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The Rich Man, Lazarus and Abraham (Part 1 of 4)

Sometimes in the Bible it is obvious when a parable is a parable and when real events are real events. Sometimes the reader can easily distinguish between things to be taken literally and things to be taken figuratively. But this is not always so simple.
Read Time: 8 minutes

This series of articles is based on a pamphlet by Bro. Stephen that is available online.
See also the related article by Bro. Steven: “Not Giving Heed to Jewish Fables (2): Abraham and the Underworld,” Tidings, July, 2000, pp. 256-260. 


Many times when Jesus spoke in parables, people misunderstood and took him literally. For example, Jesus once said, when visiting the temple in Jerusalem, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.” Those listening all thought he was speaking literally about the real temple and objected, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” Yet the Gospel writer notes, “But the temple he had spoken of was his body.” (John 2:20).1Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are taken from the New International Version (NIV). In other words, he was talking figuratively, in a kind of parable.

Even Jesus’ own disciples were often confused by his figurative speech and parables. For example, on another occasion he told his disciples to “be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and the Sadducees” and they misunderstood, thinking that he was reproaching them for having forgotten to buy bread. Then he explained to them he was talking figuratively; the yeast was the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matt 16:6-7, 11-12).

It is easy to smile at these mistakes by the people of Jesus’ day, and forget that we are reading the account including the explanation! Without the explanation, we would probably be just as confused as those to whom Jesus first spoke the words.

A Unique Story

The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is one of the best known in the Bible because it is unique in several ways:

  1. Firstly, it is unique because, although its style resembles a parable, and it comes immediately after a series of four other parables (parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, prodigal son, dishonest manager), it certainly is not a usual parable. The parables of Jesus normally concern nature, everyday life, customs and society, not startling visions of the underworld, complete with fire and chasms.
  2. Secondly, this parable, if we can properly call it a parable, is the only one in which real people (i.e., Abraham, Lazarus) are named.
  3. Thirdly, it is unique because the teachings in this story clearly contradict the rest of the Bible’s teaching about what happens after death. For example, no other support can be found anywhere in the Bible for the idea that “souls” live on after death, or that the “souls” of good and wicked go to different places. Or that Abraham is waiting to welcome the dead. Some popular ideas about souls going to heaven or hell, and so on, are not taught in the Bible. In fact, they are repeatedly denied in both the Old and New Testaments. We read elsewhere in the Bible, “the dead know nothing.” (More on this subject in a moment.)
  4. Finally, Jesus uses various phrases (such as “the Bosom of Abraham”) and images (such as the chasm separating the underworld in two) which are only found outside the Bible. In fact, these terms are only found in First Century Jewish mythology. (More on this subject in a future article in this series.)

Bible Teaching on Death

…many modern Christians reject the book of Ecclesiastes as being “the work of a man without faith.”Before looking at Luke 16:19-31 in detail, it is probably necessary to support the assertion made above that the Bible teaches that “the dead know nothing.”

That phrase is actually a quote from the Bible (Eccl 9:5). Similar comments can be found in Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 and 9:10. These verses are so clear and so plainly contradict popular church teaching about the “immortal soul” (a phrase never found in the Bible), that many modern Christians reject the book of Ecclesiastes as being “the work of a man without faith.” This is extremely short-sighted as it is not only Ecclesiastes but almost every book in the Bible that contains this teaching. If someone rejects Ecclesiastes, because they find its teaching unpalatable, they will eventually have to do so with the entire Old Testament and then the New Testament as well.

It is not going to be possible to cover the entire subject of life, death, and the nature of man in a few lines. However, the main points of Bible teaching are as follows:

Man’s “soul” is made up of two parts: dust and breath

“Then the LORD God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Gen 2:7).2

The phrase “living being” is the same in Hebrew as “living creatures” in Genesis 1:21, 24; 9:10, 12, 15, 16.

“So it is written: ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit.” (1 Cor 15:45).


When man dies, the breath returns to God who gave it, and man returns to dust

God pronounced judgment on Adam:

“By the sweat of your brow you shall eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you shall return.” (Gen 3:19).

This principle is echoed by the Psalmist:

“When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.” (Psa 104:29). “When their spirit departs, they return to the ground; on that very day their plans come to nothing.” (Psa 146:4).
And by the Teacher:
“Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.” (Eccl 3:19-20). “And the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Eccl 12:7).


Those who have known God “sleep in the dust,” meaning they rest unconscious until Christ returns

God promised King David:

“And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom.” (2 Sam 7:12 KJV).3Compare Acts 2:29, 24; 13:36, which emphasize that David was dead and buried, and that he had not ascended to heaven.

The difference between the sleep of death and natural sleep is explained in the Gospel of John:

“After he [Jesus] had said this, he went on to tell them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.’ His disciples replied, ‘Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.’ Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.” (John 11:11-13).

In a chapter all about resurrection, Paul wrote: “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed.” (1 Cor 15:51).

Furthermore, the dead cannot praise the LORD: “Among the dead no one proclaims your name. Who praises you from the grave?” (Psa 6:5). “Look on me and answer, LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.” (Psa 13:3). “Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do their spirits rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction?” (Psa 88:10-11). “It is not the dead who praise the LORD, those who go down to the place of silence.” (Psa 115:7). “For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness.” (Isa 38:8).


Only then will man rise from the dust to be judged, and, if accepted, live forever in Christ’s Kingdom on earth

“But your dead will live, LORD; their bodies will rise—let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy—your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.” (Isa 26:19). “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Dan 12:2).
Jesus explained to the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection:
“But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” (Luke 20:35-38).

There are some complications to the simple explanation above because of the way that Bible translations sometimes reflect church traditions rather than the literal text. So, a phrase which conflicts with traditional beliefs such as “must not go near a dead soul [Hebrew: nephesh] is translated as “must not go near a dead body.” (Num 6:6 NIV, and most English translations). When Joshua “struck all the souls [Hebrew: nephesh] with the edge of the sword,” the same Hebrew word is instead translated everyone (Joshua 10:28, 30, 32, 37, 39). And so on.

One solution to this problem is to use a concordance. Alternatively, some readers use two or more Bible translations for checking difficult passages. 4For those with access to the internet, see www.biblegateway.com, for example, which has many translations.Either way, it is worth noting the literal meaning of the text in the margin of one’s Bible so it can be remembered the next time it is read.

Back to Luke 16

So the picture of the afterlife given in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus contradicts all the Bible verses given above.

Something that is even stranger, given the popularity of Luke 16 in mainstream churches as a proof text about heaven and hell, is that it also contradicts church traditions. If Abraham is really in a place where one can communicate across a chasm with the wicked, burning in another part of the underworld, then he is not in heaven. Luke 16:22-26 clearly has nothing to do with the popular picture of heaven.

Some churches have attempted to get around this by saying that the “Bosom of Abraham” was under the earth when Jesus spoke but is in heaven now. Apart from the lack of any Bible support for such an idea, what exactly does it achieve?

To be continued.

Stephen Cox
Leicester Westleigh, UK

Part 2 Now Available! Click here

Suggested Readings
The parables of the New Testament are not simple stories like the fairy tales that we tell children. They can be, and were intended to be, difficult to understand.
“At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.” (Luke 16:20-21).
We have shown that the teaching about Hades and Abraham’s Bosom is not biblical but rather stems from contemporary Jewish superstition.
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