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Luke 16:19-31: The Rich Man and Lazarus

rich man and lazarus

There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.

And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.

Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house:For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.

And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead. (Luke 16:19-31)

Anyone raised in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement has heard numerous sermons from Luke 16:19-31. Over the course of 25 years in the ministry, I preached from this passage many times.

The first question this passage raises is whether it is meant to be taken literally. Many Christians, increasingly uncomfortable with the notion of Hell and sinners being tortured by their God for eternity, say that this story is a parable. However, it is clear from the text itself that Jesus did not mean for this to be taken as a parable.

In all the other parables uttered by Jesus, he never mentions anyone by name. In this parable, the three main characters are:

  • A certain rich man (Dives?)
  • A certain beggar named Lazarus
  • Abraham

Jesus tells us the rich man was:

  • Clothed in purple and fine linen
  • Fared (ate) sumptuously every day

Lazarus, however, was:

  • A beggar
  • Crippled
  • Afflicted with sores that the dogs licked
  • Fed with crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table

Both Lazarus and the rich man died:

  • The rich man went to Hell and was tormented in the flames of Hell without a drop of water to drink
  • Lazarus was carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom and was comforted

Generally, Evangelical Christians believe Hell is in the bowels of the earth — a scientific absurdity, in and of itself. In this passage of scripture, Hell is a place separated from Abraham’s bosom by a fixed, impassable, great gulf. This gulf is not so great though that a person in one part cannot see the people on the other side of the gulf. The rich man was able to look across the great gulf and see Abraham.

This story details the concern the rich man had for his five brothers who were still alive. He wanted to make sure that they didn’t end up in Hell. He begged Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers about Hell. Abraham refused, and told the rich man his brothers had the Word of God (Moses and the Prophets). If they wouldn’t heed the Word of God they would perish. The rich man begged Abraham to send Lazarus to warn them, but Abraham told the rich man that if his brothers wouldn’t heed the Word of God they would not heed someone who rose from the dead.

I find it interesting that Abraham says the living brothers should heed Moses and the Prophets, yet the Old Testament says little to nothing about Hell or Heaven. I also find it interesting that Abraham told the rich man that his brothers would not be persuaded even if a resurrected dead man, Lazarus, came to warn them about Hell. Isn’t the linchpin of the Christian religion – the resurrection of a man named Jesus from the dead? What better way to authenticate the Christian religion than Jesus physically revealing himself to the world? Think how much better it would be for Christians if every 20 or so years Jesus could make a brief appearance to remind people that he is still alive and kicking and is still busy building them Trump mansions in the New Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus has been dead-as-a-doornail silent for 2,000 years.

We are told by Evangelicals that we must believe what the Bible says about the living, dead, now living Jesus, the son of God. As Luke 16 makes clear, the Abrahamic religions have always been text-based religions. The Bible says is not just the mantra of Evangelical Christianity, but also Liberal Christianity, Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism. Christianity, Islam, and Judaism cease to exist without their respective religious texts. Simply put, no Bible, no Christianity.

According to many Christian sects and pastors, when Jesus died, he descended into Hell. 1 Peter 3:18-20 says:

For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit:  By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.

Ephesians 4:7-10 says:

But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.)

Many Christian sects and pastors also teach that Hell and Abraham’s bosom were in the bowels of the earth. These were temporary holding places for the just and unjust. When Jesus resurrected from the dead and ascended to Heaven he took the just with him. Those in Hell remained there.

The early church believed Jesus descended into Hell. The Apostles’ Creed says:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.  And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.  I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. AMEN.

A Third Century Syrian creed says:

“who (Jesus) was crucified under Pontius Pilate and departed in peace, in order to preach to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the saints concerning the end of the world and the resurrection of the dead.”

Luke 16:19-31 raises all kinds of sticky questions for Christians.

  • Why did the rich man end up in Hell? The text seems to imply it was because he was rich. The New Testament makes it clear that few rich people make it to heaven (Luke 18:24-25)
  • Why did Lazarus end up in Abraham’s bosom? The text seems to imply it was because he was poor and suffered. Jesus reinforces this belief in the Beatitudes.
  • Christian orthodoxy teaches that when a person dies their body goes to the grave to await the resurrection of the just and unjust and the final judgment. How then, could the rich man see and know Abraham and Lazarus and Abraham and Lazarus see the rich man?
  • If, as some Christians believe, it is the soul or spirit that goes to Heaven or Hell to await being united with a resurrected body, then, according to Luke 16:19-31, the soul has corporeal properties. Why then can we not see the souls of people when they die?
  • How was the rich man able to withstand the flames and torments of Hell without being burned up? This is a question many Christians run from since it suggests God specifically fits non-Christians with a soul/spirit and body that is especially suited for endless torment in the flames of Hell. (This is the point where the praise band begins to sing, Our God is an Awesome God.)
  • The Word of God, (Moses and the Prophets) teaches that salvation is through obedience to God’s law, and not by grace. If this is the case, what ultimately determined where Lazarus and the rich man ended up? If Jesus (God) is the same yesterday, today, and forever, why is salvation in the Old Testament and the gospels different from salvation in the post-gospel New Testament?

The easy (and lazy) answer to these questions is to say that Luke 16:19-31 is a parable and is only meant to be an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. However, I think it is intellectually dishonest to suggest that this story is a parable. When compared to the parables uttered by Jesus, it has little in common with them. The real issue, then, is that an increasing number of squeamish Evangelicals don’t like what the Bible says about their unsaved families, friends, neighbors, and co-workers, so they invent ways to explain away THUS SAITH THE LORD.

Do you have a story to tell about a sermon on Luke 16:19-31? Was preaching on Hell a prominent part of your or your pastor’s preaching?  Please share your experiences in the comment section.

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Bruce Gerencser, 64, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 43 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

You can contact Bruce via email, Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube.

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9 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Zoe

    Thanks for this. This morning with aching body & head along with a really bad bought of tinnitus I commented on a blog about this story and without editing realized I had Lazarus in hell and misspelled. Oops. I’m guessing others noticed my mistake and were graciously not pointing it out. 🙂

  2. Avatar
    Van

    I don’t recall the pastors in my SBC church dwelling on hell that much, but the traveling evangelists sure did. I don’t remember the specific evangelist, but recall this being prooftext that one of the torments of hell was being able to see what a grand old time everyone was having in heaven.

  3. Avatar
    Van

    Oh, and the corrollary about evangelism. “How will you be able to enjoy heaven knowing the friends and family you never evangelized can see you there?”

  4. Avatar
    Matilda

    We attended an anglican church for some years in this UK village, we were baptists, but felt ‘led’ to worship there and were fully part of its evangelism projects etc. But Liturgy, certain doctrines about the Sacraments etc eluded our understanding. It was fairly recently I learned that Easter Saturday is called The Harrowing of Hell’ by anglicans. Apparently it celebrates jesus descending into hell (I’d said that phrase ‘He descended into hell’ in the Creed hundreds of times and never thought about it.) He went to preach to the departed souls there. Which begs the question for me, if hell is eternal torture and pain, and along comes someone who says there’s an escape to a place where there are ‘pleasures for evermore,’…then isn’t it a no-brainer that you’d choose to leave hell?

  5. Avatar
    Brian Vanderlip

    The story of Lazarus being poofed to life again was quite normal to me as a young believer. I was raised in The Trance and held to it for many many years. There was a quiet place in my blurry belief where no logical questions mattered. How could decayed flesh be made workable again after it had already begun to become earth once again? Didn’t matter a hoot to me because Jesus. I think that this trance life was a blessing to me in ways because having crawled out of the dark of belief and into the light of humanism, I remain humbled to know that the human mind is quite ready to throw caution to the wind and ignore science and logic, set aside obvious proofs and smile in the sometimes comfy blur of knowing Jesus. I accept the reality of dreams that seem entirely real and yet are figments passing.

  6. Avatar
    Blik

    Hey Bruce. If you are in such a middle about Luke 16 then the rest of your ministry must also have been a heap of manure. What a shame. But perhaps you can remember something about salvation. Luke 16 was a parable yes, but not one made up by Jesus. He retold an existing parable that originated in Egypt and was part of the Talmud tradition but added a twist in the tail. It was never intended for doctrine but as a rebuke for the Pharisees.

Want to Respond to Bruce? Fire Away!

Bruce Gerencser