What does the parable of Lazarus and the rich man mean?

Did Jesus intend the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31) to give us a real-time view of the state of the dead now, either in heaven or an ever-burning hell? How does this parable fit with the teachings of other scriptures about the state of the dead?


Two fundamental rules of good biblical scholarship will help us to understand a difficult scripture almost every time. First, look at the immediate context. Second, look at the broader context of the entire Bible. By contrast, attempting to understand a difficult passage by human reasoning is bad scholarship. Let's apply the proper rules systematically to the parable.

The immediate context (the verses before and after the parable) doesn't clearly provide us with further information, so let's go on to the second rule. Jesus said, "The Scripture cannot be broken" (John:10:35). He meant that every section of the Bible on any given subject must be in agreement with every other section that addresses the same topic.

What does the Bible say about the state of the dead? A single phrase in Ecclesiastes:9:5 summarizes the Bible's teaching about the state of the dead: "The dead know nothing." (See also Ezekiel:18:20; 1 Corinthians:15:22-23, 51-52; John:3:13, 16; Acts:2:29, 34; Romans:6:23 and many other passages that show that the soul can die, that physical death is like sleep and that the dead will be resurrected in the future, that no one has gone to heaven, that sin leads to death—not eternal life in another place, etc.).

Reading this parable to mean that the dead are conscious in an ever-burning hell or in heaven would be a clear contradiction with the broader context of the entire Bible. Indeed, it would be a misinterpretation.

However, we must understand that this is a parable—"an imaginary story…to illustrate and inculcate some higher spiritual truth" ( International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "parable"). If we take its lesson at face value, it is in complete harmony with the rest of the Bible. Jesus' straightforward point is that it is too late to change one's behavior and character after death. His point is that we must live in a godly manner when we are alive, just as the man Lazarus did in the story.

We bring together all of the scriptures about the afterlife in our booklets Heaven and Hell: What Does the Bible Really Teach? and What Happens After Death? They also contain further background information about this parable.


DL's picture

In Revelation 21:4 states that Jesus came to conquer death. There will be no more death.

We all have one appointment with physical death, but our fate with spiritual death depends on what we do with Jesus. The Bible is very specific when it says in Hebrews 9:27 that man has a destiny to die once, and after to face God's judgement. Judgement can mean one of two outcomes for every person. Either the person accepted Jesus Christ as his or her savior and will be "judged" as righteous, or rejected Jesus Christ and will be eternally separated from God in eternity.

Ivan Veller

Ivan Veller's picture

Hi DL,

“Millions believe that God is loving and merciful, but also that He has condemned millions to suffer torment for all eternity”: http://www.ucg.org/booklet/heaven-and-hell-what-does-bible-really-teach/

Is hell “only symbolic of separation from God”? http://www.ucg.org/doctrinal-beliefs/kinder-gentler-hell-0/

“A resurrection to ‘judgment’ (krisis) is not necessarily a resurrection to ‘condemnation.’ Most of mankind will be resurrected to a future time period of judgment or ‘process of investigation.’ This process can lead to eternal life or to condemnation. In John:5:29, ‘judgment’ is a better rendering of the word krisis [‘to judge’—ex. ERV 2008; HCSB 2009; ABPE, CEB, LEB, NLT, NTV (all 2010); ESV 2011; VOX 2012].

Hebrews:9:27 states: ‘It is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment [krisis].’

‘So all of mankind will experience a judgment of some kind, but this doesn’t mean condemnation for everyone. Being ‘unjust’ before the return of Christ doesn’t necessarily mean that one will die in the lake of fire. Billions of people who have done evil, but were never called by God, will be resurrected to a process of investigation. Below are a few examples.

Matthew:10:15…Few, if any, cities have done more evil than Sodom and Gomorrah…Nevertheless, it will be more tolerable for them in the day of judgment because during this period of time many will repent and will marvel that others did not previously listen to Christ in the flesh.

Matthew:12:41-42…The men of Nineveh and the queen of Sheba will be resurrected (‘rise up’) at the same time as the Jews who lived during the time of Christ (‘with this generation’). These gentiles will speak against those who rejected Christ while He was in the flesh. Obviously, if all in the second resurrection were immediately condemned to the lake of fire, then this contrast would be meaningless as it would not be ‘more tolerable’ for anyone. God’s Spirit will be offered to those in the second resurrection (Ezekiel:36:26-28).

‘When Christ returns, God will offer His Spirit to ‘all flesh’ during the Millennium (Joel:2:28; Acts:2:17). And He will continue to offer His Spirit during the time period of the second resurrection to those who were never given ‘eyes to see and ears to hear’ (e.g. Old Testament Israel, Sodom, Gomorrah and billions of others)”: http://members.ucg.org/papers/resurrections.pdf


VK_NY's picture

The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man really falls more in line with the Bible's repeated condemnation of an economically unjust system in which there is a great divide between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots'.

I have often read peoples' theses that in this parable, the Rich Man is sent to Hades because he did not help Lazarus. That, however, is not true. Abraham never once tells the Rich Man that he is in Hades because he did not help Lazarus, he tells him, "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."

Clearly, Abraham is saying that in the afterlife, the roles of the 'Haves' and 'Have-nots' will be reversed in the afterlife. Once again, this is an overall of an economic system that creates a large chasm between the rich and the poor.

Some would say that the economic system in question is capitalism.

The New Testament condemns this type of economic system throughout: Matthew:6:24 and Luke 19, all the way through to Revelations and the Black Horse. The symbol of the black horse is very clear. The rich are getting richer by making the poor work all day to buy a loaf of bread.


Stargazer's picture

Your commentary indicates that this story was a parable,and I understand that Jesus usually spoke to his disciples in this way.
However, I don't know of any other instance in the Bible where a name is given to a person who actually dies not exist.

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