Who Were the Rich Man and Lazarus?
The Bible’s answer
The rich man and Lazarus are story characters in one of Jesus’ speeches. (Luke 16:19-31) In the story, these men represented two groups of people: (1) the proud Jewish religious leaders of Jesus’ day and (2) the lowly but sincere people who responded to Jesus’ message.
In this article
What did Jesus say about the rich man and Lazarus?
In Luke chapter 16, Jesus describes two men who experience drastic changes in their circumstances.
Here is a summary of the story Jesus told: A rich man lived in luxury. A beggar named Lazarus was placed at the rich man’s gate; he hoped to be given any food that dropped from the rich man’s table. In time, Lazarus died, and angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In the story, both men are portrayed as conscious after death. The dead rich man was being tormented by a blazing fire and asked Abraham to send Lazarus to cool his tongue with a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger. Abraham denied the rich man’s request and said that both men had now experienced a complete reversal of their circumstances and that a great chasm had been formed between the two that could not be crossed.
Did this story really happen?
No. This is a parable that Jesus related in order to teach a lesson. The fact that this is a parable is acknowledged by scholars. For example, a subheading in the 1912 edition of Luther’s Bible states that this is a parable. And the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, in a footnote, states that this is a “parable in story form without reference to any historical personage.”
Was Jesus teaching lessons about life after death? Did he mean that some people suffer in a hellfire when they die and that Abraham and Lazarus were in heaven? Several facts show that this could not be the case.
If the rich man were in a literal place of burning torment, would not the fire evaporate the water on Lazarus’ fingertip?
Even if it were not evaporated, would a single drop of water bring the rich man lasting relief from his suffering in a literal fire?
How could Abraham be alive in heaven, since Jesus clearly stated that up to the time Jesus related the parable, no one had gone to heaven?—John 3:13.
Does this story support the doctrine of hellfire?
No. Although this is not a literal story, some argue that it symbolizes the idea that good people go to heaven and bad people are tormented in hellfire. a
Is that conclusion reasonable? No.
The teaching of hellfire does not fit in with what the Bible says about the condition of the dead. For example, it does not say that all good people who die experience bliss in heaven or that bad people are tortured in hellfire. Rather, the Bible clearly states: “The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing at all.”—Ecclesiastes 9:5.
What is the meaning of the story of the rich man and Lazarus?
The story shows that two groups of people were about to experience a great change in circumstances.
The rich man evidently symbolized the Jewish religious leaders, “who were money lovers.” (Luke 16:14) They listened as Jesus spoke, but they opposed his message. These religious leaders looked down on the common people.—John 7:49.
Lazarus symbolized the common people who accepted Jesus’ message and who were despised by the Jewish religious leaders.
The change in circumstances was drastic for both groups.
The Jewish religious leaders thought that they enjoyed God’s favor. But they experienced death, as it were, when God rejected them and their form of worship because they did not accept Jesus’ message. And they were tormented by the message that Jesus and his followers preached.—Matthew 23:29, 30; Acts 5:29-33.
The common people—who had long been neglected by their religious leaders—were now experiencing favor. Many accepted the Scriptural message that Jesus taught and benefited from it. They now had the opportunity to enjoy God’s favor eternally.—John 17:3.
a Some Bible translations use the word “hell” to describe the rich man’s location after death. However, the original Greek word (Hades) used at Luke 16:23 simply means mankind’s common grave.