Does the story of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom teach us about death?
People often use the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as a proof text to say that people go immediately to heaven or hell when they die, but is that really what Yeshua was trying to teach with this story?
Some people claim that the story of Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom is a true story about Lazarus’ death. However, Yeshua was not in the habit of telling true life stories. If the story of Lazarus was a real event, then it is the only one He ever told. In fact, the Bible tells us specifically that He always spoke in parables to the crowds.
“All these things Jesus spoke to the multitude in parables; and without a parable He did not speak to them, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: ‘I will open My mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret from the foundation of the world.’” Matthew 13:34-35
He used parables to conceal the understanding so that it would not be available to everyone. He spoke in parables when He was in public so that He could teach things to the people who had “ears to hear”, while concealing the understanding from those who did not.
Now, if we look at the context in which this story was told, we find out that He was addressing a multitude of people at a meal that was hosted by the Pharisees. Furthermore, He tells a series of parables leading up to the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which all appear to have a common theme. The catalyst for this series of parables has to do with Him healing a man with dropsy on the Sabbath.
“Now it happened, as He went into the house of one of the rulers of the Pharisees to eat bread on the Sabbath, that they watched Him closely. And behold, there was a certain man before Him who had dropsy. And Jesus, answering, spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?'” Luke 14:1-3
After healing the man, Yeshua told the parable of a wedding feast, explaining that a guest should choose to sit in a lowly position and not a high place of honor. Next, He said when you have a feast, invite the poor and lowly because they cannot pay you back. He continued the series of parables with the story of a man who threw a banquet, but none of the invited guests would join him, so he sent his servants to gather up anyone who would be willing to come. After this, He explained that one must count the cost if they are to become His disciples.
Then the Bible says that “all of the tax-collectors and sinners drew near to Him,” (Luke 15:1) which upset the Pharisees and scribes. So, Yeshua told the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Then He continued in chapter sixteen with the parable of the unfaithful steward, which offended the Pharisees because they loved money, and finally, He told the story about a rich man who was in torment, while a poor man found comfort.
All of the events and parables that are described in Luke chapters fourteen through sixteen are about wealth and poverty, health and sickness, lost and found, and in each of these parables, the weak, the sick, and the poor find favor and help. The man who takes the lowly seat is exalted, the poor man is invited to the feast, the one who was lost is found. Likewise, the one who sat at the seat of honor is dishonored, the invited guest missed the feast, the unfaithful steward was removed from his position. Each of these parables was pointed at the sins of the Pharisees.
“Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him.” Luke 16:14
This leads us to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The story begins by describing a rich man who ate well every day, in contrast with a poor man who begged for crumbs. Both men died, and the rich man was punished, while the poor man finds comfort.
That is the most basic and simplified explanation of this story, and it is consistent with the other parables that had been told previously. This series of parables was given in opposition to the prosperity message of the Pharisees, who equated wealth and health with God’s favor.
Why was the beggar named Lazarus? Many people have argued that because a specific name was given, then Yeshua must have been speaking about a real event.
Perhaps the name “Lazarus” was not given to identify a specific person, but a quality of that person. The Greek name “Lazarus” comes from the Hebrew name “Eleazar” and means “God has helped”. Obviously, the poor man did find help and favor from God, so the name is fitting.
Another possible reason for giving the name Lazarus is the obvious connection between Eleazar and Abraham. Eleazar was the servant of Abraham, and would have received all of Abraham’s inheritance if Isaac had not been born.
“But Abram said, ‘Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’ Then Abram said, ‘Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!’ And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, saying, ‘This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.’” Genesis 15:2-4
The Pharisees were constantly boasting about Abraham being their father, yet in this story, the poor and lowly servant, who was not a son of Abraham, was welcomed by Abraham into his bosom.
This is the only reference to Abraham’s bosom in the Bible, and some people think it is the name of a location, perhaps a compartment in Sheol, or a reference to paradise, or even heaven itself. However, all of those opinions are merely speculation, and cannot be found anywhere in the Bible.
To claim that Abraham’s bosom is a compartment in Sheol is no different than saying Abraham’s bosom is a crater on the moon because neither of those opinions can be found in the Bible. The idea that Abraham’s bosom is a compartment in Sheol lines up more with Dante’s Inferno than it does the Bible. That is why we must be careful not to follow after man’s opinions and theories.
Abraham’s bosom is not a reference to heaven because we will not be watching our family and friends being tortured in hell. It is a sadistic misrepresentation of this story to say that Lazarus was really in heaven watching someone else being tortured, and hearing him crying out for help. Most people would not be able to tolerate watching someone they hate suffer such a fate, so how would they be able to handle seeing someone they love face that type of torture?
The Bible says, “the dead know nothing” (Ecclesiastes 9:5), and “go down into silence” (Psalm 115:17), so how are they able to carry on a conversation with each other? Also, if they are disembodied souls, that means they have no tongue, no mouth, no vocal chords, no eyes, and no brain, so how are they able to look at each other and carry on a conversation? There is nothing real about this story. It is the most comical and unrealistic parable that Yeshua ever told, and is in no way meant to be understood as real or true.
The Hebrews believed when a person died, he was gathered to his ancestors. This was a comforting thought to the Jewish people, and the Pharisees often boasted about having Abraham as their father. So, when Yeshua spoke about Lazarus being gathered into Abraham’s bosom, it would have been understood that Lazarus was gathered to his people. However, the rich man was not gathered to his people but found himself in torment and regret for the way he lived his life.
Let me submit to you that Yeshua was not trying to teach anything about death at all, but that He was making a very bold statement about rich people who refuse to help those in need. This parable was an extreme exaggeration used to illustrate His point about wealth. It was not given to build a doctrine about death.
The message of this parable is that beggars will receive mercy, while the selfish receive judgment. The righteous are not literally in Abraham’s bosom, but they are figuratively waiting with him for the resurrection.
At the end of the parable, Yeshua makes the statement, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.” (Luke 16:31) He knew that even His resurrection would not be enough to convince certain people to believe Him.