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 (KJV)
Before we look at the meaning and finer points of the Rich Man and Lazarus parable it would be wise to read the facts straight from the Bible.
“There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: and there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
And 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 thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.’
Then he said, ‘I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham saith unto him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.’ And he said unto him, ‘If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead’” (Luke 16:19-31, KJV).
Now, let’s look at the details of this story and the main point Jesus is trying to teach. Christ’s audience included:
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, the poor man.
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:
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 or meaning...
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.
It is easy for us to look down upon the Jewish leaders for not understanding the meaning of this parable. 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.