Is “The Rich Man and Lazarus” a Parable?

I am now at what I consider to be the critical point in my discussion of A. J. Pollock’s defense of the traditional doctrine of eternal conscious torment (see HADES and Eternal Punishment ). At the bottom of page 12 he finally brings up the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (see Luke 16:19-31) which, as far as I can tell, is the cornerstone of the teaching that all unbelievers suffer in hell for eternity. Because parables are interpreted differently than narratives it makes a huge difference whether or not the Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable.

I consider Arnold Fruchtenbaum’s study “The Life of Messiah from a Jewish Perspective” to quite possibly be the best Bible study I have ever listened to. In fact it has now become my personal tradition to listen to it every year in the month leading up to Christmas. I always notice when Dr. Fruchtenbaum comes to the section on the Rich Man and Lazarus that he stresses that this is an actual event and not a parable. Until I stumbled upon the debate about eternal conscious torment /annihilationism I didn’t understand why that point is so important. If the Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable it seriously weakens the case for eternal conscious torment.

The major turning point in Christ’s earthly ministry occurred in Matthew 12 when Israel’s leadership, and the majority of the people, rejected him as the Messiah. Immediately following the rejection Jesus said the following:

The Parable of the Sower

On that day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea. Such large crowds gathered around Him that He got into a boat and sat down, while the whole crowd stood on the shore.

Then He told them many things in parables, saying: “Consider the sower who went out to sow. As he was sowing, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on rocky ground, where there wasn’t much soil, and they sprang up quickly since the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up they were scorched, and since they had no root, they withered. Others fell among thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them. Still others fell on good ground and produced a crop: some 100, some 60, and some 30 times what was sown. Anyone who has ears should listen!”

Why Jesus Used Parables

10 Then the disciples came up and asked Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?”

11 He answered them, “Because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know, but it has not been given to them. 12 For whoever has, more will be given to him, and he will have more than enough. But whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. 13 For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see, and hearing they do not listen or understand. 14 Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:

You will listen and listen,
yet never understand;
and you will look and look,
yet never perceive.
15 For this people’s heart has grown callous;
their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
otherwise they might see with their eyes
and hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn back—
and I would cure them.

Matthew 13:1-15

Jesus began speaking in parables so the crowds could not understand what he was saying. It was an intentional shift in his teaching to keep truth from those who had rejected him. He was following his own teaching of not casting pearls before swine. From that time forward he never spoke to the crowds openly in a manner they could fully understand.

Just prior to Jesus teaching of the Rich Man and Lazarus he told four other parables:

  1. The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:1-7)
  2. The Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10)
  3. The Parable of the Lost/Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-31)
  4. The Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Luke 16:1-13)

No one I am aware of argues that these are not parables. Then the “Rich Man and Lazarus” follows with no warning that Jesus had stopped speaking in parables. To switch to a mode of plain speaking would have been a major change in policy for the Lord and I believe he would have told us what he was doing. The fact that He did not do so leads me to believe that this is indeed a parable.

Now I will finish with a complete recitation of the “Rich Man and Lazarus” followed by A. J. Pollock’s first discourse on this passage.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

19 “There was a rich man who would dress in purple and fine linen, feasting lavishly every day. 20 But a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, was left at his gate. 21 He longed to be filled with what fell from the rich man’s table, but instead the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 One day the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 And being in torment in Hades, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off, with Lazarus at his side. 24 ‘Father Abraham!’ he called out, ‘Have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this flame!’

25 “‘Son,’Abraham said, ‘remember that during your life you received your good things, just as Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here, while you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those who want to pass over from here to you cannot; neither can those from there cross over to us.’

27 “‘Father,’ he said, ‘then I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 because I have five brothers—to warn them, so they won’t also come to this place of torment.’

29 “But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said. ‘But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “But he told him, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”

Luke 16:19-31

Of course I will have a lot more to say on about this parable in following posts. There are several statements made by Mr. Pollock that I haven’t addressed yet but I plan on doing so in the near future. Now here is Mr. Pollock’s take on the passage:

But the Lord likewise throws light upon the state of lost souls in hades. Most vividly does He contrast the state of the blessed with that of the lost.

“The beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell [hades] he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off and Lazarus in his bosom. And 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” (Luke 16:22-24).

The Lord framed His discourse in a Jewish setting, suitable to His hearers – hence the symbolism – “Abraham’s bosom.” But the companionship of Abraham and the bliss of his condition were not symbolical. And just as plainly as Scripture tells us hades is for the believer a condition of BLISS, so does the Lord tell us that hades is for the unbeliever a condition of TORMENT. Can we believe the one statement and refuse the other? Surely not! How infinitely kind, because infinitely solemn, so that His hearers might escape such a doom, were the warnings the Lord gave when on earth.

The objector may say if the eyes and tongue are symbolical so must the torments and the flame be symbolical. We do not dogmatise on the point, but we would like to point out that the objection does not lessen the gravity of the situation one whit. For if physical torments are symbolical, we earnestly ask, ‘Of what are they symbolical?’ There is no answer but one. Physical torments, if symbolical, must be symbolical of spiritual torments. Torments affecting the body, if symbolical, must be symbolical of torments affecting the soul. Be that as it may, we do not dogmatise; the contention that the language is symbolical does not in the very least lessen or affect in the very slightest degree the seriousness of the warning for if the language be symbolic, the symbolism is chosen by none less a person than the Son of God, and He intended it to convey an adequate impression.

Is the symbolism terrible? The truth intended to be taught is terrible. Is the symbolism terrible? The warning is terrible. We implore you, reader, not to allow human reason or sentiment to take off the keen edge of the truth.

HADES and Eternal Punishment
A J Pollock

pp. 12-13

[Click on this link to see the next installment in this series: Why Does it Matter if the Rich Man and Lazarus is a Parable?]

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