Bible Truth Examiner


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Scriptures are cited from the King James (Authorized) Version, unless stated otherwise.

IN the last study we examined the Hebrew word sheol in the Old Testament, as applied to the first hell, and the Greek word hades in the New Testament, which always refers to the first hell. Applying the three commonly used definitions of hell, we found that the only one which fits in every case is that which defines hell as a condition of oblivion, unconsciousness. Let us complete our study of the first hell by considering the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where the word hades is also found. Many base their thought of hell as a place of torment on this parable (Luke 16: 19-31), so an examination of this passage should help clarify any misconceptions.

Those holding to the literal interpretation of the parable teach that there was a rich man who lived very luxuriously; and there was also a beggar, named Lazarus, who was very hungry and lay at the rich man’s gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Lazarus died and was carried by angels into Abraham’s bosom, supposedly in heaven; then the rich man also died and went to hades (hell), where he suffered torment, while seeing Lazarus afar off in Abraham’s bosom; whereupon he cried to Abraham to have mercy on him and to send Lazarus, so that the later might dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue. Abraham denied his petition on the ground that he had received good things in this life while Lazarus received evil things, and that it was impossible for any to cross a great gulf fixed between the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man then asked that his five brethren be notified, lest they also come into the place of torment. Abraham denied this petition also, saying that they had Moses and the prophets, whom they should hear. The rich man pleaded that if one rose from the dead and went to them, they would repent, but Abraham said that if they did not believe Moses and the prophets, they would not be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.

Twelve Objections to the Parable’s Literal Interpretation

Let us consider twelve Scriptural, logical and factual objections to the literal interpretation of this parable:

(1.) It is contrary to God’s character, described in Jeremiah 9: 24: “But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD.” This passage names the four great attributes of God – “exerciseth” (power), “lovingkindness” (love), “judgment” (wisdom) and “righteousness” (justice). Other Scriptures also show God’s four great attributes, such as (Ezekiel 1: 5-14) (Revelation 4: 6, 7) (Job 37: 23) (Deuteronomy 32: 4), etc. It is contrary to God’s wisdom, for wisdom devises plans by which useful ends are attained, and there is surely no useful purpose in keeping the rich man in a place of torment eternally. It is contrary to His justice, for justice demands the forfeiture of man’s life for sin (Genesis 2: 17), therefore, it would be a violation of God’s justice for Him to preserve and eternally torture the wicked. It violates God’s love, for anyone who properly appreciates God’s love could not believe that He would eternally torture His creatures without doing anything for their relief. It also violates God’s power, which is composed of self-control and patience. Power carries out God’s plans, which are intended to bless the human race (Genesis 12: 1-3), therefore, tormenting the rich man would not be a proper exercise of God’s power.

(2.) The literal interpretation is contrary to the ransom. 1 Corinthians 15: 3: “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures.” See also Romans 6: 23. It would indicate that men suffer torture after death as the penalty for their sins, but since our Lord suffered our penalty for us, as the ransom, the corresponding price (1 Timothy 2: 6), and since it was death that constituted that penalty, we see how contrary to the ransom the literal interpretation is. Additionally, it would not provide a trial for life for either the rich man or Lazarus, something that Jesus’ death on Calvary’s cross guarantees them. Therefore, the condemnation of a literal rich man to eternal torment would totally ignore God’s provision of a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2: 6).

(3.) It is contrary to the Bible view of hell. In the last study we examined some Scriptures which proved that hell is the opposite of life. We also took up passages which prove that hell is an unconscious condition. A few more texts which prove that hell is an unconscious follow:

Job 14: 21: “His sons come to honour, and he knoweth it not; and they are brought low, but he perceiveth it not of them.” The dead father knows nothing pertaining to his children – neither when they are honored, nor when they are disgraced – therefore he is utterly unconscious.

Ecclesiastes 9: 5, 6: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not anything, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, and their hatred, and their envy, is now perished; neither have they any more a portion for ever in any thing that is done under the sun.” The living know that they shall die under the Adamic curse, but the dead are utterly unconscious in the death state. This disproves the idea that they are in torment or in bliss, for if in either torment or bliss, they would know it. Neither have they any more a reward, for if they were in either heaven or a place of torment, they would either have bliss as a reward for righteousness, or punishment for their wickedness. The dead have also ceased to love, to hate, and to envy. The righteous would surely continue to love if they were in a paradise of bliss, and the wicked would continue to hate and envy those in bliss, if still conscious.

The Bible also uses the figure of sleep to describe the condition of death, for when one is in a deep, dreamless sleep, he is oblivious of all that is going on around him. Daniel 12: 2 reads: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” The dead are here mentioned as sleeping in the dust of the earth, but in due time, when Messiah comes to reign over the earth, they are awakened. They are therefore unconscious while in the death state, and are in neither torment nor bliss. The good are said to come back to life, therefore, were not living until the resurrection; and the wicked to shame and contempt, if, or until, they reform under Messiah’s Kingdom.

Based upon Satan’s Original Lie

(4.) The doctrine which teaches a literal interpretation is based upon Satan’s original lie (John 8: 44). God said to Adam in Genesis 2: 17: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Satan contradicted God by saying to Adam, and primarily to Eve, that “Ye shall not surely die: For God doth know that . . . ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3: 4, 5). Satan’s words implied, You shall not really die; actually you will live on, but you will change your mode of existence. Instead of remaining human beings, you will be changed into spirit beings. Do what I have told you, and you will experience bliss, but if not, you will be tormented. This original lie surely is contrary to the Bible doctrine that the dead are unconscious.

(5.) It is wrong because it violates the method of parabolic interpretation. Parables are to be interpreted as parables and not as literal stories. For example, when Jesus spoke of the four kinds of soil (Matthew 13: 3-23), He was not referring to literal soil, but to four kinds of hearts into which the Word of the Lord is sown. Those by the wayside are those whose hearts are hard, who do not accept the Truth, but allow the birds of the air, the demons and false teachers, to come and take the Truth out of their hearts.

(6.) The literal interpretation teaches a wrong method of condemnation, for there is nothing evil said about the rich man. It is not a sin to be rich; God Himself is very rich. It is not wrong to fare sumptuously under healthful conditions. There is nothing wrong in wearing purple and fine linen, nor in feeding scraps to a beggar, which the rich man apparently did. If such things bring one into eternal torment, then we are all bound for it; and had better get rid of our purple and linens and never eat a square meal.

Teaches wrong way to gain Salvation

(7.) It teaches a wrong method of salvation. There is nothing good said of Lazarus. There is nothing virtuous in being hungry, in lying as a beggar at a rich man’s gate and wanting to be fed with the crumbs that fall from his table, nor in having sores or in letting dogs lick one’s sores. If that is the way to gain salvation, then we should all become beggars, sit at the gate of some rich man’s house, be hungry and want him to give us the crumbs that fall from his table and let the dogs lick our sores.

(8.) The literal interpretation teaches impossibilities and absurdities. If we consider Abraham’s bosom as literal, how many beggars would it hold? Or consider Lazarus dipping his finger into water: Would it be possible for water to remain on the tip of his finger if it were brought into the presence of that flame? The rich man would certainly need more than a drop of water to cool his tongue in order to be relieved from torture in literal fire. Another example is the great gulf fixed. Why would those in bliss wish to pass over into eternal torment? And how could a literal gulf prevent spirit beings from passing over it?

(9.) It is contrary to its advocates’ view of the soul. Those who advocate eternal torment in hell (hades, sheol), claim that the soul is not made up of parts, that it is invisible, microscopic, infinitesimal and indivisible, that it has no interior or exterior, and that you can put a billion of them into a nutshell. But all this contradicts their view of the parable, because the rich man had parts in which he was tormented, and the poor man had parts that were resting in Abraham’s bosom.

Violates the Object of God’s Plan

(10.) The literal interpretation is contrary to the object of God’s Plan, which is to glorify God and Christ and to bring blessings to men in harmony with God’s arrangements. But if God begins to torment people as soon as they die, it would be a disgrace instead of being a glory to Him. It would violate God’s four attributes: wisdom, power, justice and love (see point one). It would also disgrace Christ as God’s Agent in all of God’s arrangements. Furthermore, it would prevent the carrying out of God’s Plan, especially the blessing of the Church and the non-elect in due time, for in Abraham’s Seed “shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 22: 18).

(11.) It makes Abraham a liar, for according to the parable, Abraham is said to have told the rich man that his five brothers had Moses and the prophets and that if they would hear them, neither would they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead. But the Bible tells us that many people who did not previously believe the preaching of Jesus and the Apostles did so when they found out that Peter raised Dorcas from the dead (Acts 9: 42). Likewise, some believed when they found out that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11: 45).

(12.) Finally, the literal interpretation is contrary to the context (Luke 16: 14-18). Jesus used this parable to illustrate a change of dispensation from the Law Covenant to the Gospel Age Covenant of Grace, which was ministered by Jesus, the Apostles and the other brethren whom God has been using as His mouthpieces to declare the Gospel. The literal interpretation would make the context inapplicable and the parable a misfit.

The Parable’s Symbolic Interpretation

Let us now consider the symbolic interpretation of this parable. We understand that before he died, the rich man represents the Jewish nation, Fleshly Israel, during the Jewish Age; and after he died, Fleshly Israel during the Gospel Age. God promised that they would become a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19: 5, 6), if loyal to their covenant relationship, symbolized by their wearing linen and purple garments. They fared sumptuously on the law and the prophets which God gave to them (Romans 3: 1, 2). The death of the rich man pictures Israel ceasing to be God’s people when they rejected Christ (Matthew 23: 38). But they were not cast off forever, for they will be received again as God’s people in the Millennial Age (Romans 11: 7-15, 25-31). Yet during the Gospel Age, they have been cast off, represented in the death of the rich man and in his being consigned to hades, hell, oblivion.

Lazarus represents various God-fearing Gentiles, who, during the Jewish Age, like Lazarus at the rich man’s gate, longed to be filled with the crumbs of truth and favor that fell from the rich man’s table, and frequently they received such crumbs (Mark 7: 25-30). The dogs that licked Lazarus’ sores represented philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, etc. who by their philosophies tried to heal the human family of their sin-cursed faults, lacks and blemishes, but who were unable to do so. The death of the beggar represents the Gentiles ceasing to be aliens and strangers from God, but now drawing near to God through Christ (Ephesians 2: 12, 13). They were carried by the angels (messengers – Jesus and the Apostles) into Abraham’s bosom, which represented fatherhood. They were made children of God and came into His favor, for Abraham here represents God (Romans 4: 11-17).

Death and burial illustrates the dissolution of Israel as a nation and their burial or hiding among the other nations. Verse 23: “In hell [hades, the condition of oblivion into which the Jews entered as a nation] he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off.” The Lord here shows that great sufferings or “torments” would be added to the Jews after their national dissolution and burial among other peoples, dead in trespasses and sins. His seeing Abraham afar off with Lazarus in His bosom represents the Jewish nation recognizing that God was no longer favoring them as formerly, and their recognizing the Gentiles brought nigh, into sonship through Christ.

The rich man cried for mercy and longed for Lazarus (the Jews expected mercy from professed Christians) to dip the tip of his finger (to render comforting service) in water (the water of God’s Word – Ephesians 5: 26) and cool his tongue (give him a message from God to declare). His pleading for some easing of his torment represents how the Jewish people have prayed to God that He might free them from some of the miseries which they have had during the many centuries of the Gospel Age, for they have been persecuted relentlessly by all classes, including professed Christians.

In verses 25 and 26 Abraham made a twofold answer to the rich man. This represents first, God’s addressing the Jews, calling them “son” (for they were children of the Law Covenant) and telling them that their torments have been the penalties suffered due to their violations of that Covenant (Leviticus 26). Second, he told them that there was a great gulf fixed between them and the Christians, that gulf being Christ. This was impassable from one side to the other, for without coming through Christ no one could become a child of God, and no true child of God would violate God’s arrangements for the Gospel Age by giving the Jews the comfort that the Gospel gives, without their accepting Christ.

The Jews then prayed that help be sent to their brethren. The two tribes that returned from captivity in Babylon – Judah and Benjamin – represent the rich man. Therefore, his five brethren would represent the ten tribes that were dispersed and never did return, except for a few individuals, from their Assyrian captivity. These are often referred to as “the ten lost tribes of Israel.” During the Gospel Age the Jews have prayed that God would send someone to help these ten tribes. Abraham replied that they had Moses and the prophets, and that they should hear them.

The Jews then put their request in another form – If one were to come from the dead, the figurative death of sin, from which the Lazarus class came (Ephesians 2: 1) (Colossians 2: 12, 13) (Colossians 3: 1), and would testify to them, they would believe. God answered that if they would not believe Moses and the prophets, which the ten and the two tribes had received, neither would they repent before the preaching of one who would come from the symbolic death from which the Gentiles had come during the Gospel Age, since they had become children of God.