Lazarus and the rich man – parable or actual event?
In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells the story of a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus and describes how they lived in this life and what their circumstances were after they died.
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.
The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.”
But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.”
And he said, “Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.”
But Abraham said, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” And he said, “No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”
He said to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
This story follows a group of parables and there is much disagreement as to whether this in another parable or a record of something that actually happened.
To answer this question we need to look at exactly what a parable is. Luke 15:3-7 records a story by Jesus which is clearly identified as a parable.
So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.”
Let’s look at exactly what Jesus did here. He told a story about a shepherd and a lost sheep. This was something the people were familiar with because they lived in a culture in which being a shepherd was a common occupation. Then he showed how this everyday event which they could see was like a heavenly event which they couldn’t see directly; the rejoicing by the shepherd was like the rejoicing that takes place in heaven when a sinner repents. A parable illustrates a spiritual truth by comparing it with something with which the listeners were familiar.
But does the story of Lazarus and the rich man follow this pattern? It begins by describing a rich man and a beggar who was at his gate seeking help. This was no doubt the sort of thing his listeners had seen. But Jesus doesn’t make any comparison between this situation and something in heaven. Instead he continues the story by telling how the two men died and what their circumstances were after death. In addition, two of the people in the parable, Lazarus and Abraham, are named, and we know for certain that Abraham was a real person. These departures from the usual pattern of parables show that this wasn’t a parable but an account of something that really happened.
This story is the plainest description found in the Bible of what happens after death. We know that at death the body completely ceases to function but we find here that the same thing isn’t true of the soul. It is separated from the body but still continues to function in the same way it did while still in the body.
In the Old Testament there are many references to a place called Sheol which is the place everyone went after death. Both the good and the bad went there. This is the same place as Hades, which is where the rich man ended up. Since he was able to see and speak to Abraham and Lazarus they must have been in Hades too, but in a different part. Abraham said there was a chasm between the place they were and the place the rich man was, so there was a separation between the righteous and the unrighteous even though they were in the same place.
The unsaved still go to Hades immediately after they die but that is no longer true of the saved. The death of Jesus has brought about a change in what happens to them. Jesus told the thief who repented that he would be in Paradise with him that same day.
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
We learn from 2 Corinthians 12:1-3 that Paradise is in the third heaven.
I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.
Ephesians 4:8-10 says,
Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
This shows that between his death and resurrection Jesus descended into Hades and took out all the righteous dead and took them to Paradise. Now whenever a believer dies his soul goes immediately to be with Jesus.
Even the unsaved won’t stay in Hades forever. Revelation 20 contains a description of the final judgment, when all those who are lost will be punished for eternity by being thrown into the lake of fire. Revelation 20:13-15 says,
And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.