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.
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. (a) 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 (b) 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!
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.