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.)


6 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.

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