The question is often asked, is the account of the rich man and Lazarus a historical account or is it a parable? Is it the true story of two men who lived and died during the time of Christ's earthly ministry or is it a made-up story used by the Lord to drive home a point? I believe that the evidence is that it describes an actual history of these two men.
By definition, a parable is a true-to-life story used to illustrate or illuminate a truth. This is true even if all of the details never occurred exactly as presented in the story. They are special stories that may, or may not, reflect historical events. Nevertheless, they must be true-to-life. By true-to-life we mean that a parable must be based on a real-life situation that the hearers are familiar with. In other words, the story itself has to be based on events that could have happened, whether they ever actually did or not.
Our English word "parable" is a transliteration of the Greek word parabole. It is a derivative of paraballo, which comes from two Greek words para and ballo. Para means alongside or by the side of. And ballo means to lie, or to place, something. Thus, a parable is a story put down beside a truth in order to illustrate that truth through comparison. Therefore a parable must be a true-to-life story in order for it to have any meaning to those who hear it. To try to use a fanciful story containing elements that have no basis to the world in which men and women live would only serve to confuse people rather than providing them with spiritual light. A simple survey of the Lord Jesus' use of parables reveals that He always used things commonplace to daily life, such as the building of houses, storing old and new wine, sowing seed, weeds growing along with the crop, yeast permeating bread dough, hidden treasure, fishing, monetary debts, unforgiveness, vineyards, family life, weddings, a barren fig tree, a lost coin, an unjust judge, etc. While His hearers may not have made the connection to the truths the Lord was pointing out, they needed no explanation as to what the stories were about because they involved common everyday things to which they could relate. When the hearers of the parables perceived that there was an analogy between the story and their own situation, they were prompted to think about it, hopefully to respond by faith to the truth illustrated. Parables can be extraordinary and even shocking, but never unrealistic or fanciful.
When we come to the account of the rich man and Lazarus, we find a situation different from what is found in any of the parables. The Lord Jesus' hearers could understand the contrast between the lives of a rich man and a poor beggar. It was common to see beggars sitting by the road hoping for a handout, and they could easily identify the folks who had more than enough wealth to live comfortably. Then, as now, there was a stark difference between the lives of those who have an overabundance and those with nothing. Although we can still grasp that there is a great difference between the lifestyles of these two men, the vastness of the "great gulf" between them is often lost to us because of the welfare and social services provided by the government. This is not the case in many third world nations today where people are literally starving to death. Regardless, the contrast in this story is the reversal of that gulf after the death of these two men.
The hearers of this story could follow the contrast between these two men right up to the moment of their deaths. At that point, however, the situation changes drastically. The outcome was something that they could not relate to any life situations that they had ever witnessed. The state and location of the departed soul was beyond their life experiences, or what is commonly known to be true by experience. The circumstances described go beyond the realm of the parable. That does not mean that it isn't a true-to-life story, however. Physical death is a natural part of the life experience of all mankind, but what takes place afterward is hidden from those who have not yet experienced it. In this account of a beggar and a rich man, the Lord was revealing the reality of what takes place following physical death to drive home an important truth. We should mention at this point that even if it was a parable, the place referred to as Abraham's bosom and the account of what took place in there would have to be based on reality for it to have any meaning.
Following are some reasons that this should be considered a history of two real men and not a parable.
1.Parables are true-to-life, but hypothetical, illustrative stories. The names of specific individuals are never given in them, but here the names of three men are given; Lazarus, Abraham, and Moses. Also mentioned are the "prophets" who were also real people. ("Moses and the prophets" is a general term for the whole Old Testament that refers to its human authors).
2.It does not have the normal form of a parable with an introduction, analogy story, and application. Instead it is in the form of the narration of a real-life story given for the purpose of illustration.
3.It does not use the principle of comparison in a way that is characteristic of parables.
4.The discussion between the rich man and Abraham is not consistent with the parabolic style found in the Scriptures.
5.It seems obvious that in relating this particular story when He did, the Lord Jesus was using a real-life account that many of those listening to Him that day could readily relate to it because they actually knew, or at least knew of, the two men involved. The rich man's brothers may have even been in the audience.
THE PURPOSE OF THE STORY
The main point of the story of the rich man and Lazarus is that an individual's wealth and social standing, or the lack thereof, is not necessarily an indication of that person's spiritual standing before God. Many of the Jews believed that the fact that they had accumulated wealth that afforded them social status and prominent positions in the religious community proved that they were under the blessing of God. They also thought, according to their logic, that those who were poor were under the curse of God. They no doubt appealed to the promises made to Israel in the Law of Moses concerning the blessings of prosperity for obedience to God's Law and the curses of poverty because of disobedience, failing to recognize the national rather then the personal nature of those promises (see Deut. 28:1-45ff.; etc.). They were also ignoring the many warnings found in "Moses and the Prophets" that were directed towards the leaders of Israel who selfishly misused their power and wealth (see Isa. 56:10-12; Ezek. 34:1-4ff.; Micah 3:1-4; etc.).
To challenge their seriously flawed thinking, the Lord Jesus told the parable of the unjust (or dishonest) steward (Luke 16:1-13). The main point of this parable was that the dishonest steward, who represented the Gentiles, was wiser than the "children of light," a reference to the sons of Israel, who were to be a channel through which God's light would reach the Gentiles, i.e., the nations of the world (Isa. 42:5-7; 49:5-6; 60:1-3; 62:1-3). The true Light of the World is Jesus Christ Himself (John 8:12), who is the Messiah of Israel. In the prophetic program, the only avenue through which the Gentiles can come to the Light is through the nation of Israel (Isa. 60:1-3; Zech. 8:20-23). The point of this parable was that those who were striving after riches were actually self-serving rather than servants of God. He was calling on them to choose between the two, saying: "No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon [money]" (Luke 16:13). The implication was that those whose priorities were based on accumulating wealth were demonstrating that their hearts were not right with God (cf. Matt. 6:19-21).
On hearing Him, the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, scoffed at the Lord (Luke 16:14), who then accused them of being self-righteous and trying to press, or force their way into the Kingdom on their own terms (Luke 16:15-16). That is to say, they were counting on their self-proclaimed righteousness to open the door of the Kingdom to them. Jesus plainly declared that the terms of the Law were solid and could not be circumvented. The principles underlying the Mosaic Law express God's character, and therefore the Law is more enduring than the whole of creation (Luke 16:17). He then revealed their hypocrisy by pointing out that their attitude about divorce and remarriage was not in line with God's purposes (Luke 16:18; cf. Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-9).
The key to understanding the point that the Lord is making in telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus is found in verses 15 and 16; "And He said unto them, ye are they which justify yourselves before men; but God knoweth your hearts: for that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God. The Law and the Prophets were until John: since that time the Kingdom of God is preached and every man presseth into it" (Luke 16:15-16).
Though their self-justification might gain them favor among men, it would not gain God's favor because He knew what was in their heart (cf. Jer. 17:9-10). The things that men hold in high regard, things that gain them position and respect among men, are disgusting to God. In truth, the love of money reveals a covetous heart that has given its allegiance to "mammon" rather than God (cf. I Tim. 6:10).
In the Law and the Prophets, a general term for the Old Testament Scriptures, is found the promise, or proclamation of God's coming Kingdom on earth, which Israel was waiting for. John the Baptist came on the scene to introduce the Messiah, who would usher in the Kingdom Age, to Israel (John 1:26-34). After being baptized by John Jesus Christ began His public ministry by saying, "The Kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the Gospel" (see Mark 1:9-15).
Of course, the Jews, especially the Pharisees, knew that entrance into the Kingdom was conditioned on obedience to God's Law. To drive home His point about how the money-loving Pharisees were misusing their wealth, to their own peril, the Lord told the true story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man wasn't lost because he had wealth, nor was Lazarus saved because he was poor. This was a matter of the heart with the focus being on the rich man, not Lazarus.
The rich man's failure to help Lazarus, a fellow Israelite, revealed that he had a wicked heart, a non-repentant heart. By refusing to provide for the poor beggar sitting at his gate, the rich man was rebelling against God who, through Moses, had given Israel specific instructions on how those with resources were to treat their poor fellow countrymen (see Deut. 15:7-11). They were to open their hands wide in providing for the poor and needy in their land. This man showed that he did not love the Lord God of Israel with all of his heart, soul, and might as commanded by the Law (Deut. 6:4-5; cf. Mark 12:28-30). The evidence of this was that he did not love his neighbor, who in this case was Lazarus (Lev. 19:18; cf. Matt. 22:34-40). Although he thought he could force his way into God's Kingdom, his heart attitude, which was demonstrated by his actions, proved him to be unworthy to enter.
When he asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers about what awaited them beyond death's door if they did not repent, "Abraham saith unto Him, They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them" (Luke 16:29). If, like the rich man, his brothers would not heed the warnings found in God's Word, from Moses and the Prophets, neither would they believe someone who had been raised from the dead. This proved to be true as even after His own resurrection the leaders of Israel rejected the Lord Jesus as their Messiah. It is sad to say, but for the most part mankind has continued to reject Christ as savior, even until today.
Being true-to-life, whether it is historical or parable, this story is based on truths from which we can learn certain facts about the state of those who have experienced physical death. This is true even though teaching these things is not the main purpose the Lord had in telling it. Being based on truth, the facts learned from the experience of the rich man and Lazarus are consistent with what is found in other places in Scriptures. From this passage we know that:
1.After physical death, individuals continue to exist in a state of personal consciousness (vv. 22-25ff.; cf. Rev. 6:9-10).
2.Having experienced physical death, the individual's destiny is sealed. There is no opportunity to cross over from the place of utter hopelessness to a place of hope after physical death (vv. 25-26).
3.Hades is not a figure of speech but a real place of suffering to which the unsaved go to await the final judgment (vv. 23-24). They will stay there until the time of the resurrection to condemnation when they will be consigned to the Lake of Fire forever (cf. Rev. 20:11-15).
4.There is a place, referred to here as Abraham's Bosom, which is a place of comfort and joy (v. 25). The saved go there until the time of their resurrection unto life. This place is also referred to as "Paradise" in the Scriptures (cf. Luke 23:39-43). Originally it was a partitioned section of Hades, but was moved to heaven after Christ's resurrection. Paul speaks of being "caught up into paradise" (II Cor. 12:4). This implies that Grace saints and Kingdom saints may jointly occupy Paradise until the time of their respective resurrections.
5.After physical death, unsaved individuals will have regretful memories of the past and knowledge of their hopeless future (vv. 25-28).
6.After having died, individuals go to Hades or Paradise and are not able to return or send back messages to those still living (vv. 26-28). Samuel, Moses, and Elijah are exceptions, having been sent by God as special envoys. No one can return by an act of their own will. The Scriptures leave no possibility for reincarnation and spiritism.
7.Neither the saved or the lost will cease to exist, nor will they exist without form between physical death and the resurrection. Both have a temporary form of some kind that enables them to see, speak, hear and feel (vv. 22-25). No doubt this form is of a spiritual nature and substance, but nevertheless, it is a tangible form with a recognizable human likeness.
THE CONSCIOUS STATE OF THE DEAD
The story of the rich man and Lazarus clearly shows that after physical death they were very much aware of their circumstances and what was going on around them. The Apostle Paul stated that for the believer "to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (see Phil. 1:21-23), indicating that this is in fact the case. That he had "a desire to depart (this life)" to be with the Lord tells us that he expected to consciously experience something "far better" than can be found in this life. This means that at the time of physical death believers will "gain" something. As precious as the believer's life "in Christ" is in the here and now, it will be greatly enhanced when he leaves it to enter into the presence of the Lord. Paul's statement that "to live is Christ" speaks of a purposeful life lived in service to and for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. The only way to add to this, to gain that which is better, is to enter into the very presence of Christ in heaven to consciously enjoy perfect fellowship with Him in a way that we cannot in this life. It is only by faith that the believer can find the confidence to face death "willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord" (see II Cor. 5:7-8).
That the death of a believer brings him, or her, into a situation considered to be "gain", or the increased experience of spiritual blessing, refutes all erroneous ideas such as soul sleep or that the soul ceases to exist at death to be awakened or recreated at the time of the resurrection. To enjoy the life of Christ in this life only to be experientially separated from Him by becoming unconscious or ceasing to exist would be loss, not gain. This would be true even if it was only for a short time. But the fact that we have been given eternal life guarantees that we have everlasting fellowship with God. Our life in Christ will never be diminished, only enlarged. That "the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who is given unto us" (Rom. 5:5) mandates the continued conscious existence of the believer after physical death because nothing, not even death, "shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:39).