Rich man and Lazarus
It has been generally argued by Christadelphians that Jesus,
in Luke 16:19-31, is deliberately using false ideas in a sort of parody. Truth
be told, we are often reluctant -- when preaching to others -- to be drawn into
a discussion of the "rich man and Lazarus." Our reluctance testifies to the
difficulties inherent in this approach, and maybe also a little discomfort at
the thought of such a large portion of the words of Jesus being --
fundamentally, even if ironically or sarcastically -- erroneous!
In the absence of any more reasonable explanation, this
approach would have to do. But perhaps there is a "better way" to read the
Watch the punctuation
First of all, some background. The Greek language has a system
of punctuation marks somewhat similar to ours. Originally, this was not so;
there was no punctuation, and moreover, the writing was not separated into
words. ("The oldest Greek manuscripts had no chapter and verse divisions, no
punctuation marks and hence no separation into sentences, and not even any
separation between words. All they have are line after line, column after
column, page after page, through a whole book of the New Testament": Earle,
"NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation"). Punctuation marks were first
introduced in the days of Jerome (c. 400 AD), who translated the Bible into
The best-known example of such "repunctuation," at least to
Christadelphians, is Luke 23:43, which the KJV translates: "Verily I say unto
thee, Today thou shalt be with me in paradise," but a much more appropriate
translation might be "I say to you today (or even, 'Today I say unto you'), you
shall be with me in paradise."
But other instances may be found. For example, the KJV
translates Luke 16:22,23 as: "The rich man also died and was buried. And in hell
he..." But William Tyndale (1525) translated this as: "The rich man died and was
buried in hades." Likewise, even the Douay (Roman Catholic) version (1582)
reads: "The rich man died also, and was buried in hell."
The Greek also has a "kai" ("and") between "buried" and "in
Hades." So perhaps the most literal translation would be: "The rich man died and
was buried, EVEN in Hades" (the "kai" used for emphasis, and here translated
"even"). Or, alternatively, "The rich man died and was buried AND was in Hades"
-- i.e., "he died and remained in Hades" -- until -- when? The resurrection, of
The repositioning of this one period (English "full stop")
changes, at a single stroke, the whole tenor of the parable. Now it is no longer
Jesus' (ironic, but also false) description of what happens immediately after
death. Rather, it is his description -- in a perfectly Biblical fashion -- of
what will happen some considerable time after death and burial, when he returns
to raise, judge, and either reward or punish all the responsible.
A couple of other points may clarify this:
V 22: "The time came when the beggar died and the angels
carried him to Abraham's side (or 'Abraham's bosom')." "Abraham's bosom" is
supposedly a specific place in the underworld of Jewish mythology, where
immediately after death the "immortal souls" (!) of the righteous are joined
together with those of Abraham and all the faithful fathers.
We know already that Jesus did not believe this. The question
is: did he speak in a parable as though he did?
Consider an alternative: (1) First, the phrase could mean:
"the beggar died, and (in the resurrection) the angels carried him to Abraham's
bosom." (2) Second, to lie in another's bosom is to occupy a special place of
favor at a meal, something like a "guest of honor" -- as John did with Jesus in
the upper room (John 13:23). There are, in this same section of Luke, several
references to eating meals (cp. Luke 13:28-30; 14:7-24; 15:16,17,23,28), so the
idea of Lazarus reclining at a meal with Abraham is perfectly suitable to the
Lazarus enjoying a meal with Abraham provides a striking
contrast: in his previous life, he was denied even the crumbs that might fall
from the rich man's table (Luke 16: 20), but now (ie, after the resurrection?!)
he sits down to a sumptuous banquet (cp Luke 13:29! In fact, the whole of Luke
13:24-30 is remarkably parallel to Luke 16:19-31, seen in a "repunctuated"
light: proud Jews cast out of the kingdom, with weeping and gnashing of teeth,
while Gentiles and "sinners" are welcomed in.)
Likewise, being previously denied access to the "table,"
Lazarus had been treated as a "Gentile," an unclean "dog" (cp Mat 15:27). His
closest companions were other "dogs," who licked his sores (Luke 16:21). These
sores were not bound up, as were the wounds of the man who fell among thieves
(Luke 10:34). But later (v 22 here) they will be!
V 23: "In hell (Hades) -- (the preceding goes with v 22; a new
sentence begins here) -- When he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham
far away, with Lazarus in his bosom." Very significantly, the "hell" here is
Hades, not Gehenna. Hades (literally, "the unseen place") is equivalent to the
Hebrew sheol, the grave! Throughout the New Testament it is invariably Gehenna
that is associated with the fire of eternal destruction at the last day (Mat
5:2,29,30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15,33; Mark 9:43,45,47; Luke 12:5; Jam 3:6).
Conversely, Hades -- if we set aside Luke 16:23 for the moment -- is never
associated with burning and destruction, but always with the grave (Mat 11:23;
16:18; Luke 10:15; Acts 2:27,31; 1Co 15:55; Rev 1:18; 6:8; 20:13,14)!
Therefore, to separate Hades/grave from torment/Gehenna, as is
done by the insertion of a period (and an implied passage of time between death
and resurrection), is to give both Hades and Gehenna their proper meanings as in
other New Testament usage. First comes the grave, and only after a resurrection
and judgment is there (the possibility of) the judgment of Gehenna!
"Torment" is the Greek "basanos". It is a word the meaning of
which seems to have developed, or evolved, over time: (a) first of all, it was
the black rock an assayer would use to test whether gold or silver coins were
real or forgeries (he did this by rubbing the coin against the stone, and then
checking the color); (b) second, by implication, it came to mean checking any
calculation in a financial transaction; and from thence to (c) any type of
testing; and finally (d) testing by means of torture. With basanos and related
words the general concept would seem to be that of judgment, with perhaps the
accompaniment of pain.
Here the "torment" of the rich man would be the self-inflicted
bitterness and recrimination of knowing that it is too late to set right one's
past life, and the witnessing (for some brief time after resurrection and
judgment) of the beginnings of God's glorious kingdom, knowing that one will be
Also, the "looked up" of v 23 is, literally, to lift up one's
eyes. Especially, with reference to Abraham, it suggests one's eyes surveying
the land of promise, with a view to the kingdom (Gen 13:14; Deu 3:27).
A suggested summary
With all the above in mind, and with the suggested
punctuation, the parable might now be summarized thusly:
"There was a rich, finely-robed, well-fed man -- who ignored
the needs of the poor, especially a beggar named Lazarus. But after the beggar
died (and was resurrected!), the angels carried him to Abraham's bosom. The rich
man also died and was buried in the grave. Then, later (after his own
resurrection!) he was in torment, as he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with
Lazarus by his side, reclining in his bosom.
"So the rich man called to 'Father Abraham,' begging for
mercy. But Abraham reminded him that in his previous life he received good
things, while Lazarus received only bad things, and now their fortunes were
reversed. And now also, their lives being ended, it was too late to make
"(Returning from this vision of the future, back to the
present...) Seeing now that such is the fate of all who live their lives in ease
and disregard for the mercies of God, the rich man begs that his family be
warned. 'Cannot someone return from the dead to bring them to repentance?' But
Abraham replies that even the resurrection of the dead (even, we might suppose,
the resurrection of the Son of God!) will not be sufficient!"
The conclusion: While Jesus may well be referring in passing
to the (erroneous) doctrine of "Abraham's Bosom," his own direct teaching in the
parable may now be seen to be perfectly in harmony with the truth of the gospel.
It is as if Jesus were saying:
"Yes, there is a place known as 'Abraham's bosom,' but it will
be the table (the 'Marriage supper of the Lamb') in the resurrection and the
kingdom of God, and you Pharisees and Sadducees, unless you repent, will have no
part in it."
And, "Yes, there will be fiery torment for the wicked after
death, but it will not be in a shadowy underworld. Instead, it will be the
weeping and gnashing of teeth involved in seeing others --especially those whom
they held to be unclean and sinners -- enter into the resurrectional kingdom,
while they themselves are thrust out! And then, ultimately, it will be the fire
of eternal destruction -- the 'second death.' "