A Rich Man in Hades
SINCE Hades is just the common grave of dead mankind, why does the Bible speak of a rich man as undergoing torments in the fire of Hades? Does this show that Hades, or at least a part of it, is a place of fiery torment?
Teachers of hellfire eagerly point to this account as definite proof that there is indeed a hell of torment that awaits the wicked. But, in so doing, they disregard such clear and repeated Biblical statements as: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” (Ezekiel 18:4, 20) And: “As for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5) Clearly these statements do not support the idea of torment for “lost souls” in a fiery hell.
The Bible’s teaching about the condition of the dead therefore leaves many of Christendom’s clergymen in an awkward position. The very book on which they claim to base their teachings, the Bible, conflicts with their doctrines. Yet, consciously or subconsciously, they feel impelled to reach into the Bible to seize on something to prove their point, thereby blinding themselves and others to the truth. Often this is done deliberately.
On the other hand, sincere seekers for the truth want to know what is right. They realize that they would only be fooling themselves if they rejected portions of God’s Word while claiming to base their beliefs on other parts. They want to know what the Bible actually says about the condition of the dead. And, to fill out the picture, they want to know the meaning of what is said about the rich man who experienced torment in Hades, and how that fits in with the rest of the Bible.
It was Jesus Christ who spoke about a certain rich man and also a beggar named Lazarus. His words are found at Luke 16:19-31 and read:
“A certain man was rich, and he used to deck himself with purple and linen, enjoying himself from day to day with magnificence. But a certain beggar named Lazarus used to be put at his gate, full of ulcers and desiring to be filled with the things dropping from the table of the rich man. Yes, too, the dogs would come and lick his ulcers. Now in course of time the beggar died and he was carried off by the angels to the bosom position of Abraham.
“Also, the rich man died and was buried. And in Hades he lifted up his eyes, he existing in torments, and he saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus in the bosom position with him. So he called and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in anguish in this blazing fire.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you received in full your good things in your lifetime, but Lazarus correspondingly the injurious things. Now, however, he is having comfort here but you are in anguish. And besides all these things, a great chasm has been fixed between us and you people, so that those wanting to go over from here to you people cannot, neither may people cross over from there to us.’ Then he said, ‘In that event I ask you, father, to send him to the house of my father, for I have five brothers, in order that he may give them a thorough witness, that they also should not get into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to these.’ Then he said, ‘No, indeed, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them they will repent.’ But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’”
Note what is said about the rich man. Why was he tormented in Hades? What had he done? Jesus did not say that the rich man led a degraded life, did he? All that Jesus said was that the man was rich, dressed well and feasted sumptuously. Does such conduct of itself merit punishment by torment? True, a serious failing is implied in the attitude of the rich man toward the beggar Lazarus. The rich man lacked compassion for him. But did that failing distinguish him sufficiently from Lazarus?
Think about what Jesus said concerning Lazarus. Is there anything in the account to lead us to conclude that, if the situation had been reversed, Lazarus would have been a compassionate man? Do we read that Lazarus built up a record of fine works with God, leading to his coming into the “bosom position of Abraham,” that is, a position of divine favor? Jesus did not say that. He merely described Lazarus as a sickly beggar.
So is it logical to conclude that all sickly beggars will receive divine blessings at death, whereas all rich men will go to a place of conscious torment? Not at all. Begging is of itself no mark of God’s favor. To the contrary, the Bible contains the prayerful expression: “Give me neither poverty nor riches.” (Proverbs 30:8) And of his time, King David wrote: “I have not seen anyone righteous left entirely, nor his offspring looking for bread.”—Psalm 37:25.
If we take Jesus’ words literally, we would have to draw still other conclusions that would make the illustration strange indeed. These include: That those enjoying celestial happiness are in position to see and speak to those suffering torment in Hades. That the water adhering to one’s fingertip is not evaporated by the fire of Hades. And, that, although the torment of Hades is great, a mere drop of water would bring relief to the sufferer.
Taken literally, do these things sound reasonable to you? Or, do you feel, instead, that what Jesus said was not meant to be taken literally? Is there any way to be sure?
THE “RICH MAN” AND “LAZARUS” IDENTIFIED
Examine the context. To whom was Jesus talking? At Luke 16:14 we are told: “Now the Pharisees, who were money lovers, were listening to all these things, and they began to sneer at him.”
Since Jesus spoke in the hearing of the Pharisees, was he relating an actual case or was he simply using an illustration? Concerning Jesus’ method of teaching the crowds, we read: “Indeed, without an illustration he would not speak to them.” (Matthew 13:34) Accordingly, the account about the rich man and Lazarus must be an illustration.
This illustration was evidently directed to the Pharisees. As a class they were like the rich man. They loved money, as well as prominence and flattering titles. Jesus said of them: “All the works they do they do to be viewed by men; for they broaden the scripture-containing cases that they wear as safeguards, and enlarge the fringes of their garments. They like the most prominent place at evening meals and the front seats in the synagogues, and the greetings in the marketplaces and to be called Rabbi by men.”—Matthew 23:5-7.
The Pharisees looked down on others, especially on tax collectors, harlots and others having the reputation of being sinners. (Luke 18:11, 12) On one occasion when officers, sent to arrest Jesus, came back empty-handed because of having been impressed by his teaching, the Pharisees spoke up: “You have not been misled also, have you? Not one of the rulers or of the Pharisees has put faith in him, has he? But this crowd that does not know the Law are accursed people.”—John 7:47-49.
Hence, in the parable the beggar Lazarus well represents those humble persons whom the Pharisees despised but who repented and became followers of Jesus Christ. Jesus showed that these despised sinners, upon repenting, would gain a position of divine favor, whereas the Pharisees and other prominent religious leaders as a class would lose out. He said: “Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and the harlots are going ahead of you into the kingdom of God. For John came to you in a way of righteousness, but you did not believe him. However, the tax collectors and the harlots believed him, and you, although you saw this, did not feel regret afterwards so as to believe him.”—Matthew 21:31, 32.
DEATH OF THE “RICH MAN” AND OF “LAZARUS”
What, then, is signified by the death of the “rich man” and of “Lazarus”? We do not need to conclude that it refers to actual death. As used in the Bible, death can also represent a great change in the condition of individuals. For example: Persons pursuing a course of life contrary to God’s will are spoken of as being ‘dead in trespasses and sins.’ But when they come into an approved standing before God as disciples of Jesus Christ they are referred to as coming “alive.” (Ephesians 2:1, 5; Colossians 2:13) At the same time such living persons become “dead” to sin. We read: “Reckon yourselves to be dead indeed with reference to sin but living with reference to God by Christ Jesus.”—Romans 6:11.
Since both the “rich man” and “Lazarus” of Jesus’ parable are clearly symbolic, logically their deaths are also symbolic. But in what sense do they die?
The key to answering this question lies in what Jesus said just before introducing the illustration: “Everyone that divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he that marries a woman divorced from a husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18) This statement may appear to be completely unrelated to the illustration. But this is not the case.
By reason of the Mosaic law the nation of Israel was in a covenant relationship with God and therefore could be spoken of as being a wife to him. At Jeremiah 3:14, for example, God refers to the nation as an unfaithful wife: “‘Return, O you renegade sons,’ is the utterance of Jehovah. ‘For I myself have become the husbandly owner of you people.’” Then, with the coming of Jesus, an opportunity was extended to the Jews to become part of his “bride.” That is why John the Baptist said to his disciples: “You yourselves bear me witness that I said, I am not the Christ, but, I have been sent forth in advance of that one. He that has the bride is the bridegroom. However, the friend of the bridegroom, when he stands and hears him, has a great deal of joy on account of the voice of the bridegroom. Therefore this joy of mine has been made full. That one [Jesus] must go on increasing, but I must go on decreasing.”—John 3:28-30.
In order to become part of Christ’s “bride,” the Jews had to be released from the Law that made them, figuratively speaking, a wife to God. Without such release, they could not come into a wifely relationship with Christ, as that would be an adulterous relationship. The words of Romans 7:1-6 confirm this:
“Can it be that you do not know, brothers, (for I am speaking to those who know law,) that the Law is master over a man as long as he lives? For instance, a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is alive; but if her husband dies, she is discharged from the law of her husband. So, then, while her husband is living, she would be styled an adulteress if she became another man’s. But if her husband dies, she is free from his law, so that she is not an adulteress if she becomes another man’s.
“So, my brothers, you also were made dead to the Law through the body of the Christ, that you might become another’s, the one’s who was raised up from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. . . . Now we have been discharged from the Law, because we have died to that by which we were being held fast, that we might be slaves in a new sense by the spirit, and not in the old sense by the written code.”
While the death of Jesus Christ was the basis for releasing the Jews from the Law, even before his death repentant ones could come into a favored position with God as disciples of his Son. The message and work of John the Baptist and of Jesus Christ opened the door for the Jews to seize the opportunity to gain divine favor and put themselves in line for a heavenly inheritance as members of Christ’s bride. As Jesus himself expressed it: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of the heavens is the goal toward which men press, and those pressing forward are seizing it.”—Matthew 11:12.
Hence, the work and message of John the Baptist and of Jesus Christ began to lead toward a complete change in the condition of the symbolic “rich man” and “Lazarus.” Both classes died to their former condition. The repentant “Lazarus” class came into a position of divine favor, whereas the “rich man” class came under divine disfavor because of persisting in unrepentance. At one time the “Lazarus” class had looked to the Pharisees and other religious leaders of Judaism for spiritual “crumbs.” But Jesus’ imparting the truth to them filled their spiritual needs. Contrasting the spiritual feeding provided by Jesus with that of the religious leaders, the Bible reports: “The crowds were astounded at his way of teaching; for he was teaching them as a person having authority, and not as their scribes.” (Matthew 7:28, 29) Truly a complete reversal had taken place. The religious leaders of Judaism were shown up as having nothing to offer to the “Lazarus” class.
On the day of Pentecost of the year 33 C.E. the change in conditions was accomplished. At that time the new covenant replaced the old Law covenant. Those who had repented and accepted Jesus were then fully released from the old Law covenant. They died to it. On that day of Pentecost there was also unmistakable evidence that the disciples of Jesus Christ had been exalted far above the Pharisees and other prominent religious leaders. Not the religious leaders of Judaism, but these disciples received God’s spirit, enabling them to speak about “the magnificent things of God” in the native languages of people from widely scattered places. (Acts 2:5-11) What a marvelous manifestation this was of their having God’s blessing and approval! The “Lazarus” class had indeed come into the favored situation by becoming the spiritual seed of the Greater Abraham, Jehovah. This was pictured as the “bosom position.”—Compare John 1:18.
As for the unrepentant Pharisees and other prominent religious leaders, they were dead to their former position of seeming favor. They were in “Hades.” Remaining unrepentant, they were separated from the faithful disciples of Jesus as if by a “great chasm.” This was a “chasm” of God’s unchangeable, righteous judgment. Of this, we read in Scripture: “Your judicial decision is a vast watery deep.”—Psalm 36:6.
THE “RICH MAN’S” TORMENT
The “rich man” class was also tormented. How? By the fiery judgment messages of God being proclaimed by Jesus’ disciples.—Compare Revelation 14:10.
That the religious leaders were tormented by the message proclaimed by Jesus’ disciples there can be no question. They tried desperately to stop the proclamation. When the apostles of Jesus Christ made their defense before the Jewish supreme court composed of prominent religious men, the judges “felt deeply cut and were wanting to do away with them.” (Acts 5:33) Later, the disciple Stephen’s defense had a like tormenting effect upon the members of that court. “They felt cut to their hearts and began to gnash their teeth at him.”—Acts 7:54.
These religious leaders wanted the disciples of Jesus to come and ‘cool their tongue.’ They wanted the “Lazarus” class to leave the “bosom position” of God’s favor and present his message in such a way as not to cause them discomfort. Similarly, they wanted the “Lazarus” class to water down God’s message so as not to put their “five brothers,” their religious allies, in a “place of torment.” Yes, they did not want any of their associates to be tormented by judgment messages.
But, as indicated by Jesus’ illustration, neither the “rich man” class nor his religious allies would be freed from the tormenting effects of the message proclaimed by the “Lazarus” class. The apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ refused to water down the message. They refused to stop teaching on the basis of Jesus’ name. Their reply to the Jewish supreme court was: “We must obey God as ruler rather than men.”—Acts 5:29.
If the religious allies of the “rich man” wanted to escape that torment, they could do so. They had “Moses and the Prophets,” that is, they had the inspired Holy Scriptures written by Moses and other ancient prophets. Not once did those inspired Scriptures point to any literal place of torment after death, but they did contain all that was necessary to identify Jesus as the promised Messiah or Christ. (Deuteronomy 18:15, 18, 19; 1 Peter 1:10, 11) Hence, if the “rich man” class and his “five brothers” had paid attention to “Moses and the Prophets,” they would have accepted Jesus as the Messiah. That would have brought them in line for divine favor and shielded them from the tormenting effects of God’s judgment message.
CHRISTENDOM SHOULD KNOW
There is little reason for Christendom’s clergymen not to be familiar with this understanding of Jesus’ parable. A leading Protestant commentary, The Interpreter’s Bible, calls attention to a similar explanation. It points out that many interpreters believe Jesus’ words to be “an allegorical appendix that presupposes the conflict between early Christianity and orthodox Judaism. The rich man and his brothers represent the unbelieving Jews. Jesus is made to assert that they have stubbornly refused to repent in spite of the obvious testimony to himself in Scripture and to predict that they will fail to be impressed by his resurrection. It is conceivable that Luke and his readers imposed some such interpretation on these verses.” And, in a footnote on Luke chapter 16, the Catholic Jerusalem Bible acknowledges that this is a “parable in story form without reference to any historical personage.”
In view of this, we can rightly ask: Why have Christendom’s clergymen not at least acknowledged to their church people that this is a parable? Why do those who know that the Bible does not teach the immortality of the human soul continue to put a literal application on an obvious parable? Is this not dishonest? Are they not showing disregard for the Word of God, deliberately hiding the facts?
The illustration of the rich man and Lazarus contains vital lessons for us today. Are we paying attention to the inspired Word of God? Do we desire to follow it as devoted disciples of Jesus Christ? Those who refuse to do so, like the Jewish Pharisees, will not escape the tormenting effects of God’s judgment message against them. His loyal servants will keep right on declaring the truth, fearlessly exposing religious error.
Where do you stand in this matter? Do you believe there should be a letup on such an exposure, feeling that there is good in all religions? Or, do you feel indignant about Christendom’s misrepresenting God by its false doctrines about the dead? Do you want to see God’s name cleared of the reproach brought upon it through the teaching of false doctrines? Do you desire to see no effort spared in freeing honest-hearted ones from bondage to religious falsehoods? If you do, you will find God’s purpose concerning the dead and the living most comforting.