Chapter Twenty-Seven


ONE portion of Scripture more than any other is relied upon to support the doctrine of the soul’s immortality, the conscious state of the dead, and the soul’s entrance into a state of rewards and punishment immediately after death. It is also the chief reliance of the papal doctrine of purgatory.

This passage of Scripture enters into all arguments and discussions of these subjects. It is believed to contain the materials for answering all objections to the teaching of the conscious state of the dead. It is supposed to be sufficient to pulverize and demolish all opposition to the teaching of human immortality.

This is the passage:

“There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day: And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried; and in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: for I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.” Luke 16:19-31.

Those who use these words of our Lord to defend the teaching of the natural immortality of the human soul assume, without any warrant whatever, that the Great Teacher in these words intended to teach, and does teach, and meant His hearers to believe that the dead are conscious; that the souls of all men, both lost and saved, are conscious, and that on leaving this world at the time of death, all men go at once to a state of blessedness and joy or of torment and misery, unchangeable and endless.

With the help of a lively imagination this parable has supplied the materials for the most terrible descriptions of the never-ending agonies of lost souls in a world of complete despair. It has been used times without number as the text for terrifying discourses designed to frighten men and women into the church.

A Parable—Not History, Not Biography

Notwithstanding the use which has been made of these words of our Lord (it should be pointed out that it has been a wholly unwarranted and terribly deplorable use), it must be emphasized that when this parable is made the subject of sober and careful examination, nothing at all in its language can be discovered which would cause any person to suppose that Jesus intended by it to teach anything whatever regarding the condition of those who are dead. That is not what He was talking about. That was not what He had in mind. He had altogether another purpose, and He carried it out with impressive competence and effectiveness.

This passage is a parable. That is generally admitted. Scarcely a commentator, ancient or modern, can be found who insists that this language in all its parts is to be understood literally. Indeed, to do so is wholly impossible. This is not history. It is not biography. It is a parable.

Emphasis is laid upon the nature of the narrative as a parable because most Biblical scholars agree that parables should not be made the foundation of doctrine.

This being a parable, it must be treated and understood as a parable. If it were a biographical sketch, it would be accepted as such. It is not. If it were literal history, it would be allowable to press it into service to support any theory it would sustain. Indeed, if it were biographical and historical, it could be properly used to demonstrate the falsity of every teaching which could not be made to harmonize with all its details.
The proper office of parables, however, is to illustrate and enforce accepted truths which are founded on well-known teachings. Their metaphors, their scenic representations, and their personnel are to be understood not as realities, but as imaginary. Moreover, it is inadmissible to take certain portions of parables, those portions, for instance, which may suit the user’s convenience and purpose, as real and literal while rejecting as unreal such other portions as cannot be bended to one’s purposes. No parable can be properly used in such a fashion. If it could be, then by ingenious manipulation it may be made to prove anything the user may want it to prove.

When it comes to settling and establishing matters of Christian doctrine, the foundation pillars of the church of Christ, parables are never made the source of such procedure. Doctrines once established on plain statements of Scripture, and in this way firmly planted and grounded, may then be illustrated and additionally confirmed by parables.

Parables can be used with impressive and telling effect in their proper sphere, as our Lord constantly demonstrated. This was His method of teaching the people generally. So invariably was it His custom that Matthew avers that “without a parable spake he not unto them.” (Matthew 13:34. ) It is when He left the multitudes and spoke to His immediate disciples that He abandoned the parabolic form of teaching. There is, of course, language in His addresses to the multitude which is not couched in parables. Generally, however, this will be discerned merely to be connective links between His parabolic instruction, or language contained in His replies to the arguments and questions of His opponents.

The parabolic nature of this narrative is emphasized because in recent years those who feel the need of increasingly defending the unscriptural doctrine of human immortality have manifested a growing disposition to claim this passage of Scripture is not really a parable, but is history. They have been crowded into this assumption because they have been made uncomfortably aware that their cherished doctrine of eternal torment is coming to be recognized as resting on very insecure foundations.

Doctrine Must Determine Parabolic Teaching

They are, for instance, aware that parables are dark sayings; that they are closely related to fables used to point morals, or rather, are identical; that the story construction by which the moral is to be inculcated is not always, and not necessarily, true to reality; that if dead men are represented as holding converse, as in this particular case, so also are trees made to hold political discourse in another part of Scripture; that parables must always be interpreted by the established and accepted teaching of general Scripture truth; that parables must never be allowed to impose their interpretations as a substitute for such general truth of the Scripture.

For these reasons theologians who have been deceived into accepting the error of human immortality have been concerned to shift this passage of Scripture from the domain of parable to that of history. They have little to base their dogma on in any case, and they become uneasy when they recognize its chief prop is not very solid. They would, therefore, have us now believe that this narrative is a literal history of what actually happened to two actual men apart from their bodies, existing as two ghosts or spirits, experiencing ghostly misery and ghostly joy in the state which intervenes between dying and rising, and conversing together just as described by Jesus.

They are wholly reluctant and unwilling, however, to follow their insistence on a literal historicity and literalness to its ultimate conclusion. They stop short of insisting that all the circumstances of the narrative actually occurred. They concede that some parts of it must be figurative, parabolical, in short, not real. They are not willing to admit that the alleged conversation between the rich man and Lazarus really occurred. Consequently their conclusion is that part of it is history and part of it is parable. The part which is history is, of course, the part which supports their otherwise unsupported dogma. The part which is parable is the part which has no bearing on the point they have to prove, and they are willing that it shall be looked upon as figuratively as anyone desires.

Subject to the Law of Parables

It is to be wondered whether this satisfies even themselves. It certainly satisfies no one else. It will never do. It is not in any degree admissible. Either this narrative is a parable or it is not. Either it is history or it is not. If it is parable, it is all parable. If it is history, it is all history, and all equally true. If it is parable, it is all subject to the law and rules of parables, and must be understood accordingly.
Any person, just as far but no farther than the general teaching of Scripture permits, is free to accept the narrative in all its parts. Any person is free to accept it as all true, or as having a substantial truth, or as having only a resemblance to truth, precisely as plainer and more literal Scriptures make clear.

What then, by those who would accept this narrative as history, is it supposed to teach?

It is supposed to provide support, which cannot be found elsewhere in Scripture, for the teaching that the soul is the true man and is capable of experiencing life, joy, and sorrow apart from the body; that the beginning of future rewards and punishments is when man, in death, discards the garment of the body, laying it aside as worn out; that the soul is capable of an existence separated from the body; that the souls of the righteous when they leave the body at death immediately enter into an endless state of conscious blessedness; that the souls of the wicked at death immediately enter into a state of endless torment; that life, both of the godly and the ungodly, is perpetuated without break or interruption after death.

It is not difficult to see the reason why great value is set upon this narrative by those who insist it is history, not parable. It is the chief pillar undergirding the wholly false dogma of human immortality. If it is removed, that un-scriptural teaching is left in a most precarious condition. The unsound and wholly fanciful notion that death is identical with life, rooted in the original lie of the great deceiver, and pervading the whole pagan world, and making its way into the Christian church, is considered here to be furnished with a Scriptural foundation. Wholly unknown and positively rejected throughout the Scriptures elsewhere, this doctrine is thought to find countenance here.

Consequently those who tenaciously cling to their pet doctrine of human immortality desperately hold to the literality of the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. If this can be truly shown to support their views, then they have reason to feel they have managed to give a Scriptural basis to a doctrine which lacks such a basis elsewhere.

Narrative Wholly Figurative

They are wrong. If indeed they could demonstrate that this parable truly supports the doctrine of natural immortality, the consequence would be otherwise than they think. It would rather demonstrate that a grave contradiction exists between this part of Scripture and every other part, or it would provide positive reason to believe that the parable of the rich man, notwithstanding the authority of the manuscripts, is nevertheless no part of the genuine gospel of Luke.

The properties, the materials, the scenes, and the persons of this narrative are wholly figurative, altogether suppositional. They were meant to be so. Jesus had in mind to teach certain definite, positive truths. He chose this way to teach them. He taught them with impressive effectiveness, more forcibly in this manner, no doubt, than He could have done by any other method.

Other Figurative Narratives

This was no new method in Scripture. It had been used before, often by the Saviour Himself. But not alone by Jesus. There is an instance which is similar, when Jotham spoke to the men of Shechem in this fashion:

“The trees went forth on a time to anoint a king over them; and they said unto the olive tree, Reign thou over us. But the olive tree said unto them, Should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees? And the trees said to the fig tree, Come thou, and reign over us. But the fig tree said unto them, Should I forsake my sweetness, and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees? Then said the trees unto the vine, Come thou, and reign over us. And the vine said unto them, Should I leave my wine, which cheereth God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees? Then said all the trees unto the bramble, Come thou, and reign over us. And the bramble said unto the trees, If in truth ye anoint me king over you, then come and put your trust in my shadow: and if not, let fire come out of the bramble, and devour the cedars of Lebanon. Now therefore, if ye have done truly and sincerely, in that ye have made Abimelech king, and if ye have dealt well with Jerubbaal and his house, and have done unto him according to the deserving of his hands; (for my father fought for you, and adventured his life far, and delivered you out of the hand of Midian: and ye are risen up against my father’s house this day, and have slain his sons, threescore and ten persons, upon one stone, and have made Abimelech, the son of his maidservant, king over the men of Shechem, because he is your brother; ) if ye then have dealt truly and sincerely with Jerubbaal and with his house this day, then rejoice ye in Abimelech, and let him also rejoice in you: But if not, let fire come out from Abimelech, and devour the men of Shechem, and the house of Millo; and let fire come out from the men of Shechem, and from the house of Millo, and devour Abimelech. And Jotham ran away, and fled, and went to Beer and dwelt there, for fear of Abimelech his brother.” Judges 9:8-21.

Another instance of a similar kind is found in the parable which the prophet Nathan constructed, by which to make King David recognize the enormity of his sin with Bathsheba and Uriah. That parable, fashioned to fit the occasion, is thus stated:

“And the Lord sent Nathan unto David. And he came unto him, and said unto him, There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds: but the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up: and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveller unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was come unto him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come to him. And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die: and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity. And Nathan said to David, Thou art the man.” 2 Samuel 12:1-7.

The same parabolic principle is used by Isaiah, who describes the entombed monarchs’, spoken of as fir trees, rejoicing over the downfall of Babylon. Isaiah’s words are:

“Hell [the grave] from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations. All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us? Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, … the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee.” Isaiah 14:9-11.

Not Historical Verities

No one needs to be told that trees do not talk together. They are not ruled over by a king. The things Jotham described in his story never took place. The things Nathan related to David never occurred. Isaiah’s parable was not a narrative of facts. Nevertheless, these parables were most effective, and all taught important truths. The use of such parables is perfectly proper and useful. They have been employed not alone by our Lord but by many other great teachers.

The story of the rich man and Lazarus is not a historic verity. The things there related did not take place. They are not taking place now. They never will take place. In the very nature of things they are impossible.

This, however, does not mean that this parable is destitute of value and purpose. Its purpose has been realized. Its value is of great importance.

The terms of the parable need more than a casual glance. They are Abraham’s bosom; Hades, or the grave; the tongues, fingers, and eyes of the spirits; water as a material agent for cooling a spirit tongue; the great gulf fixed; the conversation between the rich man and Abraham, the lost and the saved. It is necessary to reconcile all these with anything taught elsewhere in Scripture.

Nowhere in Scripture, save in this connection, is there mention of Abraham’s bosom. If such a place exists, how unaccountable it is that no Scriptural description of it is given! Can it be in heaven? In that case heaven is so near hell that the inhabitants of each can both see and talk with one another—a most repulsive conception.

Not Designed to Be Understood Literally

The Hades referred to in the parable is described as a place to which the rich man was consigned, and where he was tormented. But the Scriptures teach, as has been shown, that the wicked do not go to their retribution when they die, but are reserved to the day of judgment to be punished. (Job 21:30; 2 Peter 2:9. ) The judgment is still future. (Acts 17:31. ) To believe that the rich man is at present in torment is to repudiate the Scripture.

Tongues, fingers, and eyes are members of the physical body. It is not clear how they could be useful to disembodied spirits. Such spirits are so immaterial and ethereal as to be more unsubstantial and lighter than the most rarified gas. It must be kept in mind that the time of this parable is before the resurrection is supposed to reunite body with spirit. It is during the time of death.

No one would have difficulty in understanding that material water would be of genuine service in cooling the actual tongue of a physical man when fire was consuming him. But how can material water possibly be of helpful service in its cooling properties to a spirit tongue, which is invisible, intangible, imponderable, immaterial? Or can it be possible there is such a thing as spirit water? How much real water could a spirit finger apply to a spirit tongue? And, in the circumstances of the parable, is it the spirit tongue only which would be in need of cooling?

Material or Immaterial?

Disembodied spirits in Hades are not supposed to be material spirits, if such a thing can be conceived. These supposedly disembodied spirits of the rich man and Lazarus in Hades are held to be immaterial. That being so, they have no body, no substance. How can that which has neither body nor substance be seen, or touched, or felt?

Here is an immaterial rich man, in immaterial flames, with immaterial eyes, seeing an immaterial Lazarus, in the immaterial bosom of an immaterial Abraham. To have any consistency at all, all this must take place in an immaterial hell!

This is only the beginning of the absurdities which confront those who insist on forcing a literal meaning into this figurative representation. This immaterial rich man desires that an immaterial Lazarus shall dip his immaterial finger and somehow manage to take up a sufficient amount of literal and material water to cool a literal and material tongue. (Can it be that the tongue is immaterial?)

All this is supposed to be literal history. But if it is to be insisted on that one drop of material water can cool the immaterial heat of an immaterial fire, such an exegesis appears only as a monumental example of material folly, and makes immaterial nonsense of the entire passage.

The story represents Abraham as saying that between him and the rich man a “great gulf” is fixed, so great as to be impassable. It is at once disclosed, however, that it is not too great to see over and talk over. Why then impassable? Especially when it is recalled that one attribute of disembodied spirits is supposed to be the ability to dart here and there, and appear instantly in the most widely separated places, and with a speed that virtually annihilates space?

The parable represents Abraham and the rich man, . in this spirit world, carrying on a conversation. The rich man makes a request. Abraham points out why this request cannot be granted. If such a conversation between dead persons actually took place, then everything the Scriptures elsewhere teach about the dead must be held as untrue.

Scripture Teaching Positive and Plain

The teaching of the Scriptures about the dead outside this parable is most positive and plain. It is set forth in such passages as these:
“The living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything.” Ecclesiastes 9:5.

“Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. His breath goeth forth, he returneth  to his earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” Psalm 146:3, 4.

“Their love and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished.”  Ecclesiastes 9:6.

“Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave [in Hades] whither thou goest.” Ecclesiastes 9:10.

If, indeed, dead Abraham and the dead rich man did actually converse together in Hades (the grave), then the Scriptures outside this parable are wrong in what they teach about the dead. If the Scripture teaching about the dead is true, then this parable must not be considered as being factual in its story construction. Both cannot be right. We must make our choice between those declarations of God’s Word which are plain and wholly free from figures and obscurity, and this passage, which is clearly a parable.

Read Chapter 28: The Rich Man and Lazarus—Conclusion

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