Parables and Sayings about Hell?
It is likely at this point that many people are still thinking that I’m leaving out important texts that prove the doctrine of hell. What about the parables and sayings that suggest punishment of the wicked?
Now, it is important to remind you that I am not arguing against punishment. Rather, I am arguing against the doctrine of endless, vindictive, purposeless punishment. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the parables and sayings that are often traditionally associated with this doctrine.
Lazarus and the Rich Man
This is one of the most often cited parables as a purported proof text for endless punishment. It is therefore very important to examine this text to determine if it is actually supportive of the doctrine. Let’s take a look:
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
“But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
“He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
There are many interesting points to make regarding this parable, but as a matter of first importance it is critical to understand that this is absolutely NOT a proof text for hell! Let’s see why.
First, it must be noticed that the place in which both the rich man and Lazarus are found is Hades, not hell (Gehenna or Tartaros). As we have discussed previously, Hades is the Greek term that was used to translate the Hebrew Sheol, where both the righteous and unrighteous went in death. Now we can see that the experience in Hades is quite different for the righteous and the unrighteous, with Lazarus being comforted by Abraham while the rich man is in agony.
If you still doubt that both characters are in Hades, consider the fact that the rich man can clearly see Lazarus and speak with Abraham, though from a great distance. This distance is clearly not so great as to prevent the rich man from being able to identify Lazarus, or prevent a detailed conversation between Abraham and the rich man (with no implied shouting).
Second, it must be noted that the characters in the parable die and go immediately to Hades. There is no bodily resurrection and no judgment by Christ prior to entry into Hades. Other people, including the rich man’s brothers, are clearly still alive and doing their business on earth. All of this is in stark contrast to the idea of final judgment after the resurrection of all people as described in Revelation.
Third, there are only two people (besides Abraham) represented in the story, suggesting that the parable is likely representing a deeper truth. In other words, it may not really be about two individuals but rather what they symbolically represent. It has been argued that the symbolism used suggests that the rich man represented the Jewish nation who had been granted a spiritual feast, but they would not share with the Gentiles who were denied even the scraps that fell from the table. An interesting exposition of this point can be found here: An Examination of Lazarus and the Rich Man .
As a brief summary, here are a couple possible symbols that the author makes note of:
1. linen and purple that clothed the rich man could represent the priesthood and royalty of the Jews.
2. Lazarus and the dogs were outside the gate. The Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day did not associate with Gentiles and other outsiders at all, and in fact referred to them as “dogs.”
For further details, feel free to read the paper. It is quite interesting.
Fourth, the “great chasm” between Lazarus and the rich man could easily be the fact that the rich man shows no repentance for his mistreatment of Lazarus. Instead, he still shows contempt for Lazarus, indicating that he still thinks of him as an inferior servant. He does not even speak to him directly, but asks Abraham to “send Lazarus” to fetch water for him and to go act as his messenger to his extant brothers.
Also, if you take the view that Lazarus and the rich man represent the Gentiles and Jews, the great chasm could be referring to the fact that most of the Jewish nation rejected Jesus as Messiah, experiencing “a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” (Romans 11:25).
Regardless of how it is interpreted, there is no mention whatsoever of duration, much less eternity. Instead, we see that in Hades or the grave there is no way to cross over. This seems to be reserved for a later date, after judgment is complete.
Another important observation regarding this parable is the fact that Jesus frequently condemned a lack of compassion and love for people. This is certainly a key concept in the parable as it is the only implicit reason for why the rich man is in the rough part of Hades. So if we take nothing else away from the parable, we should at least notice the importance of showing compassion toward others.
Finally, we see another purpose of the parable. Jesus uses the opportunity to indirectly prophesy about his own resurrection, saying that “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” This seems to foreshadow his own resurrection. And we know that many people did not believe, even though he rose from the dead. In fact, it is clear that the religious leaders who had him executed, actively covered up the resurrection as stated in Matthew 28:11-15:
While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
So we can reasonably conclude that the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is not a compelling proof text for the doctrine of hell since it actually does not discuss “hell” at all. Instead, it teaches us many other truths.
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