Wrested Scriptures

The Rich Man and Lazarus


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  Matthew 25:46
  Mark 9:43-48
  Luke 16:19-31
  Rev. 14:10,11;
     19:3; 20:10
  Rev. 19:20;
     20:14; 21:8
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By George A. Brown

The imagery of the parable is borrowed from the opinions of the heathen concerning Hades, or the invisible world, the state of the dead-which the Jews, in the time of the Saviourís ministry had in part imbibed. There is sufficient evidence, both internal and external, to prove that the passage is a parable.

Dr. Whitby argues conclusively that the passage is a parable, and states that it was not original with Jesus, but was quoted by him from some Jewish writings.

"That this is only a parable, and not a real history of what was actually done, is evident, 1st, because we find this very parable in the Gemara Babylonicum, whence it is cited by Mr. Sheringham, in the preface to his Joma; 2nd, from the circumstances of it, viz., the rich manís lifting up his eyes in Hades, and seeing Lazarus in Abrahamís bosom his discourse with Abraham, his complaint of being tormented with flames, and his desire that Lazarus might be sent to cool his tongue ; and if all this be confessedly a parable why should the rest, which is the very parable in the Gemara, be accounted history?" (Whitby, Note on Luke xvi. 29.)

Again, Archbishop Tillotson remarks, that in some ancient MSS. the passage commences as follows:

"And He spake a parable unto them, saying, There was a certain rich man," &c.

Dr. Hammond gives his unqualified opinion that this is a parable, in his commentary on the passage. The language of the venerable Dr. Lightfoot is strong and energetic. He throws the contrary opinion into ridicule. He says,

"Whosoever believes this not to be a parable, but a true story, let him believe also those little Friars whose trade it is to show the monuments at Jerusalem to pilgrims, and point exactly to the place where the house of the rich glutton stood; most accurate keepers of antiquity, indeed, who after so many years, such overthrows of Jerusalem, such devastations and changes, can rake out of the rubbish the place of so private a house, and such an one, too, that never had any being, but merely in parable. And that it was a parable, not only the consent of all expositors may assure us, but the thing itself speaks it." (Works, xii. 157,158.)

The learned and orthodox Dr. Proudfit very judiciously remarks,

"We are not to conclude that such persons (the rich man and Lazarus) actually existed, but they are introduced for the occasion, to urge more strongly the moral intended." (Lecture on Parables, p. 190.)

We think that the above quotations will suffice to convince any unbiased mind that the ground is conceded that the Rich Man and Lazarus is a parable.

It may be said by our opponents, "We grant you that it is a parable, but it must be established upon a literal fact." In reply, we would say that, "Such is not the case, for we find many parables in the Bible which are not founded upon facts at all." Will our readers please read the parable found in the 9th chap. of Judqes, from the 7th to the 15th verses?

Taking for granted that you have read this parable, we would ask you if trees talk, or, do they assemble themselves together to appoint kings, and yet it is stated in this parable that "The trees went forth to anoint a king over them." This at once answers for an illustration that all parables are not founded upon facts.

We now proceed to show that the Saviour referred in the parable, not to the views concerning Hades entertained by the sacred writers, but to heathen notions of Hades which had been in part imbibed by the Jews,-not, however, to acknowledge the heathen fables to be well founded, but, by the parabolic use of them, to set forth a train of interesting facts.

We now come to a very important enquiry, viz., Does the representation of Hades in the parable agree with the views of the sacred writers on that subject. We answer that it does not, but agrees perfectly with the ideas entertained by the Jews themselves concerning Hades. We will give you a quotation from Josephus on the Jewish belief of this subject, and you will at once see that Christ drew His parable from their own theological opinions concerning the state of the dead. But by no means does He sanction it by using the same in parabolic form.

Josephus says,

"Now as Hades, wherein the souls of the righteous and unrighteous are detained, it is not necessary to speak of it. Hades is a place in the world not regularly finished, a subterraneous region where the light of this world does not shine ; from which circumstance, that in this region the light does not shine, it cannot be but there must be in it perpetual darkness." This region is allotted as a place of custody for souls, in which angels are appointed as guardians to them, who distribute to them temporary judgments, agreeably to every oneís behaviour and manners. In this region there is a certain place set apart as a lake of unquenchable fire, whereunto we suppose no one hath hither to been cast, but it is prepared for a day afore determined by God, in which one righteous sentence shall deservedly be passed upon all men. The just are now indeed confined in Hades, but not in the same place wherein the unjust are confined. For there is one descent into this region, at whose gate we believe stands an archangel with a host: which gate, when those pass through that are conducted down by the angels appointed over souls, they do not go the same way, but the just are guided to the right hand. This place we call the bosom of Abraham. But as to the unjust, they are dragged by force to the left hand by the angels allotted for punishment, no longer going with a good will, but as prisoners driven by violence into the neighbourhood of Hell itself ; who, when they are hard by it, continually hear the noise of it, and do not stand clear of the hot vapour (or flame). Not only so, but where they see the place of the Fathers and of the just, even hereby are they punished ; for a chaos, deep and large, is fixed between them; insomuch that a just man that hath compassion upon them cannot be admitted; nor can one that is unjust, if he were bold enough to attempt it, pass over it."

Now it is unmistakeably from this "Pharisaic doctrine of Hades that we have the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. The Pharisees did not, however, get the idea from their own Scriptures, but from the heathen philosophers. The unanimous testimony of the Scripture writers goes to show that Hades is a place of silence; it is a place where all the dead are, (i.e., not living), it is therefore translated many times into our English word grave. We will cite the following passages to prove our position relative to Hades:

"What man is he that liveth, and shall not see death? Shall he deliver his soul from the hand of the grave?" (Hades, Septuagint) Psalm lxxxix. 48.

"For in death there is no remembrance of thee; in the grave (Hades) who shall give thee thanks? " Psalm vi. 5.

This passage affirms that in Hades (for I now quote from the Greek version of the Old Testament) there is no "remembrance" which is an attribute of conscious existence, and no one gives thanks, and, therefore, affords conclusive evidence that it is a place of unconsciousness. But to make this point clear beyond a doubt relative to the dead being utterly unconscious in Hades, we quote Eccl. ix, 10. :

"Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave (Hades) whither thou goest."

Whitby says, that Sheol throughout the Old Testament, and Hades in the Septuagint, answering to it, signify not a place of torment, or of the souls of bad men only, but the grave only, or the place of death.

We have now brought before you the doctrine of Hades according to the Pharisee, who in turn had imbibed it from the heathen philosopher and we have also shown you the Scriptural idea of Hades which makes it a place of death and and not of life. Which shall we believe? The learned Dr. Campbell gives the whole weight of his authority in favour of the supposition that the Jews had been corrupted in their views by the heathen, and that the form of the parable was drawn from the heathen notions which they had imbibed. He says:

"It is plain that in the Old Testament the most profound silence is observed in regard to the state of the dead, their joys or sorrows, happiness or misery!"

The opinion neither of Hebrews nor of the heathen, remained invariably the same. And from the time of the captivity, more especially from the time of the subjection of the Jews, first to the Macedonian empire, and afterwards to the Roman, as they had a closer intercourse with pagans, they insensibly imbibed many of their sentiments, particularly on ,those subjects, wherein their law was silent. On this subject of a future state we find a considerable difference in the popular opinions of the Jews in our Saviourís time, from those which prevailed in the days of the ancient prophets. As both Greeks and Romans had adopted the notion, that the ghosts of the departed were susceptible both of enjoyment and of suffering, they were led to suppose a sort of retribution in that state, for their merit or demerit in the present. The Greek Hades they found well adapted to express the Hebrew Sheol. This they came to conceive as including different sorts of habitations for ghosts of different characters! Here we ask, on whose authority did the Jews believe that Hades was a place of disembodied souls? Answer.-On the authority of the heathen. It may be said that Christ must have sanctioned the Pharisaic doctrine of Hades, or else he would not have used it in His parable.

In reply, we say that if Christ sanctioned the Hadean state, according to the Jewish belief at that time, then He plainly and pointedly went against the teachings of the Old Testament writers on the Hadean state.

This we cannot for a moment believe to be the case, for if Christ sanctioned the belief of the Pharisee regarding Hades, then we have His sanction of it in its minutest particulars, just as they held it. With the two side by side, there is no disputing this fact. And that makes it that all the dead are now detained down under the earth alive, and this doctrine must henceforth become the ultimatum of all Christian faith as to the dead.

Rejecting this, the objection falls to the ground that Christ sanctions it by using it to reprove these Pharisees. We might as well accuse Aesop of believing that the birds and beasts actually talk because he makes them do it in his fables; and if any in his day really believed it, might he not be justified if he used their faith to impart unto them important moral lessons by making the birds and beasts talk wisely.

Indeed in this very connection, Christ founds a Parable upon the dishonest conduct of an unprincipled steward, who wasted his Lordís goods; and who, when he learned he was to be turned out of the stewardship, made a most dishonest settlement with his Lordís debtors, cheating Him out of a large amount.

Shall we say that our Saviour endorsed this dishonesty because he founds a Parable upon it, without even intimating that such conduct was wrong?

In the Parable under consideration, our Saviour at once reached them through their own distorted views of the state of the dead, with the most solemn and important of all truths.

Mark with what consummate skill the Saviour handles these men, and turns the tables against them, by weaving a Parable against them out of their own doctrine of Hades, and thus in the most effectual, if not the only way, forewarns them of their personal and national impending doom.

What was the object, then, of Jesus in uttering the Parable? What fact did He intend to teach?

We believe that He intended to point out the obstinacy of the Jews, their impending doom for having rejected their Messiah, also to show that the Gentiles (who had been beggars in the estimation of the Jews,) would be brought into covenant relationship with the promises and covenants made to Abraham! and the Jews would be cut off, and suffer the consequences of their obstinacy.

The Rich Man personifies the Jewish people, who were rich in religious privileges, being Godís chosen, covenant people, as the Apostle Paul testified, when speaking of them, "To whom pertaineth the adoption, and the glory, and the covenants, and the giving of the law, and the service of God, and the promises, &c." -- Rom. ix, 4, 5. "Their priests also were clothed in purple and fine linen," and served at the altar "every day."

It was the special purpose of our Saviour to teach the Jewish people that on account of their rejection of Him, they should lose their peculiar relationship to the gospel benefits, and this and the torments they are represented as suffering, very justly set forth their chagrin and envy arising from the reception of Christ by the Gentiles, and also their national overthrow, debasement, and sufferings for eighteen hundred years.

By the beggar, the Gentiles are represented. In regard to divine knowledge they had been poor indeed" when compared with the Jews. They had no knowledge of God, nor of His law! and they worshipped the idols which their own hands had fashioned.

By the death of the two individuals, is intended the change which was then about to take place in the circumstances of the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews were soon to be deprived of their national privileges, because they had not made a good use of them, and were to be cast into outer darkness, and suffer the most tremendous evils that had , ever befallen any nation. On the other hand, the, Gentiles were to experience a change equally great: they were to be brought to the knowledge of God, and of that Gospel which was preached, originally, to Abraham. "To Abraham and his seed were the promises made." -- Gal. iii, 16. In this way the Gentiles were to become children of Abraham.

"Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness; know ye, therefore, that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham." -- Gal. iii, 6,7. It is for this reason that Lazarus is represented as being blessed with Abraham in Hades. He had embraced the faith of Abraham. Paul again says, speaking to the Gentiles, "If ye be Christís, then are ye Abrahamís seed, and heirs according to the promise." -- Gal. iii, 29.

The poor Gentiles were looked upon by the Jews with a perfect loathing, such were not the characters esteemed by those proud Pharisees. In their estimation, themselves, and not these despised ones, would be entitled to a place in Abrahamís bosom. Shall the delusive dream be broken? Is there any way by which they can yet be reached? If so, this Parable must do it. Verse 22 speaks of the beggar dying and being "carried by angels into Abrahamís bosom." Abrahamís bosom, the Pharisees tell us, is that part of Hades at the right hand, set apart for the just, and that these were conducted down by the angels appointed over souls, who are ever in attendance at the gate. That this miserable beggar, this outcast of society, should be thus honoured, was quite a different result from what these men, who trusted in themselves, conceived of the matter.

Christ takes the very lowest to represent His character, of those whom the Pharisees looked upon as without hope and God in the world, and places the poor beggar in their Hadean paradise. Could they other than see and feel such a reproof?

The rich man dies, and he too goes down to Hades, but not to that part of it where Lazarus was. But he can see the place of the Fathers and of the just, and he cries to Abraham to have mercy on him, this part identifies the rich man as being a representative of the Jews, for none else could at that time call Abraham, Father.

How now is the whole scene changed, and changed to the utter confusion of the Pharisees with no hope of relief. For in perfect accord with their own faith of punishment in Hades. This rich man their ideal of life, a mild type of themselves was sent to the place of torment. In doing this Christ designed to show them their false position, their fatal error, and break if possible the delusion that had possessed them, and borne them on to deride Him, and could they not according to their own belief see whither they were drifting, verse 25, presents a startling reproof. And not uttered by one whom they hated, but made to come by Christ in the parable in all tenderness from the lips of Abraham himself. Could rebuke be more wisely conceived, or more tremendously and deservedly given?

The Pharisees in their doctrine of Hades had fixed a chaos deep and large between the "just and the unjust." So that if one felt to compassionate the tormented on the one hand or bold enough to attempt to escape from the torment on the other, they could not "pass over it." Can anyone mark this continued and perfect correspondence between their doctrine of Hades and the parable, and have remaining a doubt as to the fact that the one was founded upon the other?

In this impassable gulf Christ now hangs them upon their own gallows, as Haman was executed upon his. He showed them their hopeless condition if they continued their worldly course and also continued their rejection of Him as a nation.

And he clinches the truth of it upon the very face of their own doctrine, the simple idea is a remediless doom, verse 27, presents to us the appeal of the one representative, asking Abraham to send some one to his five brethren. The five brethren in the parable would indicate that this rich man had left behind him those related to him, related in the positions of life, standing together in these relations like brethren, living as he had lived.

And now he desires to warn them of their danger, Abraham is made to reply they have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them. This brings us in the parable to its more direct and personal application to these Pharisees who were standing before Christ, and it is done with a masterly hand.

If they had failed to perceive its bearing up to this point they could fail no longer. The likeness has been drawn too true to life for them not to see themselves in it.

And now, like the five brethren left at their fatherís house, they stand before the Saviour with the writings of Moses and the prophets in their hands.

And will they hear them? Can they resist the subtle element of truth that is stealing into their minds and reaching after their consciences? Shall not the writings of Moses and the prophets suffice to convince them and break down their unbelief? Christ then makes the rich man to say, "Nay, Father Abraham, but if one went unto them from the dead they will repent." Is it possible to conceive of anything more touching than this a-plea put into the mouth of a departed friend, that the very dead might be raised up to warn comrades, who, though possessing the Scriptures, they paid no heed to their teachings. And is it so that even this would avail nothing to reach such men. Alas! it was even so. For the response was that, "If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rose from the dead."

In the last reply of Abraham to the rich man, we have the moral of the parable, for this assertion was subsequently proved true, for Jesus did raise a real Lazarus from the dead! but the Jews were enraged at the miracle, and sought to kill Him, because many in consequence believed. And thus they held out, until at last the picture so graphically drawn by the Saviour began to meet its fulfillment in terrible fact, for their Temple was destroyed and they were scattered, like autumn leaves before the wind, into all nations, they died to all their former privileges, died as a nation and from that time to this their land has been trampled down by Gentile rulers, and they have been suffering the severest privation and persecution that could ever befall a people. And we have also lived to see the great and wonderful change which from that time passed over the Gentiles, they have been brought under the immediate blessings of covenant mercy and to-day they rejoice in the fact that they are made partakers through Christ of the promise made to Abraham long years ago. In conclusion we would direct your minds to the opinion of Dr. Lightfoot on the subject he says: "The main scope and design of the parable seems to be this-to hint the destruction of the unbelieving Jews, who, though they had Moses and the prophets, did not believe them-nay, would not believe, thoughí one (even Jesus) arose from the dead. For that conclusion of the parable abundantly evidenced what it aimed at; if they hear not Moses and the prophets."

Source: The Bible Standard,  April 1878, pages 51-56.