How should Luke 16.19­–31 shape our view of heaven and hell?

The story of the rich man and Lazarus appears on first reading to depict a detailed ‘map’ of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’, but is this the right way to read it?

First, it is worth noting that the words ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ themselves do not occur in the parable. The NT talks about post-mortem life in a range of ways, not all of them easy to reconcile with one another. Perhaps the most controlling one would be the idea of ‘sleep’ as used by Paul in, for example, 1 Cor 15. ‘Heaven’ in the NT mostly appears to refer to the realm of God’s presence, reign and reality, and the central NT hope is not that we will leave the earth to go to heaven, but that God’s realm will come down to the earth (see Rev 21). (See Tom Wright’s Grove booklet for the most accessible exposition of this.)

The term used in v 23 is the Greek Hades which was usually understood as the abode of (all) the dead, and does not have a straightforward relationship with the OT notion of sheol. Interestingly, Howard Marshall (in his NIGTC commentary) thinks that a popular Egyptian tale about life after death offers the best explanation for the shape of the story, and there is some support for this in the way the text was received in that region.

Secondly, like all parables this is a story told to make a point. Such stories have varying degrees of connection with ‘reality’. No doubt sowers went out to sow in the fields of Galilee, but it is not clear that Jesus has in mind a particular such person in Mark 4. Shepherds were concerned about their sheep, but the point of the story in Luke 15 is not that a real shepherd would leave the 99 in search of the one; to the casual reader this one looks rather inept. In fact, in some parables, it is the contrast with reality which is striking. A man who paid hired workers the same regardless of how many hours they had worked (Matt 20) would not only be unjust but foolish! There is a clear sense that the parables (as it were) create their own world, and it is the shape of this world, as much as the actions of the characters, which provide the impact of the story and help to make the point.

Thirdly, therefore, we need to focus on the point(s) that Jesus was making in this parable. There is a strong link between the language here and that of Luke’s version of the beatitudes with their theme of reversal of fortunes. Lazarus longs for what the poor will have (16.21 and 6.21) and the ‘comfort’ he receives in 16.25 is that which is denied the rich in 6.25. And miracles in themselves cannot melt hearts that are hardened to God’s word (16.31). This final verse clearly chimes with the post-Easter experience of Jesus’ followers, as the majority of their countrymen refuse to accept Jesus for who he (and they) claimed him to be. To use this as a map for the afterlife is to miss these key points.

This is part of a wider issue in reading Scripture: if we seek to clarify issues which don’t appear to have been the purpose of the writer, then we are in danger of making the text say things that it does not, in fact, say.

(For an alternative allegorical reading of this parable as a judgement on the nation of Israel [which I find unconvincing] go here.)

(A shorter version of this will be published in a forthcoming entry on Scripture Union’s Word Live Bible reading resource.)


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8 thoughts on “How should Luke 16.19­–31 shape our view of heaven and hell?”

  1. Rob Bell (dare I mention him?) suggests that the uncrossable “gulf” between the Rich man and Lazarus exists in his own heart, because death has not changed him – he still expects to be served by Lazarus. His notion is that heaven or hell may be experienced in the same situation by different people, depending on the condition of their hearts in the light of God – and furthermore that this is changeable, without any particulat cut off point. Is this a reasonable scriptual understanding… even if it upset too many deeply held beliefs? (genuine Q)

  2. Whilst I agree with the thrust of this arguement: “This is part of a wider issue in reading Scripture:if we seek to clarify issues which don’t appear to have been the purpose of the writer,then we are in danger of making the text say things that it does not,in fact,say.”
    Is there not equally a danger that in trying to understand the culture, history, language etc in which a text was written we create a fluctuating Bible concordance that changes from generation to generation and denies the power of the Holy Spirit to talk to people directly through the Bible?

  3. While I agree that extending the point of a parable beyond the context of the parable makes bad doctrine, it seems to me that the story of Lazarus has post-mortem consciousness as a central theme and there is explicit comfort and torment clearly divided. The reference to Christ’s own Resurrection can only reinforce that theme. Is it a “map” of heaven and hell? If people think of it like an aerial view I think they are extending, but to say it isn’t about reward and recrimination in the afterlife seems just as stilted.

    Forgive me if I misread the thrust.

    As I side note I have always though the point of parable of Matthew 20 is exactly that it is NOT unjust (maybe foolish if you want to hire people early again, but not unjust either as a parable or a practice). In this particular case it is exactly the correlation to underlying reality that makes the point.

  4. At the risk of a non-theologian trespassing on others’ expertise I have to agree with David. The significance of hardness of heart and injustice in the parable is that they have consequences in the afterlife – without that the parable would say little or nothing. If Jesus hadn’t meant to say anything at all about the afterlife presumably he would have chosen a different picture to make the point? That leads as your question implies to a deeper question which might be framed as “To what extent should this parable shape our view of heaven and hell”, which is much trickier. Whilst many I guess would feel that literal heat and thirst are unlikely to be fair deductions, what about the concept that part of the unpleasantness of “hell” will be consciousness that there was a pleasant option which is real but now completely unobtainable?

    To follow up David’s side note I have always based my personal, family and (so far as one can influence it) business economics in part on Matt 20, on the following logic. The starting point for me for economics is Matt 6:24. Jesus immediately moves on/derives from that principle Matt 6:33 – the route to economic sustainability and the meeting of economic need is to strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Matt 20 teaches, as I understand it, that God’s righteousness towards us is gracious and generous and based on need not contribution. Thus an economics that attempts to ignore this will be as flawed as a faith that ignores it. Accordingly, one of the reasons I have recently resigned from the business I have co-owned for over 15 years is that my co-owners have explicitly decided to abandon our previous wage policy, which was that if wage rises were to be given (no longer a certainty I accept) then an element of those rises would be an across the board increase for everyone irrespective of performance, linked to, if not necessarily matching, inflation; because otherwise inflation would mean that we were effectively cutting wages. That policy was in my view a modern outworking of the lesson of Matthew 20 and part of the distinctiveness of a business that seeks to put seeking the kingdom first. So the question is again to what extent you can legitimately base your economics on Matt 20 (and I may have got that completely wrong of course!).

    Do you know of any books/papers on the theology of economics? If so I’d be interested to hear.

  5. Tim, thanks for this interesting point. Yes, there is precisely that danger—but what is the alternative? As far as I can see, it is assuming that God will speak to us through Scripture only by imposing our own understanding on the text (‘a text without a context is a pretext’) which is no less problematic.

    In fact, all our reading is ‘provisional’, in that it must be open to correction on the discovery of new information. But isn’t that true of all communication? And yet, despite this, we manage to communicate with one another, and God manages to speak to us through our inevitably fallible interpretations of Scripture. Perhaps this is because God is concerned with ‘meaning’ as a means, not an end, and the end is our transformation into a greater Christlikeness.

  6. I think that SCott McKnight has suggested that the real meaning of the story of Dives and Lazarus is to make us ask the question “What do I do for the poor man at my gate?” I have found this helpful in trying to follow Christ.


    Jesus has been giving his disciples fine counsel about the use of material riches. But his disciples are not the only ones listening. Pharisees are also present, and they ought to take to heart Jesus’ counsel. Why? Because they are “money lovers.” On hearing what Jesus is saying, they ‘begin to sneer at him.’​—Luke 15:2; 16:13, 14.

    That does not intimidate Jesus, though. He says to them: “You are those who declare yourselves righteous before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is considered exalted by men is a disgusting thing in God’s sight.”​—Luke 16:15.

    The Pharisees have long been “exalted by men,” but this is a time of change, a time for the tables to turn. The highly exalted ones who are rich in worldly goods, political power, and religious influence are to be brought down. The common people who recognize their spiritual need are to be raised up. Jesus makes it clear that a major change is taking place, saying:

    “The Law and the Prophets were until John. From then on, the Kingdom of God is being declared as good news, and every sort of person is pressing forward toward it. Indeed, it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to go unfulfilled.” (Luke 3:18; 16:16, 17) How do Jesus’ words indicate that a change is occurring?

    The Jewish religious leaders proudly profess adherence to the Law of Moses. Recall that when Jesus restored sight to a man in Jerusalem, the Pharisees pridefully said: “We are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses.” (John 9:13, 28, 29) One purpose of the Law given through Moses was to lead humble ones to the Messiah, that is, to Jesus. John the Baptist identified Jesus as the Lamb of God. (John 1:29-34) Starting with John’s ministry, humble Jews, especially among the poor, have been hearing about “the Kingdom of God.” Yes, there is “good news” for all wanting to be subjects of God’s Kingdom and benefit from it.

    The Mosaic Law is not going unfulfilled; rather, it has led to the Messiah. Moreover, the obligation to keep it is ending. For example, the Law allowed for divorce on various grounds, but now Jesus explains that “everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18) How such pronouncements enrage the legalistically minded Pharisees!

    Jesus now relates an illustration that underscores the magnitude of the change that is taking place. It features two men​—each of whose status, or situation, changes dramatically. In considering the illustration, bear in mind that among those hearing it are money-loving Pharisees who are being exalted by men.

    A rich man dressed in purple looks out his window
    “There was a rich man,” Jesus says, “who used to dress in purple and linen, enjoying himself day after day with magnificence. But a beggar named Lazarus used to be put at his gate, covered with ulcers and desiring to be filled with the things dropping from the table of the rich man. Yes, even the dogs would come and lick his ulcers.”​—Luke 16:19-21.

    The Pharisees are money lovers, so is there any doubt whom Jesus is illustrating by this “rich man”? These Jewish religious leaders also like to deck themselves out in costly, fancy clothing. And beyond whatever actual wealth they might have, they seem rich in the privileges they enjoy and opportunities they have. Yes, illustrating them by a man clothed in royal purple reflects their favored position, and the white linen reflects their self-righteousness.​—Daniel 5:7.

    How do these rich, proud leaders view the poor, the common people? They contemptuously consider them ‛am ha·’aʹrets, or people of the land (earth), who neither know the Law nor deserve to be taught it. (John 7:49) That reflects the situation of the “beggar named Lazarus,” who hungers for even the meager “things dropping from the table of the rich man.” Like Lazarus covered with ulcers, the common people are looked down on, as if they are spiritually diseased.

    That sad situation has existed for some time, but Jesus knows that the time has come for a great change in the condition of both those who are like the rich man and those who are like Lazarus.

    Lazarus at Abraham’s side
    Jesus goes on to describe this dramatic change in circumstances. “Now in the course of time,” he says, “the beggar died and was carried off by the angels to Abraham’s side. Also, the rich man died and was buried. And in the Grave he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and he saw Abraham from afar and Lazarus by his side.”​—Luke 16:22, 23.

    Those listening to Jesus know that Abraham is long dead and in the Grave. The Scriptures make it clear that no one in the Grave, or Sheol, can see or speak, including Abraham. (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10) What, then, do these religious leaders think that Jesus means with this illustration? What might he be indicating about the common people and the money-loving religious leaders?

    Jesus has just pointed to a change by saying that ‘the Law and the Prophets were until John the Baptist, but from then on the Kingdom of God is being declared as good news.’ Hence, it is with the preaching of John and Jesus Christ that both Lazarus and the rich man die to their former circumstances, or condition, and they experience new positions relative to God.

    Specifically, those of the humble or poor class have long been spiritually deprived. But they are being helped by and are responding to the message about the Kingdom presented first by John the Baptist and then by Jesus. Formerly, they had to get by with what amounted to little ‘things dropped from the spiritual table’ of the religious leaders. Now they are being fed with essential Scriptural truths, particularly the wonderful things Jesus is explaining. It is as if they finally are in the favored position in the eyes of Jehovah God.

    In contrast, those in the rich and influential class of religious leaders refuse to accept the Kingdom message that John proclaimed and that Jesus has been preaching throughout the land. (Matthew 3:1, 2; 4:17) In fact, they are angered, or tormented, by that message, which points to a coming fiery judgment from God. (Matthew 3:7-12) It would be a relief to the money-loving religious leaders if Jesus and his disciples would let up on declaring God’s message. Those leaders are like the rich man in the illustration, who says: “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this blazing fire.”​—Luke 16:24.

    The rich man tormented by fire
    But that is not to happen. Most of the religious leaders will not change. They had refused to “listen to Moses and the Prophets,” which writings should have led them to accept Jesus as God’s Messiah and King. (Luke 16:29, 31; Galatians 3:24) Nor do they humble themselves and let themselves be persuaded by those poor ones who accept Jesus and now have divine favor. Jesus’ disciples, for their part, cannot compromise or water down the truth just to satisfy the religious leaders or give them relief. In his illustration, Jesus describes this reality in the words uttered by “Father Abraham” to the rich man:

    “Child, remember that you had your fill of good things in your lifetime, but Lazarus for his part received bad things. Now, however, he is being comforted here, but you are in anguish. And besides all these things, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those who want to go over from here to you cannot, neither may people cross over from there to us.”​—Luke 16:25, 26.

    Jewish religious leaders upset with Jesus
    How just and fitting it is that such a dramatic change takes place! It amounts to a reversal of position between the proud religious leaders and the humble ones who accept Jesus’ yoke and are finally being refreshed and fed spiritually. (Matthew 11:28-30) This change will be even more evident in a few months when the Law covenant is replaced by the new covenant. (Jeremiah 31:31-33; Colossians 2:14; Hebrews 8:7-13) When God pours out holy spirit on the day of Pentecost 33 C.E., it will be unmistakably clear that, rather than the Pharisees and their religious allies, Jesus’ disciples have God’s favor.


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