The Rich Man and Lazarus

The Rich Man and Lazarus May 12, 2021

The Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus is a go-to passage infernalists use to argue for eternal conscious torment. This is unfortunate, though I will admit that a prima facie glance at the story from Luke does seem to suggest that there is a hell with a “great chasm” that can’t be bridged. However, I don’t think that is what is really going on here.

We have to dig much deeper.

As we will discuss on an upcoming episode of the Heretic Happy Hour, while the setting of this parable is the afterlife, it’s not about the afterlife. N.T. Wright agrees with me in Jesus and the Victory of God where he writes, “The parable is not, as often supposed, a description of the afterlife, warning people to be sure of their ultimate destination.” Instead, because of the nature of parables, it’s a story with shock value that is supposed to get us to think about our actions. It’s not about “what happens when we die,” but about how we should think of wealth and inequality. Let me rephrase: It’s about how we should RE-think these things.

Here’s a few points to consider.

First off, notice that the rich man doesn’t have a name. He is anonymous. This runs counter to what typically happens in society. Rich folks aren’t anonymous. Everyone knows who they are. The anonymous ones in society are the unhoused, the poor, the widowed, the drug addicts, the imprisoned, and so on. But in this story, that guy has a name. He isn’t anonymous. And further, he is known by another who is also named – Abraham, the father of the entire faith from which this story comes!!!

Second, pay attention to what Abraham tells the rich man toward the end of the parable. After the rich man asks for permission to have his five brothers warned about his plight, Abraham is like, “Nah, they should know better because treating the poor with compassion is what our entire faith is about.” To my mind, this is a beautiful response. The Jewish Scriptures, while getting a bad rap by Christians who don’t understand them, all point toward loving one’s neighbor. Yes, sometimes they take the long route home, but they get there eventually. As Jesus rightly noticed, the entirety of the law and prophets hangs on two things: Love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-40).

Lastly, when this parable is taught, most Jews didn’t believe in hell as eternal torment. That’s not the context of any of Jesus’ teachings on Gehenna (the Greek word most of our English Bibles translate as “hell”). Sure, some Jews believed in an afterlife, but no one suffered in Gehenna for time everlasting. In fact, according to rabbinic writings, the maximum sentence a wicked person could received was 12 months (see Mishnah Eduyot 2:10 and Shabbat 33b). And while some speculated as to what happened AFTER their sentence in Gehenna (were they annihilated altogether, damned for all eternity, or something else entirely?), it’s not really something that’s on their minds like it is for modern Christians.

But let’s play make believe for a second here: even if this is a teaching about what happens to people when they die, what we can’t help but notice is that it’s the rich who suffer in hell – the rich who fail to help the poor, to be exact. Like the Parable of the Sheep and Goats, it’s not about failing to accept Jesus as Lord, or failing to say the magic prayer; it’s about how you treat the downtrodden. That’s the deciding factor. Nothing more.

I know many Christians don’t want to hear this. Their entire soteriology is based upon accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, but the teachings they use to justify eternal torment rarely (if ever) line up with their theology. Protestants especially. They will say that it is by grace alone through faith alone, and then will point to the Sheep and the Goats or the Rich man and Lazarus as proof, apparently not noticing what the deciding criteria are in either story. In other words, it seems they inadvertently argue for a works-based salvation, all the while adamantly rejecting such a view.

Consider me flummoxed.

At the end of the day, though, what we can be certain of is this: treat the poor with great respect. That’s the crux of the Jewish faith and if you’re going to claim to follow Jesus, it’s also the crux of the Christian one. There are really no two ways about it.


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About Matthew John Distefano
Matthew is a best-selling author, blogger, podcaster, long-time social worker, and hip-hop artist. He is an outspoken advocate for nonviolence, happily married, with one daughter. Outside of writing, his interests include gardening, hiking, and European football. He lives in Northern California You can read more about the author here.

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