Many Christians have come to believe in an intermediate state of a burning hell based almost entirely on the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus as told by Jesus in Luke 16:19-31. Though other biblical passages refer to a place of burning and suffering for the unsaved, with terms such as “Gehenna” and “the Lake of Fire,” these are all described in the context of the final judgment. Only in the Luke passage is such a place seemingly referred to as a present reality. This begs the question as whether or not Jesus was talking about a real story or instead speaking in a parable. I will discuss in this article the reasons why I believe that Jesus was using metaphors in the form of a parable rather than describing a real story.

Literary Boundaries and Placement

This passage about the Rich Man and Lazarus is part of a narrative flow in which Jesus is teaching in parables and wisdom sayings, most of them related to riches and the dangers that come with being rich that might prevent one from entering into the kingdom of God. Chapter 16 in Luke first starts with a parable about a rich man, then follows with various teachings and warnings, before arriving at our story that closes the chapter. Most of the discussion is either directed at and/or about the rich Pharisees.

What follows chapter 16 is some more teaching that begins to move away from a discussion about the rich and delves into other matters before ending as the narrative moves into another travel scene in Luke 17:11 that takes Jesus into a different area to heal some lepers.

Wording of the Passage

Below are the verses or parts of verses in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus that significantly differ for this study based on the English translation in the NASB, NAB, and ASV.

19 gaily living in splendor every day.19 dined sumptuously each day.19 faring sumptuously every day:
20 “And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores,20 And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,20 and a certain beggar named Lazarus was laid at his gate, full of sores,
22 the poor man died22 the poor man died,22 the beggar died,
24 for I am in agony in this flame.’24 for I am suffering torment in these flames.’24 for I am in anguish in this flame.
25 you are in agony.25 whereas you are tormented.25 thou art in anguish.
27 I beg you

(NASB 16:19-20, 22, 24-25, 27)
27 I beg you,

(NAB 16:19-20, 22, 24-25, 27)
27 I pray thee

(ASV 16:19-20, 22, 24-25, 27)

The first phrase to consider is in verse 16:19, which gives us three different translations. They consist of “gaily living in splendor,” “dined sumptuously each day,” and , “faring sumptuously every day.” This is an important discrepancy that needs to be resolved. The Greek actually reads, “εὐφραινόμενος καθ᾽ ἡμέραν λαμπρῶς.” This phrase is a bit difficult, but literally translates, “making merry during the day splendidly.” The word for “making merry” is usually used by Luke in relation to enjoying the comforts of life, such as ease, food and drink (Luke 12:19; 15:23, 24, 29, 32; also cf. Acts 7:41). The idea in the context is not just eating nor is it just having good things, but making merry in those things as one having a feast would do. I think “gaily living in splendor” probably best conveys the meaning of the Greek.

The next important word that differs is “beggar” versus “poor man” in 16:20 and 16:22. The literal translation is “poor man” and “beggar” is really just an interpretation here based on the context. Relevant to this is the different word of “door” versus “gate.” The proper translation is “gate,” probably to a vestibule, thus not actually on the rich man’s property, but outside the front gateway, exposed to the dogs and everything else.

We then have a difference between what the rich man was experiencing in the flame, which is “in agony,” “suffering torment,” or “in anguish” in Luke 16:24-25. It is the Greek verb ὀδυνάω in both verses, which is used solely by Luke in the New Testament. It describes whatever Joseph and Mary felt when searching for the missing 12-year-old Jesus (Luke 2:48), and whatever the elders of Ephesus felt at knowing they were not going to see Paul ever again (Acts 20:38). Luke seems to use it in the sense of an internal feeling of loss similar to grief, and my review of its use elsewhere seems to generally find the same idea. I think “in anguish” is the best translation, for I think this awful experience goes deeper with both the physical and the internal. It is important to note the idea is that roles have been switched as declared by Abraham with the contrast between comfort/anguish of the rich man and Lazarus. On a related note, it is the singular “flame” here that causes the anguish rather than the plural “flames” as found in the NAB above.

In the variant translations above where the rich man is talking to Abraham, the use of “beg” versus “pray” should be noted in 16:27, coming from the Greek verb ἐρωτάω, which is never used in Luke in the sense of either “beg” or “pray,” bur rather to request or ask of, or sometimes to entreat. He was not begging Abraham and he was not praying to him, but making a request or entreaty.

Keywords and Phrases

In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the first part of the verse here in 16:19 says, “but there was a rich man.” This same phrase is also found in Luke 16:1 with an identical Greek construction (minus the δέ for “but”) to start the previous parable. A similar Greek construction is also found to start the parable that begins in Luke 12:16.

Ανθρωπος δέ τις ἦν πλούσιος (Luke 16:19 BGT)

ἄνθρωπός τις ἦν πλούσιος (Luke 16:1 BGT)

ἀνθρώπου τινὸς πλουσίου (Luke 12:16 BGT)

This suggests that from the standpoint of the Greek, this is a parable and not a real story.

One of the most important key words in this passage is the name of “Abraham.” From the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the relationship of Abraham to the Jews as his descendants plays a significant role (Luke 1:55, 73). Because of this, they are recipients of the promises of God to Abraham and his offspring for salvation and mercy. This expectation as children of Abraham is found in other places within Luke (Luke 3:8; 13:16; 19:9).

Related to the keyword of “Abraham” are also the expressions of endearment in the conservation for Abraham and the rich man, which consist of “father” (thee times) and “child” (once), respectfully. It is quite significant that Abraham still calls the rich man “child” even though he is cast out away from God. Another related keyword is Abraham’s bosom, which is not referring to a place, but rather a position or condition that means being close with. It is similar to the idea of John leaning on the bosom of Jesus (John 13:23) or Jesus still being in the bosom of the Father (John 1:18).

Another keyword is the name “Lazarus,” which means one whose hope is in God. This name obviously has a significant meaning in the context of the parable.

Additionally, contrasts of certain keywords should also be noted. There is “us” and “you,” “good” and “bad,” and “in anguish” and “comforted.” There is also an implied contrast between the “dead” and the living.

Cultural Background

This parable of Rich Man and Lazarus was told in the presence of some Pharisees. The Pharisees were found in the villages of both Galilee and Judea, as well as in Jerusalem (Luke 5:17). They were also often lovers of money (Luke 16:14) and were frequently quite wealthy. We find in the Gospels that the Pharisees were often opposed to Jesus and his teachings.

The Jews believed they were to be recipients of the promises God made to Abraham as long as they obeyed the law and traditions that had been handed down to them. They generally thought that they were in fact pleasing to God. They also believed in spirits and a resurrection of the dead for the righteous. However, they did not believe in a resurrection of the wicked (an insight from the first century Jewish historian Josephus), asserting instead that they would simply be cast into a place of eternal punishment.

Relation to Other New Testament Texts

The focus on Moses (or the laws of Moses) and the prophets, as in this parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus, is found in other places in Luke. It was in the laws of Moses and the prophets where Jesus was written about (Luke 1:70; 18:31; 24:25, 27, 44; also see Acts 24:14; 26:22; 28:23). In addition, this passage seems to be related to an earlier remark in Luke:

And one said unto him, Lord, are they few that are saved? And he said unto them, Strive to enter in by the narrow door: for many, I say unto you, shall seek to enter in, and shall not be able. When once the master of the house is risen up, and hath shut to the door, and ye begin to stand without, and to knock at the door, saying, Lord, open to us; and he shall answer and say to you, I know you not whence ye are; then shall ye begin to say, We did eat and drink in thy presence, and thou didst teach in our streets; and he shall say, I tell you, I know not whence ye are; depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity. There shall be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and all the prophets, in the kingdom of God, and yourselves cast forth without. And they shall come from the east and west, and from the north and south, and shall sit down in the kingdom of God. (Luke 13:23-29 ASV)

Another relevant passage is at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, which reads, “The hungry he hath filled with good things; And the rich he hath sent empty away … (As he spake unto our fathers) Toward Abraham and his seed for ever” (Luke 1:53, 55 ASV). In addition, “But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24 ASV). And, “For it is easier for a camel to enter in through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25 ASV). The following passage seems to be relevant as well, “So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21 ASV). There is also the rich man that was told to give his wealth to the poor and follow Jesus (Luke 18:22), and the salvation that came to the rich tax collector who repented and offered to give half of his wealth to the poor (Luke 19:2-9).

It also is possible that the use of the name “Lazarus” in this parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus is related to the resurrection of the real Lazarus who was raised from the dead. For we read, “But the chief priests took counsel that they might put Lazarus also to death; because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus” (John 12:10-11 ASV). Compare the response of these unbelieving Jews with, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, if one rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31 ASV). The response here from Abraham to the rich man who makes a request to send Lazarus to his five brothers is odd. Rather than a reference to visiting them as a spirit, Abraham uses a Greek construction that seems to suggest a resurrection, which increases the likelihood that this parable is associated with the resurrection of the real Lazarus. The same Greek construction of ἐκ νεκρῶν ἀναστῇ (“rise from the dead”) in Luke 16:31 is also used in a reference to the resurrection of Jesus in Mark 9:9.

Passage Interpretation

Back to the main point of this article: I think the story about the Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable rather than a real story. It seems highly unlikely that somebody in such a condition would simply ask, “dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue” (Luke 16:24 ASV), which seems to be making a point on the dire condition of the rich man rather than what he might really ask for, and seems to be in correlation with Lazarus’ desire for the mere scrapes from the rich man’s table. It is also unfathomable to me to believe that Abraham and others can see others suffering torment and there is a gulf fixed between them to keep them from passing to one another because they might want to do so (such as those in heaven possibly wanting to help those suffering). I also find the unbiblical claim of some that Abraham’s bosom or paradise was later moved from a place in the earth to somewhere in the heavens as mythological nonsense. Enoch and Elijah were both taken up to be with God, but we are supposed to believe that spirits were in some realm under the earth? So at the transfiguration, Elijah came from heaven and Moses from some other realm? The point of this parable is not to teach about some place called hell, but to teach on the finality of one’s fate after death. The gulf shows the permanency of judgment and the contrast between a life of bliss with Abraham in paradise and that of a perpetual state of anguish upon the second death at the end of the age in which the unsaved are cast into the Lake of Fire.

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a message to the Pharisees who were lovers of money that he just warned about the impossibility of serving both God and money (Luke 16:13-14). He also just said, “And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends by means of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when it shall fail, they may receive you into the eternal tabernacles” (Luke 16:9 ASV). Both of these passages, and the entire section, leads nicely into the parable. He is warning them about the risk of finding themselves thrust out from the kingdom of God even though they are the physical descendants of Abraham. It was a wake-up call to the dangers of loving money and ignoring the plight of their less fortunate brothers.

Abraham’s use of “child” as a term of endearment for the rich man who himself calls Abraham “father” is meant to emphasize the awful outcome of what has happened. God had promised salvation and mercy to the children of Abraham with eternal blessings. However, this rich man has instead been cast out away from God forever. Because Abraham is his genealogical father and he is Abraham’s child, this was not the way it was supposed to be for him. Nevertheless, this child of Abraham had sadly allowed his riches to corrupt him in a life of selfishness that doomed him to such a fate

Final Thoughts on the Rich Man and Lazarus

The parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus should be understood as a warning about the finality of one’s fate after death. Even those for whom the promises were made could find themselves in a darkness of lost hope in the judgment to come upon all mankind. It is a warning about the deceitfulness of riches and greed that selfishly pursues the pleasures of this life while ignoring the plight of the truly needy that die around us in the world because we neglect helping them. It reminds me of the passage in Revelation that reads, “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art the wretched one and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev 3:17 ASV). May God open our heart and eyes to help those starving at our doorstep in many corners of the world, especially in poor countries who have no access to food at all, which long simply for the crumbs from our table.

For my readers who might want to help the poor after exploring this story about the Rich Man and Lazarus, I recommend Christian Aid Mission, where I sometimes give to specifically help those in undeveloped countries who are hungry and have no way of getting food.

© Robert Alan King at All rights reserved.