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The Fate of the Rich and the Poor: Another Story

In trying to unpack the understanding of the afterlife found in the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, it is important to realize that Luke presents the story as a parable – a simple, imaginative story meant to illustrate a deeper spiritual lesson.   It is not a literal description of reality.

It is true that Luke does not actually call it a parable, but that’s true of most of the parables Jesus tells in this Gospel.  This section of Luke’s narrative is chock-full of parables – twenty two of them, in close proximity.  A number of them begin with the words “a certain man” did such and such.  That is the case of two immediately preceding passages: the parable of the prodigal son in 15:11 and of the parable of the dishonest steward in 16:1.  And it is true of this very story in 16:19.

Since the account is a parable, an imaginative tale meant to emphasize a point, it would be wrong to press its details for literal descriptions of what awaits people in the afterlife, with bodies in flame, horribly dry tongues, fingers dipped into water, and communications between people in Hades and those in paradise.  It is fictional story meant to convey a lesson.  The lesson may be rooted in a certain conception of life after death, but it is designed to teach people how to live in the present.  In this case the lesson involves one’s relation to wealth.

Some readers have assumed that the parable is …

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Some readers have assumed that the parable is not about wealth per se, but about being a good or bad person.  In that reading, the rewarded Lazarus was righteous and the rich man a sinner.  It is striking, however, that the story says nothing about that.   What it emphasizes is their wealth and poverty, not their sin and righteousness.   Still, some scholars have thought that sin is the ultimate point, and have appealed to other stories from the ancient world in support, other fictional accounts of the reversal of fortunes of the rich and poor.  The best known – among historians of religion, at least – is an Egyptian tale of a man named Setne and his adult son Si-Osire.[1]

In the story the two of them are looking out the window of their house and see the coffin of a rich man being carried out to the cemetery with great honors.  They then see the corpse of a poor beggar carried out on a mat, with no one attending his funeral.   Setne says to his son: “By Ptah, the great god, how much happier is the rich man who is honored with the sound of wailing than the poor man who is carried to the cemetery.”  Si-Osire surprises his father by telling him that the poor man will be much better off in the afterlife than the rich one.  He surprises him even more by proving it.

He takes Setne down to the underworld, where they see how the unrighteous are punished, including some who are in dire hunger and thirst with food and drink just out of reach above their heads.   In particular, they see a man lying on the ground before a great hall with a large gate; the hinge of the gate is fixed in the man’s eye socket, swiveling as the gate opens and shuts, with the man pleading and crying for help.   This, as it turns out, is the rich man they had seen being taken off for burial with great honor.  When he arrived in the underworld the judges weighed his misdeeds against his unrighteous acts, and he was found seriously wanting.  The gate in the eye socket is his punishment.

Setne and Si-Osire also see the rewards of the righteous, including a very rich person finely clothed, standing by the god Osiris.   This is none other than the poor man they had observed, unattended at his burial.  When his life had been judged, he was found to have done far more good deeds than wicked, and so was rewarded with the very garments the rich man had been wearing at his burial.

Si-Osire sums up the situation:  “Take it to your heart, my father Setne: he who is beneficent on earth, to him one is beneficent in the netherworld.  And he who is evil, to him one is evil.  So it is so decreed and will remain so forever.”    Far better, that is, to be dirt poor and righteous than filthy rich and wicked.  Eternal life hinges on it.

In my next post I’ll return to Lazarus and the Rich Man and summarize what I think it can tell us about Luke’s view of the afterlife.


[1] For the translation see Miriam Lichtheim, Ancient Egyptian Literature: The Late Period, vol. 3 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).  In places the manuscript she is translating has small gaps; I have taken her reconstructions without enclosing them in parentheses here.[\private]


What’s the Story of Lazarus and the Rich Man All About?
Heaven, Hell, and the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man



  1. Avatar
    saavoss  October 9, 2018

    “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.”

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    Caiaphas  October 9, 2018

    “Eternal life _hinges_ on it.”

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    jmmarine1  October 9, 2018

    I understand why the name Abraham is used in this parable. Why does the parable use the name Lazarus? Why isn’t this person nameless like everyone else in the parables?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      Yes, it’s interesting — this is the only parable that names someone. The word Lazarus (= Eliezar) means “God has helped.” It’s not clear why in this one we get a named person. (Among it’s other unique features, it is also the only parable ascribed to Jesus that deals with the postmortem fate of a person)

  4. Avatar
    randal  October 9, 2018

    Just had time to scan your latest posts on heaven, hell, & Revelations. One night this week, I’m going to pour myself a tall glass of Calfkiller microbrew and enjoy them. Joining the blog has been the best 25 bucks that I’ve ever spent.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  October 9, 2018

    Most people have a common sense feeling that those who seek to do good with their lives should be rewarded and those who do evil should be punished. How odd that Christianity ended up with a faith-based salvation, especially since the various sects can’t agree on the exact beliefs required for salvation, and that Christian teaching is heavily skewed geographically and culturally, meaning not all people have equal access to this “saving” knowledge. Seems inherently unfair.

    • Avatar
      godspell  October 11, 2018

      Yes, but that wasn’t Jesus’ original teaching. He knew there must be sheeps and goats everywhere, and while he could never reach more than a handful of them, God would know, and so would the Son of Man. Jesus believed in redemption by faith, but faith is revealed through your deeds, not your professed beliefs. It was impossible for Jesus to believe God would be so unjust as to condemn people for not holding to beliefs they’d never come into contact with. And even in his tiny corner of the world, he’d seen pagans behave compassionately, and show what he regarded as true faith, while some of his fellow Jews did neither. It’s not about what you believe. It’s about how you act on your beliefs. And that’s true. Life isn’t fair. But you can be.

  6. Avatar
    joncopeland  October 9, 2018

    Does the Egyptian tale presuppose “eternal” punishment for the rich man? Or is there reason to think that the rich man is punished, then annihilated or redeemed?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      It doesn’t say, but nothing indicates the suffering is temporary.

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    LouVon  October 9, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, when I was young and attending a Baptist fundamentalist college we were taught that this story wasn’t a parable but a true story based on the fact that it named Lazarus. We were told to compare that to parables that would use “a certain man” etc. Though I no longer believe the Bible to be the word of god I am curious to your thoughts on this teaching.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      The striking thing is that the parable actually does begin with “a certain man,” like so many of the others.

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    JohnKesler  October 9, 2018

    “Some readers have assumed that the parable is not about wealth per se, but about being a good or bad person. In that reading, the rewarded Lazarus was righteous and the rich man a sinner. It is striking, however, that the story says nothing about that. What it emphasizes is their wealth and poverty, not their sin and righteousness.”

    Would not the following passages support the idea that Luke thought that Lazarus was rewarded because he was poor?

    1) In Matthew’s version of the Sermon, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3), while in Luke’s version, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20).
    2) Luke 14:13, 21: “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind…So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.”
    3) Luke 19:8: “Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor…”
    4) In Matthew 26:11/Mark 14:7/John 12:8, “The poor you will always have with you.” This is not found in Luke, perhaps because he thought that Jesus would not resign himself to the poor always remaining that way?

  9. Avatar
    JohnKesler  October 9, 2018

    Luke 14:13-14:
    13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

    Acts 24:15
    15I have a hope in God—a hope that they themselves also accept—that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous.

    Question: Did Luke believe that there would be a resurrection of the righteous *and* unrighteous, or of the righteous only?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      Apparently both. Like Jesus himself. The unrighteous are raised to be shown the error of their ways and then permanently destroyed.

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    godspell  October 9, 2018

    Self-evidently this was not a universal belief among Egyptians of that era (or any other culture of any other era). But you do find it in many places and times. To some extent, the ruling classes might not mind it. Let the poor think they’ll do better in the next life–makes them easier to control in this one. Which is why Marx called it the opiate of the people, and Joe Hill wrote a song saying “There’ll be pie in the sky when you die–that’s a lie!” Unfortunately, the revolutionaries couldn’t deliver on most of their promises either.

    What marks Luke’s version of the story is the rich man begging for the chance to warn others of his fate, and being told they already have the prophets to warn them. No mention of the gospels, of course–Luke is writing in Jesus’ voice, and the gospels haven’t been written yet. Still, there are elements here that do sound like him. It may not be wholly Luke’s invention.

    It’s a very influential story–perhaps most famously inspiring Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Dickens wrote a short biography of Jesus, that was not published in his lifetime, and the story of Lazarus and Dives was one of eight stories included in it. But in his version of the story, Jacob Marley is allowed to come back and warn Scrooge, who receives other visitors as well. A more liberal sensibility–people can learn, can change, can mend their ways. The rich can turn their wealth to good purposes–Dives can rescue Lazarus, and thereby save himself.

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    caesar  October 10, 2018

    Do you get the sense that that the NT writers (and Jesus) couldn’t make up their minds about what it takes to have a good afterlife (or good standing in an earthly kingdom of God)? Sometimes it’s helping the unfortunate, sometimes it’s having a lowly station in life, or following the Law, or believing in Jesus…

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      I think the individual authors made up their minds, but their minds were made up differently.

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    Apocryphile  October 10, 2018

    I think there is a case to be made that the Christian view of the afterlife was as much influenced by Egyptian ideas as it was by Greek, and that both had much more influence on eventual Christian views than what can be gleaned from the gospels or the Jewish scriptures. Dr. Ehrman – just interested in your opinion on this.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      After looking into it, I ended up agreeing with other scholars that Egyptian views do not seem to have affected the early Christians (or Jews before them)

      • talmoore
        talmoore  October 11, 2018

        Egyptian influence can be found in the cultic practices of the Jews. For example, the Egyptians performed circumcision, did not eat pork and did not cook meat in milk (a common practice among Japhetic peoples). Jewish religious beliefs outside of the cult, however — such as Jewish cosmology — appear more in line with the Mesopotamians. For instance, the antecedents of the book of Genesis can be found in Mesopotamian myths like the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, rather than ancient Egyptian myths, which, funny enough, are more in line with Greek cosmology.

        In other words, Judaism is a hodge podge amalgamation of beliefs and practices acquired from the various neighboring cultures and civilizations.

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    Pattylt  October 10, 2018

    Would this Egyptian parable be know to the Jews? The Gentiles?
    Another question regarding Christians that take the rich man and beggar story literally, is it because in John, the Lazarus story is a literal one and they assume both Lazarus’ are the same? Can’t have a parabolic story being turned into a literal one…that would be evidence of creativity in the Gospels.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      We’re not sure who knew it. It’s not explicitly referenced elsewhere, to my knowledge.

  14. Avatar
    Silver  October 10, 2018

    With the story of Lazarus and the rich man, is it significant that God does not feature at all? It appears that it is Abraham who presides over heaven.

    • Bart
      Bart  October 11, 2018

      Interesting point. I guess the parable is fairly concrete, with people speaking. So God is in the background rather than the foreground.

  15. Avatar
    JohnKesler  October 11, 2018

    It seems that you take this parable more literally than the sheep-and-goats parable of Matthew 25. Regarding the latter, you cautioned us that details shouldn’t be pressed too far because it is a parable. What makes this parable different? If “Dives” were literally burning in a place of torment, he would request more than just a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger, wouldn’t he? He should have asked for the Jordan River.

    I also note that Luke uses “hades” here rather than Gehenna. “Gehenna” is used just once in the Lukan corpus (Luke 12:5), so I would think that if there were a place to use that word rather than hades, Luke 16 would be it. Thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 12, 2018

      I don’t take it literally in the sense that I think it is a literal description of reality for Luke. But I do think it shows that he believes there are rewards and punishments in the afterlife.

  16. Avatar
    crt112@gmail.com  June 24, 2020

    Hi Bart, what is your theory about the meaning of the parable of the dishonest steward ?
    It seems that it is generally accepted as an authentic parable told by Jesus.

    And also, there seems to be general agreement amongst scholars that the ‘moral’ often presented at the end of a parable is the gospel author’s interpretation. Why have they come to that decision ?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 26, 2020

      Ha! My theory is that it’s almost impossible to understand! It seems to be teaching that one should use cleverness and underhanded financial dealings for the sake of the kingdom of God. But that seems implausible. Uh, so, I’ve never figured out *what* it means… (It’s only in Luke btw, and so is not likely to go back to Jesus himself)

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