The question is often asked, is the account of the rich man and Lazarus a historical account or is it a parable? Is it the true story of two men who lived and died during the time of Christ’s earthly ministry or is it a made-up story used by the Lord to drive home a point? I believe that the evidence is that it describes an actual history of these two men.
By definition, a parable is a true-to-life story used to illustrate or illuminate a truth. This is true even if all of the details never occurred exactly as presented in the story. They are special stories that may, or may not, reflect historical events. Nevertheless, they must be true-to-life. By true-to-life we mean that a parable must be based on a real-life situation that the hearers are familiar with. In other words, the story itself has to be based on events that could have happened, whether they ever actually did or not.
Our English word “parable” is a transliteration of the Greek word parabole. It is a derivative of paraballo, which comes from two Greek words para and ballo. Para means alongside or by the side of. And ballo means to lie, or to place, something. Thus, a parable is a story put down beside a truth in order to illustrate that truth through comparison. Therefore a parable must be a true-to-life story in order for it to have any meaning to those who hear it. To try to use a fanciful story containing elements that have no basis to the world in which men and women live would only serve to confuse people rather than providing them with spiritual light. A simple survey of the Lord Jesus’ use of parables reveals that He always used things commonplace to daily life, such as the building of houses, storing old and new wine, sowing seed, weeds growing along with the crop, yeast permeating bread dough, hidden treasure, fishing, monetary debts, unforgiveness, vineyards, family life, weddings, a barren fig tree, a lost coin, an unjust judge, etc. While His hearers may not have made the connection to the truths the Lord was pointing out, they needed no explanation as to what the stories were about because they involved common everyday things to which they could relate. When the hearers of the parables perceived that there was an analogy between the story and their own situation, they were prompted to think about it, hopefully to respond by faith to the truth illustrated. Parables can be extraordinary and even shocking, but never unrealistic or fanciful.
When we come to the account of the rich man and Lazarus, we find a situation different from what is found in any of the parables. The Lord Jesus’ hearers could understand the contrast between the lives of a rich man and a poor beggar. It was common to see beggars sitting by the road hoping for a handout, and they could easily identify the folks who had more than enough wealth to live comfortably. Then, as now, there was a stark difference between the lives of those who have an overabundance and those with nothing. Although we can still grasp that there is a great difference between the lifestyles of these two men, the vastness of the “great gulf” between them is often lost to us because of the welfare and social services provided by the government. This is not the case in many third world nations today where people are literally starving to death. Regardless, the contrast in this story is the reversal of that gulf after the death of these two men.
The hearers of this story could follow the contrast between these two men right up to the moment of their deaths. At that point, however, the situation changes drastically. The outcome was something that they could not relate to any life situations that they had ever witnessed. The state and location of the departed soul was beyond their life experiences, or what is commonly known to be true by experience. The circumstances described go beyond the realm of the parable. That does not mean that it isn’t a true-to-life story, however. Physical death is a natural part of the life experience of all mankind, but what takes place afterward is hidden from those who have not yet experienced it. In this account of a beggar and a rich man, the Lord was revealing the reality of what takes place following physical death to drive home an important truth. We should mention at this point that even if it was a parable, the place referred to as Abraham’s bosom and the account of what took place in there would have to be based on reality for it to have any meaning.
Following are some reasons that this should be considered a history of two real men and not a parable.
- Parables are true-to-life, but hypothetical, illustrative stories. The names of specific individuals are never given in them, but here the names of three men are given; Lazarus, Abraham, and Moses. Also mentioned are the “prophets” who were also real people. (“Moses and the prophets” is a general term for the whole Old Testament that refers to its human authors).
- It does not have the normal form of a parable with an introduction, analogy story, and application. Instead it is in the form of the narration of a real-life story given for the purpose of illustration.
- It does not use the principle of comparison in a way that is characteristic of parables.
- The discussion between the rich man and Abraham is not consistent with the parabolic style found in the Scriptures.
- It seems obvious that in relating this particular story when He did, the Lord Jesus was using a real-life account that many of those listening to Him that day could readily relate to it because they actually knew, or at least knew of, the two men involved. The rich man’s brothers may have even been in the audience.
THE PURPOSE OF THE STORY
The main point of the story of the rich man and Lazarus is that an individual’s wealth and social standing, or the lack thereof, is not necessarily an indication of that person’s spiritual standing before God. Many of the Jews believed that the fact that they had accumulated wealth that afforded them social status and prominent positions in the religious community proved that they were under the blessing of God. They also thought, according to their logic, that those who were poor were under the curse of God. They no doubt appealed to the promises made to Israel in the Law of Moses concerning the blessings of prosperity for obedience to God’s Law and the curses of poverty because of disobedience, failing to recognize the national rather then the personal nature of those promises (see Deut. 28:1-45ff.; etc.). They were also ignoring the many warnings found in “Moses and the Prophets” that were directed towards the leaders of Israel who selfishly misused their power and wealth (see Isa. 56:10-12; Ezek. 34:1-4ff.; Micah 3:1-4; etc.).
To challenge their seriously flawed thinking, the Lord Jesus told the parable of the unjust (or dishonest) steward (Luke 16:1-13). The main point of this parable was that the dishonest steward, who represented the Gentiles, was wiser than the “children of light,” a reference to the sons of Israel, who were to be a channel through which God’s light would reach the Gentiles, i.e., the nations of the world (Isa. 42:5-7; 49:5-6; 60:1-3; 62:1-3). The true Light of the World is Jesus Christ Himself (John 8:12), who is the Messiah of Israel. In the prophetic program, the only avenue through which the Gentiles can come to the Light is through the nation of Israel (Isa. 60:1-3; Zech. 8:20-23). The point of this parable was that those who were striving after riches were actually self-serving rather than servants of God. He was calling on them to choose between the two, saying: “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon [money]” (Luke 16:13). The implication was that those whose priorities were based on accumulating wealth were demonstrating that their hearts were not right with God (cf. Matt. 6:19-21).
On hearing Him, the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, scoffed at the Lord (Luke 16:14), who then accused them of being self-righteous and trying to press, or force their way into the Kingdom on their own terms (Luke 16:15-16). That is to say, they were counting on their self-proclaimed righteousness to open the door of the Kingdom to them. Jesus plainly declared that the terms of the Law were solid and could not be circumvented. The principles underlying the Mosaic Law express God’s character, and therefore the Law is more enduring than the whole of creation (Luke 16:17). He then revealed their hypocrisy by pointing out that their attitude about divorce and remarriage was not in line with God’s purposes (Luke 16:18; cf. Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-9).
The key to understanding the point that the Lord is making in telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus is found in verses 15 and 16; “And He said unto them, ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God. The Law and the Prophets were until John: since that time the Kingdom of God is preached and every man presseth into it” (Luke 16:15-16).
Though their self-justification might gain them favor among men, it would not gain God’s favor because He knew what was in their heart (cf. Jer. 17:9-10). The things that men hold in high regard, things that gain them position and respect among men, are disgusting to God. In truth, the love of money reveals a covetous heart that has given its allegiance to “mammon” rather than God (cf. I Tim. 6:10).
In the Law and the Prophets, a general term for the Old Testament Scriptures, is found the promise, or proclamation of God’s coming Kingdom on earth, which Israel was waiting for. John the Baptist came on the scene to introduce the Messiah, who would usher in the Kingdom Age, to Israel (John 1:26-34). After being baptized by John Jesus Christ began His public ministry by saying, “The Kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the Gospel” (see Mark 1:9-15).
Of course, the Jews, especially the Pharisees, knew that entrance into the Kingdom was conditioned on obedience to God’s Law. To drive home His point about how the money-loving Pharisees were misusing their wealth, to their own peril, the Lord told the true story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man wasn’t lost because he had wealth, nor was Lazarus saved because he was poor. This was a matter of the heart with the focus being on the rich man, not Lazarus.
The rich man’s failure to help Lazarus, a fellow Israelite, revealed that he had a wicked heart, a non-repentant heart. By refusing to provide for the poor beggar sitting at his gate, the rich man was rebelling against God who, through Moses, had given Israel specific instructions on how those with resources were to treat their poor fellow countrymen (see Deut. 15:7-11). They were to open their hands wide in providing for the poor and needy in their land. This man showed that he did not love the Lord God of Israel with all of his heart, soul, and might as commanded by the Law (Deut. 6:4-5; cf. Mark 12:28-30). The evidence of this was that he did not love his neighbor, who in this case was Lazarus (Lev. 19:18; cf. Matt. 22:34-40). Although he thought he could force his way into God’s Kingdom, his heart attitude, which was demonstrated by his actions, proved him to be unworthy to enter.
When he asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers about what awaited them beyond death’s door if they did not repent, “Abraham saith unto Him, They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29). If, like the rich man, his brothers would not heed the warnings found in God’s Word, from Moses and the Prophets, neither would they believe someone who had been raised from the dead. This proved to be true as even after His own resurrection the leaders of Israel rejected the Lord Jesus as their Messiah. It is sad to say, but for the most part mankind has continued to reject Christ as savior, even until today.
Being true-to-life, whether it is historical or parable, this story is based on truths from which we can learn certain facts about the state of those who have experienced physical death. This is true even though teaching these things is not the main purpose the Lord had in telling it. Being based on truth, the facts learned from the experience of the rich man and Lazarus are consistent with what is found in other places in Scriptures. From this passage we know that:
- After physical death, individuals continue to exist in a state of personal consciousness (vv. 22-25ff.; cf. Rev. 6:9-10).
- Having experienced physical death, the individual’s destiny is sealed. There is no opportunity to cross over from the place of utter hopelessness to a place of hope after physical death (vv. 25-26).
- Hades is not a figure of speech but a real place of suffering to which the unsaved go to await the final judgment (vv. 23-24). They will stay there until the time of the resurrection to condemnation when they will be consigned to the Lake of Fire forever (cf. Rev. 20:11-15).
- There is a place, referred to here as Abraham’s Bosom, which is a place of comfort and joy (v. 25). The saved go there until the time of their resurrection unto life. This place is also referred to as “Paradise” in the Scriptures (cf. Luke 23:39-43). Originally it was a partitioned section of Hades, but was moved to heaven after Christ’s resurrection. Paul speaks of being “caught up into paradise” (II Cor. 12:4). This implies that Grace saints and Kingdom saints may jointly occupy Paradise until the time of their respective resurrections.
- After physical death, unsaved individuals will have regretful memories of the past and knowledge of their hopeless future (vv. 25-28).
- After having died, individuals go to Hades or Paradise and are not able to return or send back messages to those still living (vv. 26-28). Samuel, Moses, and Elijah are exceptions, having been sent by God as special envoys. No one can return by an act of their own will. The Scriptures leave no possibility for reincarnation and spiritism.
- Neither the saved or the lost will cease to exist, nor will they exist without form between physical death and the resurrection. Both have a temporary form of some kind that enables them to see, speak, hear and feel (vv. 22-25). No doubt this form is of a spiritual nature and substance, but nevertheless, it is a tangible form with a recognizable human likeness.
THE CONSCIOUS STATE OF THE DEAD
The story of the rich man and Lazarus clearly shows that after physical death they were very much aware of their circumstances and what was going on around them. The Apostle Paul stated that for the believer “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (see Phil. 1:21-23), indicating that this is in fact the case. That he had “a desire to depart (this life)” to be with the Lord tells us that he expected to consciously experience something “far better” than can be found in this life. This means that at the time of physical death believers will “gain” something. As precious as the believer’s life “in Christ” is in the here and now, it will be greatly enhanced when he leaves it to enter into the presence of the Lord. Paul’s statement that “to live is Christ” speaks of a purposeful life lived in service to and for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. The only way to add to this, to gain that which is better, is to enter into the very presence of Christ in heaven to consciously enjoy perfect fellowship with Him in a way that we cannot in this life. It is only by faith that the believer can find the confidence to face death “willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord” (see II Cor. 5:7-8).
That the death of a believer brings him, or her, into a situation considered to be “gain”, or the increased experience of spiritual blessing, refutes all erroneous ideas such as soul sleep or that the soul ceases to exist at death to be awakened or recreated at the time of the resurrection. To enjoy the life of Christ in this life only to be experientially separated from Him by becoming unconscious or ceasing to exist would be loss, not gain. This would be true even if it was only for a short time. But the fact that we have been given eternal life guarantees that we have everlasting fellowship with God. Our life in Christ will never be diminished, only enlarged. That “the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given unto us” (Rom. 5:5) mandates the continued conscious existence of the believer after physical death because nothing, not even death, “shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).
SCRIPTURAL PROOFS OF THE CONTINUED PERSONAL CONSCIOUSNESS AFTER PHYSICAL DEATH
- The Old Testament saints are pictured as being “gathered to their people” after physical death (see Gen. 25:8; 35:29; 49:29,33; Num. 20:24,26; 27:13; 31:2; Deut. 32:48-50): To be gathered to other people makes no sense, and no meaning, if it only refers to entering into an unconscious state of being. To be gathered to their people speaks of being joined together in a relational way.
- His child having died, David expected to eventually go to his son (see II Sam. 12:13-23): If he had expected to enter into an unconscious state, he would have had no such hope. David fully expected to see his son on the other side of the vale of physical death. David’s words, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me,” show that he did not have the hope of resurrection in mind, but to join his son after he died. Together they would await the resurrection while enjoying each other’s company.
- Samuel’s appearance to Saul and the woman of Endor (see I Sam. 28:3-20): King Saul was struck with fear over a coming battle with the Philistines, and the Lord God was ignoring his petitions for guidance. He became so frightened and distressed that he sought out a necromancer in a desperate effort to contact Samuel, the departed prophet, who had in better times been his spiritual counselor. It was a frightful shock to this woman when God allowed Samuel to actually appear to deliver a prophetic message from the Lord to Saul. No doubt she either planned to trick Saul or expected a demon masquerading as Samuel to appear. Adding to her fear was the realization that the man who had come to her in an effort to communicate with Samuel was actually King Saul, who had a reputation for putting mediums like her to death. In his appearance Samuel had a recognizable human form and was able to carry on a conversation with Saul. His complaint about being disquieted (disturbed) indicates that he was abiding in a state of conscious bliss that was interrupted in order for him to make this appearance. That it is said he was brought “up” rather than brought “back” shows that he was residing in the lower parts of the earth. We believe that he was in Abraham’s Bosom, or Paradise, which at that time was located in the heart of the earth in a place called Sheol, or Hades (see the Repentant Thief on the Cross below).
- The Calling of Lazarus from the Grave (John 11:1-46): Although the “how” is beyond our understanding, the fact that Lazarus responded to the Lord Jesus Christ’s command to “come forth” from the grave speaks to us of the continued conscious existence of the soul following physical death.
- The Repentant Thief on the Cross (Luke 23:32-34, 39-43): As they hung on their respective crosses, one of the thieves who was crucified with Him turned to Jesus with a repentant heart saying, “Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom”. Christ’s response was to say, “Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise” (see Luke 23:39-43). We know that at the time of His death the Lord Jesus descended to the “heart of the earth” where He stayed for three days and three nights (Matt. 12:40) “and preached to the spirits in prison” (I Pet. 3:19). This tells us that up to the time of Christ’s sacrifice for the sins of the world, “Paradise” was in the heart of the earth. He promised the repentant thief they would be together in Paradise that very day. This is the same place that is referred to as Abraham’s Bosom in Luke 16:22. From II Corinthians we know that Paradise is now located in “the third heaven” (see II Cor. 12:1-4). Obviously this abode of the saved dead was moved from the innermost parts, or the heart, of the earth to the heavenly abode of God. Paradise is the place where the souls of the redeemed reside awaiting the resurrection. Before the price of their redemption was paid on the cross, it was located in the heart of the earth. But, after the full payment was made, it was relocated to the third heaven, or the Heaven of heavens, where God is. There they wait in God’s presence for the time of their resurrection. The souls of all of the redeemed who have died since Jesus Christ’s resurrection have entered into God’s presence there as to be “absent from the body” is to be “present with the Lord” (see II Cor. 5:6-8).
- Jesus Christ’s Direct Teaching that Departed Saints are Alive (see Matt. 22:23-32): Using a hypothetical situation, the Sadducees challenged the Lord Jesus concerning the resurrection of the dead, which was something that they did not believe in. The Lord turned the tables on them, though, by exposing their ignorance about the subject. First He explained that in the resurrection, marriage would not be a consideration. He then went on to confront them on an important issue concerning the saints who have experienced physical death. He knew that the Sadducees not only denied a literal resurrection of the dead, but also even denied the continued existence of the person after death. To reveal their error, the Lord quoted God’s words to Moses at the burning bush, “I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6). Although Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had died hundreds of years before the time of Moses, God used the present tense “I am” rather than the past tense “I was” when identifying Himself to Moses as their God. This shows that they were existing in a conscious state at that time. The Lord Jesus’ remark, in the present tense, that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:32) reveals that they were still alive as He spoke, some 1500 years later. Being alive indicates a continued conscious existence. If this was true before the Cross, it is undoubtedly true of believers on this side of the cross.
- The Appearance of Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36): It could be argued that Elijah couldn’t be held up as an example because, rather then going through the normal experience of physical death, he was caught up into heaven in an unusual way (II Kings 2:11). However, even though it was under unique circumstances, there is no doubt that Moses suffered physical death and his body was buried (Deut. 34:5-6). Moses, with Elijah, appeared on the mountain after Jesus Christ was temporarily glorified before the eyes of Peter, John, and James. They appeared in a recognizable form and it is specifically stated that they spoke with the Lord about His impending death. This event reveals the continued conscious awareness of those who have departed this life. That Moses and Elijah spoke with Christ about His departure, which was about to take place at Jerusalem, confirms their continued ability to think, remember, and communicate. We don’t have a record of exactly what Moses and Elijah spoke to the Lord Jesus about concerning the death He would die, but there can be little doubt that their conversation centered on what would be accomplished through the sacrifice of Himself for the sins of the world. He would fulfill the prophecies about Himself found in Moses and the Prophets (cf. Luke 24:25-26,44-48).
- That Jesus Christ Will Bring the Departed Grace Believers with Him from Heaven at the Time of the Rapture of the Church (I Thess. 4:13-18): Those who have died physically are presently in heaven as their body “sleeps” in the grave. Returning with Christ from heaven (v. 14) when He comes for His Church, they will receive their glorified bodies first (vv. 15-16) and then those still living will receive theirs as they are caught up to be with the Lord (v. 17; cf. I Cor. 15:51-54). That Christ will bring them from heaven with Him can only mean that they are first in heaven with Him.
- The Martyred Saints of the Tribulation (Rev. 6:9-11; 7:9-10,14): While the believers who will die for their faith in Christ during the Tribulation are particularly singled out here, it must be remembered that their status is that of Kingdom saints. That is to say that their hope is to enter into Christ’s Millennial Kingdom along with all of the other Kingdom saints. Their experience of being martyred during the Tribulation will be unique to the time in which they will live and die, but they will share the same general hope of all of the Old Testament saints. That they are found in heaven after having died indicates that all of the Kingdom saints who have gone before them are there as well. That they are pictured as asking the Lord to bring forth judgment on the earth indicates that they are anticipating returning with Him to receive their inheritance in His Kingdom (see Jude 14-15; Rev. 19:14-16). These martyred Kingdom saints, and all the others, who will accompany the Lord when He returns to earth, are obviously waiting in heaven until the appointed time. That they are specifically said to be wearing robes and bowing before the altar in heaven tells us not only that they will continue to exist in a state of consciousness after death, but also, that they will have a recognizable human form.
APPLICATION FOR TODAY
The inter-dispensational principle that we learn from the story of the rich man and Lazarus is that it is only in this life that any man or woman has the opportunity to be reconciled to God. For those who die in unbelief, there is no second chance and there is no one to intervene on their behalf. To die without Christ is to be separated from God forever, first in the torments of Hades and finally in the Lake of Fire. As believers, this should move us with compassion for the lost and stimulate us to use every means available to proclaim the Gospel of Grace as far and wide as possible.
We also learn from this story that believers immediately enter into a better place when they leave this life at the time of physical death. Knowing that this is true provides hope and comfort both to believers who are facing death and to those they leave behind in this life.
The Lord Jesus’ purpose in telling this story was to warn the self-righteous money-loving Pharisees about the consequences of trusting in the traditions of man and worldly riches rather than in the Word of God (cf. Mark 7:5-13; Luke 12:16-21). He also made it clear that people cannot be convinced of the truth through miracles such as someone being raised from the dead, but are to be convicted of the truth through the agency of God’s Word (cf. Rom. 10:17). Those who foolishly reject the message of salvation through the cross will die without hope, while those who accept the gospel as true and place their faith in Christ are reconciled to God and receive the gift of eternal life. “In the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe” (I Cor. 1:21). There is no one greater than “our Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13-14); there is no greater message than that of “Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (I Cor. 2:1-5); There is no greater calling than to “the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery” (Rom. 16:25-27).