BIBLE DIGEST - Number 77                                                                                October 1997

Allon Maxwell

"There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. 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 in his bosom."(Luke 16:19-31 RSV)

Luke's Gospel contains this well known parable, spoken by Jesus, which many use to support the popular notion that the dead are not really dead at all! According to this doctrine the dead are already in either Heaven or Hell, where the righteous are blessed, and the wicked are tormented, while they wait for the day of judgement.

Of course there are some problems with this interpretation of the parable, since the great weight of other Scripture is very clear that the dead are asleep without any conscious existence. (Daniel 12:2 & 1 Thess 4:13-15 & Eccl 9:5) 


This story from Jesus, is plainly a parable. We don't expect that everything we find in a parable is going to be literal or theological fact. A parable is a story told in word pictures to convey a simple message. The pictures are built around conveying the message rather than presenting every single detail of the picture as a fact in its own right. 

It is the message in a parable that is important, not the literal accuracy of the vehicle which carries the message.

For example, other parables with conversations which are not to be taken as literal are found in Judges 9:8 & 2 Kings 14:9. There trees hold a conversation to choose a king, and a thistle seeks a wife! The trees and the thistle are made to speak for the purpose of the parable. 

Of course no one has ever used these parables to prove that thistles speak!! Neither should we use the parable from Jesus, to say more than the Scriptures do about the state of the dead.


The theology of the Pharisees did include a belief in an "intermediate state of life” for the dead, which is reflected in this parable. There is a good description of this "intermediate state" belief held by the Pharisees, in "The Complete Works Of Josephus". (See the "Discourse To The Greeks Concerning Hades".) 

According to this belief, Hades was a subterraneous region with two compartments. One was a place of darkness where the wicked were thought to be held for temporary punishment pending resurrection and judgement. Hades also contained a lake of unquenchable fire. However, no one was actually to be thrown into the lake of fire until after the final judgement, following the resurrection.

The other compartment in Hades was a region of light, which the Jews called "Abraham's Bosom". There the righteous were believed to wait in rejoicing and expectation of their resurrection to a place in Heaven.

Note carefully that, according this theology of the Pharisees, Abraham's Bosom was not a place in Heaven! It was a temporary abode in the lower regions of the earth.

There are enough significant differences between the story told by Jesus, and the theology of current popular religion, to render the parable quite useless as a support for the "Immortality Of The Soul".


There are at least three major problems with that theology of the Pharisees.

1. It is not supported anywhere else in the Scriptures.

2. It conflicts with Scriptural teaching that the dead are really dead .... asleep,
    and unconscious.

3. It preempts the facts of judgement, described     elsewhere in the Scriptures.


It is certainly clear that Jesus Himself believed those Old Testament Scriptures which say that the dead are "asleep in the dust of the earth". (Dan 12:2) In fact He quoted from that very passage in Daniel, when explaining another parable about future judgement, not at the moment of death, but "at the end of the age". (Matt 13:36-43) 

On another occasion He used the fact that Abraham was currently dead , (i.e. asleep, and not alive) as a guarantee of a future resurrection for all of the rest of those who are of the same faith. (Luke 20:27-38)

Why would Jesus use a parable based on a theology which He did not Himself believe? A careful, closer look will reveal that Jesus was using their own theology against the Pharisees! He actually used this parable to reverse their theology on several important points.

The Pharisees believed that the wealth of the rich, was a sign of God's favour and blessing and a guarantee of a place in the Kingdom Of God. And they also believed that to be poor, and "full of sores", like Lazarus, was a sign of God's displeasure and judgement against sinners. 

Imagine their consternation when Jesus placed the Rich Man in the place of torment and made Lazarus the "hero" of the story! He gave the reward to the one that the Pharisees would have condemned outright!

Jesus used the parable to contradict the Pharisees, and reinforce His own teaching that " it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom Of God ." (Luke 18:25) 

But there is another much more important message in this parable. The conversation between the Rich Man and Abraham is in the story, not because it is literally possible, but because Jesus wanted to use it to convey this other message.


John's Gospel contains the story of the raising from the dead, of a man named Lazarus. (John 11:1-45)

When this remarkable miracle took place many believed. However this did not suit the Chief Priests at all! Their reaction was to plan to put Lazarus to death, in the hope that this would stop the crowds who were flocking to see Lazarus and then believing in Jesus. (John 12:9-11)

This is the main point of the parable.

The Pharisees did not believe what Moses had already said about Jesus. Neither did they want to believe that Jesus had raised from the dead, a man named Lazarus !

Neither did they want to believe that Jesus is who He claims to be. 

Instead they tried to destroy the evidence!


It would be a gross misuse of this parable to suggest that its purpose is to support the doctrine of the Immortality Of The Soul. That use would contradict the weight of other Scripture on the subject of the state of the dead.

If we insist on taking that part of the parable literally, then we must also take the rest literally. 

That would mean accepting that: 

- there is an intermediate resting place where the   dead are still living, which is
  neither Heaven nor   Hell; 

- that there is communication between the    inhabitants of the two compartments
   in Hades; 

- that judgement has already taken place; 

- that punishment or reward, has already begun; 

- and that the basis of judgement is whether we  are rich or poor! 

Of course, the Bible says none of those things!


Our belief in the power of Jesus to raise the dead, is a major element of the foundation on which the rest of our Christian faith is built. Without it we have no hope and no guarantee of eternal life for ourselves.

Our hope of eternity has nothing to do with an imaginary immortal soul. Nor is it the myth of "heaven when we die".

Our real hope is bodilyresurrection from our sleep in the dust of the earth, and eternal life on earth , after Jesus returns from Heaven. (1 Cor 15:12-20 & 1 Thess 4:13-18)