April 4, 2003
Luke 16:19-31 contains a story told by Jesus to a group of scribes and Pharisees who were grumbling and scoffing at Him (Luke 15:1-3; 16:14-15a) because He dared to show concern for tax-gatherers and sinners who were "coming near Him to listen to Him." These religious elitists regarded themselves as superior to other men, and had little to no concern for those less fortunate, nor for those they considered beneath contempt (which was most people, even many of their own fellow religionists who were not of their particular faction or sect).
The story Jesus conveyed to these rigid religionists and sectarian separatists has come to be known as The Rich Man and Lazarus. It was obviously given that day to impress an eternal truth upon the hearts and minds of these troubled scribes and Pharisees. The basic message, in my view, is that our eternal destiny is determined this side of physical death, and once we breathe our last and return to the dust of the ground our fate is forever fixed. Thus, if we expect to receive mercy and compassion at the judgment, we had better display it to others during our sojourn here on earth. "For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy" (James 2:13). This was a moral Truth the scribes and Pharisees desperately needed to hear, and Jesus conveyed it to them that day in the form of this story. After all, it was His common practice to convey eternal Truths in the form of common stories (Matthew 13:34 -- "...and He did not speak to them without a parable").
Most people have little problem with the major message of this passage of Scripture. The problem arises when seeking to determine the nature of the account itself. Is this a literal, historical account, or is this a parable? This has been hotly debated for many centuries, with reputable scholars and devoted disciples taking stands on both sides of the issue. My personal belief is that this is a parable, and therefore the figures employed should not be pressed into service to formulate a literal picture of disembodied souls or spirits in some Hadean holding place prior to the resurrection and judgment of the Last Day. Jesus simply told a parable to convey a spiritual truth to those still living, not to give us a peek into "the afterlife" to satisfy mankind's morbid curiosity. "Many have supposed that our Lord here refers to a 'real history,' and gives an account of some man who had lived in this manner; but of this there is no evidence. The probability is that this narrative is to be considered as a parable" (Albert Barnes, Barnes' Notes on the New Testament).
Brother Dillard Thurman, the late editor of Gospel Minutes, wrote, "After having studied this matter for over fifty years, I still firmly believe this is a parable. It begins with the identical introduction as that in Luke 16:1 -- 'There was a certain rich man...'" (Gospel Minutes, August 13, 1982). The parable just before the one in Luke 16:1 begins "A certain man..." (Luke 15:11). Thus, there seems to be a string of parables here each beginning similarly: "A certain man" (Luke 15:11) .... "A certain rich man" (Luke 16:1) .... "A certain rich man" (Luke 16:19). The context also clearly reveals that each of these stories was told to the same group of people: the grumbling, scoffing scribes and Pharisees. "This parable is addressed to the Pharisees, to whom Christ would scarcely have communicated details about the other world, on which He was so reticent in His teaching to the disciples" (Dr. Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book IV, p. 278).
The problem we are faced with in Christendom is that most of those in the traditional camp appeal to Luke 16:19-31 as a literal, historical account of the current disposition of disembodied spirit-beings. It has become the "crown jewel" in the apologetics of those who advocate an immortal soul and the perpetual torture of the unredeemed. "Many times over the years, I have observed that when all else fails, believers in the immortality of the soul will turn to the story of the rich man and Lazarus. This scripture, they apparently believe, is indisputable evidence that men, at death, go to a spirit world" (Sidney Hatch, Daring To Differ: Adventures in Conditional Immortality, p. 88).
"The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is often cited as the chief cornerstone in support of the postulate of man's inherent immortality and the endless duration of the incorrigibly wicked in sin and misery. It is frequently invoked to silence all dissent or question as to Immortal-Soulism. It is persistently set forth as proving beyond all peradventure that the souls of both the godly and the ungodly continue to live on uninterruptedly after death, separate from the body -- but which is simply Plato's contention that death is identical with life, only in another sphere" (Leroy Edwin Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers: The Conflict of the Ages Over the Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. 1, p. 234).
When dealing with a parable, as most reputable scholars believe this account to be, one must be very cautious not to assume literal meaning and application for the figures employed. The figures of a parable convey a message or truth, or embellish that message or truth in some way, but they themselves do not constitute that message or truth itself. Thus, one must never seek to base doctrine upon mere figures and symbols employed in figurative language. Dr. Edersheim stressed, "it will be necessary in the interpretation of this parable to keep in mind that its parabolic details must not be exploited, nor doctrines of any kind derived from them, either as to the character of the other world, the question of the duration of future punishments, or possible moral improvement of those in Gehinnom. All such things are foreign to the parable" (The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book IV, p. 277). "We must not look in this parabolic language for Christ's teaching about the 'after death'" (ibid, p. 279). "Doctrinal statements should not be drawn from parabolic illustrations" (ibid, p. 282).
Professor D. R. Dungan, in his classic book Hermeneutics: The Science of Interpreting the Scriptures, observed, "The parable in Luke 16:19-31, of the rich man and the poor man, has been made to mean almost everything within the range of theological speculation" (p. 234). Parables were not intended to be interpreted literally (as is, for example, historical narrative), something legitimate biblical hermeneutists clearly recognize. Parables are a distinct literary form. "The very reason we do not feel compelled to interpret the parables historically is that they are presented in a somewhat stylized fashion -- the reader or hearer is immediately aware that they belong to a different genre (literary type)" (Walter Kaiser and Moises Silva, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning, p. 106).
"Strictly speaking, the parable belongs to a style of figurative speech which constitutes a class of its own" (Dr. Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments, p. 276). "The general design of parables, as of all other kinds of figurative language, is to embellish and set forth ideas and moral truths in attractive and impressive forms" (ibid, p. 277).
The ancient Jews (as well as the pagans) were very fond of such stories, and there is a body of evidence, and thus some legitimate, scholarly speculation, that Jesus may well have employed a rather well-known contemporary story as He spoke to these scribes and Pharisees, a story with which these religious leaders would have been very familiar. This has led to much documentation of such accounts, many of which predate the Lord's story and are most striking in their similarity. "It seems appropriate to reopen this question and ask: Where should the origin of this parable be placed?" (The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4, p. 267). Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible informs us that "much of the study of the parable of Lazarus and Dives (Latin: 'rich man') in the 20th century has focused on possible literary antecedents" (p. 796-797).
"This parable is not theology. It is a vivid story, not a Baedeker's guide to the next world. Such stories as this were current in Jesus' day. They are found in rabbinical sources, and even in Egyptian papyri" (The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 8, p. 290). "Similar stories existed in Egypt and among the rabbis; Jesus could easily have adapted this tradition to his own purpose" (The Jerome Biblical Commentary). "This parable follows a story common in Egyptian and Jewish thought. .... This parable does not intend to give a topographical study of the abode of the dead, it is built upon and thus confirms common Jewish thought" (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, p. 94). The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 1 (online version) states that the imagery of this parable "is plainly drawn from the popular representations of the unseen world of the dead which were current in our Lord's time." "Jesus told this story to reinforce the fact that the riches of the Pharisees were not necessarily a sign of God's approval. Some interpreters suggest that the kernel of the story was a popular story of those times and possibly derived from an Egyptian source" (New Commentary on the Whole Bible, based on the classic commentary of Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown).
Josephus (a Jewish historian, c. 37-100 A.D.), in his work Discourse to the Greeks Concerning Hades (in which he notes that the concept of a soul being created immortal by God is "according to the doctrine of Plato"), presents a very similar story to that of our Lord's, including many of the same figures Jesus employed. Yes, he may have borrowed from the Lord's parable, but it is equally possible both were aware of such stories current in their culture. Several good reference works document and describe in some detail a good number of these stories that our Lord may have adapted to His own needs (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 797 .... Dr. James Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, Vol. 2, p. 18 .... The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 8, p. 289 .... The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4, p. 267 .... Edersheim's The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, Book IV, p. 280-281 .... Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? -- A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, p. 174-176).
My own personal conviction is that Jesus used or adapted a popular folktale well-known to His hearers for the purpose of conveying, by a means they would best comprehend and most easily remember, an eternal truth. "Jesus was accustomed to speak the language of His hearers in order to reach their understandings and hearts. And it is noteworthy how, when He employed Jewish imagery, He was wont to invest it with new significance" (Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, Vol. 2, p. 18).
"In the story, then, of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus has put them down with one of their own superstitions. ... He used their own ideas to condemn them. ... It is simply a case of taking what others believe, practice, or say, and using it to condemn them" (Sidney Hatch, Daring To Differ: Adventures in Conditional Immortality, p. 91). "Since the elements of the story are taken from the Pharisees' own traditions, they are judged out of their own mouths" (ibid, p. 92).
A far more important reason for regarding the story of the rich man and Lazarus as figurative rather than literal/historical, however, is the obvious conflict with the inspired Scriptures that occurs when it is regarded as an actual account of real people and real events. These, in my estimation, are extremely serious contradictions with revealed Truth. Notice the following problems associated with a literal, historical interpretation of Luke 16:19-31.
ONE --- It would teach that judgment and punishment of the dead has occurred prior to the resurrection and judgment on that great and final day! The Scriptures clearly and repeatedly teach that judgment and punishment (as well as reward) occur following the resurrection, NOT prior to it. The "blessed" Theophylact (perhaps the most learned exegete of the Greek Church during the 11th-12th century A.D.) observed, "This is a parable and not, as some have foolishly imagined, something which actually occurred. For good things have not yet been allotted to the righteous, nor punishments to the sinners" (The Explanation of the New Testament).
Until a decision has been rendered in judgment before the Great Throne, is it really reasonable and biblical to proclaim that men are cast into torment or carried off to a state of bliss? This would constitute judgment, sentencing and execution prior to the judgment, sentencing and execution on that Great Day following resurrection. "Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done" (Revelation 22:12). See also Matthew 25:31-46.
Judgment will occur "when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him" (Matt. 25:31). THEN the dead, who have been raised from the dust of the ground, will undergo judgment, and a great separation will occur, and some will "go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matt. 25:46). This judging and punishing does not occur prior to the resurrection on that last day! And yet if this parable is taken literally, it clearly contradicts the remainder of biblical teaching on this matter.
William Tyndale (1484 - 1536), in responding to Sir Thomas More, wrote -- "And ye, in putting them (the departed souls) in heaven, hell and purgatory, destroy the arguments wherewith Christ and Paul prove the resurrection." Tyndale argued that if souls were already in either bliss or misery, "then what cause is there of the resurrection?" And what cause is there even of judgment?! In another part of this same writing, Tyndale said -- "The true faith putteth forth the resurrection, which we be warned to look for every hour. The heathen philosophers, denying that, did put that the soul did ever live. And the Pope joineth the spiritual doctrine of Christ and the fleshly doctrine of philosophers together; things so contrary that they cannot agree. And because the fleshly-minded Pope consenteth unto heathen doctrine, therefore he corrupteth the Scripture to stablish it. If the soul be in heaven, tell me what cause is there for the resurrection?"
With regard to such prior rewards or punishments, brother Dillard Thurman wrote, "There is never a hint in God's word that this takes place before the general resurrection at the coming of Christ, our Savior!" (Gospel Minutes, Feb. 1, 1985). "You will enter into rest and rise again for your allotted portion at the end of the age" (Daniel 12:13). "The day is coming ... the day which I am preparing," says the Lord of hosts; a day "burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze ... and they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet" (Malachi 4:1-3). This is not the day of one's death, but that Final Day when "those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake" to judgment and punishment (Daniel 12:2). This parable of the rich man and Lazarus, however, if taken literally, stands in direct and dramatic opposition to these divine Truths conveyed repeatedly in both OT and NT writings.
"A literal interpretation of the parable contradicts some fundamental biblical truths. If the narrative is literal, then Lazarus received his reward and the rich man his punishment, immediately after death and before the judgment day. But the Bible clearly teaches that the rewards and punishments, as well as the separation between the saved and the unsaved, will take place on the day of Christ's coming" (Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? -- A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, p. 174).
"To use this parable as proof that men receive their rewards at death is squarely to contradict Christ Himself, who explicitly states that the righteous and the wicked receive their reward 'when the Son of man shall come in his glory.' He definitely placed the recompense at the resurrection, the time of harvest, and end of the world" (Leroy Edwin Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers: The Conflict of the Ages Over the Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. 1, p. 261). "Furthermore, if the narrative is literal, then the beggar received his reward and the rich man his punishment immediately upon death, in the interim before the judgment day and the consequent separation of the good and evil. But such a procedure is repugnant to all justice. Paul said that God 'hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness' (Acts 17:31). That was still future in apostolic times" (ibid, p. 262).
"The Pharisees had made God's Word void, as concerns the condition of the dead, by their 'traditions' derived from pagan Platonic philosophy, which in turn had been borrowed from Egypt, Babylon, and Persia. So it was that Dives is here pictured as in a place of torment, living in insufferable flames. It was simply Hebraized Platonism, and was in no way condoned or endorsed by Christ" (ibid, p. 262-263). Thus, on this one point alone we must completely reject the notion that this account is either literal or historical. To accept it as such places it in direct conflict with the remainder of Scripture on the subject of final punishment. Thus, for this reason alone the particulars of the parable must be regarded as figurative.
TWO --- To embrace this parable as literal, historical narrative would also make one guilty of promoting the view of a mortal man inherently possessing an immortal soul or spirit. Such is simply not taught in Scripture, and constitutes pagan dualism. The Lord "alone possesses immortality" (1 Tim. 6:16), and immortality for man (the whole man) is entirely derived, and will not be "put on" until after the resurrection, "at the last trumpet," and only then by the redeemed (1 Cor. 15:50f).
In point of fact, this parable doesn't even mention "souls" or disembodied "spirits." That is an assumption of biased interpreters. If this account is of disembodied spirits (ethereal beings devoid of bodies and bodily organs), then is it not strange that the account speaks of eyes, a tongue and a finger? --- real physical body parts! And what relief would a drop of water on a tongue serve to a spirit? Would it provide any relief? Would it not vaporize in the flame?! Or is all of this figurative also, just like the rest of the parable? I believe that is exactly the case!
"Contenders for literalism suppose that the rich man and Lazarus were disembodied spirits, destitute of bodies," yet "they are portrayed as existing physically, despite the fact that the rich man's body was duly buried in the grave. Was his body carried away into Hades together with his soul by mistake?" (Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? -- A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, p. 173). Brother Dillard Thurman declared that this "fanciful notion" of some bodily presence in a Hadean holding area "won't hold any more water than the rich man could dip his finger in! If fingers and tongues were still in the grave, or if they were figurative, then this must be accepted as a parable, and treated as such!" (Gospel Minutes, June 22, 1984). "The passage says nothing about souls or spirit-beings. Furthermore, this would contradict the entire teaching of Scripture, from Genesis 2:7 on, regarding the nature of man. A soul is a living breathing creature, not a ghost" (Sidney Hatch, Daring To Differ: Adventures in Conditional Immortality, p. 90).
Again, nothing is said whatsoever in this parable about either "souls" or "spirits." There is absolutely no indication at all that Jesus is talking about some "immortal something" trapped in our physical bodies that flies off to some Hadean holding area at the moment of physical death. To promote such a view is contrary to the teaching of Scripture on the nature of man. Jesus simply made use of a common story, which reflected current Jewish/pagan thinking, to convey a moral message to His hearers.
THREE --- Scripture also makes it abundantly clear that the GRAVE (Hades, Sheol) is not a place of conscious activity for the dead. The dead "sleep" in the dust of the ground, they are not holding conversations with other departed, disembodied spirits across vast chasms. "The Scriptures teach that the death state is one of quiet, silent, unconscious sleep. How much more evidence is necessary to convince any reasonable person that this is simply a story which Jesus told in order to make a point with His adversaries?" (ibid). "The resurrection from the grave will be the time for happiness and bliss for God's saints. It is not when they are yet asleep in Jesus" (Dillard Thurman, Gospel Minutes, Feb. 1, 1985).
"A literal interpretation of the parable also contradicts the uniform testimony of the Old and New Testaments that the dead, both righteous and ungodly, lie silent and unconscious in death until the resurrection day" (Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, Immortality or Resurrection? -- A Biblical Study on Human Nature and Destiny, p. 174).
FOUR --- "Jesus was also not teaching that lost souls have the privilege of praying to patriarchs long dead, who will answer from another realm!" (Dillard Thurman, Gospel Minutes, Aug. 13, 1982). If this parable is to be taken literally, however, we have lost souls praying to people like Abraham, and Abraham answering! There is apparently (if taken literally) a "vast gulf" between the two "compartments of Hades," and yet are we to suppose they can freely converse among each other? I guess sound carries well in the spirit realm!!
"Since we deride the Catholics for praying to 'the Virgin Mary,' a host of saints, etc., how can we keep a straight face and advocate that folk offer their prayers to Abraham after death? But not only did the rich man pray, his prayer was answered!" (Dillard Thurman, Gospel Minutes, June 22, 1984). "But there is also a flaw in Abraham! He acts as judge and jury, by-passing both God and His Son with his decree. He even accepts the term 'father,' though Jesus taught 'And call no man your father upon the earth; for one is your Father, which is in heaven' (Matt. 23:9). If this be a factual, historical report, it opens up Pandora's Box .... and raises more devils than we can cast out!" (ibid).
As Leroy Edwin Froom points out in his massive two volume work (over 2000 pages of extensive research), "a literal application breaks down under the weight of its own absurdities and contradictions" (The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers: The Conflict of the Ages Over the Nature and Destiny of Man, Vol. 1, p. 260). "Pagan Platonism, polluting the Jewish faith, which Jesus cited but did not endorse in this legendary fable-parable, should never be allowed to corrupt sound Christian doctrine" (ibid, p. 269). "The story of Dives and Lazarus was never designed to teach conditions on the other side of death. That is an extraneous contention that has been introduced without warrant. It is fallacious as an argument and is unworthy of the name of sound exegesis" (ibid).
"Parables were used by the Lord to teach truths; and after the primary truths are gleaned, the parable should not be distended and distorted to cover that which the Lord did not intend!" (Dillard Thurman, Gospel Minutes, Aug. 13, 1982). This is exactly what many have done with this particular parable of our Lord. They have forced literalism upon the figures of this story, and in so doing they actually perpetuate the pagan perceptions which found their way into the doctrines of ancient Judaism and Christendom. Any passage of Scripture taken out of context becomes a pretext! In this case, a pretext for the continued promotion of false teaching with regard to the nature of man and his eternal destiny.
For many reasons, therefore, I completely and unequivocally reject Luke 16:19-31 as anything other than a parable, likely based on common lore, representing the eternal truth that our eternal destinies are determined by our actions and attitudes in this life, and that one's fate is forever fixed at death. To fabricate a theology of disembodied spirits and Hadean holding cells and everlasting torture of the wicked from this passage is an unconscionable abuse of biblical interpretation and should be rejected by all disciples intent upon discerning and declaring Truth rather than perpetuating the tedious tenets of paganistic Tradition.
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