The story of the rich man and Lazarus is an intriguing one for several reasons: (1) it is unique to the gospel of Luke, (2) its view of Hades “is decidedly different”1 from the rest of the Bible, and (3) at face value, it seems to imply that the poor might get into Heaven simply because they are poor. In this article, we will take a look at these themes in an attempt to better understand Luke’s message of poverty and its connection with the afterlife.
Luke and Poverty
Scholars have theorized that Mark is the earliest written gospel and that the other synoptic writers based their own gospels around it.2 While this is true for Luke, he only uses about 50 percent of Mark’s3 writings and incorporates some of his own material, which he has validated through “eyewitnesses” and “ministers” and turned into an “orderly account” (Lk. 1:2-3). Douglas S. Huffman sees several key themes emerge in his collected content, including sovereignty, salvation, spiritual empowerment, discipleship, and care for the poor and marginalized.4
While care for the marginalized is found in all the gospels, Luke draws the most attention to it, often coupling the theme with warnings to the rich.5 After surveying all of the themes of wealth and poverty in Luke, Walter Pilgrim connects the many sayings of Jesus together to see a consistent narrative going throughout his Gospel: on the day of judgment, the rich and the poor will experience a “complete reversal of conditions” as an “ultimate form of justice.”6 It is here in this specific Lucan theme that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is founded.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is placed in chapter 16, which has other warnings about wealth within it. It is here that we come across the parable of the dishonest financial manager (v1-13) and the money-loving Pharisees (v14-15). From a wider view, this passage falls within a long list of Jesus’ teachings which fill chapters 10-18.
Sheol and Hades
The modern evangelical take on the afterlife is fairly simple: when one dies, they either go to Heaven or Hell. The Bible, however, offers a much more nuanced view of the afterlife than this, which is sometimes difficult to understand. Parables like that of the rich man and Lazarus add extra complexity to the conversation, because Jesus’ discussion of Hades in this parable does not seem to match other Bible passages about Hades very well.
Many scholars are beginning to ground their initial understanding of the afterlife in the Old Testament’s Sheol, which was thought to be “the immediate destination of all who die, bad and good.”7 Despite this somewhat neutral tone, Sheol still likely wasn’t thought of in a positive light since Israel’s enemies lived there.8 In the Greek world, the Septuagint translators translated Sheol into Greek as Hades, which is the term the New Testament writers used as well.9 While there was not a perfect overlap between the afterlife traditions of Sheol and Hades, Hades served as the Greek equivalent of Sheol since it was also a “neutral place where all the dead await their fate.”10
With this distinction in mind, we must recognize that Sheol is not Hell. Jesus frequently speaks about Hell throughout Matthew’s gospel and it does not carry a neutral tone, but is rather a place of stern and terrible judgment. Furthermore, Hell is something that is to come in the next age, after Hades has been emptied out before God’s throne to be judged (Rev. 20:13). At that point, all humans will be sentenced either to eternal life in the resurrection of the new heaven and new earth, or “perish” (Jn. 3:16) in the lake of fire that is Hell, which will be created to do away with immortal beings like Satan and his angels (Matt 25:31) and the non-immortal bodies and souls of fallen humans (Matt. 10:28). While scholars argue about the fine details of the afterlife, these general differences between Hades and Hell are an important foundation to build afterlife theology upon.
The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is an outlier that causes many to equate Hell with Hades since Hades is here seen as a torment to the rich man. Perhaps even more confusing is the thought that Lazarus is in paradise, which is located close enough to Hades that Lazarus can hear the rich man calling out to him. Even modern evangelicals can’t help but wince at this. The oddness of this passage should give us pause since it doesn’t match the other portraits we have of the afterlife in Scripture. We should first see if there is any cultural context that can make sense of this passage before we take it at face value.
Kim Papaioannou suggests that this parable is a riff on other popular folktales and fables that existed at the time of Jesus. He gives various examples of such tales and explains how Jesus could have been pulling from this genre as other rabbis did in order to create a tale “concerning revelations from the dead.”11 Other such tales discussed (1) the afterlife reversal of the rich and the poor and (2) the dead passing on warnings to the living. If Jesus is riffing off of these stories, then the similarities and differences in his folktale are important to his point.12
The Destiny of the Rich and the Poor
Since other ancient folktales told stories of the rich and poor experiencing a reversal in the afterlife, we might be apt to say that this theme is just a part of the riff Jesus is doing. However, this theme is not discredited or repurposed throughout the parable and such a reversal aligns well with other teachings Jesus gives throughout Luke’s Gospel. Jesus elsewhere proclaimed blessings over the poor and woes over the rich (Lk. 6:20-26), told a story about a rich man who had to face judgment (Lk. 12:13-21), and invited a rich man to give up his possessions in order to inherit eternal life (Lk. 18:24-30). These are just some of the stories that Luke employs to point out that, in the resurrection, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Lk. 13:30).
The fact that the poor man in this story has a name may also be of theological significance. Since this is the only parable in which a character is named, we know that it must not be without reason. It’s possible that he is named because similar ancient folktales typically had a famous person deliver a message from the dead in order to increase the credibility of the message.13 But the meaning we’re looking for may also be found simply in the symbolism of the name Lazarus, which means, “God helps.” In this case, the point would be to say that, “God helps the poor and marginalized.” Another popular suggestion is that Lazarus is Eliezer, Abraham’s servant who was nearly Abraham’s heir. This suggestion is made because Eliezer is the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek name Lazarus. Eliezer’s presence may make even more sense in this parable since Jesus mentions him being carried to Abraham’s bosom.14 Or from a more pastoral standpoint, we might point out that the rich man knew Lazarus well enough to know his name (Lk. 16:24), and yet he did nothing to serve him in life.15
But despite this information, we still have to deal with a theological concern: does this parable blankly teach that the poor will be received into the resurrection and the rich will go on to condemnation? After all, we know very little about these characters other than their socio-economic status. Craig L. Blomberg bases his claim that “Lazarus is meant to be understood as the prototype of the pious poor in Israel,”16 on the idea that Lazarus is the same Eliezer as the servant of Abraham, and therefore is meant to be thought of in a righteous light.
Even if this interpretation were found demonstrably incorrect, it is still a safe bet in the wider view of orthodox thinking. Not only is Jesus the only way to the Father (Jn. 14:6) and salvation is built upon one’s faith(Ro. 4:5), but it would be unreasonable to think that both Lazarus and the rich man could have committed the same exact sins outside of money, and yet one would have been saved by his lack of it. Like all parables, we must come to the story with basic theology. Once we’ve done that, we can see one of the crucial points Luke is trying to make: what we do with our wealth is a much bigger deal than we might first think.
Wealth and Judgment
Some might be apt to say that Jesus embellished his teachings on wealth in order to make a point. This is not beyond the realm of possibility, as embellishment is a form of teaching that Jesus used. However, even if we were to believe this, we’d have to recognize that embellishment exists to make a crucial point. And when it comes to wealth, the Lucan Jesus is highly committed to making this point. In his Gospel, our use of wealth in this age is directly tied to our eschatological judgment in the next.
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man paints a radical picture for us. If we live in our riches now at the expense of the poor among us, the judgment of the prophets will be upon us. We are not to give ourselves over to riches and the domination system of this world, but we are to humble ourselves and our income before Jesus, that we might yield all of our riches to him and those in need. As we give our allegiance to Christ in every category of our lives (including our pocketbooks), we will find ourselves walking with him away from Hades and judgment and into resurrection life. It is not about our best life now, but our best life later. What we lose out on now will be returned to us in the great reversal of the age to come.
1 Kim Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus: Gehenna, Hades, the Abyss, the Outer Darkness Where There Is Weeping and Gnashing of Teeth (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2013), 91.
2 James R. Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 2.
3 Douglas S. Huffman, “Luke, Gospel of,” The Lexham Bible Dictionary, edited by John D. Barry, et al (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016)
5 I. H. Marshall, “Luke, Gospel Of,” New Bible Dictionary, edited by D. R. W. Wood, et al, 3rd ed., (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 705.
6 Walter Pilgrim, Good News to the Poor: Wealth and Poverty in Luke-Acts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1981), 161.
7 John W. Wenham, “The Case for Conditional Immortality,” Rethinking Hell: Readings in Evangelical Conditionalism, edited by Christopher M. Date (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014) 94.
8 Take, for example, the rephaim giants and rebellious angelic figure of Isaiah 14.
9 Edward William Fudge. The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, 3rd edition (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011)
10 Papaioannou, The Geography of Hell in the Teaching of Jesus, 239.
11 Ibid. 120.
12 Ibid. “Chapter X: Luke 16:19-31”
13 Ibid. 121.
14 David W. Pao and Eckhard J. Schnabel, “Luke,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Baker Academic, 2007) 345.
15 The NET Bible First Edition Notes (Biblical Studies Press, 2006).
16 Craig Blomberg, Neither Poverty nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1999), 123.