a non-truth in order to illustrate a truth.
Now that we have examined the major three arguments as to why some claim that The Rich Man and Lazarus cannot be a parable, I want to briefly explain why I believe that it is indeed a parable. The following are the reasons as to why I believe The Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable.
First, the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus is in the context of Jesus teaching on parables. There are parables before and parables after. Therefore, it would make logical sense that this is a parable since it is in the context of other parables.
Second, the language used to begin the story is identical to many of the other parables that Jesus taught, especially in Luke (Like 12:16; 13:6; 14:16; 15:11; 16:1; 18:1, 2; 18:9, 10; 19:11, 12; 20:9). The beginning of The Rich Man and Lazarus follows suite with how parables would typically begin (e.g., “There was a certain…”).
Third, the language used is also highly figurative. For example, the story depicts the wicked conversing with the righteous (Lk. 16:24). It speaks of physical body parts such as eyes, fingers and tongues (Lk. 16:23-24). This is before the resurrection, therefore how can these “disembodied spirits” have physical body parts? The whole story itself is very, very figurative. To take one element of this story and press it as being literal while brushing off other elements is inconsistent. Therefore, I believe this is a parable due to the context of where the story is in Luke, the way in which the parable begins and the highly figurative language used. Furthermore, there is no evidence that would exclude it from being a parable.
Interestingly enough, it would be amiss to not mention that the plot of The Rich Man and Lazarus was well-known folklore before and during the time of Jesus. Hugo Gressmann cites a Greek Parallel from a first-century Egyptian papyrus, and he says there are at least seven versions of the story in Jewish literature. One of the most famous involved a poor student of the Law and a rich publican named Bar Ma’jan. There are differences between these stories and Jesus’, of course, and therein lies the Lord’s uniqueness (Fudge. The Fire That Consumes, pp.203-204).
But it is possible that Jesus repurposed a common folk tale already familiar to His audience, but in which the fates were reversed. Usually it was the rich man who was favored by God in the fables. Jesus turns the familiar tale on its head to teach his hearers that riches are not necessarily evidence of God’s favor, and that heartless refusal to care for the needs of the poor and suffering invites God’s judgment.
He also uses the opportunity to teach, it would seem, that repentance is not permitted after death and that many will not even repent if convinced that someone has risen from the dead (as Jesus would soon be). Of course, even if Jesus was not borrowing from common folklore, the application just mentioned would be the same. But I do believe that it is interesting to note that this was a basic plot in several well-known stories circulating before and during Jesus lifetime.
In conclusion, no matter how we take Jesus’ story—whether as familiar folklore, unique parable or even historical narrative, the story is only in reference to the intermediate state. No matter how you slice it, it’s not about final punishment.
– Kevin Pendergrass