The idea of an eternally punishing fire has been burned into the minds of “Christianity” since the writing of Dante’s Inferno. The Bible, however, does not support this teaching that mothers in heaven must watch their lost children shriek in hell for all eternity. Those who do teach this idea of an eternally punishing fire frequently turn to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man for support. They reject the idea that it is only a parable and use it as evidence that we go to either heaven, where no man has ascended (John 3:13), or to hell upon death. But the Bible—and the parable itself—tells a different story.
This parable contains a powerful lesson, both for those who heard it at that time and for our time today. Let’s examine the parable of Lazarus and the rich man.
There was a rich man who was “clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day” (Luke 16:19). He was a wealthy, powerful and influential man.
There was also a beggar named Lazarus. He was covered with sores and fed himself with the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs would come and lick his sores (verses 20-21). He could not have had a lower station in life.
Now Jesus Christ tells us about what happened to these two men: “And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried” (verse 22). So, both men died. Some use this verse to show that the beggar went to heaven, but let’s read more closely. The scripture really says that the beggar was “carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom.”
The Reward of the Saved
Oxford English Dictionary defines bosom as the breast of a human being, or the enclosure formed by the breast and the arms. This is an intimate relationship. Spiritually speaking, Lazarus was intimately related to Abraham. Paul told the Galatians, who were Gentiles, “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed [his children], and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29). Those who receive salvation become heirs to the same promises made to Abraham. Let’s see what these promises are.
You can see the first of these promises in Genesis 12:5-7: “And Abram took Sarai his wife…and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came…. And the Lord appeared unto Abram and said, Unto thy seed will I give this land.” “This land” was given to Abram’s seed forever (Genesis 13:15). Later, in Genesis 15, God tells Abram the actual boundaries of this land: “In the same day the Eternal made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates” (Genesis 15:18). The promise was the land of Canaan. Of course, since the promise was forever, it included eternal life and eternal inheritance (Hebrews 9:15). There is, however, no promise that any man would ascend to heaven. Heaven is not the reward of the saved.
Lazarus has not received these promises yet. In fact, Hebrews 11:8-13 reveals that none of the faithful, not even Abraham, have received the promises God made to them. “These all [including Abraham—verse 8] died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). The righteous will receive these promises at the first resurrection.
The first resurrection is reserved specially for the dead in Christ and those who are Christ’s at His coming. “For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
These are those who have repented and received the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9). These people—including Abraham and Lazarus—will live forever and reign with Christ throughout the Millennium, as shown in Revelation 20:5-6. In Luke 13:28, we read that Abraham will live again in the Kingdom. What a fantastic future Lazarus will have!
The Fate of the Rich Man
In the parable, the rich man also died. Was he then plunged into an eternally burning fire? “The rich man also died, and was buried” (Luke 16:22). The rich man himself was buried in a grave. We then read, “And in hell he lift up his eyes” (verse 23). When he died, his eyes were closed. Now, in hell, his eyes were opened.
Is this hell the rich man was in an eternally punishing fire?
The word hell is used in the New Testament as a translation for three different Greek words: tartaroo, hades and gehenna. Tartaroo is mentioned only once in Scripture. It is a place of restraint for rebellious angels (2 Peter 2:4). Nowhere in the Bible is there any mention of human beings being placed in this hell. This tartaroo makes no mention of fire; rather, it talks about chains of darkness.
Hades refers to a grave or pit, and also has no connection to fire. When a person dies, he or she goes to this hell, better known as the grave. Jesus Christ Himself went there. In Acts 2:31 we read, “his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.” We can see here that this word hell refers to the grave. The rich man “lifted up his eyes” from this hell.
Notice that Christ did not say when the rich man would rise from this grave. Nor did He say whether the rich man would be aware of the passage of time while in the grave. Other scriptures show us the answer to both of these important questions.
All Await the Resurrection
“For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5). It is as though the dead person is asleep in the grave, totally unaware of everything. Ecclesiastes 3:19 shows that man dies just as the animals do. The word hades is roughly equivalent to the word sheol in the Old Testament. Sheol is the only word translated as hell in the Old Testament. Isaiah 63:16 specifically shows that Abraham is ignorant of us—he has not been resurrected yet. Abraham, Lazarus and the rich man are all in their graves and totally unaware of the passage of time.
At present, all of the dead—righteous men and sinners alike—are asleep in their graves (sheol or hades) awaiting resurrection. The Bible shows that all who die will eventually be resurrected. The question is not if a person will be resurrected, but when. So says the Bible: “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order” (1 Corinthians 15:22-23). It is only by looking to other scriptures that we can see when the rich man “lifted up his eyes”!
First, notice that when the rich man is resurrected, he experiences torment from a flame (Luke 16:24). This cannot be hades, which simply refers to the grave. This is the third type of hell, the only one that involves fire: gehenna.
A Dictionary of the Bible, edited by James Hastings, states, “This term gehenna represents ‘the Valley of Hinnom’ (Nehemiah 11:30; 2 Kings 23:10, etc.). The place was…a deep, narrow gorge in the vicinity of Jerusalem, understood to be on the south side. It is repeatedly mentioned in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 19:6, etc.). It became an object of horror to the Jews, and is said to have been made the receptacle for bones, the bodies of beasts and criminals, refuse and all unclean things…. The fires said to have been kept burning in it in order to consume the foul and corrupt objects that were thrown into it, made it a natural and unmistakable symbol of dire evil…absolute ruin. So it came to designate the place of future punishment.”
This gehenna, anciently, was a place of absolute destruction. Anything thrown into this pit was utterly destroyed, leaving nothing but ashes.
The punishment for sinners will be death by an all-consuming fire.
Abraham told the rich man that there was “a great gulf” between them (Luke 16:26). This gulf is immortality. The rich man is a physical person. He can be burned—and ultimately destroyed—by flame. Abraham and Lazarus will be immortal at that point because they will be born of God (Revelation 20:6). Because they will be spirit, the fire cannot burn them.
Gehenna is the fire that the rich man saw. He also saw Father Abraham, with Lazarus in his bosom (Luke 16:23). He then calls for a few drops of water on the tip of Lazarus’ finger to cool his tongue.
Think about that.
If your entire body were literally surrounded by a raging inferno, would you want a couple of drops of water to extinguish the flame? Of course not—you would need a fleet of fire engines!
In his booklet Lazarus and the Rich Man, Herbert Armstrong gave a clear explanation of this verse: “Why did he call for water? To put out the fires of all ‘hell’?—the kind of hell people would have you believe he was in? Ah, no! He only wanted a mere couple of drops of water on Lazarus’ finger. Why?—to ‘cool my tongue’! That’s what the rich man said! Open your own Bible again, and read it!
“The flame, he said, was ‘tormenting’ him. This word ‘tormented,’ used in verses 24 and 25, is translated from the Greek word odunomai. This is defined in any Greek-English lexicon as ‘to cause pain, to pain, distress; pain of body, but also, pain of mind; grief, distress.’
“Why of course! This rich man opens his eyes in his grave in a resurrection. He is resurrected mortal, just as he was before he died—not immortal like Lazarus. He sees this lake of fire. Now he knows the frightful, the awful doom he is to be thrust into—to be burned up—destroyed! He is suffering mental anguish such as he never experienced in his lifetime. His tongue is dry. He breaks out in cold sweat. He cries for a little water on the tip of Lazarus’ finger to cool his tongue! He is in a condition of weeping.”
The Second Death
The rich man was terrified that he was about to be cast into this fire, but does this mean that he will writhe in agony for all eternity, as some claim? Absolutely not! The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), not eternal life in torture.
Everyone will be given the opportunity to repent and become a part of God’s family; but not everyone will accept it. Those who have had the chance, who have received God’s Holy Spirit and turned away, will be in this resurrection to a second death. The Prophet Daniel spoke of this resurrection: “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” (Daniel 12:2). Jesus Christ calls it the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:29). Those who are not found in the Book of Life—such as the rich man—will be cast into a lake of fire, ending their existence forever (Revelation 20:14-15). The incorrigibly wicked will have died the second death, from which there will never be a resurrection. This is a merciful act on the part of their Creator. These people would be miserable eternally if they had immortal life, so God mercifully ends their lives, leaving only the “smoke of their torment” to ascend forever (Revelation 14:11). This will be the fate of the rich man.
The Rich Man’s Brothers
The rich man’s last thought was of his five brothers. He made one final plea to Abraham, imploring him to send Lazarus to warn them so that they would not “come into this place of torment” as he had (Luke 16:28). “Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them” (verse 29). The rich man replied, “Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent” (verse 30). Consider that! In this story, the rich man knew that Lazarus had been resurrected from the dead. How very few understand that all-important truth about the resurrections today! The rich man also knew that his brothers would reject Moses and the prophets. What a powerful warning this is! Jesus Christ is explaining that if we refuse to hear the prophets—including Moses—we have no hope of salvation (verse 31). We must accept the entire Bible, not just the New Testament (2 Timothy 3:15).
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is a powerful lesson and a warning for us all.
Mr. Armstrong explained the crux of this lesson beautifully: “Finally, what is the real lesson?
“Jesus was preaching the gospel of the Kingdom of God—the New Testament gospel. He was showing salvation, the resurrection to eternal life as the gift of God—inheritance of the Kingdom of God on this Earth.
“The Apostle Paul plainly tells us that the New Testament Church of God is built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone (Ephesians 2:20). Jesus said: ‘I will build my church.’ Paul reveals it was built on the foundation of the prophets as well as the apostles!
“Jesus here teaches you that if you refuse to hear Moses and the prophets—and Moses was one of the prophets—you have no hope of salvation! The Scriptures (Old Testament as well as New), according to 2 Timothy 3:15, are able to make us wise unto salvation. We are to take the whole Bible, not the New Testament only.
“Those who teach that the commandments of God are done away teach a message of doom! Those who teach the pagan doctrine of the immortality of the soul—going off to ‘heaven’ at death, or eternal punishing—teach contrary to what Jesus said!
“May you take heed, and hear all the Word of God!”