The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus is typically used to support the idea that once a person passes from this life, it is too late for repentance; their plight is set for eternity. In this essay, I will examine this passage of scripture and relate what I believe Jesus was conveying to His listeners.
And — a certain man was rich, and was clothed in purple and fine linen, making merry sumptuously every day, and there was a certain poor man, by name Lazarus, who was laid at his porch, full of sores, and desiring to be filled from the crumbs that are falling from the table of the rich man; yea, also the dogs, coming, were licking his sores.
And it came to pass, that the poor man died, and that he was carried away by the messengers to the bosom of Abraham — and the rich man also died, and was buried; and in the hades having lifted up his eyes, being in torments, he doth see Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom, and having cried, he said, “Father Abraham, deal kindly with me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and may cool my tongue, because I am distressed in this flame.”
And Abraham said, “Child, remember that thou did receive — thou — thy good things in thy life, and Lazarus in like manner the evil things, and now he is comforted, and thou art distressed; and besides all these things, between us and you a great chasm is fixed, so that they who are willing to go over from hence unto you are not able, nor do they from thence to us pass through.”
And he said, “I pray thee, then, father, that thou mayest send him to the house of my father, for I have five brothers, so that he may thoroughly testify to them, that they also may not come to this place of torment.”
Abraham saith to him, “They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them;”
And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if any one from the dead may go unto them, they will reform.”
And he said to him, “If Moses and the prophets they do not hear, neither if one may rise out of the dead will they be persuaded.”
I learned through my studies over the past years that Jesus was most likely not the originator of the basic story. As always, understanding the cultural context of a passage of scripture will give more insight into its meaning.
Now I could merely tell you that the theme of a rich man and poor man, and their plights after death, were not original to this story told by Jesus… but I think it’s probably better for you to be able to read it for yourself (sorry if this post gets long as a result).
The summary of a story found in ancient Egyptian literature. This story was found on a scrap of papyrus that dates from the time of Jesus. It is understood that those whom Jesus interacted with would have known this story.
One day Satni and his still young son, Senosiris, were looking over the city from the roof of their house, when the lamentations rising from the gorgeous funeral procession of a rich man attracted their attention. Soon thereafter, they saw the miserable obsequies of a poor man, wrapped only in a mat, lacking any of the trappings of the earlier train. The father sighed and prayed aloud that he should have the fate in the underworld of the elaborately lamented wealthy man rather than of the pauper.
His son immediately contradicted him. Chastised for this apparent insubordination, Senosiris guided his father through a tour of the seven halls of Amentit (the underworld), where he demonstrated how one’s fate after death depends on the balance of good versus evil deeds in done in life rather than the splendor of one’s funeral.
On their tour of the underworld, Satni noticed among those seated near Osiris “one clad in fine linen and in a lofty rank,” and Senosiris explained that this was the poor man, who because his good deeds were more numerous than his bad, was thus honoured by Osiris and, “as there was no total of happiness while he was on earth sufficient to correspond with the length of life inscribed to his account by Thoth, an order was given on the part of Osiris to transfer the funerary outfit of the rich man to this poor man.”
Senosiris continued to explain that the rich man they had seen was taken to Hades, his misdeeds were weighed against his merits, the misdeeds were found more numerous than his merits that he had on earth, and command was given that he should be punished in Amentit. They then saw him with the pivot of a door planted on his right eye.
There is far more detail to this story than this little summary. However, my point in posting this story is not to examine the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians and their description of the underworld, it is to frame the story of the “Rich Man and Lazarus” against the cultural backdrop in which it was told.
Further expanding on this cultural backdrop, the Pharisees had adopted the ideas of a resurrection, “Abraham’s bosom” and “hades.” The Pharisees were a bit liberal in their beliefs in the afterlife. The Sadducees actually took after the more traditional view of Judaism; that which is found in the Old Testament (Also known as “Moses and the prophets” or the Torah). The Sadducees rejected the idea of the oral law and insisted on a literal interpretation of the written law; consequently, they did not believe in an afterlife, since it is not mentioned in the Torah.
Some may scoff at the idea that “heaven and hell” are not really found in the Old Testament (Torah), but a full study of what the Old Testament has to say of the afterlife will reveal a general absence of any kind of details about conscious existence after death (there are a very few exceptions to this which are open to interpretation). All men, righteous or unrighteous, go down to the grave (sheol). (If you want to study this specifically, look at every usage of two words in the OT; Strong’s H8064 and H7585. You can use Vine’s Dictionary or a free program called e-sword to do this.)
The belief of hades as a place of torment for the wicked does not come from Judaism or Christianity. Hades has its roots in Egyptian, Roman, and Greek mythology (for more on this, if you can stand a very long dry read, take a look at The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds by Alan E. Bernstein).
It is most likely that the Pharisees found the popular idea of hades convenient as a method for control. I tend to think they capitalized on the cultural idea of judgment after death as believed by the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks. They adopted the popular trend of culture, adapted it to fit Judaic traditions, and used it to control people.
So this is where Jesus enters with his story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.
I think that the “rich man” in the story is meant to be a caricature of the Pharisees. This is evident from the context in which we find the story as it is found sandwiched between dialogue with the Pharisees. Additionally, the Pharisees commonly dressed in purple and fine linens, they loved pomp and circumstance (I’ll bet they even planned extravagant funerals for themselves), and verse 14 of the chapter says outright that they loved money.
When Jesus tells his story, he changes a few of the details around from what was in the Egyptian story. Where in the original story there is no mention of any relation between the rich man and poor man, in Jesus’ version of the story, the rich man personally snubbed Lazarus. Further, “the dogs” was a common slang term for “the gentiles” (see Mt 15:21-28, Mark 7:24-30). So the dogs (the gentiles) cared for the wounds of Lazarus, while the rich man (the Pharisees) snubbed him.
Jesus is using the story to “pick on” the Pharisees. While the rich man is lying in torment, Lazarus is enjoying the good life in “Abraham’s bosom”. The Pharisees didn’t see this one coming. They had been threatening people with hades for not observing their long list of rules, and here’s Jesus telling them that they are bound for hades because they don’t care for the needy among them.
So the rich man can see Abraham’s bosom and begs Abraham for a drop of water for his tongue, but it cannot be sent because of the great chasm between them (details that have their roots in secular mythology). He then asks that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers of their impending doom. The answer; “If Moses and the prophets they do not hear, neither if one may rise out of the dead will they be persuaded.”
This answer is great. Not only does it reveal the obstinacy of the Pharisees in their sin, it is also a foreshadowing of what is to happen when Jesus himself rises from the grave – many still disbelieve. I’m humored that Jesus had already thrown the Pharisees’ belief in hades back on them, and now he is using their own belief in resurrection of the dead against them too.
Further, I find it interesting that “Moses and the prophets” don’t really speak of what happens after death. There is no threat of torment after death found within “Moses and the prophets”. So how would this serve as a warning to the rich man’s brothers of the impending doom of “hell”? It wouldn’t.
What is to be found in Moses and the prophets is this:
“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” -Mt 22:37-40
The rich man, like the Pharisees, was guilty of caring more for himself and his own comforts than for his fellow man. 1 John 4:20 tells us that any man who says he loves God and yet hates his brother is a liar. So the rich man, and the Pharisees, were guilty of breaking to two greatest commandments.
Now, aside from Jesus stickin’ it to the Pharisees, the thing that strikes me most in this passage is that recompense is made to Lazarus for his suffering while punishment is administered to the ones who could have prevented his suffering.
It seems to me that this is story is about justice for the poor and oppressed and a stiff warning to the oppressors. It’s ironic that this passage has been consistently twisted to serve an agenda of oppression and fear.
Now I would like to make some comments regarding the use of this passage to support the extra-biblical idea of “no-second-chances-after-death”.
If we want to be literal about “hell” in this passage, then should we not also be literal about the criteria for whether or not one goes there?
Lazarus wasn’t sent to Abraham’s bosom based upon any good he did or because he had faith, but because he suffered.
Now, I realize that this observation regarding the criteria of salvation is a sidestep of the question at hand. However, my point is this: We could certainly read the traditional theology positions into the passage by assuming some things that aren’t stated, but they are not in the passage to start. This passage is figurative in many ways and does little to demand the traditional view of hell.
When we read things into the passage in order to make it serve our purposes, we are in danger of missing the point of the passage entirely – and becoming like the Pharisees in the process.
Many use this passage to teach the doctrine of “no-second-chances-after-death”; once you die it’s too late for repentance. I don’t think this is the point Jesus was making and misses the heart of the message. I think Jesus was using a well-known story to give the Pharisees a taste of their own medicine while proclaiming a message of justice and recompense for the poor and oppressed.
This passage proclaims a message of justice and recompense for the poor and oppressed and serves as a stern warning to the oppressors.