5 Reasons You Can Know 'The Rich Man and Lazarus' Is Not Literal

The story of the “rich man and Lazarus” is told by Jesus in Luke 16:19–31. It is often cited by Christians as definitive proof that people go straight to either heaven or hell when they die. But is the purpose of this story to give us an actual glimpse into the afterlife—or does it serve a different purpose entirely?

Here are five reasons we can know that the story of the rich man and Lazarus is not meant to be taken literally.

1. It’s comes in a list of parables. The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “parable” as “a usually short fictitious story that illustrates a moral attitude or a religious principle.” The story of the rich man and Lazarus comes at the end of a string of parables filled with symbolic, non-literal illustrations (see Luke 15). For instance, in the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus is certainly not teaching that His followers have four legs or eat grass; it’s all metaphor for a greater spiritual point.

2. It contains an impossible conversation. The parable portrays the rich man in “Hades” speaking directly to Lazarus in “Abraham’s bosom.” Can people in heaven have conversations with people in hell? For that matter, do people in heaven really watch people burning in hell? Not according to Jesus, who describes a “great gulf fixed” between the saved and the lost (Luke 16:26).

3. It uses clear symbolic imagery. The rich man wants Abraham to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue (verse 24). This must be symbolic—because it can’t possibly happen physically. How much water could pass through the flames, and what help would it provide someone suffering in hell?

4. It uses figurative expressions. Do the people who died with faith in Christ find their rest in Abraham’s literal bosom? How big is Abraham’s bosom? This must be a figurative expression, for we know that angels will gather the saints at the second coming of Christ (see Matthew 24:30, 31).

5. It would otherwise contradict the rest of Scripture. If this story were literal, it would be hard to explain why the Bible says “in death there is no remembrance” (Psalm 6:5). Instead, those who die are asleep in the grave awaiting resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:15, 16). The Bible compares death to sleep over 50 times. See one example by Jesus in John 11:11–14.

The real message of this parable is often and unfortunately lost because people use it to try to prove something Jesus wasn’t even talking about. If you’d like to know the real meaning of this parable story, check out our resources below …


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