THE RICH MAN AND LAZARUS

LITERAL OR FIGURATIVE?

     What is death?     Where are the dead?     What assurance does God give concerning the future of the dead?     What did Jesus Christ mean when He said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life”?

     The sincere and careful student seeking to ascertain the truth revealed in the Scriptures concerning death will be troubled when he finds that the Scriptures seem to contradict themselves on this important subject.   For example there are many passages which teach: that the dead are asleep in their graves, that there is no consciousness during death, that God’s way of ending death is by means of resurrection.

     On the other hand there are a few passages which seem to teach that the dead are alive and conscious prior to their resurrection.   The strongest passage which can be found in the Bible to support this idea is in Luke Chapter 16 which contains the account of Rich Man and Lazarus in Hades.

     The question which has to be settle in the mind of every believer is this: Did the Lord Jesus use figurative language when He described the condition of the Rich Man and Lazarus after they died, or did He speak the literal truth?   When He said that Lazarus was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom, was He speaking literally or figuratively?

     There are at least seven strong reasons for believing that what our Lord said about the state of the Rich Man and Lazarus after their deaths was meant to be taken figuratively and not literally.

     (1).   That the Rich Man and Lazarus actually lived on earth need not be questioned.   However it should be remembered that the Lord Jesus distinctly states that they both died.   Once this simple fact is recognized it becomes impossible to believe that they could be both physically dead and physically alive at the same time.   Yet even while they are dead they are represented as being alive in bodies.   The tongue and eyes of the Rich Man and the tip of the finger of Lazarus are mentioned.

     The fact that the Lord distinctly states that both the Rich Man and Lazarus died, then immediately represents them as being physically alive, proves that what He says concerning them in Hades is meant to be taken figuratively and not literally.

     (2). In Luke 16 the Lord Jesus represents Abraham as being alive in Hades.   In Luke 20:27-40 the Lord makes it plain to the Sadducees, who did not believe in resurrection, that Abraham is dead, and that God is not the God of the dead.   He makes it clear that before God can again be the God of Abraham, he must raise Abraham from the dead.   The fact that Abraham is actually dead awaiting resurrection proves that the Lord’s reference to him as being alive prior to resurrection is meant to be taken figuratively and not literally.

     (3). From Genesis to Revelation the Scriptures teach that the dead are asleep until resurrection.   Those who limit this sleep to the body do so in direct contradiction to the statements of Scriptures which make it clear that the sleep of death is of the person, not just of the body.   In Luke 16 the Rich Man and Lazarus are represented as being awake in bodies immediately after it is made clear that they have died.   The fact that the dead are asleep until resurrection proves that when the Lord refers to the Rich Man and Lazarus as being awake prior to resurrection, He is speaking figuratively and not literally.

     (4). In the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus the Lord upholds the authority and the reliability of the writings of Moses and the Prophets.   In these writings it is made clear that the dead are dead and that they must be resurrected before they can life again.   Moses and the Prophets teach that death is said to be of the person, not just of the body.   Many times in the Old Testament the expression occurs “he died” or “she died” or “they died.”   Often the name of a person is given followed by the statement that he died.   For example, Abraham died, Isaac died, Joseph died, David died (Gen.25:8; 35:29; 50:26; Acts 2:29).

     If the words of the Lord Jesus concerning the condition of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Hades are taken literally, everything that was revealed to Moses and the Prophets concerning the state of the dead must be discarded as unreliable.   To do so is to deny the Divine inspiration of the Scriptures.   If the words of the Lord concerning the state of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Hades are taken figuratively, then there is harmony and agreement throughout the Scriptures on this important subject.

     (5). To make the words of the Lord Jesus concerning the Rich Man and Lazarus in Hades literal is to make Him contradict all that God had previously revealed about the state of the dead in Sheol or Hades.

     Sheol of the Old Testament and Hades of the New Testament are identical in meaning.   This is proven by the fact that when an Old Testament passage which speaks of Sheol is quoted in the New Testament, the Greek word Hades is used to represent the Hebrew word Sheol.   This may be verified by comparing the Revised Version of Acts 2:25-28 with Psalm 16:8-11.

     Concerning Sheol and death the Scriptures declare: “For Sheol cannot praise Thee, death cannot celebrate Thee.   They that go down into the pit cannot hope for Thy truth” (Isa.38:18).

     By inspiration of God the Prophet David wrote: “For in death there is no remembrance of Thee: In Sheol who shall give Thee thanks?” (Psa.6:5).

     In the upright words of truth we are told: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in Sheol, whither thou goest” (Ecclesiastes 9:10; 12:10).

     In addition to all this the dead are said to be SILENT in Sheol.   "Let the wicked . . . be silent in Sheol" (Psa. 31:17 R.V.). "The dead praise not Jehovah, neither any that go down into silence" (Psa.115:17 R.V.).   In Luke 16 Abraham and the Rich Man are represented as carrying on a conversation loud enough to be heard though they were separated by a great distance.

     The literal truth concerning Sheol having been clearly made known, it was perfectly proper for the Lord to refer to Sheol of Hades in a figurative manner.   This He did beyond a shadow of doubt.

     Elsewhere our Lord Himself taught that the dead do not live until resurrection (Rev.20:4-6).   The Rich man of Luke 16 is included among those of whom the risen Son of God declares “the rest of the dead do not live until the thousand years should be finished.”   Then in order that they may be judged they are raised from the dead (Rev.20:11-15).

     (6). In Luke 16, after making it clear that the Rich Man and Lazarus have both died, the Lord immediately represents them as being alive and possessing bodies.   To take this literally is to deny the need for resurrection.

     The teaching of the New Testament does not differ from the teaching of the Old Testament concerning the state of the dead and the absolute necessity for resurrection.   Long after His own resurrection the Lord made it clear, through the Apostle Paul, that apart from resurrection there can be no life after death for anyone.   In 1 Corinthians 15:12-19 the resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the dead are inseparably tied together.   If Christ has not been raised the rest of the dead will not be raised, and if there is no resurrection “then they also that are fallen asleep in Christ have perished.”

     (7). The last reason we want to call attention to for believing that what our Lord says concerning the Rich Man and Lazarus in Hades is figurative is found in Matthew 13:34.   “All these things spoke Jesus in parables unto the multitudes; and without a parable spoke He nothing unto them.”   If our Lord did not speak to the multitudes except in parables, then surely His words concerning the Rich Man and Lazarus in Hades must be figurative.

     The question arises, if our Lord’s words in this instance are to be taken figuratively, then what literal truth is the Lord teaching?   Two obvious things stand out.   First, that the rich will be requited for their neglect and oppression of the poor, and the poor will be consoled.   Second, that if men will not heed the words of God given through Moses and the Prophets, neither would they be persuaded by the words of one who came back from the traditional and unscriptural kind of death in which many believe.

– Joseph E. Kirk
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