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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Does the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) suggest that we are not totally unconscious when we die?
Perhaps the basic question is whether this story is a parable or a historical narrative. If it is historical, then Jesus is describing what really happened to the rich man and Lazarus after they died. If it is a parable, we need to look at its purpose.
1. A Historical Event? A reading of the passage indicates that it is not describing a literal event that took place in the afterlife. If it was historical, a literal reading would be required; yet a literal interpretation reveals some serious problems.
First, there is no explicit reference to the soul or the spirit of Lazarus or the rich man. Those who believe that the story describes conditions during the intermediate state between death and resurrection also teach that the soul or the spirit survives after death, but not the body. But a literal reading of the text clearly indicates that they were in “hell” (Greek, hades) in bodily form. Jesus mentioned the rich man’s tongue, Lazarus’s finger, and verbal communication. Their eyes enabled them to see each other. That language and imagery indicate that we are not dealing here with disembodied spirits.
Second, the place of rest for the saved is not God’s presence but Abraham’s bosom, a place of felicity in Jewish literature; obviously not a literal place. The phrase was used among Jews to refer to the high privilege of sitting at the right hand of Abraham.
Third, the parable suggests that the righteous and the wicked coexist close to each other. If the righteous were able to see the pain and suffering of the wicked, that would not lend itself to a universal state of peace and rest.
Fourth, the term hades (hell) is not used anywhere else in the New Testament as a place of eternal torment, but simply as the tomb or realm of the dead. Therefore a literal interpretation of the story would contradict what the Bible teaches elsewhere on that topic.
Fifth, a literal interpretation also contradicts the biblical teaching that rewards are given after the second coming of Christ, and not immediately after a person dies (Matt. 25:31, 32; Rev.22:12).
2. A Parable? It is likely that Jesus was not discussing the condition of the dead during the intermediate state, but simply telling a parable. This parable, like all parables, has one of several purposes. The text itself reveals two main purposes. The first one provides comfort to the oppressed followers of Christ: The time is coming when their fortune will be reversed; the wicked will be humiliated and the righteous will be exalted by God.
The second, and possibly the most important element in the parable, teaches that our decisions in this life become irrevocable after we die. There is no such thing as, a purgatory. We must listen to “Moses and the Prophets” while we are alive. Scripture is enough to enlighten us concerning God’s eternal purpose for us.
3. Why Did Jesus Choose This Parable? Jesus told this story as a vehicle to teach His hearers animportant lesson; it is merely an illustration.
But why would He use a story with such bad theology? In a sense, what He did here was similar to what He did with the parable of the unrighteous servant (Luke 16:1-10). There Jesus was not teaching that the dishonest administration of money is right; He was emphasizing the importance of placing our resources at the service of others and of God.
In the parable of the rich man, Jesus was retelling a story well known by His audience. The background of this parable was a folk story going back to Egyptian sources. In the Jewish version a contrast was made between the experience of a poor scholar and a rich publican. In a dream a friend of the poor scholar saw him enjoying heavenly bliss in a paradisiacal garden with streams of water, while the rich man was standing by a stream unable to drink from the water.
Jesus told this fictional story and dramatized it in order to make His discourse more relevant to His audience. His point: We only have this life to choose our eternal destiny.