I recently landed on your website while doing a Google search. After reading some of the articles on your website, I have a question. You say there is no eternal burning hell, so please explain the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
Thank you for your e-mail. Before I respond, let me say that the words of Jesus are deep and sometimes difficult to understand. He is called “The Word of God” in Scripture for good reason. His ability to put spiritual concepts into words has no equal.
So, let us review the story from Scripture and then I will try to explain it: “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side.
The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'” (Luke 16:19-31)
The first thing I like to do after reading any passage from Scripture is to ask myself a few questions. What is the setting of this passage? Who is talking to whom and under what circumstances? Is there a contest or conflict going on? In this particular story, who is the beggar named Lazarus?
Who is the rich man who had five brothers? Were both people identifiable to the listeners? What effect was this story supposed to have upon the listeners? What did the listeners know then that we need to know now so that we can properly frame and understand the story? Ultimately, what is the focal point of the story? With these questions in mind, please consider the following:
Jesus told the story of the rich man and Lazarus in the presence of His disciples and a group of scoffing Pharisees. (Luke 16:14) He created this illustration because the Pharisees refused to believe anything that He said. They had seen many miracles and they still refused to believe He was the Messiah, so Jesus gave them a prophecy in the form of a story.
As the story unfolds, Lazarus and the rich man die and their eternal rewards shock the listeners. The rich man goes to hell and the beggar goes to Abraham’s side. This was the exact opposite of what the listeners expected. Jesus did not confront the Pharisees with loud words nor did He engage them with 100 proof texts from the Old Testament proving that He was the Messiah. Rather, Jesus created a small bomb which He planted in their minds. The story would be memorable because well known people were used and the destiny of both was totally different than what the listeners expected.
It is possible the Pharisees found this story a bit amusing at first, but the story probably made them angry once they figured out its meaning. So, Jesus created a story that begins with Middle East intrigue and it ends with a condemning knockout punch.
Unlike the Sadducees, the Pharisees believed in a hereafter. They believed in eternal life and an eternally burning hell. They also believed that blessings and prosperity came from God as a reward for rigorous obedience to the law. (Philippians 3:6, Deuteronomy 28:1–14)
One of their favorite texts was, “Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 18:5) The Pharisees also believed that poverty and illness were the results of sinning against God. “Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.” (Deuteronomy 27:26; 28:15–68) So lepers, beggars and poor people deserved to suffer. Simply stated, such people were under a curse because either they or their parents had sinned against God. (John 9:2.)
Since most Christians are not well informed on the Pharisees beliefs, they just read how Lazarus went to Abraham’s side and the high priest went to hell as though that was the way it should have been. Not so! The Pharisees believed just the opposite and this conflict in the story puzzled them.
There is only one person in the Bible having the name Lazarus. He lived in Bethany. Most Christians have heard of him because he was the brother of Mary Magdalene and Martha. But many Christians do not know that Lazarus had a first name! His full name was Simon Lazarus and he was a leper. (John 12:1–3; Matthew 26:6)
Jesus knew that His listeners were acquainted with Lazarus’ leprosy and this illness explains the presence of his sores in the story. Lazarus was reduced to a position of begging when he became leprous and the Pharisees had no sympathy. They regarded him as one condemned by God—a cursed sinner. (Note: Mary Magdalene, Lazarus’ sister, was the prostitute who Jesus rescued from stoning. (John 8:3–11) Whether she turned to prostitution to provide for herself, her brother and sister after Lazarus contracted leprosy is not known.)
Jesus could not speak the name of the rich man with five brothers for a simple reason. It would have been considered blasphemy by the Pharisees to say anything less than honorable about him. (John 18:22) Nevertheless, everyone present knew who the rich man was because he wore purple and fine linen every day (an elegant robe), he lived large (spent a lot of money) and fared sumptiously (ate too much), and he was Israel’s religious leader. The rich man who had five brothers was the high priest of Israel, Caiaphus.
As a young man, Caiaphus married into a family of high priests. (John 18:13) Thus, Caiaphas became a son-in-law of Annas (a former high priest) and Caiaphas served as high priest in Jerusalem between A.D. 18 and A.D. 35. Because of marriage, Caiaphas had five brothers-in-law and each of these men eventually served terms as high priest in Jerusalem.
Josephus wrote, “Now the report goes, that this elder Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons, who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and he had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests.” (Antiquities, book XX, chapter IX, paragraph 1, p.423, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 12th printing, 1974) Their names and years of service follow: Eleazar A.D. 16-17; Jonathan A.D. 36-37; Theophilus A.D. 37-41; Matthias A.D.41-43; Annas the Younger A.D. 62.
At this point in our analysis of the story we can assemble four important facts:
1. The Pharisees knew about Lazarus and his leprosy, and they knew that the rich man was Caiaphas because he had five brothers.
2. The Pharisees did not know at the time the story was told, that Jesus would soon raise Lazarus from the dead. (John 11) Further, the Pharisees could not know that once Caiaphas learned about the resurrection of Lazarus, he would recommend to the Sanhedrin that Jesus be put to death. (John 18:14)
3. Since the Pharisees were convinced that eternal life came through rigorous obedience to the law, it had to be distressing for them to hear Jesus put the leper at Abraham’s side and their high priest in hell.
4. In the story, Abraham refused to honor the request of the rich man. The high priest asked Abraham to send Lazarus to his family so that they would not end up where he was and Abraham refused saying, “They have Moses and the prophets” (the Old Testament) to guide them. This feature of the story indicates that the Word of God has greater authority than a resurrected dead man.
So, what is the focal point of this story? Jesus predicted the Jews would not believe that He was the Messiah even if a dead man was resurrected. “[The rich man said] ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ He [Father Abraham] said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'” (Luke 16:30–31, insertions mine)
Does this story “prove” there is an eternally burning hell? No. Jesus used the errant theology of the Pharisees to highlight the point that even if a dead man was brought to life, the high priest would not believe that Jesus was the Messiah.
Jesus used their twisted logic about salvation and the hereafter to underscore the point that miracles will not soften or change a person’s heart. Only the Holy Spirit can bring transformation. This prophecy also reveals that a person’s mind and heart can be so blinded by religion that even if a dead person were raised up to speak to them, it would not make any difference.
Think about this. The testimony of Lazarus had no effect after he was raised from the dead. But Lazarus wasn’t the only resurrected voice affirming that Jesus was the Messiah! Look at these verses: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” (Matthew 27:51–53)
In closing, notice what Caiaphas and his associates did after they learned that Jesus had been resurrected: “When the chief priests had met with the elders [of Israel] and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, ‘You are to say, “His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.” If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.” (Matthew 28:12–15, insertion mine)
Robert, I hope this short explanation helps. If you have read my article titled, “What Happens When We Die?” you will find that this story is not in conflict with soul sleep. Jesus just used the false teachings of the Pharisees to predict His rejection. The Bible confirms this prophecy was fulfilled. “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11)