THE RICH MAN AND LAZARUS: TRUE EVENT OR FICTITIOUS PARABLE?

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The Rich Man and Lazarus: True Event or Fictitious Parable?
by Edwin M. Cotto, Advent Defense League

THE CHARGE

Adventism is in error when it claims that the dead remain in their graves until Jesus returns, because in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus demonstrated that the dead go to heaven or hell at death!

THE SHORT ANSWER

This is an important claim by the critics in order to establish the idea that people go to heaven at death and that the wicked will burn in Hell forever. On the other hand, if the story is a parable, it cannot be taken as a literal event since parables are fictitious narratives established to teach moral truths. The fact that it is a parable, however, can be proven in a number of ways. First, the elements within the story itself are figurative. For example, Abraham’s bosom is not heaven, the request to merely cool the tongue is not realistic, and neither is the ability to have a normal, rational conversation. One would not expect a man tormented in the excruciating flames of fire to act this way. Even our senses will confirm that this is far from pragmatic.

Consider also the fact that the story is in the midst of a series of parables (Luke 12:16, 13:6, 16:1, 19:11-12, 20:9) while beginning with the same “a certain man…” formula as those other ones. Moreover, if this is a story of an actual event that took place, it would supposedly prove that dead people do not stay in their grave at death, and that they are actually still alive elsewhere. But that contradicts the scriptures, which say that the “dead know nothing” (Eccl. 9:5), that their “thoughts perish” (Psa. 146:4), and that people stay in a state of “sleep” awaiting the resurrection in the last days ( 1 Thess. 4:13-15). Additionally, though the wicked will indeed end up in flames of fire in the end, it is actually God’s people that live in that fire, because it is the very fire of God’s presence (cf. Deut. 9:3, Heb. 12:29, w/ Isaiah 33:14-15). While the greedy rich man was alive and cognitive, the Bible says that the wicked will actually be completely destroyed. It uses terminology such as “perish,” be “burned up,” will “melt away,” be “consumed into smoke,” and be reduced to “ashes” (Psa. 68:2, 37:20, Mal. 4:1, 3), while the righteous are able to bear the presence of the “sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4:2). Consequently, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus has to be understood as just that, a parable… a fictitious story containing an important moral lesson.

The attempt to make this a true story by claiming it must be since it uses an actual, real name (Lazarus) fails for two important reasons. First, there is no rule in the scriptures that parables cannot use real names. That is a standard that the critics have made up. And second, we actually have an example of a parable that uses, not one, but two actual names!

“Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother: And they committed whoredoms in Egypt; they committed whoredoms in their youth: there were their breasts pressed, and there they bruised the teats of their virginity. And the names of them were Oholah the elder, and Oholibah her sister: and they were mine, and they bare sons and daughters. Thus were their names; Samaria is Aholah, and Jerusalem Aholibah.” (Ezek. 23:2-4).

Thus the claim is false. What then was the point of the story? In context, Jesus was addressing the money-loving Pharisees (verse 14) and uses this story to illustrate that if they won’t be convicted of their sins through the scriptures, they will not be convicted even if someone came back from the dead (verse 31). An important lesson indeed for all of us to keep in mind. Dreams, visions, miracles, and the like, are all subject to the Word of God, and must be tested by it.

The parable was also prophetic, because later when a real Lazarus came back from the dead, they still did not believe! In fact, they even plotted to kill Jesus right after this miracle took place:

John 11:45-53 -Then many of the Jews … went their ways to the Pharisees… Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death.

In conclusion, a closer examination of the context of the story demonstrates that it is clearly a parable with an important lesson to learn, and parables, by definition, are metaphors not to be taken literally.

THE LONG ANSWER

This is an important claim by the critics in order to establish the idea that people go to heaven at death and that the wicked will burn in Hell forever. On the other hand, if the story is a parable, it cannot be taken as a literal event since parables are fictitious narratives established to teach moral truths. The fact that it is a parable, however, can be proven in a number of ways, the story itself is figurative. Abraham’s bosom is not heaven, the request to merely cool the tongue is not realistic, and neither is the ability to have a normal, logical and rational conversation. One would not expect a man tormented in the excruciating flames of fire to act this way. Even our senses will confirm that this is far from pragmatic.

There are numerous problems with taking the story as a literal event that actually took place:

  • THE STORY IS OBVIOUSLY FIGURATIVE

    This is evident by the story itself. First, after his death, Lazarus went directly, not to heaven, but to Abraham’s. This is not what takes place at death. Second, the Rich Man’s request to merely cool the tongue is not realistic, neither is his ability to have a normal, logical and rational conversation. Under normal circumstances, someone being in fiery torments would be rolling on the floor in excruciating pain, trying at every turn to somehow relieve himself. This is not what is taking place in the story, and that is because it is not realistic.
  • IT IS IN THE MIDST OF A SERIES OF PARABLES

    The story of the Rich man and Lazarus follow a few parables and is followed by even more parables (Luke 12:16, 13:6, 16:1, 19:11-12, 20:9). It would seem rather strange to interrupt this flow of parables, give a true story, to then continue to teach parables. The more consistent and reasonable conclusion is that it is a parable just like those surrounding it.
  • IT BEGINS LIKE THE PARABLES SURROUNDING IT

    Each one of those surrounding parables initiate with the familiar formula, “a certain…” Notice:
Luke 16:19 – There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen…
Luke 12:16 – He spake a parable unto them, saying, The ground of a certain rich man brought…
Luke 13:6 – He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard.
Luke 16:1 – There was a certain rich man, which had a steward.
Luke 19:11-12 – He added and spake a parable… A certain nobleman went into a far country…
Luke 20:9 – Then began he to speak to the people this parable; A certain man planted a vineyard.
  • A LITERAL RENDERING CONTRADICTS SCRIPTURE

If this is a story of an actual event that took place, it would supposedly prove that dead people do not stay in their grave at death, and that they are actually still alive elsewhere. But that contradicts the scriptures, which say that the “dead know nothing” (Eccl. 9:5), that their “thoughts perish” (Psa. 146:4), and that people stay in a state of “sleep” awaiting the resurrection in the last days ( 1 Thess. 4:13-15). Additionally, though the wicked will indeed end up in flames of fire in the end, it is actually God’s people that live in that fire, because it is the very fire of God’s presence:

Isaiah 33:14-15 – The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil. (cf. Deut. 9:3, Heb. 12:29, Rev. 20:9).

And while the greedy rich man was alive and cognitive, the Bible says that the wicked will actually be completely destroyed. It uses terminology such as “perish,” be “burned up,” will “melt away,” be “consumed into smoke,” and be reduced to “ashes” (Psa. 68:2, 37:20, Mal. 4:1, 3), while the righteous are able to bear the presence of the “sun of righteousness” (Mal. 4:2). Consequently, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus has to be understood as just that, a parable… a fictitious story containing an important moral lesson.

JESUS UTILIZED A COMMONLY HELD BELIEF

This may come as a surprise to most, but the story is actually gave a modified version of a similar story that already existed among the Jewish leaders. According to the Talmud, the ancient sages interpreted the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1 using the following parable:

“A parable: To what is this matter like? To a king who made a feast for his servants, and a poor man came and stood by the door and said to them, Give me a bite, and no one took any notice of him, so he forced his way into the presence of the king and said to him, Your Majesty, out of all the feast which thou hast made, is it so hard in thine eyes to give me one bite?”(1)

At another section of the Talmud, we find this reference:

Today he is sitting in the lap of Abraham our forefather, since he has just been circumcised. He added: ‘Today Rav Yehuda was born in Babylonia.'”(2)

And in a separate, yet also Jewish document, we read this:

Let us not fear him who thinks he is killing us, for great is the struggle of the soul and the danger of eternal torment lying before those who transgress the commandment of God. Therefore let us put on the full armor of self-control, which is divine reason. For if we so die, Abraham and Isaac and Jacob will welcome us, and all the fathers will praise us.”(3)

Note the similarities between all these documents and the story Jesus gave in Luke 16, and note also how the first reference above calls it a parable. One wonders why Jesus would use a story that was familiar to them and which was obviously figurative. Wouldn’t that cause further confusion? It only causes confusion when one does not continue reading in the Gospels. I believe the modified version of this story, especially Jesus’ insertion of an individual named Lazarus, answers this question. The king in the story parallels the rich man, and Jesus was at this moment addressing rich individuals (Luke 16:14). Jesus takes their own story to demonstrate their hypocrisy and ultimate result, while simultaneously predicting that a real Lazarus would come back from the grave. The later resurrection of Lazarus proved the story false since Lazarus was described as being “asleep” (John 11:11-14) and not alive in Abraham’s bosom. Thus, the use of this story and its subsequent fulfillment in a real Lazarus actually proves the falsity of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

WHY DID JESUS USE A REAL NAME?

Critics will claim that the story is not a parable because supposedly parables do not use real names, and this story uses the name Lazarus. However, this claim is not true for two important reasons. First, there is no rule in the scriptures that say parables can never use real names. The critics have set up their own, unbiblical standard. Second, we actually have an example of a parable using, not one, but two names. Notice Ezekiel 23:2-4:

“Son of man, there were two women, the daughters of one mother: And they committed whoredoms in Egypt; they committed whoredoms in their youth: there were their breasts pressed, and there they bruised the teats of their virginity. And the names of them were Oholah the elder, and Oholibah her sister: and they were mine, and they bare sons and daughters. Thus were their names; Samaria is Aholah, and Jerusalem Aholibah.”

We know this is a parable because it acts just like one. It is using figurative language to represent something, and it even contains the interpretation of the figures in verse 4. Note how the parable of the sower is first given, and then later interpreted, just like the parable here in Ezekiel. The same thing happens with the parable of the tares (see Matt. 13). The most reasonable reason why Jesus in this case used the name Lazarus was because He would later bring back a real Lazarus from the dead, and through that event prove the conclusion of the parable true, that they would not believe even if one rose from the dead (Luke 16:31, cf. John 11:45-53).

WHAT WAS THE POINT OF THE PARABLE?

Critics often miss out on the deep spiritual message of the story for trying to make it about a literal event. The message of the story is within the same context. As mentioned before, Jesus was addressing the money-loving Pharisees (verse 14) and uses this story to illustrate that if they won’t be convicted of their sins through the scriptures, they will not be convicted even if someone came back from the dead (verse 31). The reaction of these same leaders proved Jesus’ point. No sooner than they raised a real Lazarus from the grave they demonstrate their continued desire to not believe by plotting to kill him. Notice what they said right after the resurrection of Lazarus:

“Then many of the Jews … went their ways to the Pharisees… Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not… Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death.” (John 11:45-53).

Therefore, the meaning of the story is simple. Miracles will not suffice. Visions, dreams, and the like must be tested by the Word of God, and if you cannot believe the Word, none of these things will convince you. To Jesus, the Word spoke about Him (John 5:39) and thus to reject the Word is to reject Him, even if He proved Himself by raising a man from the grave. Incidentally, Jesus later even resurrects Himself, and they still didn’t believe! The Pharisees set themselves up for failure by first not even believing in the testimony of the scriptures concerning Him. This is an important lesson indeed for everyone. Let us not doubt the Word of God, but rather let us read it daily and believe it with our whole hearts. Everything else will follow, so long as it is in accordance with it.

CONCLUSION

A closer examination of the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16 demonstrates that it is clearly a parable, and parables by definition are metaphors not to be taken literally. It is not an account of an actual event for various reasons. First, it is highly figurative, second, it is in the midst of other parables, third it begins like those other parables and fourth it would contradict the rest of scripture, which teaches that people remain in an unconscious state of “sleep” until the resurrection. It was a commonly held story which Jesus modified into a lesson and prophecy that would both teach an important moral lesson and simultaneously debunk the current believe in the immortality of the soul. Its lesson is so important yet missed by critics who take it to be a real story. The scriptures must take precedence in all things, even miracles.


FOOTNOTES:

  1. Babylonian Talmud, “Tractate Berakoth, 31b.
  2. Ibid, Tractate Kiddushin 72b.
  3. 4 Maccabees 13:14-17.

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About The Author

Edwin Cotto

With over 13 years of experience in apologetics, evangelism and youth directing, Edwin has worked with various ministries both in English and Spanish. Having had the opportunity to travel to various states in the USA, and also to Venezuela and Mexico, he has enjoyed the privilege of conducting evangelistic meetings and apologetics seminars. His education includes training in the Medical Field, Adult Education at Valencia College, Biblical Hebrew with the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, and Evangelism with Amazing Facts Center of Evangelism. He is furthering his academic studies in theology while also working as a bible worker for the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. Ordained as an elder, Edwin's passion for ministry begins first at home with his wife and kids.

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