The Rich Man and Lazarus
In the last chapter I shared with you that THERE ARE many objections raised against the teachings of Reconciliation but the principal ones can be covered under five heads. One is that if all are to be saved ultimately there is no need for preaching and teaching the gospel; another is that we shall have salvation by compulsion or by force; a third is that Reconciliation teaches a "second chance" gospel; the fourth is that Reconciliation would give to many men a "hell redemption"; and the fifth is the problem of the The Rich Man and Lazarus. I discussed the first four objections and now let's take a closer look at The Rich Man and Lazarus.
In the first place the story of the The Rich Man and Lazarus is usually considered without any reference to its setting. Near the close of Jesus' ministry He had eaten dinner with a Pharisee, at which time He not only healed a man with dropsy but also gave some pointed instructions about how to give a dinner party. When He left the house great throngs accompanied Him (Luke 14:25).
Many of this great company were publicans and sinners. In Luke 15:1-2 we read, "Then drew near unto Him all the publicans and sinners to hear Him and the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, "This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them." It is against this background of criticism that the teachings of Luke 15 and 16 are given. Those teachings are called a parable. "And He spake this parable unto them, saying," (Luke 15:3). The Greek is very definite in making the word for parable clearly a singular noun. He spoke Five seemingly separate stories in His teaching to carry the truth of "this parable." The Lord's regular method of teaching all, except the inner circle of His disciples, was by parable. "All of these things spake Jesus in parables unto the multitudes and without a parable spake He nothing unto them" (Matt.-13:34). "But privately to His disciples He expounded all things" (Mark 4:34).
Jesus loved the publicans and sinners and wanted to help and save them. But these self-righteous Pharisees and scribes whose business it should have been to teach the people the love of God and to invite them to love and obey Him in response to His grace not only hated these publicans and sinners but ostracized and excommunicated them from all the privileges of Jewish worship and fellowship.
Therefore, in the presence of both leaders and outcasts, Jesus gave this parable and part of it was to bring hope to the outcasts and part of it was to condemn the leaders for their heartlessness and neglect. The first part, consisting of three stories, was for the encouragement of the publicans and sinners; the last part, consisting of two stories, expresses His condemnation of the Pharisees and scribes.
First came the story of "The Lost Sheep," and the solicitude of the shepherd to bring it back to the fold. Then Jesus told the story of "The Lost Coin," and the eagerness of the woman to find it again. The third story was about "The Lost Son," and the yearning of the Father for his wayward boy to come home again. These three stories all tell the same truth. God is anxious for all the lost to return to Him whether they become lost just through heedlessness, like a wandering sheep, or whether they are lost because of the carelessness of someone else as in the case of the lost coin, or whether they are lost because of their own willfulness and rebellion like the lost son. God wants them back. How these stories must have thrilled the hearts of the publicans and sinners who longed for fellowship both with man and God!
But this parable was not finished when Jesus has told of the love of God for the lost. It contains also His condemnation of those who were supposed to teach these sinners about the love of God but who didn't do what they were expected to do because their hearts were so full of self-righteousness and pride. They not only hated the Gentiles but they also hated all the sons of Israel who failed to keep their man-made regulations. Through their influence and authority many of the chosen people were permanently excluded from all public worship in Israel.
The story of "The Unjust Steward" becomes crystal clear in the light of this historical background. Some details may seem puzzling but the story as a whole shines like the sun in the sky. "There was a certain The Rich Man who had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods" (Luke 16:1). In this story, "the The Rich Man" stands for God; the steward represents the leadership of Israel; while the The Rich Man's "goods" seems to carry a double meaning. First, God's "goods" represent His Word, His truth, the message of His love for a lost world and this truth was being wasted by the steward. Instead of sharing it with all it was most selfishly kept for the favored few. Next, God's "goods" included His chosen people who were the custodians of His message to men. All the Jews, including publicans and sinners, were called to be His witnesses to an idolatrous world. But the Pharisees and scribes who were the "stewards," who were supposed to dispense God's Word and care for God's people, not only ignored the publicans and sinners, but were excluding them from the worship of God and the privileges of religion. Instead of being faithful stewards of God's grace they were haughty dictators, actually withholding God's message from those to whom it belonged and excommunicating many whose rightful place was within the religion of Israel. No wonder Jesus called them "unjust stewards." Indeed, in the story, when the unjust steward was caught, he went further into deceit and trickery in order to protect himself. "He that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much." Did the Pharisees and scribes recognize themselves in this story? And what did the publicans and sinners think?
The last section of this parable is the story of the The Rich Man and Lazarus. In it Jesus changed His figures by using some of the traditions of the Talmud. The idea of a place of torment under the earth is Talmudic and the concept of Abraham's bosom is Talmudic. In fact, the whole story of the The Rich Man and Lazarus is an adaptation of a story in the Talmud. But in this last section of the parable, as well, Jesus is still keeping in mind the Pharisees and scribes on the one hand, and the publicans and sinners on the other. He is not describing the fate of all the saved and all the lost as so many earnest Christians believe.
From what you know of Jesus' teachings could you say that He would use the figure of a Rich Man, well-clothed, and well-fed to represent all the sinners of mankind? Is that condition in itself representative of all iniquity? Again, will you insist that a poor beggar, full of sores, is a proper representative for all the righteous of mankind? Some of the beggars of our land, full of sores, are rotting away because of loathsome diseases contracted in sin. Will you insist that all righteous men could be properly symbolized by such a person as a beggar full of sores? The terms of the parable are strange, to say the least, for this to be universally applied.
Another problem in this story is the picture of "hades." It is translated "hell" in some versions. This is a whole subject of study in itself. Suffice it to say that the Hebrew word 'sheol' means to ask, to interrogate and the noun form of the word refers to something unperceived, unseen, or unknown. When a man dies there is a great question in the mind and heart of one who looks on. Hence this word came to mean, "The invisible state of the dead, the place and state of those [who are in question]" (Cocceius), "who are out of the way and to be sought for" (Bate).
In this view, hell seems to be the proper interpretation of the Greek 'hades' (by which the LXX almost constantly renders it), the invisible, or the unseen, and to our old English word "hell," which today is most used for the place of torment, yet being a derivative from the Saxon 'hillan', or 'helan', or from 'holl', a cavern, anciently denoted the concealed or unseen place of the dead in general. (In parts of England men still say, "I plan to hell my potatoes," meaning to bury them in a hole or pit, that is, a covered place. Formerly, a lover would take his sweetheart into a "hell" to kiss her, that is, into a place where others could not see.)
'Sheol' does not mean the sepulcher; another Hebrew word is used for that. Instead, it refers to that which is common to all that is the common receptacle of the dead. When Jacob said he would go down mourning into 'sheol' to his son, it did not mean `hell' as the place of the damned because he never thought his son went there, nor into the grave, properly so named, for he thought his son had been devoured by a wild beast. (see Parkhurst's Hebrew Lexicon, p.673; see also Gesenius, p.798.).
'Sheol' is often translated "hell" in our common versions. So also is the Greek word 'hades', which has the same meaning. Sometimes these words are translated "the grave," or "the pit," instead of "hell." Then, too, the Greek word 'gehenna', the place where everything such as garbage was burned up, is translated "hell," along with the word 'tartarus'. In popular usage, "the lake of fire" is also understood to mean "hell." It is no wonder that folks do not know what "hell" really is.
Now, if you will check each and every occurrence of the Hebrew word 'sheol' and the Greek word 'hades' you will find that they are never used to picture a place of torment except in this story of the Rick Man and Lazarus. In only three places is the idea of sorrow or pain used (2 Sam.22:6; Psa.18:5; 116:3) and there it is used as synonymous with the pain of dying. 'Hades' or 'sheol' is sometimes described without being named. It is "darkness" (Psa.143:3); it is "vast and never full" (Pro. 27:20); it is not a place of torment (Job 3:11-19). But in the parable of the The Rich Man and Lazarus, 'hades' was a place of torment. Read the story and compare with other uses of 'hades.'
Again, it is difficult to be certain where literal and figurative language are to be distinguished in this story. For surely some of it seems to be literal and some of it seems to be figurative. But just where the one leaves off and the other begins may not always be clear. For instance, the description of their human lives seems very literal--they lived thus and so and they died. When the beggar died, he "was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom." This was the title of the part or section of, sheol, or, hades, to which the righteous went at death, according to Talmudic tradition. Did the beggar's body go there, or only his spirit? "The The Rich Man also died and was buried." That sounds literal enough to suppose that his body was really put into a grave somewhere in the earth. But when he awakened in 'hades' near enough to Abraham and Lazarus to converse with them it was his tongue that was tormented in the flame. Was that his literal tongue or only his figurative tongue? Was his literal tongue buried with his body? If so, what was suffering in 'hades'? Some reader will insist that I am sneering at the story of the The Rich Man and Lazarus. I am not. It is the common interpretation of that story that I am calling in question. Whatever it may mean, it is surely not a parable of the fate of all the wicked on the one hand and all the righteous on the other hand.
Another point that should be noted is that Lazarus began his bliss and the The Rich Man began his punishment from the moment of death. There is no reference to a resurrection on the one hand or to a judgment on the other. Everywhere else the Bible is consistent in teaching the necessity of resurrection before judgment and of judgment before penalty. Neither of these are even hinted at in the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus. If this is a parable of the ultimate fate of all the righteous and of all the wicked, how can it be reconciled with general Biblical teaching?
The real meaning of the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus is that it is Jesus' ironic adaptation of a story out of the Talmud which He applies to the Pharisees and scribes on the one hand and to the publicans and sinners on the other. The one group constituted the favored class of Jewish society in that day and the other were outcasts. The one had the enjoyment of political, social, economic, and religious standing and the other was destitute of them all.
This scripture has been considered by most Christians as one of the strongest proofs of the doctrine of endless misery in the future world. There is probably not another passage in the Bible, which has been so often quoted by both clergy and laity in proof of that doctrine. The manner in which it has been used by Christian teachers has caused it to be a great stumbling block in the way of those who desire to know the truth. Most people would not have much trouble believing the truth of reconciliation if it were not for this scripture.
By the rich man, Jesus evidently intended to represent the Jewish priests who were literally clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. The Mosaic law provided for the support of the Priests and granted to them certain portions of the sacrifices or offerings which were brought by the people to be offered unto the Lord. Not only so, but they were also blessed above all others, in that, "to them was committed the oracles of God." As a result they not only fared sumptuously with respect to temporal things but they were also privileged with spiritual food.
By the beggar it is meant the Gentiles, who in a moral point of view were poor and degraded and who were regarded by the self righteous Jews as no better than dogs. By the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table and with which the beggar desired to be fed, Jesus represents the willingness and even anxiety of the Gentiles to acquaint themselves with God and the requirements of his law, as given to Moses. And by the dogs, which came and licked his sores, it is probably meant the heathen or Gentile priests, who sought to satisfy the wants of the people with their heathen notions and traditions.
There is a spiritual explanation of this parable and time doesn't permit me to explain it all here. You can go to my website, www.rejoicinglifeministries.com and read the article, Have We Misinterpreted The Parable of Lazarus and The Rich Man? But I will say that the priests finding that their burnt offerings and sacrifices were not accepted and that the Gentiles were receiving peculiar blessings and manifestations of Gods favor would gladly participate in their joys and blessings but they were unwilling or unable to receive those blessings in the only divinely appointed way--i.e. by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ. As a result, they turned to the promises made to Abraham and recorded by Moses and endeavored to derive consolation from them. But the blessings there promised to all men could only be enjoyed in this life through faith in Christ. They had once enjoyed the blessings and privileges that they now see the Gentiles enjoying. But a change had taken place and the Gentiles by embracing the gospel had become the recipients of good things while the Priests, by rejecting the gospel, had brought upon themselves the evil which their pride and unbelief merited.
They had moreover continued in unbelief and had opposed the gospel so long that God had for a time given them over to blindness of mind and they found a great gulf was fixed between them and the Christians so that they could not believe in Christ as the true Messiah however ardently they might desire to become partakers of the joys of those who had embraced the gospel.
This state of things Jesus had before predicted. (See Matt. 23:38,39) And now his prediction was verified. The priests had so long and so bitterly opposed the Savior that they could not bring themselves to believe that he was the very Messiah for whom they were anxiously looking. Finding therefore, from an examination of the promises to Abraham, that there was no hope for themselves they naturally turn their thoughts to their countrymen, who in the parable are noted by the five brethren. The common people among the Jews had never manifested that hostility towards Jesus and his followers. Even when they had persecuted Jesus or his followers, they had been instigated to do so, by the priests.
Feeling condemned for their conduct and anxious that those who had done wrong in opposing the gospel, more through their influence than from any desire of their own, the priests desired that the Gentiles might be sent to preach the gospel to those brethren. But they are told that their brethren have Moses and the prophets because both Moses and the prophets had written of the coming of Christ and had described his character and the object of his mission in so plain a manner that all who examined their testimony without prejudice and with their minds open to conviction, could not but be convinced that Jesus was the Christ. Jesus told them,
"If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."
Did someone rise from the dead? Of course, and the majority of the leaders of the Jews still refused to believe in Him. Can you see now, from this, that this parable is about the Jews rejection of Jesus and not about some future eternal punishment? I believe that this parable or story was used by Jesus to show the Priest the effects of the rejection of the gospel by the Jews and its acceptance by the Gentiles and that it has no allusion to any future state of existence.
And so this parable is finished. It contains three stories emphasizing the love of God for sinners and outcasts, and two stories portraying His condemnation of those who should have been just stewards of the grace of God, but were not; His condemnation of those who fared so sumptuously every day without sharing the social and religious privileges which they enjoyed with those who had none of them. There is nothing in the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus to overthrow the doctrine of Reconciliation.
I know that what I have shared with you about Ultimate Grace cuts across what we have been taught in the past concerning the fate of the dead who did not recognize Christ in this life but if you are a seeker of Truth you must take the time to consider what I have shared with you and allow the Lord to show you what His ultimate plan for all of mankind is and how He is going to bring His will to pass.