The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

In Luke 15 and 16, Jesus tells five parables in a row. The first three are about lost things; a sheep, a coin, and a son. The last two are about lost lives; a shrewd manager loses his livelihood and a rich man loses his life.

1. Story of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7)
2. Story of the lost son (Luke 15:8-10)
3. Story of the lost coin (Luke 15:11-32)
4. Story of the lost job (Luke 16:1-13)
5. Story of the lost life (Luke 16:19-31)

I hope you know these parables are stories, not documentaries. They’re illustrative, not descriptive. Yet many people, including respected Bible teachers, consider the last story as some sort of Discovery Channel special. They treat the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as the Wikipedia entry for Hell. It isn’t. It’s a story and like all of Jesus’ stories it contains a powerful message.

If you’ve forgotten, the story is about a rich guy who dies and ends up in torment in Hades where he has a conversation with Abraham about sending warnings to his five living brothers. It’s gripping stuff! It would make a great movie. But as I say, it is not the Wikipedia entry for Hell.

There are three takeaways from this story, two of which are probably wrong.

rich man in hellTakeaway #1: Hell is a place of eternal conscious torment

“The rich man is in agony. Jesus is telling us that Hell is a place where sinners will suffer eternal conscious torment.” Except this story isn’t about Hell at all, but Hades. Different place.

In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. (Luke 16:23)

Jesus did speak about Hell from time to time (and we would do well to heed what he says about it), but not in Luke 16. This is a story about Hades, the abode of the dead. Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Sheol, which is sometimes translated as “the grave” or “the depths.” Don’t ask me if Hades/Sheol is a real place – I’ve never been there – but the Jews certainly thought it was.

Sidebar: The KJV (along with older versions of the NIV) translates Hades as Hell but as I explain elsewhere, the meaning of the English word Hell has changed since the KJV was translated. Hades is not Hell. In Jewish culture, it’s the place people go when they die. This leads to the second takeaway that is probably wrong.

Takeaway #2: Hades has two compartments – smoking and non-smoking

In the story, the rich man is in the bad part of Hades, but Abraham is in the good part and so is Lazarus. From this some have concluded that Hades has two compartments, and the good part is called “Abraham’s Bosom.” This is a little weird because the Bible says a lot about Hades/Sheol and nowhere else is there any mention of different neighborhoods.

But that’s not the only weird thing Jesus says about Hades in this story:

  • The Jews understood Hades to be a place of silence (Ps 31:17, 115:17), yet in Jesus’ story the rich man chats with Abraham like it’s the most natural thing in the world.
  • The Jews knew Hades as a place where the dead make no plans (Ecc 9:10), yet in the story the rich man is scheming like there’s no tomorrow.

In the Bible, Hades/Sheol is described as a dark, quiet place. There’s no talking, no scheming, and certainly no torment. In the hundred or so scriptures that describe Hades/Sheol, fire is never mentioned. Yet in Jesus’ story the rich man is in fiery torment. It’s odd. It doesn’t fit. It’s like hearing about an Eskimo getting heat stroke.

These deliberately messed-up details reinforce that Jesus is telling a story. The details are merely the scenery for the play. They’re not that important. What is important is the conversation that takes place between the rich man and Abraham.

Why am I saying this? Because there is a treasure in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, but if you think Jesus is giving us a Wikipedia entry for Hades or Hell, you’ll miss it. This leads me to the third takeaway, which is the one that actually matters.

Takeaway #3: God’s grace is greater than death

This story makes a lot more sense if you’re Jewish, for Jesus is alluding to a Psalm that would’ve been familiar to his listeners. It’s Psalm 49 and as we look at bits of it below, think of the rich, dead man in Jesus’ story.

Hear this, all ye peoples; Give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world, both low and high, Rich and poor together. My mouth shall speak wisdom, and… I will incline mine ear to a parable. (v.1-4, ASV)

Like Jesus, the Psalm-writer has a story to tell. Here it is:

They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him… The fool and the brutish alike perish, and leave their wealth to others. (v.6-10, ASV)

Despite all his money, the rich man couldn’t save himself or his brothers from death.

Really! There’s no such thing as self-rescue, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The cost of rescue is beyond our means… (Psa 49:7-8, MSG)

The one who trusts in himself and his money is a fool. Money can’t save you, for everybody dies in the end.

People, despite their wealth, do not endure; they are like the beasts that perish. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves… (Psa 49:12-13, NIV)

The rich build edifices and fund charities in the hope that their name will live on, but what good is that when you’re dead?

They are appointed as a flock for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd… And their beauty shall be for Sheol to consume… (v.14 ASV)

The rich, along with everyone else, are herded like sheep to Sheol. Their fine houses, luxury cars and Botox treatments don’t last. Nothing remains.

But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; For he will receive me. Selah. (v.15 ASV)

“Now, let me tell you some good news,” says the Psalm-writer. “God’s grace is greater than the grave. God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself.”

Grace greater than the grave

This is wonderful news for those who trust in the Lord and it’s a heady warning for those who trust in themselves. The final verses of Psalm 49 help us interpret Jesus’ parable:

Do not be overawed when a man grows rich, when the splendor of his house increases; for he will take nothing with him when he dies, his splendor will not descend with him… A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish. (v.16-17, 20 NIV)

In this life it’s easy to be distracted by wealth and comfort, but those things are deadweights if they distract you from God. Whatever you have, you can’t take it with you. If you think your money can save you, says the Psalm-writer, you’re as dumb as a beast.

Heed the Psalm and the parable and you won’t be seduced by the transient comforts of life. You’ll understand that only God can redeem us from the grave.

That’s a life-saving takeaway, right there, yet there’s even more to this parable than that. Much more, in fact, as we will see in the next post. Stay tuned!

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30 Comments on The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)

  1. amandapride45 // July 9, 2015 at 2:06 am // Reply

    Amen, there is such an assurance beyond words trusting in the Grace of our Lord Jesus…phewww! Thank You Lord. Thanks Brother Paul, waiting for the next post.

  2. First of all the theology and the modern notions regarding what constitutes a parable are not inspired nor are they authoritative. The modern hermeneutics concerning the nature, purpose as well as the “rules” for interpreting and applying them are not authoritative nor inspired either . Parablolic hermeneutics are formulated by modern commentators and scholars -not by the biblical authors.
    Neither are your particular arguments concerning what makes a parable historically accurate or not historically accurate inspired. While the first four parables you mention (whose primary purpose may be to teach a single primary idea or concept regarding the kingdom of God or how it operates) the narrative of Lazarus and the rich rich man stands alone as historical facts for several critical reasons all of which make the narrative historically factual and cannot not be fictitious as the first four could be.
    In his narrative concerning Lazarus Jesus clearly states specific characters, names, facts and places and actual conversations and events between very real people. NONE of which are fictitious I might add. If any of Jesus narrative regarding Lazarus or the character of Lazarus is less than historical fact then all the narrative is fictitious (including the other characters (the rich man, Abraham, the angels and the very graphic descriptions of Hell and what it is like).
    The truth is Jesus graphic and detailed depictions of a firey place of perpetual torment does not align with your personal systematic theology and so you are obsessed with explaining it away. Perhaps you will find a way to explain away this inspired similar factual description as well:
    “And the beast was seized, and with him the false prophet who performed the signs in his presence, by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image; these two were thrown alive into the lake of fire which burns with brimstone. (‭Revelation‬ ‭19‬:‭20‬ NASB)
    “And the devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet ARE also; and THEY will be tormented day and night forever and ever. (‭Revelation‬ ‭20‬:‭10‬ NASB)
    Perhaps these two humans and their destiny of perpetual torment are fictitious as well?

    • Don’t confuse Hades with the lake of fire. They are different: “The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them… Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death” (Rev 20:13-14).”

    • Apparently those in “hell” can talk to those in “heaven”? A LOVING God perpetually torments people in a fiery “hell”? What if our human understanding of “hell” being a PLACE (as opposed to a condition) is not true? Are those who push for an ever burning “hell” for humans just vindictively saying that their righteousness makes them qualified for “heaven”? Perhaps we can only see and know in part as physical human beings…

  3. I like it Paul, I believe you’ve done your homework, being a refugee from the 60s,it reminds me of the song by THE WHO, “Eminence front”

  4. These story’s are no more than an expression of the Jewish blindness to the grace of God , an illustration by God of how they leave even their own in torment because of this. I think of Jesus,s words I have so longed to gather you like a hen gathers her chicks, and he will.

  5. The word “parable” is not in Luke chapter 16.

    • Jesus told about 46 parables. The word “parable” appears in fewer than half of them. The word parable is not needed to identity a parable any more than the word joke is needed to identify a funny story.

      We can be certain this is a parable because of its classic parabolic structure and prophetic theme (more on this in the next post). Jesus deliberately messed up the details of Hades so that no one – at least no Jewish listener – would miss the point that he was speaking parabolically. It’s a safeguard. If you assume Jesus is being literal (which is a mistake because the parables are stories), then you have to dismiss hundreds of scriptures. “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Mat 13:34).

  6. Thanks Paul. I thoroughly love the Good News message of His Love,grace & peace… and value so much your teaching gift
    I’m tracking you on the wealth focus here.. but curious why would you think Jesus (ie. “the Word of God”) would deliberately throw in the backdrop if fire and torment if that wasn’t the case?.. if you’re saying there is (or never was before the Cross) a Sheol or grave with fire & torment where we see Jesus setting out this story?
    I’ve understood that Jesus told us he never did or said anything that he never saw or heard His Father saying.
    If there wasn’t torment to follow, it would seem pretty misleading to those listening to this story. Why not set it in a dead quiet, dark place, if that was all they should expect?
    It would seem to me that Jesus was giving a clear & stern warning. He wasn’t attempting to candy coat or downplay what’s coming, but encouraging all to pay attention and do something about it while you still can. Use your wealth, watch your heart, make those choices, decisions/ priorities…NOW, before it’s too late.
    He loves us all enough to tell the truth.. while it matters.

    • Sheol is not hell. In Revelation Hades/Sheol are thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20 20:13-14). In contrast with some preachers, the Bible is somewhat vague when it comes to detailing with the afterlife. That’s the whole point of faith – you don’t get to make an informed decision. You do get to trust Jesus. Think about the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve had no concept of death. God didn’t sit down with them and paint a picture of it and encourage them to make an informed decision. He simply said “Trust me.” What the Father does the Son also does. He didn’t come to earth to give us a guided tour of hell. He simply says “Trust me.” That’s enough for me.

      When we dangle the threat of hell over people’s heads, we are inviting them to walk by sight, to lean on their own understanding. Jesus only did this when talking to law-lovers (ie: people already trusting in their own flesh for salvation). The Lover of our souls does not woo us with threats or warnings.

      As I say above, the details of the story are deliberately confusing to a Jewish listener. They flat out contradict scripture in hundreds of places. It would be as if I began a story, “A horse walks into a bar…” You’re not supposed to wonder why a horse is in a bar; you’re supposed to listen to the bit that comes next.

      There could be several reasons for including torment in this story. Jesus mentions torment as a consequence of rejecting grace in several stories including some that have nothing to do with dead people (eg: Matt 18:34, 22:13).

      • inhislove // July 11, 2015 at 10:04 am //

        Interestingly Nelson Study Bible (gen. ed. Dr. E. Redmacher) though not commenting on genre, says about v. 24: “I am tormented: The rich man desired relief from his suffering. The image of thirst for the experience of judgment is common (see Is. 5:13; 65:13; Hos. 2:3).”

        In this light the invitation to people to be saved at present time gets a new “dimension”.

        Revelation of John 22:17
        The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” He who hears, let him say, “Come!” He who is thirsty, let him come. He who desires, let him take the water of life freely.

      • i thought your describing the two compartments of hades in this account as smoking and non-smoking was particularly amusing and witty.

        you are correct that hades is not hell as even david said he will see again his son in sheol, the same place referred to in the nt as hades.

        however, there is such place of torment in addition to that compartment in hades: tartarus for the messengers of god that sinned and lake of fire referred to in the book of revelation. an eternal abode of torment is a place of choice of those who end up there. this is a choice each human being is free to choose over the eternal abode with our creator. this is why jesus is recorded in the four gospels as talking about hell (gehenna) more than he talked about heaven because in this earthly life, more would choose to go there and that is not the will of god. he even came back decades later to again bring this out in the book of revelation wherein he no longer talked about the temporary abode hades/sheol but of the eternal abode, the lake of fire.

        you are not correct in saying jesus tried to confuse the pharisees. he came to reveal truth, to give more understanding of the will of god. he proclaimed to be the way, the truth and the life. there is no room there for instilling/creating confusion. nowhere in the nt is jesus recorded as messing information up. he came to clarify things that the leaders of the time messed up.

    • Shannon, I understand that we humans live in time and space. However, God lives OUTSIDE of our physical boundaries. We may ask for forgiveness now, but God has already forgiven us. Nothing is “too late ” for God – as nothing catches Him by surprise. By the way, hopefully every parent would forgive their child even if that child was the worst criminal – just as our Heavenly Abba forgives us.

  7. inhislove // July 9, 2015 at 8:38 pm // Reply

    Thanks for article. Some good points that many do not understand. Hades/Sheol definitely is not the lake of fire.

    The story (true story, not parable – for hermeneutical reasons – biggest it doesn’t say it is a parable) of Lazarus happened before the cross. OT saints were located in the Hades (probably located in the center of the earth) in separate place called Abraham’s bosom.

    After the cross OT saints were taken to heaven.

    Just an interesting point, many believe the Abyss between Abraham and Lazarus in the story is the Tartaros as in 2 Pt 2:4 (cast them DOWN to Tartaros) and in Revelation 9 (the bottomless pit).

    I agree with you Paul, God send us to preach the Good News (1 Cor. 15:1-4), that is the power unto salvation (Rom 1:16)!

    • Dear Paul, you article made me reconsider my view and hermeneutical stance on this passage. I checked my books I usually go to to get the first opinion and to my surprise all of them treat this passage as a PARABLE.

      – Bible Knowledge Commentary
      – Grace New Testament Commentary
      – Constable Notes on NT
      – Protestant Biblical Interpretation: A Textbook of Hermeneutics by Bernard Ramm
      – Milton S. Terry, Biblical hermeneutics: A Treatise on the Interpretation of the Old and New Testaments
      – Robertson McQuilkin, Understanding and Applying the Bible

      (From the books on hermeneutics I consulted only Elliott E. Johnson, Expository Hermeneutics: An Introduction, mentioned as a note that some treat it as a real story and not a parable.)

      Thank you for shaking the dogmas and motivating people to think for themselves to get their own convictions (1Thes 1:5).

      • Thanks for that. I spent several weeks studying this parable and the descriptions of Hades/Sheol in the Bible and I was struck again and again by how unusual – dare I say it, “unbiblical” – Jesus’ account is. Of course I don’t mean Jesus is unbiblical, just that his depiction of Hades is radically different from the rest of the Bible. It would be like me telling you Australia was a place of snow-capped alps, fjords, and midnight sun.

    • Inhislove, could it be that Rev 22:17 is referring to forgiveness even in the future?

  8. shall the bad doers be tortured in hades before their punishment in help on the judgment day?

  9. i didn’t see Psalm 155:17

    • That should be Ps 115:17. Thanks.

      • Nadya D. // July 18, 2015 at 8:28 am //

        I was gonna say the same thing.. Maybe you can edit your post to say 115? It totally confused me and then I was just scrolling though the rest of the post and not paying attention since all I could think was “what do I not know about the Bible? Are there secret Psalms?” 😂
        But then I scrolled through comments and re-read your post with much more confidence.
        Thanks for sharing!

      • Nadya D. // July 18, 2015 at 8:30 am //

        Ugh, never mind, once I went to the post from your site instead of Worpress reader it showed it correct. Sorry😦

  10. Kenneth Blount // July 12, 2015 at 9:57 am // Reply

    Parables were told to and about groups of people, most if not all had no names mentioned, but the one about Lazarus was different, his name is significant because it means (GOD is giver) or my now meaning (believer; Christian). that is the only reason that Lazarus went to Abrahams side, and had nothing to do with being poor beggarly although the Christian is in this same state while he does not know his full rights. JESUS healed the blind beggar HE left PETER and JOHN to heal the lame beggar that is our job, so that the now believer can truly tell the rich mans brothers about this place the rich man found himself in.
    I have written about this in my notes and find hidden manna there all the time, JESUS was telling of what was and what was to come all in this story (if you will)

  11. Kenneth Blount // July 12, 2015 at 10:07 am // Reply

    Adding to this.. The place, is no more although the Catholics still believe in such a place they call it Paradise the waiting room.

  12. Kenneth Blount // July 12, 2015 at 10:28 am // Reply

    LUKE the doctor wrote down this story and thank the LORD he did, but the church has all kinds of religious takes on the meaning, one especially comes to mind you need to be a humble poor, and not rich man to enter in.
    The LAZARUS of today need to be raised up from their lameness, so they can enter in the temple with leaping and praising GOD. we are of the raised LAZARUS from the dead.

  13. Great post paul😀 loved it such a powerfull megg from our Lord indeed.

  14. trepur odiref // July 13, 2015 at 2:22 am // Reply

    paul i think you missed all the true message of the five parables spoken in the book of luke….the parable of rich man & lazarus will tell you what Christ Jesus was trying to convey to His audience…..from the parable, nothing is without relevance, all point to one thing & one one thing only…the purple robe, the rich man, the fixed great chasm, lazarus, the five brothers, the words “father abraham”, moses and the prophets…..paul unlock the meaning of these things and you will unlock the true meaning of this parable….then you will be able to understand the rest of the four parables……matthew 15:24-28 might help…peace.

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