People constantly point to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke as “proof” that Jesus taught the doctrine of Hell. But, that’s only because someone told them that this was what the parable was about. Anyone who actually reads the parable itself will notice that it’s not teaching about endless torment, and the point of the story isn’t about where anyone goes after they die at all. It’s actually about something much more practical.
As numerous historians and biblical scholars have noted time and again, this story of the Rich Man and Lazarus was an Egyptian
parable told, and often re-told, by many people around the time of Christ:
“A doctoral dissertation at the University of Amsterdam identified seven versions of the parable circulating in the first century…the fortunes of a rich man and a poor man are reversed in the afterlife. As often happens in the Bible, a preexisting story is adapted to present a [new] theological truth.” [from Jacoby, Douglas A., What’s the Truth about Heaven and Hell?, p. 38.]
And noted Biblical Scholar, N.T. Wright concurs: “The parable [of Lazarus and the Rich Man] is not, as often supposed, a description of the afterlife, warning people to be sure of their ultimate destination.” [from Christian Origins and the Question of God, Vol. 2, Jesus and
the Victory of God, p. 255]
So, because this parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man preexisted, it’s highly unlikely that Jesus re-told it in order to affirm the details of the afterlife found in the story. Rather, Jesus uses this parable to teach a very poignant lesson about the dangers of loving money rather than caring for people who are made in the image of God.
Note that in the very same chapter where Jesus re-tells this ancient parable, he starts by warning his disciples that they cannot serve both God and money, and this teaching offends the Pharisees “who loved money” (Luke 16:14). After this response, Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
So, the entire point of the story [and it is a story] is to shine a light on the Pharisees who “loved money” and to tell a parable against them to warn others not to be hard-hearted towards the poor.
The parable is NOT about the afterlife. It’s a pre-existing story used as a parable by numerous others prior to Jesus that Jesus recycled to teach us something about compassion for the poor.
As author Steve Gregg notes:
“Many Christians…believe that the traditional view of hell
[eternal suffering] is one of the very pillars of the Christian
faith, without which the death of Christ itself would be rendered meaningless.
“If this pillar is removed, or undermined,
the whole gospel message, they feel, becomes destabilized, and
in danger of collapse. Yet, when we delve into the scriptural
teaching about hell, what we will find most striking is the infrequency of its being mentioned in Scripture.
“Hell, conceived as
a place of future judgement, is not found in the Old Testament at all. This represents more than three-quarters of the Biblical
material, covering a period of four thousand years of Divine
revelation. What we find here is, essentially, silence.”
So, if the doctrine of Eternal Torment isn’t found in the Old Testament scriptures [and it’s not], and if this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus isn’t about the afterlife, then where did the idea of an eternal hell come from?
It all started in the Intertestamental Period—the period of time between the end of the Old Testament scriptures and the
coming of Christ. Plus, the originators of the concept of Hell were not Jewish, and they were certainly not the followers of
Jesus; they were pagans.
Specifically, the ideas of a paradise for the righteous separated by a gulf from the place of fire and torment where the unrighteous were
tormented in flames, are all concepts found in the Talmud. But, the writers of the Talmud took these ideas
from the Greeks and the Egyptians of their day, and these ideas were incorporated into other Jewish writings like 1 Enoch and the
teachings of various Jewish rabbis at the time during the 400 year gap of time between the end of the Old Testament scriptures and the coming of Christ.
What’s important to note here is this: these ideas were never revealed by God to the Jewish people through their own Old
Testament prophets. They are based on very common Greek notions of Hades and on pagan concepts of the afterlife, not on the teachings of the Old Testament scriptures, nor on the teachings of Jesus.
To me, it is very significant that the concept of Hell as taught by those who embrace eternal suffering is not found in the Old
Testament. Furthermore, it is very suspicious to me that the concepts incorporated into the doctrine came from non-biblical, pagan sources that had infiltrated the Hebrew faith just prior to the coming of Christ.