The Rich Man and Lazarus

Painting of ancient men and women dining between colomns
Hand Painted Oil Painting Reproduction by Lodovico Pozzoserrato (see Toeput, Lodewijk)
PURPLE, FINE LINEN AND FIVE BROTHERS

There seems to be a triad of translation/interpretation mishaps regarding the subject of hell in the Bible. First is the “unhappy” rendering (W.E. Vine) of sheol and hades as “hell” in the Old and New Testaments, respectively. Then there is the interpretation of Gehenna (the Valley of Hinnom) as meaning hell. Finally, there is the idea that Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is portraying a real event with real people in a real place. These form a three-pronged interpretation of biblical texts to support the hell myth that seems to crumble under the weight of examination.

We need to scrutinize the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Most believe Jesus is talking about a real event or at least depicting a reality of the afterlife. I used to as well – I no longer do.

A brief overview of the narrative (Luke 16:19-31):

A rich man dies and is buried. A poor man, who had spent time begging at the rich man’s gates, died, and is said to have been carried by the angels to a place called, “Abraham’s Bosom”.

The scene changes and we are privy to a conversation, courtesy of the Lord Jesus, that transpires between Abraham and the rich man.

The rich man, being tormented in the flames, sees Lazarus at peace in the bosom of Abraham and cries out to the other side asking that Lazarus be allowed to dip his finger in the water and to touch his tongue with it.

Upon being denied his request, chiefly because logistics between the two places make it impossible, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his five brothers to repent. Abraham denies this request telling the rich man that his brothers have Moses and the prophets (scripture) to guide them.

(In this discussion I relied heavily on Between Death and Eternity1, by Frank Tamel to advance the idea that Jesus is using parabolic language in this passage.)

If we are to take this passage literally, we must do so throughout. This is where the trouble begins.

If this account is not a parable, but really happened, then it is just a mess of theological inconsistencies. The rich man is buried and then finds himself in hell whereas Lazarus’ body is transported directly to Abraham’s Bosom. Nothing like that has ever happened in our experience. All our dead are typically buried – none have been carried off by angels.

Abraham, by way of justifying how things turned out for these two, indicates that the rich man had good things all his life and that Lazarus had bad things all his. Are we to believe that the afterlife is just one big episode of changing places?

Do riches automatically make a person evil and does poverty make a person good? If the rich man’s body was buried, then what is in hell? His soul? How is it he has eyes and a tongue? Lazarus was never buried, so are we to assume he is still unable to get around on his own or does he have a new body before the second coming? And what is Abraham’s Bosom? It is never mentioned before this account in scripture and never is afterward. How can important doctrine about the state of the dead be based on this?

Troubles do not end there. What is this place where the dead in hell can look across a gulf and see those that are at rest and converse with them? When we are in heaven, are we to be able to look over and see those that missed it in their torment? Will we be accosted by them begging for a cigarette, bus fair, or drops of water on their tongues? That does not paint a happy picture.

Pastor Tamel said that there are few passages of scripture about which so many kinds of assumptions are made, and it is a real mess if we are to take it literally.

However, if it was a parable…

[Jesus] did not say anything to them without using a parable…

Is it possible that this passage is not to be taken literally at all and therefore, is not a commentary on the state of the dead, but on something else?

If it is a parable, some interpretation is called for:

The story, obviously, is a contrast of two men. Who are they?

The rich man refers to Abraham as father and Abraham reciprocates calling him son. The rich man must be a Jew, but not any Jew. He is a wealthy and influential Jew.

Jesus went out of his way to let us know what the rich man wore. Purple and fine linen are the garments of kings and of priests. Those that know the history of Israel know that at one point the nation was divided against itself. The southern kingdom, Judah, retained the original throne and temple and therefore the royalty and priesthood2.

The rich man had five brothers. Why was Jesus so specific to mention this? Turning to history again, the 12 tribes of Israel come from the sons of Jacob by 4 women. Judah is one of six boys born to Leah3. He had five brothers! The rich man in our story represents the Kingdom of Judah – the Jewish nation.

Then who is Lazarus? It is very peculiar that Jesus gives this man a name. Characters in parables typically remain nameless, but could it be that naming this man was necessary to identify him? After all…that is what names do.

Lazarus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Eliezer4. That was the name of Abraham’s steward, entrusted with all the goods that Abraham owned. This is the steward that would have inherited the household if Abraham never received an heir5. Eliezer was a Gentile.

The promises of God were made to Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and not through Eliezer6. However, because of their unbelief in Moses and the Prophets, it is Eliezer (the Gentiles) after all, that is receiving the promises.

What Pastor Frank Tamel advances here is an utterly plausible alternative to the literal interpretation of Jesus’ parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This passage, being a parable, is a commentary on the condition of the Jews and not on the state of the dead. If this is correct, it demolishes the belief that scripture afforded us a peek behind the curtain at the afterlife.

So, the triad of support begins to crumble beneath a system of beliefs that has had little challenge in nearly 2,000 years. The demise of the “unhappy” translations of sheol and hades, the casting of Gehenna as the landfill outside Jerusalem rather than as hell, and the interpretation of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man as a commentary on the condition of the Jewish heart, sends us headlong into a serious evaluation of what we believe regarding hell and the state of the dead. An evaluation whose time is come.

Endnotes:

1Frank Tamel, Between Death and Eternity, Manna Ministries, Oak Creek, WI., ©2000, pp. 38-48.

21 Kings 12:20-22

3”Leah”, Jewish Virtual Library, (accessed 5/4/2021) Leah (jewishvirtuallibrary.org)

4”Eliezer”, Behind the Name, (accessed 5/4/2021), Meaning, origin and history of the name Eliezer – Behind the Name

5But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring[d] be.” Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. (Genesis 15:2-6 NIV)

6Romans 9:7

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