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Letters to a Traditionalist on Hell 04 – Lazarus and the Rich Man7 min read

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This post is part of a series.

As you may have read in the last article in this series, my traditionalist friend responded with one final scripture often used to support the traditional view of Eternal Conscious Torment (ECT):

I’m listening to Jesus in Luke 16, the rich man and Lazarus and that is not at all the idea he conveyed. I’ll continue to stand with historical Christianity here.

But what can we learn from this passage, and what is merely speculation? Here’s the entire passage from Luke 16:19-31:

 Now there was a rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, joyously living in splendor every day. And a poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. 

Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom.

And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’

But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ 

And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, that you send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—in order that he may warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’

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

But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’

1. We know this isn’t about the post-judgement state of mankind

Why? Because the rich man’s brothers are still alive here. So obviously, the most we can read into this story is that in the interim period between death and judgement, people may be tormented by fire.

Not often examined by Traditionalists is that the wicked are somehow tormented BEFORE the judgment in Hades (the underworld) for various periods of time based on when they died. Isn’t that unfair because it is disproportionate? Perhaps not if you have an infinity of torment ahead, but really, is that what Jesus is teaching here?

But let me re-emphasize – this story, if taken literally, is not about heaven and hell after judgment, but only the interim period. So at BEST, it does not address the final state of man.

2. This passage is considered by scholars to be a parable, not an actual state of reality.

While there are, of course, traditionalists who want this to be a literal story, there is mounting evidence that this was no more than a parable. Admittedly, it is different than the other parables used by Jesus in that he doesn’t call it a parable, and it uses specific names (Lazarus). In addition, the other parables use an earthly story to illustrate a spiritual one, while this story uses a metaphysical story as it’s example. Even Martin Luther thought this a parable:

Therefore we conclude that the bosom of Abraham signifies nothing else than the Word of God,…. the hell here mentioned cannot be the true hell that will begin on the day of judgment. For the corpse of the rich man is without doubt not in hell, but buried in the earth; it must however be a place where the soul can be and has no peace, and it cannot be corporeal. Therefore it seems to me, this hell is the conscience, which is without faith and without the Word of God, in which the soul is buried and held until the day of judgment, when they are cast down body and soul into the true and real hell. (Church Postil 1522-23)

But if we take this literally, this would also seem to indicate that those in hell or hades can talk to those in heaven – at least, during the interim period. In addition, they have some sort of bodies (pre-resurrection) by which they could actually lessen the suffering of another if they put their finger in a drop of water and put it on the suffer’s tongue. Is that a literal possibility, or merely part of the parable/allegory?

3. The Context – Warnings About Riches

This story appears in the context of Jesus speaking to the Pharisees, and after this parable:

  • The unjust rich man – Luke 16:1-15
  • The rich man and Lazarus – Luke 16:19-31

The parable view is this – Jesus is not really teaching about the life to come, but about the deceit of riches.

4.  Why then did he use the name Lazarus?

This is so plain as to be a face-palmer. The Pharisees knew of Jesus’ friend Lazarus, and how he was previously raised from the dead – and Jesus ends the parable with the phrase “even if one were raised from the dead.”


millstoneThis one passage is certainly one of the more shaky ones to base your faith in eternal torment on, and as I’ve attempted to demonstrate in the previous letters in this series, the other passages often quoted to support the traditional position on hell make much better sense, when using standard hermeneutics and common sense, to support the Conditionalist view of hell.

And I would like to repeat a warning – if the traditional position is wrong and people reject our gospel because of it, are we not in danger of causing people to stumble in hearing the gospel, and therefore worthy of our own condemnation?

If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. ~ Matthew 18:6

We better be honestly introspective about this instead of relying on someone else’s understanding or tradition. The Catholics thought they were right too. So did the Pharisees.