The parable of the rich man and Lazarus2 (henceforth, the parable) has long perplexed Bible students. For conditionalists like me, who believe that death is a state of no consciousness and hell a place of ultimate destruction, it poses a twin challenge: (a) it depicts continued, conscious existence after death; and (b) the fire torments rather than destroys.
Though often cited as support, the parable does not back the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. This story depicts not immortal souls floating in heaven or hell but actual persons with full physical capacities to see, hear, speak, and feel heat and cold. Indeed, the existence of the two protagonists seems a completely reversed continuation of their lives before death with only the location changed.
The parable is unique, with no direct or even remote relation to other Bible stories. Darrell Bock has called it the “most complex” of Jesus’ stories.3 For such reasons, scholars of different outlooks advise that it should not be viewed as a road map of the afterlife.4
Be that as it may, the parable is very difficult to fit into a conditionalist outlook. The main conditional defense has been to utilize Adolf Jülicher’s approach to parables, namely, that parables are example stories with one main point, with the details serving only as props.5 In this parable, the main point may be that there is no opportunity for repentance after death.
This line of defense is not without merit but raises difficult questions. Why would Jesus tell a parable with so many details if the details were unimportant? And why use theologically awkward details? The same main point could have been made in much better and theologically palatable language. Seemingly, something deeper is at stake, and the attempt to dismiss the importance of the details ultimately fails to satisfy.
In this short study, I argue that Jesus shows His familiarity with a genre of stories prevalent throughout the ancient Mediterranean world and deconstructs this story in such a way so as to both discredit the genre and reinforce the biblical outlook.
Scholars recognize that no direct parallel to this parable exists in the Bible. They also recognize that similar stories were prevalent throughout Mediterranean cultures. Two types of stories can be discerned: (a) those of reversal of fortune in the afterlife that have direct parallels to the parable; and (b) those about revelations from the afterlife that offer a broad, general background into views of the afterlife.
Stories of reversal of fortune: The search for an immediate background. A number of reversal of fortune stories may be noted. The best known is an Egyptian folktale (first century ad).6 An Egyptian magician, Si-osiris, returns from Amente, the land of the dead, and is reincarnated into the poor family of Setme. One day father and son come across two funerals—one of a rich man, complete with splendid honors; the other of a poor man, who is cast into a common necropolis. On seeing this, Setme wishes for an end similar to that of the rich man. The young Si-osiris, however, knows otherwise. He therefore takes his father on a tour of Amente, where they see the rich man in torment vividly described, while the poor man stands justified by the side of Osiris, the judge of humankind.
A similar Jewish story is the Bar Mayan tale (first–second century ad).7 Bar Mayan, a sinful and rich tax collector, dies and receives a splendid funeral. A poor Torah scholar also dies, unnoticed, and receives a most humble burial. This leads an onlooker to question the justice of God. In reply, God reveals that the fate of the two reversed after death.
Bar Mayan had done one good deed in his life, and he receives his reward in his splendid funeral. The poor scholar had done one bad deed, atoned for through his poor burial. The tax collector can now face the torments of hell without respite while the poor scholar faces the joys of heaven without hindrance.
Ronald Hock points to a similar story told by Lucian (c. ad 120–180) from a Hellenistic background.8 Three men die and are taken to Hades—the rich tyrant Megapenthes, the poor shoe maker Micyllus, and a philosopher. In judgment, the philosopher and Micyllus are found spotless and are sent to the blessed isles, while Megapenthes, found guilty, is punished accordingly.
What do these folktales show? They show that the motif of a reversal of fortune in the afterlife was common among different cultures of the Mediterranean world.9
Accounts of revelations of the afterlife: Establishing a broader background. While stories of reversal in the afterlife form the most direct background to our parable, another broader background needs to be understood: the existence of stories of revelations from afterlife, involving a return from the dead, since the parable explores (but rejects) such a return. Such stories abound. I will discuss a few here.
Plato (428–348 bc) tells the story of a soldier, Er the Pamphylian,10 who is killed in battle but revives several days later. While “dead” Er visits Hades and sees a judgment in which the good go to heaven and the wicked are punished. He is specifically told to return and report what he has seen, presumably to warn the living.
Plutarch (ad 46–120) tells a similar story about Thespesius and Clearchus of Soli about Cleonymus.11 The latter tale has an interesting twist. While in Hades Cleonymus meets another temporary visitor. They agree that, once they return to the land of the living, they will maintain contact with each other.
Lucian tells another tale of return. A man called Cleomenes falls ill. But his time has not yet come. In a case of mistaken identity, he is brought to Hades, only to be informed that his neighbor Demylus should have been brought instead. Cleomenes is therefore sent back and within a few days Demylus dies.
Such tales, though from a pagan background, quickly found their way into Jewish and Christian tradition. The Babylonian Talmud (second–fifth centuries ad) 12 tells an apocryphal story of Samuel the prophet—to whom some orphans entrust a substantial amount of money that he deposits with his father, Abba. Abba hides the money but dies before informing Samuel where he put it. Desperate to retrieve the entrusted money, Samuel visits Abba in the land of the dead, learns the location of the hidden money, restores it to the orphans, and all becomes well.
A Christian example is the story of Jannes and Jambres (first–second century ad)—two magician brothers who, according to tradition—opposed Moses in Pharaoh’s court.13 Jannes dies. Jambres calls Jannes’s spirit up from hell through necromancy, and Jannes informs Jambres of his sufferings and of the justice of his fate and urges Jambres to repent, though we do not know the outcome.14
We see, therefore, that stories of reversal of fortune at death, as in the parable, as well as revelations from afterlife, as requested in the parable, abounded in the ancient world. We have a very clear background which Jesus’ audience would have been aware of and against which the parable can be understood.
Three common elements
Three common elements connect all the relevant nonbiblical tales into a coherent genre. First, revelations from the dead were always told with the purpose of bringing some improvement to the living, including repentance. Contrary to the Bible, which declares that the dead “know nothing” (Eccles. 9:5), such stories presuppose that the dead know more than the living and so can benefit the living.
Second, a message from the dead could come in a variety of ways, like a visit to the dead in bodily form (e.g., Samuel) or as disembodied spirits (Er or Cleomenes). At other times, the dead could visit the living as ghosts or in visions (Jannes), on their own initiative or by being called through necromancy (Jannes). Bodily resurrection is never involved because in the pagan cultures where such tales originally developed, there was no bodily resurrection (Acts 17:32).
Third, revelations from the dead always include an eyewitness, usually named and well-known. The presence of named and known eyewitnesses served to lend credibility to such tales which otherwise would sound incredulous. Interestingly, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is the only one of Jesus’ parables with named characters.15
With this background we can now turn our attention to the parable.
The parable’s first part— deconstruct to discredit
The parable has two parts: (a) the rich man’s request for relief and (b) his second request that Lazarus be sent to his five living brothers. Bauckham suggests that often the point where a story departs from the expected is where its importance lies.16 Now we will see how both the first and second parts of the parable depart in very important ways from stories of supposed revelations from the afterlife and gauge the importance of such departures.
The first part of the parable begins as a typical tale of reversal of fortune—a rich and a poor man die, and at death their fortunes are reversed. Despite this conventional beginning, a number of peculiarities immediately begin to trouble the reader.
First, Lazarus, while alive, tried to be “fed” by crumbs falling off the rich man’s table (Luke 16:21).17 The Greek verb chortazō does not mean “fed” but “being filled,” “satisfied,”18 or filled with food to the full. Can someone really be filled and satisfied with crumbs falling off a table?
Second, when Lazarus dies, he is taken to “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22). What is Abraham’s bosom? The phrase appears only here. Most assume it to be a byword for heaven.19 However, in the parable it appears as a literal description: the rich man looks up and sees “Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom” (Luke 16:23). Do the righteous dead sit in Abraham’s bosom? How many can sit there?
Third, when the rich man saw Abraham in the distance, he “called out/ cried” (ESV/NKJV) to him (Luke 16:24). The Greek word is phonizō. It means, “to call out,”20 and carries no drama. A person in severe torment, like the rich man, would have “shrieked,” “cried out” (Greek, krazō), or at least call out “with a very loud and pain-filled voice.” But the rich man does not. He raises his voice, just enough to be heard, but perhaps not so loud as to disturb, “Father Abraham . . . helloooo . . .”
Fourth, the rich man in Hades experiences torment (KJV/NKJV) or anguish (ESV/RSV) (Luke 16:24). The Greek odunōmai and the cognate odunē are used four other times in the New Testament21 and refer to emotional anguish, grief, and sorrow.22 So the rich man is in literal flames, but experiences emotional anguish, which he tries to quell with literal water!
Fifth, to quell his pain, the rich man requests that Lazarus dip “the tip of his finger” (Luke 16:24) in water and bring it over. He could have asked for a bucket of water—or at least that Lazarus scoop some water or dip his garment in water. How much water can the tip of the finger carry? And would it remain on the finger and fresh while carried through the fires of torment? Here Joseph Fitzmyer sees a hyperbole to highlight the severity of the torments.23
Sixth, the rich man expects that miniscule amount of water to “cool” his tongue (Luke 16:24). The Greek is katapsuchō,24 a compound word made up of the verb psuchō “to make cold” and the prefixed preposition kata that functions to make something more emphatic.25 To illustrate, in Modern Greek katapsuchō refers to the compartment of the refrigerator that freezes the food. The rich man therefore expects the minuscule amount of water, carried on the tip of Lazarus’ finger over the tormenting fires, to freeze his tongue and quell his emotional anguish!
Why does Jesus use such weird descriptions? And so detailed? Surely they are not just props. Neither are they incidental.
I would like to propose that such descriptions have a tint of sarcasm and aim to discredit the type of genre that they emulate, the vast pool of stories of supposed revelations from the afterlife. Sarcasm is often the best tool to deconstruct a system of thought and is used elsewhere in the Bible.26
The parable’s second part—deconstruct to reinforce the biblical outlook
In contrast to the first part of the parable, the second is solemn and poignant. Here Jesus hits the nail on the head, so to speak, when it comes to death and the supposed visits of the dead to the living.
We noted that all stories from nonbiblical backgrounds shared three common characteristics. Revelations from the dead (a) can enlighten the living; (b) do not include resurrection; and (c) include eyewitnesses. Jesus deconstructs all three points.
First, when the rich man requests that Lazarus be sent to the five living brothers to warn them, he is confident this will be so: “ ‘ “I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment” ’ ” (Luke 16:27, 28).
The reply shocks him: “ ‘ “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” ’ ” (Luke 16:29). Evidently the witness of Scripture (“Moses and the prophets”) is more than adequate.
The rich man replies, “No” (Luke 16:30). The Greek ouchi is not a simple negation “no,” but an emphatic “No!” The rich man who has accepted, without complaint, his miserable fate, as well as Abraham’s refusal to send relief, cannot accept that a revelation from the dead is immaterial to repentance and rebels. His incredulity probably reflects the incredulity of the masses who similarly believed in the efficacy of revelations from the dead.
To drive home the point, Jesus repeats the statement with more emphasis: “ ‘ “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” ’ ” (Luke 16:31). Supposed revelations from the dead cannot bring repentance; only obedience to Scripture can. “If they do not listen to the voice of God in His word, the testimony of a witness raised from the dead would not be heeded.”27
From an interbiblical perspective, there is a connection here with the resurrection of Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha. The Pharisees had rejected the testimony of Scripture about Jesus as well as the biblical preaching and teaching of Jesus. Having rejected these, when Lazarus was raised from the dead, they rejected the manifested power of Jesus. Instead of believing in what Jesus did, they sought to put Lazarus to death (John 12:10).
Second, the parable makes a case for the return from the dead. In Luke 16:27 the rich man requests that Abraham “send” Lazarus to his living brothers. When this request is denied, Luke 16:30 reinforces the request that if one from the dead “goes” to the earth, his brothers will listen. Neither statement indicates resurrection. Any one of the modes of communication between the living and the dead prevalent in the Mediterranean worldviews and discussed in the section on the nonbiblical background is probably fine.
To the rich man’s open-ended request, Abraham affirms that the only way a person can return from the dead is through bodily resurrection: “ ‘ “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” ’ ” (Luke 16:31).
Third, and perhaps most important, is the eyewitness. In the parable, apart from Abraham, Lazarus is mentioned. This is the only parable that names characters. “Lazarus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Eliezer. Eliezer was Abraham’s most trusted and only named servant (Gen. 15:2).
In Jewish, nonbiblical, nonconditionalist cosmology, Abraham was the highest human in heaven. So if heaven were to send a message from the dead to humanity, the best candidate would be Abraham’s most trusted servant, Eliezer/Lazarus! Of course, the parable does not state that Lazarus served as Abraham’s servant Eliezer. But fairly obviously, in the audience’s mind some connection between the two would be made. As such, Eliezer/ Lazarus would be the ideal candidate to return from the dead.
So the parable creates the ideal eyewitness from the dead, but refuses to send him, not because God cannot send someone back from the dead through resurrection; neither because God does not want to help the five brothers in need of repentance; but because it is not necessary or useful. “ ‘ “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead” ’ ” (Luke 16:31).
And God will not do that which is unnecessary. And if God does not do something now because this task is unnecessary, He has not done it in the past and will not do it in the future. This means that all the supposed eyewitnesses from the dead, who came to bring enlightenment to the living, have not been sent by God and their supposed revelations are not from God.28 What a statement! With one bold stroke, with one powerful statement, Jesus dismisses all supposed revelations from the dead!
In essence, through the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus repeats the prohibition of Deuteronomy 18:10–12: “ ‘There shall not be found among you anyone . . . who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For all who do these things are an abomination to the Lord, and because of these abominations the Lord your God drives them out from before you.’”
Jesus told the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to invalidate the popular tales of revelations from the dead. The first part of the parable undermines the credibility of such a genre by using humor and sarcasm in its depictions of the afterlife, as understood in such stories.
However, the main thrust of the parable comes in the second part where Jesus demolishes popular expectations as reflected in the request of the rich man and emphasizes that (a) supposed revelations from the dead do not bring repentance—Scripture does; (b) any return from the dead will come only through bodily resurrection, not through any other means; and (c) there are no eyewitnesses with tales from the dead outside the Bible.
Today, as in the time of Jesus, tales of revelations from the afterlife abound, whether in the form of near-death experiences, dreams, visits from ghosts, or other means. Even within Christian circles such stories circulate, and their revelations are even used as a witness to call people to repentance.
To all such, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, properly understood, is a stark reminder that the only tool in bringing people to repentance and saving faith is Scripture, the sure and powerful Word of God. Anything supposedly coming from the dead is not from God and should be shunned.
1 Main thoughts of this article come from Kim Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehenna, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013).
2 The absence of features that identify this literary unit as a parable, and the use of a proper name for the poor man (unique in parables), have led to speculation on whether this narrative does indeed constitute a parable. Some consider this not a parable but a true-life story. However, the details of this parable, as discussed in this study, and its depiction of the afterlife do not reflect the biblical view of death. The unit begins with the phrase “There was a certain rich man,” similar to the introductions to three other Lukan parables (Luke 14:16–24; 15:11–31; 16:1–8). On the other hand, verses 19–31 contain strong similarities with a number of folktales, as will be discussed. We may therefore call it a parable modeled on popular folktales. Le Roy Froom, interestingly, calls it a “parabolic fable.” Le Roy Froom, The Conditionalist Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 1 (Washington DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1966), 239.
3 Darrell Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1986), 1377.
4 E.g., see the cautions of Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 607, 08; William Smith, Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1869), 1038.
5 Adolf Jülicher, Die Gleichnisreden Jesu, 2 vols. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1888, 1899); Froom argues eloquently along these lines. Interestingly, he sees a connection between this parable and fables that circulated at the time, though he does not develop the contrast, as we do here. Froom, Conditionalist Faith, 234–51.
6 The tale was first pointed out by Hugo Gressman, Vom reichen Mann und armen Lazarus: Eine literargeschichtliche Studie (Berlin: Kōnigliche Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1918). The story dates from a first century AD manuscript but is probably much older.
7 Jerusalem Talmud, Haggadah, 2.77.
8 Ronald Hock, “Lazarus and Micyllus: Greco-Roman Backgrounds to Luke 16:19–31,” Journal of Biblical Literature 106, no. 3 (Sept. 1987), 55.
9 Ibid., 455–63.
10 Plato, Republic, 10.614B–621B.
11 Richard Bauckham, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels,” New Testament Studies 37, no. 2 (1991), 225–246.
12 Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 18b.
13 This tale is told in The Apocryphon of Jannes and Jambres. Genesis neither numbers nor names the magicians who opposed Moses, nor does it state they were brothers. Jewish tradition named them as Jannes and Jambres, a tradition known in 2 Timothy 3:8.
14 We do not know whether Jambres repents, because the text is fragmentary and the conclusion of the story missing.
15 V. Tanghe considers Lazarus to be Abraham’s envoy, since Lazarus is the Greek version of the Hebrew Eliezer, Abraham’s servant (Gen. 15:2; cf. 24:2). The parable does not make such a connection. However, in light of its relation to stories about the afterlife where a known eyewitness usually has a prominent role, it is likely that such a connection between Lazarus and Eliezer could be made in the minds of the audience. V. Tanghe, “Abraham, son fils et son envoye (Luc 16,19–31),” Revue Biblique 91 (1984): 557–77.
16 Bauckham, “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” 328.
17 Unless otherwise noted, Bible references are from the New King James Version.
18 Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, trans., ed., and aug. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederich W. Danker (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1958), s.v. “chortazō.”
19 Compare the translation “Abraham’s side” (e.g., ESV and NIV).
20 Bauer, Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. phonizō; Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, revised by Henry S. Jones, (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968), s.v. phonizō.
21 Luke 2:48; Acts 20:38; Romans 9:2; and 1 Timothy 6:10.
22 Compare Genesis 44:31; Exodus 3:7; Deuteronomy 26:14; Proverbs 29:21; Isaiah 21:10; 40:29; 53:4; Lamentations 1:12; Haggai 2:14; Zechariah 9:5; and 12:10 . Also Genesis 35:18 where, though Rachel’s son is born in the physical pain of birth, she names him Ben-Oni—uios odunēs, “son of sorrow”— highlighting perhaps her emotional anguish over her physical pain.
23 Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X– XXIV, The Anchor Bible, vol. 28a, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 1133.
24 Liddell and Scott, Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. katapsuchō. Liddell and Scott define it as “cool,” “chill,” or “refresh,” while they render the related adjective katapsuchros as “very cold.”
25 E.g., See Stanley E. Porter, Jeffrey T. Reed, and Matthew Brook O’Donnell, Fundamentals of New Testament Greek (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 132, 33.
26 E.g., 2 Samuel 16:20; 1 Kings 18:27; 22:13–16; Isaiah 46:6, 7; Jeremiah 10:5; 12:5; Matthew 23:24; Mark 7:25–30; John 1:45, 46; 2 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 5:12.
27 Ellen G. White, Christ’s Object Lessons (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1941), 265.
28 The Bible contains numerous stories of persons who died and were raised back to life, the best known being Lazarus. However, none told tales from the afterlife because there were no such tales to be told. The dead “know nothing” (Eccles. 9:5).