I have suggested in The Coming of the Son of Man and on this blog that the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is not intended to provide factual information about the afterlife but rather belongs to Jesus’ critique of a complacent elite in Israel that served mammon rather than God (cf. Lk. 16:13-14). It is, in effect, a parable for the coming eschatological reversal of fortunes in Israel, when the hungry would be filled with good things and the rich would be sent empty away. This argument allows me to hold to my view that Jesus did not teach the existence of “hell” as a place of eternal conscious torment; rather he warned disobedient Israel, and especially the various political-religious elites, that they faced divine judgment in the form of invasion, war, slaughter, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The disposal of the dead in the valley of the sons of Hinnom—that is Gehenna—stands as a metonymy for the appalling suffering and loss of life that would accompany the siege of Jerusalem. It is not an image for suffering after death.
But the question was recently put to me: If that’s the case, why did Jesus tell a story about the afterlife in order to make such a mundane historical point? It’s a good question.
As already indicated, I take it that the story is a parable of some sort. Jesus is not claiming knowledge of two real people to whom these events happened, though complacent rich men and diseased beggars certainly existed in first century Israel. Nor are we meant to conclude from his teaching that every wealthy first century Jew in Hades was able to converse with Abraham across the metaphysical gulf that separated them. There are numerous symbolic or “legendary” elements in the story: Abraham as the focus of comfort and consolation, the chasm separating Abraham from Hades, Hades as a place of explicit torment by fire, the conversation between the rich man and Abraham, the finger dipped in water to cool the flames of Hades, the request to send Lazarus to the rich man’s brothers.
It is an account of the “afterlife” quite unlike anything else in Jesus’ teaching—or in the rest of scripture, for that matter. It is an eschatological outlier. It appears to have more in common with folk traditions than with biblical thought. In the Septuagint and elsewhere in the New Testament Hades is little more than death spatially and mythically conceived; it is the grave, a place of destruction and corruption, not of conscious torment; both the good and the bad go to Hades. Presumably under the influence of Greek ideas Jewish apocalyptic developed a more complex infernal landscape, with sections reserved for the punishment of the wicked (cf. Enoch 102:4-5; 103:5-8).
The story has a strong “moral” attached to it. The rich man’s five brothers should learn from Moses and the Prophets that it is very difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. If they do not pay heed to the Jewish scriptures, “neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (16:31).
In this regard, the parable makes much the same point as the story of the master who shuts the door of the house, which Jesus tells in response to a question about how many Jews will be saved from the coming judgment:
But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!’ In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last. (Luke 13:27–30)
The firmly shut door is not the individual’s death; it is the moment of judgment, when it is too late for Israel to repent. There is no reason to suppose here that Jesus is describing a post-mortem state of affairs. Those who obey his teaching will be included in restored Israel, along with many gathered from far afield, symbolised by the meal with the patriarchs and prophets. Those who do not obey Jesus’ teaching, who instead build their house on the sand, who feast and make merry to the exclusion of the poor, will find themselves excluded from restored Israel.
It seems to me, therefore, that the story is so thoroughly legendary, so didactic, in its metaphysics so unlike other texts dealing with Hades, on the one hand, and the restoration of the family of Abraham, on the other, that we have to regard it as entirely metaphorical, not merely in some of its details. The transportation of the dead Lazarus directly to Abraham’s side—notice that he is not buried—is a symbol of the restoration of Israel from the margins. He is roughly the Jewish equivalent of the Syrophoenician woman, who also could hope for no more than to feed from the scraps of food thrown from the master’s table (Mk. 7:25-30). The burial and torment of the rich man in Hades is a symbol of the devastating finality of the coming judgment for those who imagined themselves secure.
So why is the story set in the afterlife? Perhaps only because stories of this type were popular. Perhaps Jesus is simply exploiting the folkloric format in order to get across his much more serious point. He may even implicitly correct the notion of a person being sent back from Hades with the language of rising from the dead (Lk. 16:27, 30-31). In any case, Abraham’s closing comment may point to the real reason Luke’s Jesus tells a story about the afterlife: “neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (16:31). It becomes a parable of Jewish incredulity and intransigence even after the resurrection.