1) The story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 is believed by many to be a true account of the state of man after death. Yet it has certain points which cause one to wonder how it could be a true-to-life description.
Answer: Let us begin by reading the story from Luke 16:19-31. Will you please read it for us.
2) "There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, the dogs came and licked his sores.
"So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham's bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.' But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.' Then he said, 'I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.' Abraham said to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them.' And he said, 'No, father Abraham, but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' But he said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rise from the dead.' "
Am I right in believing that the dialogue between the rich man and Abraham takes place between departed souls of the dead? How is it that the soul of the rich man could be in need of water---a material substance? And if it is true that a tormented soul can get some relief from a drop of water on its tongue, why does the rich man, in asking for help, not ask Lazarus to bring him a bucket of water for greater satisfaction? It would involve a special trip anyway.
Answer: You have asked a valid question. Your insight helps all to see that Christ was not describing the true state of the dead, but improvising a story with a purpose. The drop of water on the tip of Lazarus' finger is plainly an exaggerated detail added for effect. Like the dogs licking the beggar's sores---a purely literary embellishment---it helps us see that Jesus was simply adding color to hold the interest of his audience. For if disembodied souls really need water, they should also need food, without which they would die. So in order to keep them alive until the judgment, God must have some way to keep them supplied, in which case a drop of water on the tongue would make no difference anyway. Again, Christians can hardly believe that the souls in glory are within hearing distance of souls in hell and can freely dialogue. And if the saved are all in Abraham's bosom, how many souls can he hold? It doesn't make sense.
3) What was Christ's purpose in improvising a story which you say does not describe the true state of the dead?
Answer: This is best answered by asking, Why is the beggar named Lazarus, but the rich man has no name? Careful thought will help us see that Christ created a fictitious Lazarus to call attention to the real Lazarus, whom Christ raised up after he was dead for four days. Jesus' purpose in telling the story was to prove the truth of Abraham's words, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead."
4) I'm sure that many would object to the idea that Christ created a fictitious Lazarus. How do you justify that?
Answer: We will give justification for that below. First let us emphasize that the raising of Lazarus was the most convincing proof of Christ's divinity. It was performed in the sight of many witnesses. But were any of the Jewish rulers persuaded? No. Please note that this is a major point we must keep in mind. John 12:10 says that "The chief priests," in plotting to kill Jesus, "consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death," because this miracle had convinced a large number of people of Christ's deity. "The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a council, and said, 'What shall we do? For this man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him." (John 11:47,48)
This shows that the bloodthirsty Jews were not at all persuaded of Jesus deity, but even more confirmed in their hatred of Him because of this miracle. In Christ's parable, Abraham said that to let Lazarus rise from the dead would not convince those who disobeyed Moses and the prophets. Now Jesus raised up Lazarus to validate Abraham's words. In the improvised story, the fictitious Lazarus did not rise from the dead. In real life the real Lazarus did rise. The fact that the real Lazarus rose from the dead and had no story to tell about what he saw during his four days in the grave, proves that the dead have no knowledge of anything (Eccl. 9:5). The fictitious Lazarus in the bosom of a fictitious Abraham were figures taken by Jesus from Jewish folklore. And the Jews who heard Him tell the story knew that He was improvising it.
5) Do you have material to prove your point: that Jesus drew figures from Jewish folklore to improvise His story?
Answer: Yes, in telling the story, Jesus made use of a prevailing Jewish belief regarding the state of the dead. The Greek term "Hades"(The KJV renders it "hell".), which is used 10 times by New Testament writers, is here first used by Christ in telling this story. The mythological background of this Greek term influenced the Jews to hold a view which was out of harmony with the Bible teaching on the state of the dead, which we have studied in depth in a previous talk. The popular Jewish view at the time of Christ was presented by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus as follows:
6) In reading this, I note that "The Bosom of Abraham" was the name of a place in the "Hades" of Jewish folklore.
Answer: Yes, when the Jews heard Jesus change this name of a familiar place into a living person, they knew He was improvising a story. For in the Jewish Talmud of the first century were obituaries stating, "Rabbi so-and-so rests in Abraham's bosom". In Christ's day Jews influenced by Greek mythology believed in the immortality of the soul, which Josephus observed was "the doctrine of Plato". Josephus also believed in the unending torment of the wicked by fire.
We have read from Josephus that "the Bosom of Abraham" is the name of a place in Hades, which Christ made into a real, living person in His story. Josephus tells of a "chasm deep and large", corresponding to the "great gulf fixed" between Abraham and the rich man. These two points suffice to prove that Jesus drew his figures from Jewish folklore.
7) Now please answer the objection that Jesus always spoke the truth, never fiction.
Answer: Jesus always spoke the truth, but sometimes He veiled truth under figures of speech, so that you must think twice to grasp His real meaning. Apart from the story of Lazarus and the rich man, there are three other statements by Jesus which no one can accept literally. That is, you can't take them at face value. You must look under the veil.
One is in Matt.15:26, Jesus said, "It is not meet to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs." If Jesus sincerely meant every word here, He was calling the Canaanite woman a dog. But actually, He was addressing her in customary Jewish fashion to teach His disciples a lesson. He gave them an example of how offensive the Jews were in despising other races, and what great faith the foreign woman had in a Jew whom she worshiped as the "Son of David". Then Jesus spoke from the heart as He said to her, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire." This shows that when Jesus made the first remark, He was acting the part of an arrogant Jew, and did not really mean it. .
Likewise, in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus was using familiar figures in Jewish folklore to drive a lesson home. And the contemporary Jews who heard Him knew that "Abraham's bosom" in his story was the name of a place in Hades, and Jesus was not describing the actual state of the dead. Only unthinking Gentile readers not familiar with Jewish eschatology take the story literally, and imagine all saved souls are now really resting in Abraham's bosom.
Another statement made by Jesus cannot be taken at face value. It is in Luke 22:36, "…he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one." The disciples took this literally, so they said, "Lord, look, here are two swords." And He said to them, "It is enough." Now we believe that Jesus did not mean for them really to sell their garments and buy swords, because when Peter drew a sword at Gethsemane, Christ forbade him, saying, "Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword shall perish by the sword." (Matt. 26:52) And seriously, how could two swords be enough?
8) Then what did Jesus mean by saying, Sell a garment and buy a sword? And why did He say, "It is enough?"
Answer: Luke 22:35-37.reads: "When I sent you without money bag, sack, and sandals, did you lack anything?" So they said, "Nothing." Then He said to them, "But now, he who has a money bag, let him take it, and likewise a sack; and he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one. For I say to you that this which is written must still be accomplished in Me: 'And He was numbered with the transgressors.' For the things concerning Me have an end."
From this we gather that Jesus was contrasting the prosperous days of work among friendly people with the future trials which awaited His disciples. "Buy a sword" may be paraphrased as "Prepare for battle," or a "Call to arms".
The disciples misunderstood His words, and said, "Lord, look, here are two swords." He said, "It is enough." The singular "it" refers not to the two swords. If it did, Christ would have said, "they are enough." Actually, even twelve swords would not have been enough against the mob who arrested Jesus. "It is enough" meant that He had said enough, because there was no use to say more to men who did not see His point. He had enough of their simple-mindedness.
A third remark made by Jesus which the disciples misunderstood was His saying, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod." The disciples thought Jesus said this because they had no bread. So He said, "Why do you reason because you have no bread? Do you not perceive nor understand? Is your heart still hardened?" (Mark 8:15-17)The hardened heart means mental stiffness. Our minds also need to limber up and see Christ's true intent in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. All details cannot be taken literally. He wanted to drive home the verdict, "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead."
9) What positive instruction is there in this parable for us who live in modern times?
Answer: The bottom line in Jesus' story is for our instruction as well as for the Jews. "Moses and the prophets" stand for the word of God. The Bible is all we need to guide us to heaven. We must give our full attention to studying and practicing its teachings. There is danger that we turn from the Bible to look at miracles. If we disobey the Bible teachings, no miracle can make us better Christians. Regarding the state of the dead we must believe what the Bible says; have no dealings with spirit mediums. Ecclesiastes 9:5 says, "The living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing."
Our Lord teaches us: "Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment." (John 7:24)