The Rich Man and LazarusOtis Sellers
The portion of Scripture which is examined and interpreted in this study is certainly not the most important passage in the Word of God. Nevertheless, it is apparent that many make Luke 16:19-31 to be the preeminent passage of all Scripture because of the great number of doctrines which they found upon it and which they establish by it.
When a passage is appealed to again and again in support of ideas that are held or are being declared, that passage automatically becomes one of great importance. And there is no single passage in the Bible that is appealed to in support of as many beliefs as the one that is now before us for consideration. The commonly accepted and popular belief that is held by the self-styled orthodox concerning man’s nature and destiny has entrenched itself within this story. From this supposedly impregnable fortress it calls upon all to drop arms and surrender if they dare to believe or teach contrary to the generally accepted views. For many centuries ideas have been read and preached into this passage so that now men are reading them back out as if they were actually there. Many preachers are no longer able to distinguish between their sermons on the rich man and Lazarus and the record written in the Word of God, even though they are poles apart.
Over a period of many years it has been my happy and fruitful labor to examine with microscopic exactitude every one of the 859 passages in the sacred Scriptures that give testimony concerning the soul. Careful analysis of every one of these passages has resulted in the inescapable conclusion that the Bible teaches that man is a soul-not that he has a soul as is generally believed. That man has a soul is the Platonic theory; that man is a soul is the Biblical testimony. Furthermore, these studies have demonstrated that there is no such thing in Scripture as an immortal soul or a never-dying soul. However, in seeking to present these findings to others I discover that with many the effort is useless, for they firmly believe that the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which does not even mention the word soul, stands in opposition to all that I have found to be true and try to teach.
Over the same period of time I have given much thought to the task of discovering all the truth that God has revealed concerning human destiny and future punishment. But all that I have found is considered by many to be of no value, and the labor expended is regarded as being wasted effort, for they feel that all we need to know about these subjects is presented in condensed form in the story of the rich man and Lazarus. This passage is their vade mecum, a passage which they allow to dominate and control the interpretation of the greater part of Scripture.
Out of a collection of literature that deals with this portion it can be seen that this passage is constantly appealed to prove that man has a soul, that the soul is immortal, that death is another form of life, that death is simply life in another place, that death is the continuation of life, and that at the moment of death a man is ushered into ineffable bliss or frightful woe. It is used to prove that punishment begins the moment a wicked man dies, that the punishment is by means of literal fire, and that the lost are tormented by fire eternally. It is used to describe the nature of punishment between death and resurrection, and is also used to show the nature of punishment after resurrection. It is supposed to show the punishment a man undergoes before he is judged, and it is also used to portray his punishment after he has had his day in God’s court. It is used to prove that the dead are not dead at all, but alive and fully conscious. In fact this passage is used to deny all that the Old Testament says about death.
This story has constantly been used to flay the rich and glorify the poor. It has been used by the clergy to keep the poor in subjection so that they will not desire the things enjoyed by the rich. By it men have proved that there is inherent evil in riches and great virtue in poverty.
This story is the basis of the idea that hades is the place of disembodied souls, and the theory of hades as a place of two compartments is founded entirely upon it. It is appealed to show that paradise is one compartment in hades, even though the word paradise is not found in it. It is used to prove that paradise and “Abraham’s bosom” are one and the same. In fact this passage is the basis of almost every idea held today concerning the intermediate state, that is, the state of men between the time of death and resurrection.
Many there are who insist that in this story we find the one place where our Lord drew aside the veil and permitted men to see the conditions that exist on the other side of death-that here we have a record of the condition, the experiences, and even the conversation of those who have died.
I repeat, there is no single passage in all the Word of God that is used to support as many different doctrines and ideas as the story of the rich man and Lazarus. And if all these various doctrines and ideas are taught here, then all must agree that without doubt this stands as the most important and far-reaching revelation of truth in the Bible. Indeed, then this should be the veritable vade mecum of the Christian, something that should be committed to memory so that it is always with him and never out of his thoughts. But, of course, if we accept this judgment as to the importance of this portion it will leave us in the quandary that the greatest revelation of truth in the Word of God was given by Christ to men who were unwilling to do His will, for this message was delivered to the covetous and mocking Pharisees. This fact alone should cause every lover of truth to be somewhat hesitant in accepting the confident assertion of many that in this story the Lord drew aside the veil and gave men a glimpse of the experiences of men on the other side of death.
As one whose life is devoted to understanding, believing, and teaching the Word of God, I can say in all sincerity that if the story of the rich man and Lazarus teaches all the things that have been set forth above, then I too want to be found believing and teaching them. If, as so many claim, this passage is to be understood literally and regarded as a narration of actual events, then I want to accept as facts every idea it sets forth. However, long and careful study of this passage has brought the conviction that these things are not taught in it, and that it is not a narration of actual events that had taken place.
There are many who use this passage as a buttress, using it only in support of what they believe. Yet if they actually went to it to find the truth, as they claim to do, they would find that if this is a narration of actual history, then it teaches many things which they would quickly reject. This story, if it is actual history, makes future blessings to depend upon present poverty, and not upon one’s relationship to God through Jesus Christ. And if a man should desire to teach that positions in the life to come will be just the reverse of those in this life, he could find ample support for it by appealing to verse twenty-five of this portion.
It is a simple matter for one to adopt a doctrinal position and then go to the Bible to find support for it. The last place to which men turn is to the Bible. And, if upon turning to it they find that it speaks contrary to what they think, they will turn to it again and again in the hope of finding something that can be used to sustain their opinions. This is the Balaam spirit in Bible study. They consult the Scriptures as Balaam consulted God. His own prejudices led him to try once more “what the Lord will say,” to see if he could not find something more in line with his preference in the matter. Those who are of this spirit cannot refrain from imposing their own conceptions upon the Word of God. They soon convince themselves that a passage contains certain things the are not even remotely intimated in it. In view of this it will be well at this point for us to read carefully and honestly the story of the rich man and Lazarus.
19 There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
(NOTE: The words “fared sumptuously every day” need to be more accurately translated to avoid the idea of feasting or banqueting which is not in the Greek. It has been better rendered as follows: “who every day lived in pleasure and luxury,” Fenton; “lived sumptuously every day,” Moffitt; “making merry day by day, brilliantly,” Rotherham; “living luxuriously and in a magnificent style every day,” Wuest. The word beggar in verse 20 should be “poor man”; the word “hell” in verse 23 should be “hades’; and “Son” in verse 25 should be “Child.”)
20 And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid a his gate, full of sores,
21 And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
23 And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 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.
25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivest thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted and thou art tormented.
26 And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
27 Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house:
28 For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
29 Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
30 And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
31 And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
God’s Word is a rock-indeed a precious stone that will stand any amount of scrutiny. It is a lamp unto our feet, and it is not extinguished by examination. It welcomes investigation It calls upon men to think upon it. If men will cease taking themselves so seriously and accept God’s statement that “we can do nothing against the truth, but for the truth” (2 Cor. 13:8), they will not be so fearful of the task of plunging into the study of the Word of God. It may be deep, but if need be, I prefer to drown in it rather than to be battered to death by the waves of human ignorance, error, superstition, and opinion. Those who meditate upon the Word of God day and night are called blessed.
Inasmuch as the story of the rich man and Lazarus is, by most Christians, allowed to negate the entire Old Testament revelation as to man’s destiny, this passage demands the most minute examination and prolonged meditation. It is dishonest to build upon this passage if this is not done. Many who permit this portion of God’s Word to dominate and control the interpretation of the remainder of Scripture seem at times to show an amazing unfamiliarity with just what is said in it.
All who honestly examine this passage will find that innumerable questions, problems, and difficulties arise as a result. These demand full consideration before we can rest assured that we have discovered the true interpretation of this portion of the Word of God.
In this story we have the written record of the spoken words of the Lord Jesus. There can be no doubt concerning this. The translation, with a few exceptions, is acceptable; therefore, if we use only the King James Version we can rest assured that we have before us what our Lord said.
Our task then is to discover what the Lord meant by the things He said, just what His purposes were in relating this story. These words express His thoughts on this occasion, and from them we must discover what He was thinking.
Most men feel that this is an exceedingly simple task, for they hold this story to be the simple, straight-forward, matter-of-fact history of actual events that took place before the birth of Jesus, and which He witnessed before His incarnation. They insist that this story is literal history, reported by the Lord for the purpose of revealing the conditions that exist beyond death.
Yet, those who take this position will never go through with it. They dare not follow their position out to all its conclusions and accept all its consequences. They will not carry their idea of “historic reality” into every detail. There is always a lapse into the figurative or assumptive. Their position breaks down when they face the actual reality of the poor man being carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom. They know not what to do with the statements which indicate that the rich man had eyes and a tongue and that Lazarus had a finger. They cannot fit these bodily parts in with their ideas of “disembodied spirits.”