A gracEmail subscriber has heard the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) used to teach that when the wicked die they immediately begin to suffer conscious torment, and that after the Resurrection they will suffer that conscious torment forever. Why do I not teach these two things?
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Some argue that this story cannot be a parable because Jesus says “there was a certain rich man” and “a certain poor man.” However, Jesus also introduces the story of the Unrighteous Judge by saying “there was in a certain city a judge,” yet Luke tells us that story is a parable (Lk. 18:1-2). Similarly, the story of the Pharisee and the Publican begins with “two men went up into the temple to pray,” and that story, too, is a parable (Lk. 18:9-10). Not only is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus a parable, scholars of first-century Jewish literature have found it in a dozen forms. Jesus simply borrows a well-known tale and changes the details to make his own points.
Some insist that every detail in this story must be literal, for “Jesus would not mislead by teaching what is not real.” These well-meaning interpreters confuse form with substance and mistake incidentals for the point. Parables usually contain one or two intended truths, communicated by an imaginary story. No one really believes that Jesus endorsed all the details here. A drop of water on the tongue would not stop the pains of fiery torture! We need not take this parable literally in order to take it seriously.
This story has long been misused to teach about the final punishment of the wicked in hell. Yet all the scenes in this story occur before the Judgment — while earthly life goes on, while Moses and the Prophets are the “last word” for the story’s all-Jewish characters. Whatever this parable portrays, it is not final punishment. Others use this story to teach about an intermediate state between death and resurrection, although the context (see the previous gracEmail) has nothing to do with that subject at all. Even scholars who believe that hell will involve unending conscious torture are now beginning to admit both these points.
This is a powerful parable to which we should listen, in context, for its own truths. Only God’s estimation of us finally matters, not that of other humans. It is perilous to ignore God’s Word and to trust in the praise of other people. Now is the time to respond to God’s Word, including what it says about caring for the poor.