The Rich Man and Lazarus


  • Question 128, from Ron, USA

    I have read that Jesus only spoke in parables. I would like to know your thoughts on the subject of “The rich man and Lazarus”. I would just like to know if it is a true story or just a story to make a point.

    ‘The Rich Man and Lazarus’ is a parable of Jesus which is only found in Luke’s gospel (Luke chapter 16, verses 19 – 31). The basic thread of the story is that a rich man and a beggar, Lazarus, both die. The rich man goes to hell and sees Lazarus in “Abraham’s bosom” (a phrase equating to paradise or heaven) and begs Lazarus to come and bring him water. Lazarus can’t help him because he cannot cross the gulf between heaven and hell.

    This parable has sometimes been cited as evidence that Jesus taught a ‘literal’ doctrine of hell – a place of eternal torment for the wicked – which, the theory goes, Jesus, as the pre-existent son of God would be able to describe from a position of knowledge. However, despite the popularity of this story as ‘evidence’ for hell, the fact remains it is a parable and no definite conclusions to its literal truth can be drawn.

    Generally speaking, it is assumed that parables are stories told to convey a ‘deeper truth’. In this case the message of the parable is such that the parable is classed as an ‘example parable’, designed to make the listener/reader examine their own lives and actions.

    The reason the rich man ends up in a place of torment is his own selfishness in life, refusing to share the riches that God has blessed him with. He ignores Lazarus, the beggar at his gate and is judged for it. The upshot of the story is found at the end when the rich man begs Lazarus be sent back from the dead to warn his brothers of the dreadful fate in store for them if they act in a similarly selfish way.

    Jesus concludes his story with the rich man being told that if his brothers didn’t believe the Law and the Prophets, then they wouldn’t believe a man coming back from the dead (verse 31). This is Jesus’ commentary on the Law and Prophetic teaching of the Judaism of his time – that it can be distilled as showing compassion, or love, for the poor and dispossessed. Equally, in including the reference to a man coming back from the dead, the gospel writer is also making a wry reference to those who will not accept the teaching of Jesus, especially after he is resurrected.

    Jesus then probably told the parable to make his audience think about their priorities in life. Whether he was basing it on a true series of events isn’t really relevant to the point of the parable, and certainly cannot be proven one way or the other.

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