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The Rich Man and Lazarus: literal or figurative?

The Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus, found in Luke 16:19-31 has caused many to ask questions. Is the parable literal? Is it figurative? How does this fit into the overall teachings of the Bible? In the paragraphs below, we will examine the Rich Man and Lazarus:
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Luke 16:19-31 — The Rich Man and Lazarus

Before we look at the meaning and finer points of this parable it would be wise to read the facts straight from the Bible.

“There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”

“Then 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 in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’”

“Then he said, ‘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.’ Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”

The details...

Now, let’s look at the details of this story and the main point Jesus is trying to teach. Christ’s audience included:

  • Publicans and sinners (Luke 15:1)
  • His disciples (Luke 16:1)
  • The Pharisees (Luke 15:2)
  • Others in the crowd

Jesus addresses false teachings

In this parable Christ seems to be speaking specifically to the Pharisees (Luke 16:14). The Jews had unfortunately accepted the Greek Pagan belief that when a person died they went into the fire to purify the soul. Jesus took this erroneous idea and used it as subject matter for the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Jesus also addressed another false understanding the Jews of His day had—that if a man was rich he was blessed by God (Mark 10:17-26) and if he was poor he was cursed. Jesus takes this teaching and turns it on its head. Jesus teaches that our future destiny is decided by our acceptance of Christ and the privileges and opportunities in this present life and that there isn’t a second chance after death.

Literal or figurative?

The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus appears in the context and proximity of other parables and is located near the end of a long line of parables in Luke 15 to 16—the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, the unjust steward and finally the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.

In each of these parables we don’t expect every detail to be literal. We don’t need to strive to have the features of a sheep or become metal like a coin or even become a wayward son, instead, we should learn the spiritual principles that Jesus is trying to teach from each parable.

Here are 6 reasons the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus should be taken figuratively:

  1. When Lazarus, the beggar, dies he is taken by angels to Abraham's bosom. We know that this is only figurative or a parabolic expression because no one can literally live or even fit inside Abraham’s chest. For that matter all of the dead from ages past couldn’t fit inside his bosom either. And if this parable is literal, where would Abraham have gone when he died? Into his own bosom?
  2. The rich man is buried in the grave (v. 22). No one believes that a person’s literal dead body in the grave is also miraculously in a burning hell at the moment they die. Additionally, many graves have been opened and exhumed, these bodies are still physically in the grave or have turned to dust and have not been taken away directly to hell.
  3. The rich man could talk directly to Abraham, from hell to heaven, close enough for people to speak to one another (v. 23). Imagine living in heaven while hearing the cries of those in hell. Heaven wouldn’t be enjoyable as you would hear the cries of the lost and perhaps even of your own relatives.
  4. The rich man asks Abraham the following in verse 24: “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.” If this scene is truly literal, the one drop of water would evaporate before it could even reach the rich man and there would be no point of even making this request.
  5. Furthermore, if this parable is literal, do disembodied souls have real bodies? Do they have literal fingers and tongues? Could a soul even transport a drop of water to the rich man? As we look at this, it is clear that this parable is an allegory and figurative in nature.
  6. Lastly, we are to focus on the principles of this parable and not create doctrines out of every detail that is mentioned. This is clear from the parable located directly before the Rich Man and Lazarus— the unrighteous servant found in Luke 16:1-10. In this parable Jesus isn’t calling for believers to be dishonest servants but rather that they should use their money for God and the good of others.

If the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is literal it would cause problems. Heaven wouldn’t be enjoyable as the saved could hear the screams of those in hell. And how could Abraham have room for all those deceased people in his bosom?

So what is the main point...

The first message that Jesus stresses in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is that there is a great gulf fixed between the two men. In other words, when a person dies there is no reversal of their fate (v. 26). Their decisions, their character is fixed at death; there is no second chance.

Secondly, Jesus emphasizes the importance of having a faith solidly based upon the scriptures and not upon miracles. Jesus was emphatic! The Rich Man’s brothers had “Moses and the Prophets” and if they would not hear or believe them, they would not believe the message if one rose from the dead with the same message.

Finally and most importantly, Jesus was specifically rebuking the Jews—represented by the Rich Man. They were the favored nation of God and wealthy because of the direct blessings of God. The Jewish nation was to share the literal and spiritual blessings God had given them with the nations of the world, represented by Lazarus.

  • However, the Jewish nation hoarded the wealth and blessings just like the Rich man did. In this parable Jesus is pleading with the Jews to change their ways and help those less fortunate.
  • It is interesting to note that only a few weeks later Jesus did indeed resurrect a man named Lazarus (John 11). Jesus sent the Pharisees both “Moses and the Prophets” a sign, raising Lazarus from the dead. Yet the Jewish leaders continued to be stubborn and hard-hearted and still would not believe (John 12:10, 11).

Conclusion

It is easy for us to look down upon the Jewish leaders for not understanding this parable of Jesus. It is easy for us to think “why didn’t they help those less fortunate” and share God’s blessing with the surrounding nations?

However, take a minute to look at your own life. Where are your priorities? What blessings of God are you not sharing with those around you? What messages from “Moses and the prophets” are you not listening to? What signs are you not wanting to see?

As you contemplate this parable, why not consider reading Isaiah 58. In this chapter God calls His children to help those in need—the hungry, naked, homeless and less fortunate. Then the promise comes “The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your soul in drought, and strengthen your bones; you shall be like a watered garden“ (Isaiah 58:11). What a wonderful thought.