The Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) is one of the main texts used to teach the doctrine of eternal torment. In the parable, Jesus speaks of a rich man who dies and goes to hades (“hell”). This rich man is contrasted with a poor man named Lazarus, who dies and goes to Abraham’s bosom, commonly interpreted as “heaven.”
The common view is taken as a literal picture of the afterlife, rather than as Kingdom parable in need of interpretation. Yet this story is the climax of a series of five parables of the Kingdom, which Luke arranges in a particular order to make his point. If we take the Lazarus parable out of its context with the other parables, we are sure to misinterpret it. The five parables are:
1. The lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7)
2. The lost coin (Luke 15:8-10)
3. The prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32)
4. The unjust steward (Luke 16:1-13)
5. The rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31)
After the fourth parable, we are told in Luke 16:14 that “the Pharisees, who were lovers of money…were scoffing at Him. And He said to THEM…” So the fifth parable was directed at the Pharisees. They are the “rich man.”
Even so, the parable is NOT about rich men going to hell and poor people going to heaven. It is a parable of the Kingdom, which has its roots in the Old Testament. The first Kingdom of God was called Israel.
The Lost Sheep of Israel
The first parable in this series is about how Jesus left the 99 sheep that were safe so He could search for the one lost sheep. The prophet says in Jer. 50:6, “My people have become lost sheep.” So the sheep are people.
Jesus’ parable was mainly taken from Ezekiel 34, where the prophet wrote a whole chapter about the lost sheep of Israel. In Ezekiel 34:6 God speaks of this big problem:
“My flock wandered through all the mountains and on every high hill, and My flock was scattered over all the surface of the earth; and there was no one to search or seek for them.”
God scolded the preachers and prophets for refusing to look for those lost sheep. Many today apply this to the work of evangelism in general. Certainly, that is a proper application. However, it is more than that, because the prophet was speaking of the Israelites who had been deported to Assyria (721 B.C.).
Because the preachers and prophets throughout history did not search for those lost sheep, God said in Ezekiel 34:11, “I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out.” Verse 16 adds, “I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick.”
The parable in Luke 15 shows that Jesus is the One who is fulfilling this prophecy in Ezekiel. The Good Shepherd who searches for the lost sheep is Jesus. The sheep are the lost Israelites, along with “others” who will also be gathered with the Israelites. Isaiah 56:8 says,
“The Lord God, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares, ‘Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.’”
The context shows that God intends to gather other people, not only Israelites, because, as He says in the previous verse, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”
For this reason, Jesus told His disciples to do a mission trip and “go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 10:6). He was not sending them to the Jews in Judea. He was sending them many miles north, where the Israelites had been relocated when the Assyrians took them captive.
The Lost Coin
The parable of the lost sheep is followed by a second parable about the lost coin. It is essentially the same as the first parable, because once again it refers to the lost Israelites. Exodus 19:5 calls Israel a segullah (Hebrew for “treasure”). This “treasure” is made up of people who are “chosen” and are represented by the coin.
Jesus also told another “coin” parable in Matt. 13:44, which is similar to this theme of the lost coin. He said,
“The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
The meaning is clear. Israel was like a treasure hidden in the “field.” Jesus said in Matt. 13:38 that “the field is the world.” Israel was lost and hidden in the world, because no one bothered to find the lost sheep of Israel.
We read that Jesus bought the whole field (the world) in order to obtain the hidden treasure. When He bought the field, He could then lay claim to all that was hidden in it. This shows how Jesus died for the whole world (1 John 2:2) in his quest to recover the treasure (Israel).
The Unjust Steward
Jesus’ third parable is about an unjust steward. This story has been misunderstood because people do not know who this “steward” is. There were two nations that Jesus talked about in His parables. The first was Israel; the second was Judah (or Judea), where the Pharisees and other religious leaders scoffed at Jesus (Luke 16:14).
When Israel was deported to Assyria (721 B.C.) and later dispersed throughout the nations, the people of Judah remained in the land for another century. A century later, God allowed the Babylonians to conquer Judah and to resettle the people in Babylon for 70 years (Jer. 25:11).
After 70 years, God allowed the Judeans (Jews) to return to the old land, because 500 years later Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem in Judea (Luke 2:4). So that is why the prophets never say that the people of Judah were “lost.”
Certainly, they were “lost” in a spiritual sense, unless they had genuine faith in Christ; however, they were never “lost” as a nation. Even though they later lost their nation status, they always remained a distinct people who were well known to everyone.
The parable of the unjust steward was directed at the religious leaders of the Jews, who had become rich while oppressing the lower-class Jews. Jesus often exposed their corruption and even drove them out of the temple on two occasions! (John 2:15; Matt. 21:12)
The unjust steward pictured the corrupt nation of Judah and its corrupt priests and other religious leaders. So we see that there are two main characters in Jesus’ parables: Israel and Judah. The division between them had occurred a thousand years earlier when the nation was divided after the death of King Solomon.
The Prodigal Son
There were two brothers in the parable of the prodigal son. One (Israel) left home; the other (Judah) stayed home. The prodigal son spent all of his money and then finally returned home. When he returned, his father ran to welcome him home. Then they celebrated his return.
The older brother (Judah) complained that his brother was getting more attention than he deserved. His father answered, “This brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:32).
It is clear that the prodigal son is also the lost sheep and the lost coin. The older brother is Judah and also the unjust steward of the previous parable. This also explains why the Pharisees scoffed at Jesus’ parable.
With this background in mind, we are now in a position to better understand the last parable in the series. The rich man represents Judah, and Lazarus (the poor man) is Israel. As you can see, this story is a Kingdom parable. It speaks of the time after each nation was destroyed. It was not a story about the afterlife of individual people.
The Rich Man and Lazarus
Having identified the characters in the parable, we can now understand some of the details in the story. Lazarus is pictured as a beggar “at the gate.” He was outside the house right where we would expect him to be, because Israel was outside the house after the Assyrians deported them and resettled them in a foreign land.
Luke 16:21 says that Lazarus was “longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table.” The food represents the word of God. In captivity far away, the Israelites were suffering from a “famine… for hearing the words of the Lord” (Amos 8:11).
Lazarus’ only friends were the dogs, it says. In those days the Jews referred to non-Jews as “dogs” (Matt. 15:26). Israel was living among foreign nations.
That is the setup for the parable. Then we read that the rich man and Lazarus each “died.” Israel had already died as a nation more than 700 years earlier. Judah was soon to die about 40 years later, when the Roman army destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in 70 A.D.
Each nation had a different fate, as prophesied in the Scriptures.
The lost Israelites were to be regathered and used as the basis for the Kingdom of God. So Lazarus is pictured in the bosom of Abraham. Abraham represents the children of faith—the real “sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). These receive the promises given to Abraham by faith through the New Covenant brought to them by Jesus Christ.
The nation of Judah, however, represented by the rich man, suffers an entirely different fate. The rich man finds himself in “torment” in hades (“hell”). This does not mean that Jews go to hell. It refers to the Jewish condition since the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
The Jewish nation died and it has remained “in torment” ever since that time. Furthermore, the rich man is said to call out to Abraham and talk with him. Would this really be possible if this were a story about a man going to hell after he died? Could there be such communication?
The rich man just wanted a tiny bit of water to cool his tongue. Both food and water represent the word of God. The rich man needed a lot of water, but he only wanted a tiny bit of it. So also today the Jews claim to know the word of God, but in reality, by rejecting Christ, they only want a little bit of water.
The rich man asked that the truth be sent to his five brothers. Is it a coincidence that Judah himself had five brothers? They are Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Issachar, and Zebulun (See Gen. 29:32 to 30:20.) All of the others were half-brothers, being born by different mothers.
The rich man said that if someone would come back from the dead, his brothers would listen to him and believe the truth. Abraham responded in Luke 16:31,
“If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”
Jesus did rise from the dead, and yet they did not listen. Instead, they spread a lie to deceive their own people (Matt. 28:13-15). That is what this parable teaches us.