In Luke 16:19–31 Jesus told a very strange story about a rich man, whom He didn’t name, and a poor man named Lazarus. The rich man lived in luxury while Lazarus, a beggar who lay at the rich man’s gate, was covered with sores and had very little to eat. In due time both men died. Angels carried Lazarus to Abraham’s bosom, but the rich man ended up being tormented in the fires of hell. The rich man “looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus at his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ ”
The rich man then begged Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them about the dangers of hell, but Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”
“No, father Abraham,” the rich man protested. “If someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
But Abraham replied, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (verses 23–31).
What happens when we die?
So far as I know, all Christians believe that there is life after death. That, after all, is one of the central teachings of the New Testament. Jesus died so that “whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). And Jesus Himself said, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25).
However, there are two views about what happens when we die. Some Christians believe that we immediately go to heaven or to hell. Others believe that dead people lie unconscious in the grave until the resurrection.
At first glance, the story of the rich man and Lazarus seems to support the first view. After all, Jesus said that Lazarus went to Abraham’s bosom—a Jewish idiom that meant Paradise—and the rich man went to hell. However, there are good reasons to question that interpretation of Jesus’ story.
To begin with, several details of the story don’t match up with the assumptions about life after death and hell that are held by those who believe that the righteous go to heaven and the wicked go to hell as soon as they die. For example, it’s rather absurd to suppose that heaven and hell are so close together that it’s possible for the people in each one to call out to, and be heard by, those on the other side.
Furthermore, those who believe that hell is going on right now teach that the body remains in the grave at death and that only the disembodied soul or spirit goes to heaven or hell. However, in Jesus’ story both Lazarus and the rich man have physical bodies. Lazarus has a physical finger that he can dip in physical water and go down to hell and put on the tip of the rich man’s physical tongue.
Then there’s the problem of plausibility. If the rich man is experiencing such excruciating pain, why would he ask Lazarus to dip his finger in water and touch it to the tip of his tongue? Why not beg Lazarus to throw a bucket of water on him?
Why Jesus told this story
These details of Jesus’ story are quite absurd. So why did Jesus tell it?
The first thing to notice is the theme: It’s about a reversal of fortunes in the afterlife. The rich man lives sumptuously in this life, but in the next life he’s tormented, while Lazarus is miserable in this life, but in the next life he’s in bliss.
Numerous stories about a reversal of fortunes in the afterlife were circulating in the Greek and Jewish world of Jesus’ time. One example is an Egyptian tale about a young man who returned from the land of the dead reincarnated as the son of a poor family. One day father and son come upon two scenes: the lavish funeral of a rich man and the pitiful condition of a poor man who is buried without a funeral. The father envies the sumptuous funeral of the rich man. However, his son, having returned from the afterlife, knows what will really happen. So he takes his father on a tour of the land of the dead. And here, as in Jesus’ story, the father sees that the rich man is tormented while the poor man sits in the presence of God, the ultimate judge of all human beings.
But the question still remains, why did Jesus tell His story about the reversal of the fortunes of the rich man and Lazarus? To answer that question we need to take a closer look at the application He made of it. When Abraham refused to send Lazarus to cool the rich man’s tongue with water, the rich man asked that someone return from the dead to warn his brothers about the ultimate destiny they would face if they didn’t mend their ways. Abraham replied that the rich man’s brothers had Moses and the prophets to instruct them about how to prepare for the next life.
“No, father Abraham,” the rich man said. “If someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” To which Abraham replied, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
the setting of Jesus’ story
Now let’s look at the setting in which Jesus told this story. He’d spent at least three years teaching the people and healing their diseases. During this time He’d done His best to win the minds and hearts of the Jewish leaders, but they had resisted all His efforts. To the contrary, they did their best to get rid of Him, even to the point of plotting His death! (Matthew 12:14). So Jesus gave them a warning. He told them the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
I don’t think it’s mere coincidence that one of the main characters in Jesus’s story is named Lazarus. Only a few months after Jesus told this story He in fact raised a man named Lazarus from the dead. And following the resurrection of Lazarus, some of those who observed the miracle reported to the Pharisees what happened. “Then the chief priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
“ ‘What are we accomplishing?’ they asked. ‘Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.’
“Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’ . . .
“. . . So from that day on they plotted to take his life” (John 11:46–50, 53).
These people were a perfect example of the point Jesus made in His story of the rich man and Lazarus. Even the raising of a dead man from the grave didn’t lead them to change their minds. To the contrary, it only hardened their hearts. It caused them to dig in their heels deeper and more stubbornly resist His efforts to win them over.
As His medium for conveying this lesson Jesus adapted a story about a reversal of fortunes that was popular in the culture of His day, and He made sure to include enough absurd details that no one would take His narrative literally.
And the spiritual lesson in Jesus’ story applies as much in our day as it did in His. You and I are in as great a danger of assuming that we’re on God’s side, only to discover too late that we aren’t, as were the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jesus’ day. It’s as imperative that you and I make the Bible the foundation of our faith as it was for them. And that will take time.
I urge you to set aside the time each day to study God’s Word and talk to Him in prayer so that when you enter the next life, you’ll join Lazarus in heaven rather than the rich man in hell.