The Parable about Hell

Jesus tells a parable in Luke 16:19-31, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and I wish to offer some comments on that parable today. Here’s the parable:

Luke 16:19    “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

Luke 16:22    “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘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.’

Luke 16:25    “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And 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 16:27    “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

Luke 16:29    “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

Luke 16:30    “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

Luke 16:31    “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”

By way of commentary I want to bring in Richard Bauckham’s excellent article from 1991 (New Testament Studies 37 [1991] 225-246).

First, the parable has traditionally been used by many to describe the true nature of the afterlife because the parable is from Jesus — what he describes is here is because he knows what goes on there. Bauckham’s article suggests — argues — that this parable shares important folkloric motifs from Egypt, Rome, Greece and the Land of Israel. In other words, while there does not appear to be any direct parallel, or at least any parable from which Jesus borrowed, the motifs were common enough to have been familiar to Jesus and his hearers when he told the story. To the degree the motifs are folkloric they may not be descriptive of the actual nature of the afterlife.

Second, the major motifs of this parable are Reversal of life’s conditions, the attempt to gain information from someone who is dead about the afterlife, and the refusal to let that kind of revelation occur.

Third, and I think this is a major contribution by Bauckham, the parable does not explain the whys of the reversal. In other words, unlike other folkloric stories like this parable, there is no moralizing. The rich man  is not condemned for any reason; the poor man is not exalted for any reason — it is not that the rich man refused to help while the poor man was good and honest and a man of good deeds. For Bauckham it is that the conditions of this life — one marked by great inequity and inequality and therefore of indulgence and suffering — will be reversed. Justice will come  someday.

Finally, the parable contrasts with the arrangement of similar motifs in the other accounts in such a way that we see meaning in differences — it is surprising there is no communication from the realm of the dead since that happened in other stories. As such, the parable lays great weight on Jesus’ own judgment: injustice will be made right someday.

I would argue there is some moralizing: the rich man does not respond to the poor man’s begging. Jesus lays that man at the rich man’s feet and the rich man does not respond. Furthermore, the improper uses of riches are at work in the beginning of this cup, and even if one doesn’t want to say they were in the “historical” context of this parable, they are at work in the text of Luke and they are at work in the larger context of Jesus’ own ministry. So, Yes, injustice reversed but Jesus seems to lay blame on the rich for not responding to the poor.

The poverty and suffering of the poor are intolerable. Who’s to blame? For this cup, the rich. That seems to me to be a kind of moralizing and a kind of call to repentance, not unlike Zacchaeus.

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  • Greg D

    Scot – You gave one of my all time favorite lectures on this very parable a year or so ago at Gordon College. For almost my entire Christian life (20+ years) I, and many others have always thought this was a parable about the afterlife, namely Hell. Even today, I hear many pastors and preachers reference this passage to bolster their claim about ECT. But, you were able to succinctly persuade me that this parable has little to do with Hell, and everything to do with how we treat the poor. Thanks.

  • Rob Henderson

    Thanks for the great thoughts. I am impressed by the idea of the “reversal of life” that is portrayed here and the idea that justice will prevail in the afterlife.

    However, I have a couple of thoughts that I would like to weave a bit with yours.

    First, just because someone is wealthy does not make them evil or deserving of “hell” after they die or even not elected to public office. Like a lot of pastors, I know what “poor” means. In fact, I know what “poor-er” means growing up in a single parent home as a young child and supported by the welfare state. But at the same time I cannot judge my wealthier neighbors (or other pastors) because they have far more money than me or even wealthier churches who see the needs of poorer churches. I must leave these in God’s hands. The moral of this aspect is that God will be the true judge of who is “the rich man” and who is “Lazarus.”

    Second, I cannot discount this as a story that also reflects the afterlife. The detail is too well-drawn by Jesus to ignore. Of course, I am still working out the Biblical details of life hereafter but suffice to say, in my belief there is an eternal damnation- however that is supposed to look; not as many will be sent there as some of my more adamant colleagues might think; and not all dogs go to heaven.

    A final thought has to do with the idea of “rich.” George Bailey discovers at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life” that he is the richest man in town and is no failure when he finally sees the value of his life to others. We as Christians have a calling to bring that value of dignity to every person in our communities. How different Newtown and other places might be if certain realized their intrinsic value to God and humanity.

  • Thanks for this Scot, and thanks for pushing me to use the text for our sermon series on Hell. Because of the series I went at it more doctrinally than the parable is meant for:

  • Percival

    As for the supposed details of Hades here, do people really think that we go to sit in Abraham’s lap? (I believe that’s a more literal translation of the phrase.) Or do people really believe there will be discussions going on between those who are up and those who are down? Or, do people really think those under judgement really want a cup of H2O? It seems that people want to “take the description seriously” but not too seriously. It seems to be an exercise in missing the point.

  • scotmcknight


    Those are imaginative, rhetorically-compelling features of the story designed to ….? Does one have to think they are “real” to think they are meaningful? Of course not, so the question is, Meaningful of what?

  • I’ve always thought that since Jesus uses names here, and it’s not labeled by Luke as a parable, that this wasn’t a parable?

  • Craig (#6),

    Maybe Jesus gives the poor man a name because he wants his audience to realize that the poor have names and are human. It’s easy to ignore the poor when you don’t know any of them. It’s harder to do so with a clean conscience when you start to learn things about them.

  • Percival

    Jason Micheli,
    I assume that you put a link to your sermon so that we could all critique it. : )

    So, just to say that your description of Anihilationism (or Conditionalism) sounds more like a moderate version of everlasting conscious punishment. It is not about the soul being expelled from God’s presence for eternity; it is about permanent destruction of the soul.

  • Kevin Ford

    I don’t think you can treat this parable as a stand alone–it is a counterpoint to the parable of the shrewd steward earlier in the chapter. The shrewd steward uses his master’s money to buy friends; “Dives” in this parable uses “his” money to build a wall and gate to keep people out.


  • scotmcknight

    Percival, a careful reading sees the word “Poof” … no?

  • JustforQuix

    It’s worthwhile to remember this teaching is rooted in concepts of Sheol, not Greek/Roman Hades proper. What Christian tradition teaches that the post-death existence is one exactly like Sheol?

    Furthermore, I agree Jesus did moralize. While, yes, he did speak of the reversal of injustice, and a Kingdom ethics contrary to the World’s power ethics, he also challenged the notion that one could be received into Abraham’s bosom merely by one’s genetic heritage, for which Dives/Rich Man were he a Pharasaic Jew could have considered an expected after-life condition. Jesus challenged the Karmic-like notion that Lazarus’s poverty would be a manifest sign of God’s justice and judgement on a sinful soul and sinful parents and/or family heritage. Jesus connected that the fate of the soul is bound with our action or inaction, and also that this action should be motivated out of a belief and heart-alignment with the Law and the Prophets.

  • scotmcknight

    Kevin, I agree… but Bauckham was doing Jesus studies and not narrative/Lukan studies.

  • Percival

    Scot #5,
    I didn’t mean to suggest they weren’t meaningful parts of the story. If I were to give my best guess as to their meaning I would say:
    1) Abraham’s lap indicates a place of reception into the family and community of the faithful.
    2) The discussions back and forth are a rhetorical advice to flesh out the contrast between the situation of the two sides, and, as you pointed out that the choices which effect our destiny need to be made in this life. Without the discussion, the story falls flat.
    3) Thirst indicates that he is in desperate need of the most basic blessings that are necessary for life, and of course that he is in agony. Also, it is a reflection of how Lazarus must have felt plopped outside the rich man’s gate all day.

  • Percival

    Oops, didn’t notice the poof.

    However, many (most?) Conditionalists see a period of varying degrees of punishment before the poof.

  • Sherman Nobles

    I see in this parable that God will make things right and that God takes into account the suffering we’ve had to endure in this life in his judgment of us and coming comfort. Also, it’s interesting that Jesus later raised to life from the dead Lazarus, a rich man. And it is interesting that Abraham says that people would not believe though a person be raised from the dead; and yet, Christianity is founded upon the belief that Jesus rose from the dead, conquering death. And when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead so many people came to have faith in Jesus that the Pharisees looked to kill Lazarus. Possible morals of the story, God is just and just because a person is poor does not mean they are unrighteous.

  • It’s wrong to use this parable as a poof-text.

  • Jeff

    I like what Rob Bell said about this parable. Basically he said that the mention of the great gulf between them was not because it is impossible to get out of hell, but that it is a symbol of how the rich man has not learned his lesson (or most people in hell for that matter which C.S. Lewis suggests) by the fact that he asked Abraham to get Lazarus (good for only menial labor) to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue.

  • brian s

    Jesus’ parables/stories were not based on fables. They were rooted in reality. Real kinds of situations that were faced everyday that taught a spiritual lesson. Jesus uses sheep and goats in one parable because shepherds separated sheep and goats all the time. Sheol/Hell is a real place of suffering. It is where the unredeemed go when they die.

  • Percival

    John Shakespeare,
    I am so jealous that you thought of that and I didn’t!

  • Jeff (#17),

    I’m pretty sure Gregory of Nyssa said something similar. Maybe that’s where Bell got it?

  • Sherman Nobles

    Brian @18, actually, the separation of the “sheep and goats” would be better translated as the shepherd separating the “kids from the flock”. The emphasis of the metaphor and the passage was social maturity. Shepherds herd sheep and goats together. Goats take a significant amount more of training to herd than sheep do though because they are much more independent. Thus shepherds separate out kids from the flock to discipline/train/chastize/punish them individually so that they can function well in the herd. The emphasis of the passage is about social maturity. Socially mature people see and meet the needs of others, often unconsciously because they love others. Socially immature people, all they see are their own needs, often not even recognizing the needs of others, sometimes needs that are much more severe than their needs. The point of the passage was to encourage people to “grow up”, to not be so self-centered and give one’s life in meeting the needs of others.

    Both sheep and goats are valuable parts of the shepherd’s flock. In fact, recently I was viewing some of the art work in the Roman Catacombs and noticed that a few of the frescos of the Good Shepherd show him carrying a Goat, not a sheep! And understanding the nature of goats, it’s likely that the parable of the “lost sheep” would better be translated as the parable of the “lost goat”.

    Was the parable of the rich man and Lazarus based in reality or was it a fable? Scripture does not say, but if one takes the story of Jonah literally there is certainly a scriptural basis to see the parable of the rich man and Lazarus from a literal perspective too. In fact, the story of the rich man and Lazarus reminds me of many of the testimonies of people who have died and found themselves in torment, only to be saved, some even then taken to heaven, and raised to life. Anyone who finds themselves in such a state is greatful to be saved. I don’t see these as people going to “Hell/ECT” because, well, it is not “Endless” though they are conscious and in torment; they were saved from it. I think it is people coming into the full reality of what Paul calls “this present evil age” in which people are consumed by the flames of evil from within and without, separated from God, slaves of unrighteousness and death in the kingdom of darkness. For those physically alive though spiritually dead, their physical bodies mitigate for them the terrible reality of this present evil age, kinda like a fireman’s suit. It is from this present evil age that Jesus saves us, whether now or after the person dies and comes into the full spiritual reality of this present evil age.

    Also it’s interesting that Jonah, after rebelling against God’s will for his life, found himself in Sheol/Hades, his soul being afflicted, when he cried out to God. God heard him and raised him to life, giving him another chance to learn that God loves everyone, not just His “chosen” ones; He even loves the animals, all creation.

    Yes the gulf was uncrossable by man, but not by God. That’s Good News!

  • Brian (18):

    Percival’s comment (4) seems to be appropriate here: It seems that people want to “take the description seriously” but not too seriously.

  • I think one important thing to remember here, whether one interprets Jesus’ story as a parable or literal truth, is that the setting is Hades (or Sheol) not hell. Regardless of what this story teaches (or doesn’t) about Sheol, it does not even touch on hell.

  • ao

    Craig (#6),

    First, Luke doesn’t have to tell us it’s a parable for it to be a parable (i.e. the Good Samaritan).

    Second, just because a parable has actual names in it doesn’t it’s real. Bauckham references a parallel folkloric story in ancient Jewish literature:

    “Two godly men lived in Ashkelon. They ate together, drank together, and studied Torah together. One of them died and no one showed kindness to him—no one attended his funeral. Bar Ma’yan, a tax collector, died and the whole city stopped working to show kindness to him. A righteous observer began to complain, saying, ‘Man! There’s no punishment for these wicked people of Israel.’

    In a dream, the righteous observer saw a vision, and someone said to him, ‘Don’t despise the children of your Lord. One (i.e. the poor guy) had committed one sin and departed this life with it, and the other guy (i.e. the tax-collector) had committed one good deed and departed with it. What sin did the one commit? It’s hard to even call it a sin—one time he put his head-phylactery on before he put his hand-phylactery on. And what good deed did the other guy commit? It’s hard to even call it a good deed—one time he arranged a meal for the city’s financial board, but no one came. And he said, ‘I’ll give this food to the poor so that it’s not wasted.’ Others say that he once went through the marketplace, and he dropped a loaf of bread, and a poor man picked it up. And the guy didn’t say anything because he didn’t want to embarrass or shame the poor man.

    After some days the righteous observer saw in a dream that his friend was walking in Paradise under trees and by wells of water. And he saw the tax-collector, who was reaching out his tongue to drink at the brink of a river. He tried to reach the water but he could not.”

    (paraphrased, Babylonian Talmud-Sanhedrin)

  • Tim Atwater

    I think it is a parable (Craig 6, AO 24) but — one commentary i can’t remember which says if it is this is the only parable with a character who has a name — and both Luther and Wesley assumed it was Not a parable…
    Joel Green’s commentary notes the links not only with the parable of the smart steward that immediately precedes but also with the younger son of prodigality fame in 15…
    Abraham links abound in Luke Acts but i think the link w Mary’s magnificat with it’s reversals theme, previewing the whole gospel, is especially in play here.
    And though i hesitate to overlink w John, there does seem some affinity between the if they don’t believe Moses here they wont believe even…
    and the John 5 closing riffs on if you believed Mose you would believe me…

  • Johannes

    I wondered as I read the parable if there wasn’t a bit of a correlation in the ending to the parable of the wicked vinedressers. What I am getting at is that the rich/powerful of the day oppress the poor ignoring the law and prophets(John the baptist). The rich man believes if his brothers were only warned they would repent but Abraham tells him they have Moses and the prophets, the rich man declares that if a man were only to come back from the dead they would believe. But when Jesus Christ returns it is not the rich/powerful who are swayed in the book of Acts but the Lazarus bunch. I wonder if the early church couldn’t hear the irony in the rich man’s words, when they heard it read to them.

  • BradK

    These comments are probably from somewhere out in left field, but is it possible that Jesus is indirectly making a comment about the priesthood in this parable? Lazarus is a variation of Eliezer, which is a common priestly name. Aaron’s successor was named Eliezer. Jesus refers to the rich man as clothed in purple and fine linen, which is fairly similar to the description of the priestly garments in Exodus 39:27-29. In Luke, Jesus has just told the parable of the wicked steward, which seems to be aimed at the priesthood as well. Caiaphas was high priest at this time and had five brother-in-laws (who each eventually served as high priest at some point) like the rich man’s five brothers in the story. It may be a stretch, but Lazarus is said to lie outside the gate. Could this refer to the temple gate where poor people might go to beg for alms and be an indictment of the unwillingness of the priesthood/leadership to help them?

    Also, since Abraham is mentioned in the parable, could Lazarus be an indirect reference to Eliezer of Damascus, who was Abraham’s heir prior to the birth of Ishmael and Isaac? I.e. could Jesus/Luke be hinting at the priesthood having their legitimate rule removed from them due to their unrighteousness and unfaithfulness and given over to “outsiders”?

    All of this is speculation, but it seems pretty obvious that the point of the parable is not a description or theology of Hell. If that was its purpose, it seems that it should have much more detail.

  • Dave Z

    It seems to me that Jesus very specifically gives the point of the parable right at the end – even if a man rises from the dead, the Pharisees will not believe. Seems to me it’s a direct reference to Jesus’ own upcoming resurrection and well as it’s foreshadowing with Lazurus, but people get so caught up in a desire to know details about the afterlife that they focus on the flames and miss that main point.
    I think it HAS to be a parable because there are just too many theological problems with trying to take it literally. For instance, we have tongues and fingers in the disembodied intermediate state?