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The Rich Man in Hell

Luke 16: 19-31



Scriptures cited are to the King James (Authorised) Version


IN THE Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it is stated of the rich man that “in hell” he lifted up his eyes, “being in torments” (Luke 16: 23). This is the only passage in the Bible in which is suggested the possibility that there is thought, or feeling, in hades, or sheol. We cannot suppose, however, that this text is contradictory to the definition of sheol given us by the prophet when he declared that there is no knowledge, wisdom, nor device, but only oblivion in the grave in sheol. Nor can we suppose that Job blundered when he prayed to go to sheol in order to escape suffering (Job 14: 13):


O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave [sheol], that thou wouldest keep me secret, until thy wrath be past, that thou wouldest appoint me a set time, and remember me!


A Misapprehension

On studying the details of Luke 16: 19-31 it is apparent that the passage does not relate a real event, for it is a parable, one of many that Jesus employed to teach His disciples and the people in general. By seizing upon this story to prove the torture theory, many have erroneously presented it as incidental proof that the righteous go to heavenly bliss and the wicked to a place of eternal torment. But the parable says nothing about either the wicked or the righteous, nor heaven.


Rich and Poor

There is a poor man and a rich man, but there is nothing said about their virtues nor about their sins. They both die. The poor man is carried by the angels to “Abraham’s bosom,” not heaven. Even if this were a literal statement of fact, it would not put the poor man in heaven, because Abraham is not in heaven. We know this because Jesus said, “No man hath ascended up to heaven” (John 3:13).


In death the rich man is said to see the poor man in Abraham’s bosom, and begs him to send a drop of water to cool his tongue. Abraham’s literal bosom had turned to dust long centuries before this parable was given, hence the expression must be symbolic; and if that is symbolic, the remainder of the account must also be a word-picture of something more than the experience of two men after they died.


Who Are These Two ‘Men’?

The most reasonable view as to the meaning of the parable is that these two represented two groups, or we might say, nations. The rich man, with the various details related concerning him, seems clearly to be a symbol of the Jewish nation, while the poor man is a true representation of the Gentiles and the position they were in at the time the parable was given.


The nation fared sumptuously every day, as the parable states. That is, the promises of God belonged to them, and upon these they were privileged to feast. Their table was laden with these good things from the Word of God. The purple robe of the rich man represented the royal hopes of the nation, and his fine white linen represented the standing of righteousness the nation enjoyed as a result of the typical sacrifices which were made year by year for them. While this righteousness was merely typical anticipatory of the righteousness enjoyed by spiritual Israel through the blood of Christ, nevertheless, it gave them a standing before God which other nations did not enjoy.


One Died, One Lived

Israel died as a nation, and lost all these special favours of the Lord, but the individuals comprising the nation continued to live, and each successive generation of these throughout the centuries has suffered. They have suffered because of being members of a nation that was dead.


The poor man representing the Gentiles also died to that condition of alienation from God which was theirs prior to the first advent of Christ. Believing Gentiles were carried into Abraham’s bosom; that is, they became the children of Abraham through faith, and inherited the promises of God which were made to and through him. The whole Gentile world particularly where the Gospel has been at least nominally accepted has benefited from this great change. Representatives of the dead nation of Israel, from time to time in the past, appealed to the favoured Gentile nations for mercy and assistance, but little help was given.


The key that identifies the rich man of the parable is in the statement concerning his five brothers  “They have Moses and the prophets.” This was only ever true of the Jewish nation, which was divided into twelve tribes. Following the Babylonian captivity, it was mostly the members of the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin that returned to Judea, although some of all the tribes returned.


It was largely, therefore, the two tribes to whom Jesus ministered, and who would be represented by this rich man of the parable. If this one man represented two tribes, the other ten tribes could be well represented by his five brethren, and the parable shows that they shared the same fate because they had failed to hear Moses and the prophets.


That Jesus pointed to Himself is evident in v. 31, when He says (emphasis added),


If they [the Jews] hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they [the Jewish nation] be persuaded [to believe], though one rose from the dead.


Thus viewed, this entire passage does indeed fit the category of a parable in which the things stated represent other things and does not offer a credible defence of the doctrine of eternal torment.



11/2020 – adapted - no copyright


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