Have you ever heard that God is incapable of reaching those who do not become believers before they die? It’s a cruel and destructive doctrine, and its so-called “proof” is a single verse in the parable known as Lazarus and the Rich Man. But like all of Scripture, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man falls within a particular context and needs to be understood in that context.
It is always bad business to base a doctrine on one verse alone, and especially on a verse in a story designed to make a different point altogether. Jesus told the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man for two reasons: 1) to expose and condemn the refusal of the leaders of Israel to believe in him, and 2) to reverse common assumptions about riches being a sign of God’s favor and poverty being proof of God’s disfavor.
The underlying revelation in this story is that, in fact, there is one who crosses chasms for the sake of sinners.
Lazarus and the Rich Man is the final parable of five that Jesus told in response to a group of Pharisees and scribes who, being lovers of money and self-importance, were disgruntled over the fact that Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them (Luke 15:1 and 16:14). First, Jesus told three parables, The Shepherd Who Rejoices Over Finding His Lost Sheep, The Woman Who Rejoices Over Finding Her Lost Coin, and The Father Who Rejoices Over Finding His Lost Son.
In telling these three parables, Jesus wanted the tax collectors and sinners, as well as the grumbling Pharisees and scribes who believed they had no need of repentance, to know that “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7). But there’s more.
Money vs. God
Jesus moves to the fourth story, the dishonest manager (Luke 16:1-14). Its point: If you love money, as the Pharisees did, you will not love God. Jesus then pointedly told the Pharisees, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (verse 15).
The Law and the Prophets stand as witnesses, Jesus told them, that the kingdom of God has arrived and that everyone is urgently piling into it (verses 16-17). His implied message: “Because you prize the things of men, not the things of God, you are rejecting God’s urgent summons to enter his kingdom, which can be done only through me.”
Then in verse 18, Jesus implied that the Jewish religious leaders have “divorced” themselves from the Law and the Prophets, which witness to him, and in so doing have rejected God. (Compare Jeremiah 3:6.)
Then, beginning in verse 19, in the context of the previous four parables, Jesus told the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
A tale of unbelief
There are three characters in the story. First is the rich man (representing the Pharisees who love money), then the miserable beggar Lazarus (representing a class of people despised by the Pharisees), and finally, Abraham (whose bosom or lap was a Jewish symbol of comfort and peace in the afterlife).
In the story, the beggar Lazarus dies. But Jesus surprises the listeners by saying that “the angels carried him to Abraham’s side” (verse 22). That was exactly the opposite of what the Pharisees expected would happen to a man like Lazarus. They believed that people like Lazarus were poor and diseased beggars because they were under God’s curse, and therefore they believed that such people go to be tormented in Hades when they die.
“Not so,” Jesus is telling them. “Your worldview is upside down. You know nothing of my Father’s kingdom. Not only are you wrong about how my Father feels about the beggar, but you are wrong about how my Father feels about you.”
Jesus completes the surprise by telling them that the rich man also died and was buried, but he, not the beggar, is the one who found himself being tormented in Hades. The rich man looked up and saw Abraham far off with none other than Lazarus by his side. He cried out, “Father Abraham, have pity 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 fire” (verses 23-24).
But Abraham had news for the rich man. He tells him in essence, “All your life you loved riches and had no time for the likes of Lazarus. But I do have time for the likes of Lazarus, and now he is with me, and you have nothing.” And then comes the verse that is so often torn out of context: “Besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us” (Luke 16:26).
Here and there
Have you ever wondered why anybody could possibly want to pass from “here to you”? It is obvious why someone might want to cross from “there to us,” but from “here to you” makes no sense. Or does it? Abraham began his words to the rich man by addressing him as “son,” then points out to him that not even those who might want to get to him are able to—because of the great chasm.
But the underlying revelation in this story is that, in fact, there is one who crosses chasms for the sake of sinners.
The Bridge across the chasm
God gave his Son for all sinners, not just for sinners like Lazarus, but for sinners like the rich man, too (John 3:16-17). But the rich man, a symbol of the Pharisees and the scribes who gathered to condemn Jesus, didn’t want the Son of God. The rich man wanted what he always wanted—his own comfort at the expense of others.
Jesus’ condemnation of the unbelief of the Pharisees in this story concludes with the rich man arguing that if someone would warn his brothers, they would not come into the place where he was. But Abraham points out, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them” (verse 29). Jesus had already told them (see verses 16-17) that the Law and Prophets are a testimony to him, a testimony they had rejected (compare John 5:45-47 and Luke 24:44-47).
“No, father Abraham” the rich man responded, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent” (Luke 16:30). Abraham responds, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (verse 31).
And they weren’t convinced; the Pharisees, scribes and chief priests who conspired to have Jesus crucified also conspired to have soldiers lie about his resurrection (Matthew 27:62-66), and proceeded to persecute and kill those who became believers.
Missing the point
Jesus did not tell this parable to paint us a portrait of heaven and hell. It is a parable of judgment against the unbelieving religious leadership of the time, and unkind, selfish rich people of all times. Jesus uses the common Jewish imagery of the afterlife (that of Hades for the wicked and “being with Abraham” for the righteous) as a literary backdrop to make the point. In this parable Jesus was not commenting on the validity or accuracy of Jewish imagery of the afterlife; he was simply using that imagery as scenery for his story.
Jesus’ focus was not to satisfy our itching curiosities about what heaven and hell are like. His priority is to let us in on God’s secrets (Romans 16:25; Ephesians 1:9, etc.), the mystery of the ages (Ephesians 3:4-5)—that in him, Jesus Christ, the Son of God incarnate, God has always been reconciling the world to himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).
Our preoccupation with the details of the afterlife can only lead us away from the very point missed by the rich man in the story: Believe in the One who came back from the dead.
J. Michael Feazell, 2011