Few parables of Jesus have fostered more theological debate through the centuries than the parable of the rich man (often referred to as Dives, the Latin word for 'rich') and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The theological debate is mainly about what this parable teaches about the fate of the wicked. There are basically four views, and they are about as different as can be.
The first view, which might be called the traditional one, holds that this parable provides a literal depiction of the fate of the wicked: what befalls Dives in the parable is very much like what awaits those who behave like him. The second view holds that the parable was intended to teach what the fate of the wicked is not like (by parodying the view held by some of Jesus' Jewish contemporaries). The third view holds that the parable was not intended to teach anything about the fate of the wicked. The fourth view holds that this parable does teach something about the fate of the wicked, but the details of the parable cannot be pressed as a literal description of that fate.
The first view has little credence among scholars today. Snodgrass remarks that "in most scholarly treatments we find the caution that the parable is not intended to give a description of life after death."1 In his commentary on the parables of Jesus, Hultgren agrees that revealing the conditions of the afterlife is not the purpose of the parable.2 Even Yarbrough, a proponent of the traditionalist view of hell, cautions that "It is widely accepted that this story is parabolic and not intended to furnish a detailed geography of hell."3
As to the second view, it has been defended by the lay Christadelphian writer Thomas Williams, who concluded that "Jesus told the jealous, self-exultant Pharisees the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to confound them using their own false doctrines concerning the afterlife."4 More recently, Papaioannou proposed in scholarly fashion that the parable's description of Hades contained absurdities and theological discrepancies designed to undermine the credibility of contemporary Jewish beliefs about the afterlife.5
In Jeremias' commentary on the parables, he identified four "double-edged parables" (including the Rich Man and Lazarus) and argued that in each case the emphasis falls on the second half.6 Hultgren further notes that the emphasis naturally lies at the end of a parable.7 In this case, the second half (and the end) is Dives' request that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers, and Abraham's reply. This part of the parable is about the sufficiency of Scripture and the futility of a resurrected messenger trying to convert Dives' brothers; it is scarcely about the afterlife at all. If the parable's main message is not about the afterlife, then both the first and second views would seem to be excluded, since both of these views suggest that the parable was intended primarily to teach about the afterlife (whether positively or negatively).
Papaioannou acknowledges that the parable's main thrust is at the end. However, he argues that the first part of the parable had an element of surprise that would "arrest the attention to the second part of the parable where the main message of the parable is delivered."5 This is unconvincing since a surprise unrelated to the main message - indeed one that reduced the story to absurdity - would be more likely to distract than to focus the audience's attention on the serious message at the end of the parable.
A number of scholars have defended the third view. Fudge, a leading Evangelical proponent of conditionalism (sometimes known as annihilationism), states that this parable "likely was not intended to teach anything" on the subject of hell torments.8 Wright (not N.T.) concludes that "In this parable Jesus no more provides information about the intermediate state than, in other parables, does he provide instruction on correct agricultural practices or investing tips."9
Two main arguments have been made in defense of the third view. Firstly, as Bauckham showed in his extensive discussion of extra-biblical parallels, this parable draws on two narrative motifs familiar at this time in history: (1) a reversal of fortunes experienced by a rich man and a poor man after death; and (2) a dead person's return from the dead with a message for the living.10 Wright argues, like Papaioannou, that Jesus deliberately subverts these motifs.9 The denial of Dives' request that Lazarus be sent to his brothers seems an obvious subversion of the second motif, but it is not clear that the first part of the parable subverts the reversal of fortunes motif. Papaioannou points to 'absurdities' in the description of Hades, such as the idea that a tongue engulfed in Hadean flames could be soothed with a drop of water carried on a fingertip.11 Yet this is better explained as hyperbole than as an attempt to render the story absurd.
Other 'absurdities' Papaioannou sees in the story, such as the use of a term for mental anguish (odunaō) for what should be physical pain, are exaggerated.
The theological discrepancies in the story (noted by Papaioannou12 as well as Fudge13) include the location of the abode of the righteous within earshot of the abode of the wicked, and the setting of the story in Hades, which in the New Testament is usually a temporary place of confinement until the resurrection.14 This implies that Dives undergoes fiery torment immediately after his death, whereas elsewhere Jesus teaches that the fiery punishment of the wicked occurs after the final judgment, in Gehenna (e.g. Matthew 13:42; 18:8-9; 25:41).
Both of these 'discrepancies' can be explained as adaptations necessary for Jesus' didactic purposes. Situating the two abodes within earshot allows for the dialogue between Dives and Abraham (with Lazarus), while situating the story in the intermediate state allows for Dives' attempted intercession on his brothers' behalf while they are still alive.
Thus there is nothing in the parable's depiction of Hades that suggests Jesus intended to subvert contemporary ideas either about the reversal of fortunes motif in particular or eschatological punishment in general. Indeed, Jesus' teachings elsewhere in this Gospel are consistent with the reversal of fortunes motif (e.g. Luke 6:20-26; 13:28-30; 14:8-14). Moreover, his teachings about eschatological punishment contain both fire imagery (see passages cited above) and the idea of duration (Matthew 18:34 and probably Luke 12:59). Lehtipuu states that Jesus' "description of the otherworldly conditions is believable according to the parameters of his cultural world."15
The second argument in favour of the third view is that, as was mentioned above, the main thrust of this parable is at the end, in Abraham's response to Dives' request that Lazarus be sent to warn his brothers. Since this part of the parable is not about the afterlife, it is contended that the parable does not teach about the afterlife. However, just because the primary emphasis is on the closing section (vv. 27-31) does not mean that the earlier part of the parable was not intended to teach anything.
Because the parable in Luke 15:11-32 is another "double-edged parable" and closes with the elder son's resentment, some scholars argue that this bears the parable's main message. But few would argue on this basis that vv. 20-24 were not intended to teach about the value of repentance and God's great compassion and mercy.
The didactic content of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus lies in Dives' two requests to Abraham and Abraham's two refusals (vv. 24-31). We must therefore ask what teaching Jesus intended to convey with the first exchange in vv. 24-26. One observes that the parable would still cohere if this section were omitted. Suppose that v. 24 read, "And he called out, 'I beg you, Father Abraham, to send Lazarus to my father's house...'" and then continued from v. 28. The message conveyed in vv. 28-31 would hardly be compromised. We are thus compelled to conclude that Jesus' intended to convey another message with the first request and refusal in vv. 24-26. And that message could only be about the fate of the wicked. In short, the denial of even the most pathetic of requests from the rich man highlights the total, uninterrupted misery of the damned and the absolute, irrevocable reversal of fortunes that has occurred in contrast to Dives' and Lazarus' earthly lives. The severity of Dives' fate is declared to be just.
Hence, other scholars - rightly, in my view - argue for the fourth view, namely that the parable does teach about the fate of the wicked. As Snodgrass puts it:
“Are any conclusions about the afterlife possible? Although the caution about reading the details too literally is needed, the parable’s eschatological relevance cannot be wiped away. The themes of reversal and judgment must be given their due. The parable is a warning to the rich and emphasizes the importance of what humans do with the present, and it still teaches that humans will be judged for the way they lived and that the consequences will be serious.”16
Similarly, Lehtipuu writes that
"the audience of Jesus (as well as the readers and listeners to the gospel) naturally are appraised of the severe otherworldly consequences of an undesirable lifestyle, which is the main point of Luke’s description."17
Furthermore, as Peterson points out,18 the parable unmistakably equates fire with enduring torment and in this respect it sheds light on Jesus' use of fire imagery elsewhere when depicting the fate of the ungodly.
On the whole, then, while it cannot be said decisively that the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus teaches a doctrine of eternal torment for the wicked, it does favour a traditional view of hell as a place of enduring misery.
1 Snodgrass, K. (2008). Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 430. ↩
3 Yarbrough, R. (2004). "Jesus on Hell." In Hell under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment, ed. C.W. Morgan & R.A. Peterson. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, p. 74. ↩
4 Williams, T. (1906). Hell Torments: A Failure, a Fallacy and a Fraud. Christadelphian Advocate Publications.↩
5 Papaioannou, K.G. (2004). Places of Punishment in the Synoptic Gospels. Ph.D. dissertation, Durham University, p. 155. ↩
8 Fudge, E. (2011). The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd ed. Wipf and Stock Publishers, p. 148.↩
9 Wright, T. 2008. “Death, the Dead and the Underworld in Biblical Theology: Part 2.” Churchman 122(2), p. 114. ↩
10 Bauckham, R. (1991). "The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels." New Testament Studies 37, pp. 225-246.↩
14 Bernstein, A.E. (1993). The Formation of Hell: Death and Retribution in the Ancient and Early Christian Worlds. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. p. 139.↩
15 Lehtipuu, O. (2007). The Afterlife Imagery in Luke’s Story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Leiden: BRILL, p. 299.↩