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Heaven, Hell, and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man

In my new book I will be arguing that the Gospel of Luke is distinctive in the New Testament for promoting the idea that a person is given postmortem rewards and punishments (that is, immediately after death), and that this is unlike anything found in the words of the historical Jesus himself.  Luke’s view is most emphatically and intriguingly conveyed in one of his most famous passages, and possibly the best known account of the afterlife in the entire New Testament, his story of “Lazarus and the Rich Man.”  I will be arguing that this is not a story that Jesus himself told.  A later storyteller (or Luke himself?) placed it on Jesus lips.

The story appears in Luke 16:19-31 in the context of a number of parables and other sayings of Jesus.   In it, Jesus contrasts two lives.  There is an unnamed rich man dressed in fine clothes who enjoys sumptuous meals every day; at the gate of his home lies a beggar named Lazarus, starving, desperate even to get the scraps off the rich man’s table.  The scene is pathetic.  Dogs come up and lick Lazarus’s wounds.

Both men die.   Lazarus is …

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The Fate of the Rich and the Poor: Another Story
The Lake of Fire in Revelation

22

Comments

  1. Robert
    Robert  October 8, 2018

    “Abraham refuses: his brothers can simply read the Jewish Scriptures and they will know what they need to do. … Abraham shuts the conversation down by telling the man that “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”

    Of course, the entire premise of the parable is post-resurrection ‘Christian’ faith, and yet the most striking thing about this parable is the lack of ‘Christian’ soteriology or even a need for ‘Christian’ evangelism. All anyone needs to do is listen to Moses and the prophets. Luke also preserves this pre-‘Christian’ teaching of Jesus in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which I likewise think may be a Lukan composition.

  2. John Uzoigwe  October 8, 2018

    But the rich man persists: if someone were to come back from the dead, then they would take notice and repent. Abraham shuts the conversation down by telling the man that “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31)….
    If this parable is true then what’s the point in God raising Jesus from the dead? I will supposed that even God already know that the people still won’t be convinced if he raised Jesus.

  3. Nichrob  October 8, 2018

    Thanks for the post and expanding on my/our earlier post. So look forward to reading your book…!!

  4. dankoh  October 8, 2018

    Parable or not, it would seem that early on it WAS taken as a literal description. Did that start with Justin Martyr?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2018

      Justin never refers to this parable does he? I’m not sure when it was first taken as a literal account.

  5. fishician  October 8, 2018

    The scene takes place before the final judgment; that’s why the rich man thinks his brothers can still be saved. One could argue that the rich man and others are kept in torment until the final judgment day, but then, as it says in Revelation, Hades itself will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:14), and presumably all those lost souls will be consumed. So, the story does not equate to eternal torment, regardless of who said it or whether meant to be factual or parable.

  6. stokerslodge  October 8, 2018

    Bart, with regard to Hades and the afterlife: what was the commonly held belief with regard to reward punishment among the Greeks ? Would a non Christian, first century Greek, reading that New Testament parable find any similarities between his/her beliefs and those in Luke’s parable?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2018

      I’ll be dealing with this in the book. Most widely held view was Hades, but there we do have indications of rewards and punishments, for centuries before Jesus.

  7. godspell  October 8, 2018

    I think the story has a foundation in Jesus’ teachings about how the last shall be first and the first last. But agreed, it doesn’t fit Jesus’ teachings about the Kingdom.

    And anyway, what did Lazarus do to deserve his reward, other than be poor? It’s a bit confusing, because he wasn’t a Christian (that we know of) do any good deeds (that we hear about)–the dogs were nice to him, but that’s just how dogs are. He was poor, and certainly humble.

    I agree, this is probably a story Luke invented himself, extrapolating from Jesus and others. Maybe drawing on stories from other traditions. The point is reversal of fortune in the afterlife. But Jesus wasn’t saying you earn the Kingdom only by being poor and miserable in life–the poor can behave quite miserably at times. He was saying that those who are poor CAN be more compassionate and generous than those who are wealthy, and that God only rewards behavior. Your status in the world means nothing. Otherwise, why would Jesus drink and dine with tax collectors and other people of means? He looks past the surface to what lies below.

    Luke tends to be more simplistic–and this is a story that would play well with the largely poor Christian faithful and those they are still trying to convert–while giving the better off Christians something to think about.

  8. Bewilderbeast  October 8, 2018

    This is why I sin. I don’t WANT to be carried off to some smelly old oke’s bosom.

  9. brenmcg  October 8, 2018

    Is it possible the five brothers here has a connection to the five loaves which became 12 baskets?
    And might these represent the five tribes still possibly extant in Judea at the time – ie Judah and Benjamin and remnants of Levi, Simeon and Joseph (Ephraim, and Manasseh)?

  10. stevenpounders  October 8, 2018

    Are you including in your book the immediate post-mortem reward indicated for the crucified criminal in Luke 23? “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

    • Bart
      Bart  October 8, 2018

      Yes indeed. I’ll be including everything in the NT that I think plausibly relates to the afterlife.

  11. Sixtus  October 8, 2018

    I hope you somehow will be able to work in Amy-Jill Levine’s reading of this episode in her absolutely superb Short Stories by Jesus, a must-read for anybody interested in the parables.

  12. seahawk41  October 8, 2018

    This won’t sound related, but read on! I am reading the book The Search for Atlantis by Steve Kershaw. I am only about halfway through, so I’m not entirely sure where he is going. It is a long history of the Atlantis myth, beginning with Plato himself. And it turns out that there is no mention of Atlantis in any of the Greek myths or works of various authors, etc. prior to Plato. He mentions it only in the Timaeus and the Critias. So apparently Plato invented Atlantis as a centerpiece for a point he was trying to make about what makes a good society. Now we get to the connection: We know that Jesus made up stories (parables) to make his points. So is it likely (yes, in my opinion) that Luke made up this story in order to make his point? If the great philosopher and the Galilean preacher would do so, why not Luke and others?

    BTW, the Atlantis book is a great read if/when you have the time or interest. It covers the entire history of “the search” down to modern times, so it is a bit like a history of searches for Noah’s Ark, beginning with the ancient stories!

  13. anthonygale  October 8, 2018

    Despite clear differences, I think there are some similarities with the sheep and the goats story told by Matthew. A person’s ultimate fate is eternal reward or eternal punishment. You’ve said that you think the sheep and goats story goes back to Jesus. Might Luke’s story then have at least some basis in something Jesus said? Might this story in Luke be an instance of the horizontal dichotomy shifting to a vertical one? Even if Luke did not intend this, I’m guessing people later read it that way.

  14. 1jdefrancisco@comcast.net  October 8, 2018

    Years ago I was teaching on this as a parable and a fundamentalist couple insisted it was to be taken literally. Eventually they walked out and never came back. Looking at this in English, Greek, or the Syriac, it is a parable. I look forward to reading your book. On the same topic, I asked an Aramaic teacher once for his take on what the Bible really says about the afterlife. His response was two words: “not much.” Thanks for your work.

  15. Luke9733  October 10, 2018

    I’ve always thought this was a teaching the historical Jesus likely gave. It implies that Jesus has essentially nothing to do with salvation at all – to the extent that Jesus is entirely absent from the parable while major significance is given to Abraham instead. I wouldn’t expect that from a parable invented by later Christians who largely thought Jesus was supremely important for earning salvation (such as Paul’s statement in Romans 10:9). But I *would* expect a teaching like this from Jesus, who would never have imagined that he had any real role in determining whether people earned salvation or not. And the major message – that the poor and downtrodden will be rewarded in the afterlife while the rich and powerful will not – even seems to fit the general ideology of other teachings from Jesus found in places like Matthew 25, Mark 10 and Luke 14.

    Don’t these facts make this story look more like something that originated with Jesus as opposed to Christians who came after him? It seems to fit the criterion of dissimilarity in the way that it leaves Jesus absent from having any role in earning salvation. Unless you believe that doesn’t override the differences that it presents in terms of how the afterlife is portrayed versus how Jesus normally spoke about afterlife in his other teachings. What are your thoughts about this? At the very least, I’m wondering if you think it’s at least odd that later Christians would have invented a parable about the after life that leaves Jesus so clearly absent in the way that this one does.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      The problem is that the ending of the story shows that it is being told by someone who knows that Jesus has already been raised from the dead (and that people are not listening to his message anyway).

  16. moose  October 10, 2018

    Mr Ehrman. The rich man and Lazarus may be a criticism of the Aaronic priesthood, because some sources name the rich man as Phinehas.
    The sons of Aaron were Eleazar, Ithamar, Nadab and Abihu. And the son of Eleazar was Phinehas. The Aaronic priesthood were a dynasty of six priests – six “brothers” – dressed in purple and fine linen.
    But, had they listened carefully enough, and understood, what Moses had said?
    You know Nadab and Abihu were consumed by God’s fire.

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