The rich man and Lazarus, and what the story tells us about hell

Tue, 01/03/2011 - 15:28

The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is often cited as evidence that Jesus believed in hell as a place of conscious torment. Ben has drawn attention to it in a comment on my “Kevin DeYoung, Rob Bell, and the argument about hell” post, noting that Jesus appears to affirm “conscious/physical punishment after death”. The basic issue here is probably a literary one. Is this story of such a character that it requires to be read as a more or less literal account of post-mortem realities? Or is it rather a parable or symbolic narrative that speaks of a state of affairs other than that which it purports to describe? It seems to me that the weight of evidence is very much in favour of the latter opinion.

1. Stories of a reversal of fortunes after death appear to have been commonplace in the ancient world. In an Egyptian folktale Si-Osire is upset by the wretched burial of a poor man but is comforted by a vision of his transformed circumstances in the afterlife. One Jewish legend tells of a wealthy but ungodly woman who communicates a message of repentance to her husband; another relates the reversed fortunes of a rich tax collector and a poor teacher of the Law. It cannot be demonstrated conclusively, but it seems likely that Jesus is deliberately evoking such traditional stories in order to construct a vivid and populist critique of the complacency of the wealthy. The parable is addressed to the Pharisees, who were “lovers of money” (Lk. 16:14).

2. In Jewish understanding “Hades” is not normally a place of torment: it is effectively a metonymy for “death”. The rich man is buried and is therefore in Hades (16:22-23). In 2 Maccabees 6:23 the righteous Eleazar refuses to eat the flesh of an unlawful sacrifice and tells Antiochus’ officials to “send him to Hades”. He means only that they should kill him, not that they should send him to a place of eternal punishment. In view of this and the literary character of the story, we should hesitate to conclude that Jesus thought of Hades as being literally a place where sinners are tormented.

3. Just as the Syrophoenician woman justified her boldness in approaching Jesus by comparing herself to the dogs who eat scraps that fall from the table (Mk. 7:28), Lazarus “desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table” (Lk. 16:21). Notice that the dogs lick his sores. He is a Jew rather than a Gentile; the language suggests nevertheless that he stands symbolically for the “poor” in Israel who are spiritually disenfranchised.

4. When Lazarus dies he is not buried but conveyed by angels directly to the bosom of Abraham. This is not an ordinary death: it signifies the extraordinary honour in which the poor are held by Jesus—and the fact that it is people such as Lazarus, and not the unrighteous wealthy, who are true descendants of Abraham (cf. Lk. 3:8).

5. Abraham informs the rich man that his five brothers have Moses and the Prophets to instruct them. Not least in Luke the message of the prophets is that YHWH is about to hold the leadership of Israel accountable for their greed and wickedness, their disregard for justice, and their lack of love for God (Lk. 11:39, 42):

Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. (Lk. 11:49-51).

The style of the parable is quite different from anything else in the Gospels, but it presupposes the basic eschatological framework of Jesus’ teaching. It is not simply another cautionary tale. It has in view a day of judgment for Israel when the hungry will be filled with good things and the rich sent empty away (cf. Lk. 1:53):

This leads us towards the conclusion that the Hades in which the rich man is tormented is not the conventional Hades of the Old Testament, which, as we have seen is not a place of punishment. Nor is it the traditional ‘hell’ of popular Christian belief. Rather it is an image of the destruction that would come upon the ‘wealthy’ in Israel, who despite the riches and glories of their religious heritage failed to understand that, in the words of the beatitude, the kingdom of God would be given to the poor (cf. Lk.6:20).1

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