The story of the Rich Man and Lazarus bears certain elements that seem to indicate at least part of the story did not come from Jesus. I do not mean to say that Jesus never spoke this story. I believe he spoke every word and every word is true. Nevertheless, if we take Luke 16:18-31 to indicate what happens after our physical death, the story would contradict what we find in the rest of the word of God concerning death.
I have read several teachings that testify Jesus was quoting from or derived much of the content of this story from rabbinical literature [Notes from the Companion Bible, The Bullinger Publications Trust; The Bible Background Commentary by Craig Keener, Intervarsity Press; The New Jerome Bible Commentary, page 708, paragraph 151, Prentice Hall.] and formed the story in the manner the rabbis formed theirs. For example, this is the only story that Jesus names one of the characters. The rabbis often named one or more characters in their stories, but they named the more noble men. Jesus did the opposite by naming the poor man. While I cannot endorse every teaching in rabbinical literature, I do believe Jesus was using parts of rabbinic teaching to silence his enemies. Jesus changed enough in the rabbinical story to bring out a great spiritual truth that cannot be understood without appreciating the cross. The truth of what Jesus says here is very much misunderstood today. This will become clearer as we go along, but let me say that Jesus is not speaking of literal death or the literal punishment of the wicked after their lives on this earth is over.
If the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, as Jesus delivered it, still bore the identity of rabbinical literature, it would have cut to the very hearts of his enemies. Using their own words to condemn their stand against him would be too much for them (John 11:48-53). After this teaching, they had to get rid of him. There could be no turning back. From this time forward, they sought a way to destroy Jesus.
As Jesus said before, the scribes and Pharisees made void the word of God, so they might uphold their own traditions (Matthew 15:6; Mark 7:13). They were not faithful with God’s word (Luke 16:1). In this rabbinical story they paint a picture of an unmerciful God (Luke 16:24, 27-28). They saw God as a harsh and unbending lord, who did not have the compassion a sinner had for his lost brethren. Does it make sense that a carnal man burning in a flame of fire would all of a sudden, and without the Holy Spirit, develop the fruits of the Spirit of God? This man never knew or walked with Christ yet seems to have more love for his brethren than God, himself! This idea can only come from the self-righteous. I did think such things about God at one time. In fact, I remember thinking how harsh an ever-burning hell would be, and how I wondered if there couldn’t be some other way to punish people than to cast them into a fire that burned for eternity. Forever is so long and final. Surely, people would have a change of heart and mind sometime in eternity. Yet, it seemed God turned a deaf ear to all the cries that would come up to him. My thoughts, of course, exalted myself, thinking I would be kinder or more merciful than God. I would hear the cries. I would be more merciful than God. I have the capacity to love others more than God does. How self-righteous!
This story, as it is understood in rabbinical literature and many Christian circles today, also denies what God’s word says about death. Here men can see one another and have conversations after death, but God’s word says my thoughts perish when I die (Psalms 146:4). How can I see and perceive anything (Luke 16:23) or speak to anyone (Luke 16:24), if my mind is silent (Psalms 146:4)? David knew that after death there would be neither expression of knowledge nor praise or worship of God (Psalms 6:5). The story in Luke 16 claims the wicked are able to speak after death (Luke 16:24, 27, 30), contrary to the claim of the word of God (Psalms 31:17-18). Scripture says the dead know nothing and have no wisdom or memory (Ecclesiastes 9:5-6, 10).
Some may say this changed after Christ died. I partially agree. For those who are Christ’s, it has changed, and to be absent from this life is to be present with the Lord (2Corinthians 5:8). However, for the wicked, this is not so. Notice the word of God says death is a place of destruction (Psalms 88:11) and a dark land of forgetfulness (Psalms 88:12). Can anyone imagine a more picturesque way to express a dark place where all thoughts are forgotten, than is found in Jude 1:13: “… to whom is reserved blackness of darkness forever?” That is a very good description of death. The New Testament claims it is the temporary holding place or prison of the wicked until the Day of Judgment. The judgment is a time God has set aside in eternity to deal with them (2Peter 2:4, 9; 3:7; Jude 1:6; cp. Matthew 25:41).
Therefore, although the words Jesus spoke are true, they cannot be forced to mean what rabbinical literature and many Christian circles teach. Let us not go beyond what is written in the Scriptures (1Corinthians 4:6), because Scripture cannot be made to contradict itself (John 10:35). Nevertheless, some of these words would be most definitely Jesus’ own words, and their use would give the rabbinical story a new meaning and vindicate God. For instance, Luke16:31 does not appear in any of the rabbinical stories. While it is true that many rabbinical stories name one or more of their characters, Jesus probably chose the name Lazarus to drive home the point of verse-31. Remember, Jesus was teaching at Bethany after he called Lazarus back to life (John 11:43). The arrangement and some of the words had to come from Jesus, so he could tie in the underlying message with what he was already teaching. Yet, he purposely left some of the words of the rabbinical story remain, so he might rebuke the scribes and Pharisees with the very words of their own mouths (cp. Luke 19:20-22). They tried to catch him in his own words by asking why Moses permitted divorce (Matthew 19:3-9; compare Luke 16:18), but he reversed the ploy and caught them in their own words in his story of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
What follows is my interpretation of Luke 16:19-31. The certain rich man of verse-19 is the Pharisee who symbolizes the self-righteous. It is said that he fared sumptuously which means his feasts were luxurious. The word for fared is euphraino (G2165), and it is used four times in Luke 15 for make or be merry (i.e. feasting – cp. Luke 15:23-24, 29, 32). The beggar, Lazarus, is full of sores (sins) and typifies the publicans and sinners of Luke 15:1. The Pharisees would never eat with them (Luke 15:2; cp. Luke 16:21). The sinner had no place in the Pharisee’s life, either at the table in his home or where he taught. Though sinners crave spiritual nourishment (Luke 16:21), the only comfort they received was from other sinners, typified by the dogs in this story (cp. Matthew 7:6; Philippines 3:2).
The time came in the story when both Lazarus and the rich man died (Luke 16:22). This occurred to all men spiritually when Christ died at Calvary (2Corinthians 5:14-15). The Scripture says that all men are dead (verse-14), because Christ died for all men. That includes both the Pharisee (the rich man) and Lazarus (the sinner who desires to be fed the word of God). However, in 2Corinthians 5:15 we find that Christ died so they which live, that is, Lazarus who desires to feed on the word of God, “should not live to themselves, but to him who died for them and rose again.” This is typified by the messengers (angels) of the Gospel or the apostles etc. who brought the sinner into a relationship with Abraham (Galatians 3:6-9), the father of all who believe (Romans 4:11, 16).
The picture in Luke 16:23 is one of contrast between the believer and the one who toils in his religion. All of us are dead in our sins because of Christ’s death on the cross (2Corinthians 5:14), but only believers have been raised to life (Ephesians 2:1, 5; Colossians 2:13). When Christ died something spiritually significant happened to the entire human race, but only believers benefit from it. The rich man finds himself in a place called Hades, which has been translated to our English word grave in 1Corinthians 15:55. However, I believe it may also stand for the present state of all unbelievers. Hades is taken directly out of the Greek without translation and is made up of two other Greek words: the letter a (G1) is particle which makes a negative out of the word to which it is attached. The second word is eido (G1492) meaning “to see, to know, to understand or to perceive.” Taken together the rich man lifts up his eyes in a place he doesn’t understand, a place where his knowledge doesn’t apply (confusion), a place he cannot see or perceive. The picture here is of a person in this age without Christ. The word for torments is basanos (G931). It is translated into toiling in Mark 6:48, where Jesus watches the apostles “straining or toiling” against the winds while rowing their boat on the Sea of Galilee just before he came to them, walking on the sea. They were vexed for their labor was getting them nowhere. This is the picture in Luke 16:23 and prophesied in Isaiah 6:9-10 (cp. Matthew 13:14-15). The rich man (Pharisee) knows only that his religion is getting him nowhere. He is confused and doesn’t know why, because he has rejected Christ. He made merry with his own friends (Luke 16:19), but made no friends for Christ (Luke 16:9). He was able to see how forgiveness could benefit himself and enlarge his own area of influence (Luke 16:4-8), but couldn’t see the benefit of forgiving all in the name of Christ (Luke 16:13-14). The believer (Lazarus) seemed to have peace and joy, but the Pharisee (rich man) couldn’t perceive why.
The conversation with Abraham doesn’t literally take place, but reminds me of the conversations of the self-righteous, who trust in their own labor and not in Christ (Matthew 7:21-23; 25:11-12, 44-46). They, too, desire to be in the place of blessing, typified by the bosom of Abraham (a rabbinical hope), but the place of blessing is really with Christ. However, the self-righteous are unable to perceive this with their eyes or ears (Isaiah 6:9-10), though they think they know all they need to know (Mark 7:22; cp. John 9:40-41).
The self-righteous believe they may gain the spirit of righteousness simply by asking for help from the righteous (Luke 16:24; cp. Matthew 25:8-9). “How can you be so happy?” “Why don’t things like this bother you?” “How can you allow him to do that to you without striking back?” If I say to the irreligious, “It is because of Christ, who is in me;” they shrug it off as so much religious nonsense (Luke 16:14). They just don’t perceive. If I tell the religious the same thing, they equate it all as discipline or religious training. They are in Hades, a place of the unseen, a place of confusion (Luke 16:23). The word for tormented in Luke 16:24-25 is odunaomai (G3600), and is translated sorrowing in Luke 2:48, describing Mary and Joseph as they sought Jesus when he was only 12 years old, believing he was lost. It is also translated sorrowing in Acts 20:38, when believers in Ephesus realized they would not see Paul again.
For awhile, doing things the world’s way seems to profit the unbeliever. When a believer doesn’t participate in such things, it is considered foolish by those without Christ (Philippians 1:27-28; 1Peter 4:3-4). However, there will come a time when these things will bring the unbeliever to sorrow. He may not realize why his life seems so empty, only that he wishes he had done things another way, yet he still does not consider Christ (Luke 16:24-25). No amount of help the believer offers will take away the unbeliever’s condition, unless the scales are taken from his eyes, and he is able to see Jesus as his Savior. This gulf in Luke 16:26 is typified by the closed door in Matthew 25:10, outer darkness in Matthew 25:30, and the right and the left in Matthew 25:33. It is the place where Christ is not perceived. We can tell people about Christ. We can invite them to our churches, but something must happen between them and Christ before anything we say or do makes sense to them. Our authority lies in witnessing to them. We have no authority over the increase or the new life (1Corinthians 3:6-7; cp. Colossians 2:19) of the seed (Luke 16:26).
The believer is one who is raised from the dead (Ephesians 2:1, 5; Colossians 2:13), but this resurrection is not perceived by the unbeliever. He may desire proof of some kind, a miracle like someone healed or raised from the dead (Luke 16:27-28). How can the unbeliever warn others not to go the way he went? How can he keep his family from the sorrow he feels? A miracle? No! Look to the Scriptures. If a man will not believe Moses and the Prophets, which point to Christ (John 5:39), they will not believe even if they witnessed a miracle such as raising someone like Lazarus from the dead (Luke 16:31; cp. John 11:43-52). Why? Because first and foremost they need Jesus!
For nearly three and one-half years the Pharisees sought a sign to prove what Jesus said was from God. Jesus said that no sign would be given but the sign of the prophet Jonah. This he said concerning his own death and resurrection. Nevertheless, they had the opportunity to repent at this time, because Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, was dead and buried for three full days and three full nights and was into the fourth day, when Jesus called him out of the grave (John 11:39). Repentance unto salvation doesn’t come through signs and wonders, salvation comes through believing the Scriptures that pointed to Jesus (Luke 16:31). May God grant us the light to see Jesus and that only he is able to bridge the great gulf between believer and unbeliever. Lord have mercy.