Of all the parables, this story provides the clearest insight regarding heaven and hell. It can be divided into four segments and paraphrased as follows:
“There was a rich man who habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, feasting daily in great luxury. And there was a destitute, homeless man who was laid at his outer gate full of putrefying sores. He yearned to satisfy his hunger with table scraps which fell from the rich man’s table. To add to his misery, dogs came and licked his sores. (Luke 16:19-21)
In the course of time, the beggar died and was carried away by angels to the waiting arms of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. And in hell, he looked up from his continual torments and saw Abraham at a distance and Lazarus resting in his arms. He cried to him and said, ‘Father Abraham, take pity on me and send Lazarus, that he may wet the tip of his finger with water to cool my tongue, for I am suffering perpetually in these flames.’ (vv. 22-24)
But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember how in your earthly life you enjoyed wonderful things while Lazarus suffered misfortune. Now he is perpetually comforted and you are in anguish. But that is not all: between us a great chasm has been permanently established, so it is impossible for anyone here to come there, nor can anyone there come here.’ (vv. 25-26)
Then he said, ‘For this very reason I beg you, father, to send Lazarus to my father’s house, that he may earnestly warn my five bothers, lest they also come to this place of suffering and misery.’ Abraham said, ‘They have the writings of Moses and the prophets; let them heed them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham they will not do that; however if a messenger was sent to them from the dead, they would repent.’ And he said to him, ‘If they have refused to heed Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even though someone is raised from the dead.’” (vv. 27-31)
Jesus taught this parable during a series of encounters with the Pharisees who perpetually derided His teachings. They did not live in conformity to the Scriptures, but pursued wealth like the rich man in the parable. Jesus repudiates the Jewish myth that wealth is always a sign of divine blessing. Whenever He speaks of money, He always de-emphasizes its importance in the light of eternity. He taught that rich men will have difficulty gaining entrance into His kingdom (Mk. 10:24-25). He warns the wealthy when He says, “Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you that are full, for you shall be hungry” (Lk. 6:24-25). No doubt the covetous Pharisees scoffed when He told them they could not serve both God and money (Lk. 16:13-14). In this atmosphere of greed and mockery, Jesus brings forth this parabolic teaching. It addresses the reality of future judgment based on the decisions we make in this life and foretells the fate of those who continually ignore God’s Word.
But being wealthy is not necessarily a sin. It is the love of money that is the root of all evil. James warns that rich men will “weep and howl” because of the miseries that will come upon them (Jas. 5:1-3). Those who live for pleasure are empty inside (5:5).
The Lifestyles of Dives and Lazarus on Earth (vv. 19-21)
Jesus speaks of “a certain rich man,” but leaves him nameless. But because dives means “rich” in Latin, the wealthy man in the parable is often referred to by this name. The brief description of Dives informs us he is clothed in purple and fine linen. As a sign of affluence and royalty, purple cloth was usually worn only by nobles and princes. Mordecai wore “a garment of fine linen and purple” (Est. 8:15). The best Egyptian linen was so soft and delicate it was known as “woven air.” This dazzling white cloth was worth more than twice its weight in gold.
Dives “fared sumptuously” every day, a phrase indicative of a lavish and festive lifestyle. His days revolved around partying. However, expensive food is not indicative of good health. Gluttony and obesity may well have hastened his early demise.
In striking contrast to the rich man is the beggar named Lazarus. This is the only parable in which a character is given a name. The Hebrew Eleazar is translated Lazaros in Greek. Lazarus means, “The one God helps” and was a common name in Jesus’ day. The beggar Lazarus must not be confused with the Lazarus Jesus raises from the dead a few days later (John 11:43). Whereas the Lazarus in this parable has no resources, Lazarus of Bethany has a home and a family (Jn. 11:1-2).
Diseases are frequently associated with poverty and Lazarus is covered with open sores. He shivers in rags, loneliness and hunger. His physical afflictions make it impossible to him to labor for his daily bread. He is “laid” at Dives’ gate. “Laid” is ebebleto and means to “throw” or “to cast.” The term indicates the beggar is carelessly discarded there. “Gate” (pulon) refers to a courtyard door of exquisite beauty and artistry.
Self-indulgent people tend to be pitiless. Though he passes Lazarus daily, Dives is indifferent to the world of poverty outside his gate. Having wealth but refusing to share it is an indication of spiritual bankruptcy. He misses his opportunity to use his resources for godly purposes. Everyone has ample opportunities to feed the poor, for Jesus said they will always be with us (Mt. 26:11).
Jesus describes the pitiful condition of Lazarus in detail. “The crumbs” refer to the morsels which can never satisfy real hunger. We are not told if he actually receives any food at all. Though Lazarus desires to be fed with scraps from Dives’ table, such food is fit only for canine scavengers. These dogs are not household pets, but ownerless stray mongrels that roam the countryside foraging for food. Dogs are his only companions as he lays in his helpless condition. While Dives goes to bed with a full stomach every night, Lazarus goes hungry. Dives has everything, but Lazarus has nothing. The dogs licking Lazarus’ open wounds add the final insult to his injuries. They tend the wounds the rich man will not touch. Jesus paints a picture of utter destitution.
Dives and Lazarus in the Afterlife (vv. 22-24)
Whether rich or poor, all human beings will face death. Apparently both Lazarus and Dives leave this world within the same relatively short period of time. The parable proves both heaven and hell are realities. Death is not the end, but only the beginning. Once a person dies and is judged by God, their status in the next life is permanent.
Death comes at last and relieves Lazarus of his misery. But there is no soft music, mourners, mahogany coffin, or flowers. A beggar’s corpse is typically burned outside the city in the garbage dump known as gehenna. Though no funeral is recorded, his soul is escorted by angels to Paradise. There he finds the empathy denied him on earth. He is destined to be with Abraham, the father of all Believers (Rom. 4:11).
The rich man dies also, but all his money cannot bribe death or purchase a heavenly mansion. Having lived without regard for the afterlife, Dives finds himself without friends, caviar or champagne. Though he was surely entombed with great pomp and ceremony, his soul is destined for hell.
Yet Jesus does not portray Dives as unusually cruel. Had he oppressed the poor, he would not have allowed Lazarus to be laid at his gate. No specific hideous sins are listed that explain why Dives finds himself in such horrible circumstances. His wealth may have been obtained honestly. But Dives is not in hell because he is rich and Lazarus is not in heaven because he is poor. Only those who reject God are eternally punished, while the righteous enjoy eternal life (Mt. 25:46).
From the tortures of hell Dives looks up and sees Abraham and Lazarus. Although he was oblivious to Lazarus while he starved at his gate, Dives acknowledges him in heaven. Rabbinical schools conceive of Paradise as an eternal banquet where Abraham presides until Messiah comes to oversee the festivities. For a Jew, the thought of being with Abraham is the epitome of happiness and contentment. The image of Lazarus at Abraham’s bosom is taken from the posture of guests at a banquet table who sometimes recline close to the one dearest to them. John is pictured as leaning of Jesus’ chest at the Last Supper (Jn. 13:23-25).
Dives addresses Abraham as father. Jews believe they are worthy of eternal life simply because they are the descendants of their great ancestor. But Abraham would never have sought the death of his own Messiah (Jn. 8:39-40). Jesus says their true father is not Abraham but Satan (Jn. 8:44).
According to this parable, the damned eternally yearn for things beyond their reach. Dives begs Abraham for pity, though he extends none to Lazarus during his lifetime. The small favor he asks is indicative of his great suffering in the flames. Hell is a place of utter hopelessness, where the worms never die and the fires are unquenchable (Mk. 9:43-48). Dives does not seek to escape hell or come to heaven. He does not request a goblet of fine wine, but only a drop of water. The “crumb” Lazarus craved corresponds to the “drop” of water Dives now craves. But the smallest token of relief is denied him, for not one drop of water can pass from heaven to hell.
The Impossibility of Change After Death (vv. 25-26)
Abraham responds to Dives, addressing him as “son.” The title conveys God’s compassion, even to one who has rejected Him. The fact of Dives’ unrepentant heart is proven by his fate, for the dead are judged and sentenced to one of two places. Death does not impair or diminish one’s consciousness, for Abraham asks Dives to “remember” certain things. One of the great torments of hell is memory, for desires and emotions continue after death. While on earth, Dives enjoyed a festive way of life for which no court in Israel would have condemned him: God did.
Abraham asks Dives to consider the contrast between Lazarus’ life and his own while on earth and the radical reversal of their circumstances. The rich man is now a beggar and the beggar is now a rich man. Now Lazarus is in need of nothing, while Dives is in need of everything.
Both heaven and hell are places from which there is no return. The two extremes are mutually exclusive. No fellowship is possible between the saved and the lost in the next life. The “great gulf” that is fixed represents the everlasting separation between good and evil. Its eternal permanence is established by God and breaching it is non-negotiable. Although humanists seek to bridge this gulf, it remains fixed and steadfast.
The vast distance between heaven and hell prevents communication. However, Jesus pulls back the curtains, allowing us to imagine a conversation that might take place. This parabolic dialogue provides insight into God’s reasoning behind creating such an impenetrable barrier. The parable paints a realistic picture of the fate awaiting those who reject Christ. Spiritual decisions we make on earth have eternal and irreversible consequences. The question is not, “How can a God of love send a sinner to hell?” The question is rather, “How can a righteous God take a sinner to heaven?” A person must be born again in order to enter the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:3). Heaven would not be heaven if sinners lived there.
Resistance to the Word of God (vv. 27-31)
“Therefore” means in view of the fact. Dives acknowledges he has been judged by God somewhat fairly, but seems to insinuate he is suffering eternal punishment because he was insufficiently warned. Because he believes this, he asks that Lazarus be sent to his father’s home. His statement infers that his family also has received incomplete instructions regarding eternity.
Even in hell, Dives’ character is unchanged. He still views Lazarus as a servant. Both his pleas require the services of Lazarus. If he cannot bring him water, perhaps he can use him as a messenger. His initial request is for personal comfort—water to cool his tongue. He continues to put his own interests first, for his second request concerns only his immediate family. Though Dives does Lazarus no favors while on earth, he is unashamed to ask for favors now.
In desperation, Dives asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers in order to warn them of hell. Because the Jews lived in expectancy of supernatural signs, he hopes the testimony of a resurrected man might get the message through to his brothers (Lk. 11:29). Dives deludes himself into believing a miraculous apparition will somehow convince his brothers of their need to repent. Perhaps he imagines his sufferings will be compounded if he sees his brothers there with him.
His entreaty is deemed unreasonable and impossible. Abraham says they must sincerely heed Moses and the prophets. The Hebrew term “hear” is shema and means “to hear and then obey.” God’s Word is truly heard only when followed by obedience. Abraham denies this request as well, for his brothers do have sufficient Scriptural warning to avoid the same fate. The fact that Lazarus is in heaven proves the Word of God contains adequate information regarding salvation.
Although some imagine these five brothers are also rich, nothing whatever is said regarding their financial situation. Their impenitent hearts and failure to obey God’s Word are the focus here. Our eternal destiny depends upon neither wealth nor poverty, but upon the One whom Moses and the prophets wrote about. Whoever rejects the Scriptures rejects the Christ that is the focus of all its prophecies (Jn. 5:46). As the Pharisees disregard God’s written Word, so will they disregard God’s living Word (Jn. 1:1).
Dives dares to counter Abraham’s remarks. He denies that the Scriptures alone are enough to convince his brothers. Dives has deluded himself into believing that the testimony of a risen Lazarus will convict them of their sins.
Although Dives insinuates God’s written Word is insufficient, Abraham declares it to be more effective than the words of a resurrected man. If they have refused the Old Testament writings, they will not respond to the warning of a supernatural apparition. For example, Saul does not repent when he converses with the resurrected spirit of Samuel at Endor (I Sam. 28).
When another Lazarus returns from the dead a few days later, the reaction of the religious leaders proves Abraham’s statement to be prophetic. The dynamic resurrection of Lazarus makes them even more determined to destroy the Son of God (Jn. 11:47-48). The Pharisees even seek to kill Lazarus, hoping to eliminate his testimony (Jn. 12:10). Those who reject God’s Word will also reject a miraculous messenger. For forty days after His resurrection, Jesus appears to numerous people without a single conversion.
The disparagement of Dives, his complaints, his ignorance of the Scriptures, and his pitiful requests are all designed to show how decisions made on earth affect our circumstances throughout eternity. Neither wealth nor poverty prevents a person from reaching heaven. Repentance is the key that unlocks heavens gate. Through this parabolic teaching, Jesus shows the Pharisees how they appear in the eyes of God and what awaits them after death. There is still time to avert punishment and obtain eternal rewards. God has given everyone sufficient warning to escape hell and prepare for heaven, for we have God’s Word and God’s Son.
Self-indulgent people tend to lack empathy and compassion. From the following passages, briefly summarize how greed and egocentricity was a factor in each case:
1. I Kings 21
2. Matthew 26:14-16 & 27:5
3. Acts 5:1-11
4. Matthew 19:16-24
5. What does Paul state regarding money in I Timothy 6:10?
6. How did David’s attitude differ from that of the rich man in Jesus’ parable? Study Second Samuel chapter nine and summarize David’s attitude and actions regarding Mephibosheth.
7. Using these passages, formulate a description of hell:
II Peter 2:4
8. The rich man asked Abraham to resurrect Lazarus and send him to his five brothers to warn them regarding hell. Summarize what happened when Samuel returned from the dead and spoke to Saul (I Samuel 28:7-20).
9. Jesus raised another man (also named Lazarus) from the dead just a few days after He taught this parable.
How did the Pharisees react to the resurrection of Lazarus?
Because this act verified Jesus’ divinity, what did they decide to do (John 12:10)?
10. From Revelation 21:1-27 and 22:1-5, formulate a description of heaven.