Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Pull Up a Chair for This One

The story of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16.19-31) is one of the most debated passages in the bible. Some people believe that the story is a literal representation of what happens to people when they die—that the morally just and innocent go to Abraham’s bosom, which is interpreted as Heaven, and that the evil people go to Hades, or Hell, and suffer in agony forever. Other people believe that the story is another of Jesus’ parables meant to illustrate the need to repent and turn to God. If you have wondered what to believe about this story, wonder no longer because I am about to give you the definitive answer. Well, not really; I’m just going to tell you what I think.

In this story, a rich man dies and goes to Hades, and a poor beggar Lazarus, who lay at the rich man’s door begging for scraps, also dies and goes to “Abraham’s bosom.” According to several Bible dictionaries, Abraham’s bosom was a euphemism for peace and happiness, and the term takes its origins from the way that people reclined at the table when eating together. The person sitting to the right of Abraham, for instance, would be able to practically lay his head against Abraham’s chest. The fact that Lazarus in the story was at Abraham’s bosom signified that he sat in a place of honor. Certainly, all good Jews of Jesus’ day claimed to be children of Abraham, and all would have relished the chance to be at Abraham’s bosom.

If Lazarus was at Abraham’s bosom, where was Abraham? Many people today would say that Abraham was (and is) in Heaven, but the ancient Hebrews had no concept of an after-life existence in Heaven with God. Genesis 25.8 tells us that when Abraham died, he was “gathered to his people.” In fact, many of Abraham’s descendents were gathered to their people when they died. To be gathered to one’s people meant to join one’s ancestors in death, in Sheol (the Hebrew word which corresponds to the Greek Hades). Both words denote the location of the dead, commonly known as the grave. To the Hebrews, people in the grave were thought of as sleeping (in the OT, kings who had died were referred to as sleeping with their fathers) and as of having no experiences or thoughts (Ps 6.5, 88.12, Ecc 9.10). Abraham, then was “sleeping” in Hades (Sheol), in his grave. It is interesting to note that if Abraham were really in Heaven, having been gathered to his people—who presumably were also in Heaven if he was gathered to them—then Heaven contains idolaters, because Abraham’s “people” were idol worshippers (Joshua 24.2).

In the Hellenized culture of Jesus’ day, the term Hades would also have taken on the connotations associated with the Greek notion of the afterlife. The ancient Greeks believed that all people, when they died and were given a proper burial, entered into Hades, the underworld, where they continued an existence in a level of Hades appropriate to their actions on Earth. Tartarus, the lowest part of Hades reserved for the most vile offenders, is referenced in 2 Peter 2.4 where Peter says that God threw the angels who sinned. Most readers (or hearers) of this epistle would have understood the reference, having grown up in a Hellenized culture. In his use of the term, Peter warns against listening to false teachers, who bring such destruction into the church that they themselves are destined to destruction in a way similar to the angels who sinned.

Jesus uses the Greek concept of life after death in an underworld (which is a concept with which his listeners would have been familiar, having been brought up in a Hellenized society) in order to illustrate the urgent need for his listeners to repent and turn to God before the day of judgment. In the Greek Hades, those who had lived good, moral lives enjoyed an afterlife in the Elysian Fields—this is presumably where Lazarus would have been—while those who had lived morally corrupt lives went to Tartarus, a place of terrible punishment, torment, and anguish. This, apparently is where the rich man was. According to Jesus’ story, the rich man wants Lazarus to come and bring him some water to quench his anguish in the flames, but Abraham tells the rich man that a great gulf, or chasm, which no one can cross, separates them from each other. In the Greek Hades, Tartarus is located in a deep, deep, chasm, so deep it was said that an anvil would take nine days to fall there from the main level of Hades. Lazarus and the rich man are very far apart in proximity in Hades, representing the idea that those who live according to the standards of God’s kingdom are very far apart spiritually from those who do not.

In the second part of the story, the rich man wants Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn the rich man’s brothers about the torment so that they won’t have to suffer as well. However, Abraham replies that they have already had ample warning about their need to repent from reading the law and the prophets. If they haven’t repented by now, not even hearing it from a man risen from the dead will convince them. Jesus’ point here is that the time for his listeners to repent is now. He is illustrating the idea that to those whom much is given, much is required, a concept which he had already taught (Luke 12.48). His listeners have been given the law and all the writings of the prophets, and now they have God’s son himself urging them to repent; therefore, if they refuse to repent, they are left without any excuse on the day of judgment. Jesus had been urging his listeners to begin living a kingdom life by doing good to others; he promised that those who do will receive a great reward in heaven. He had also taught them that those who were poor and hungry and suffering now (like Lazarus) would also be rewarded in heaven. Jesus had pronounced woe to those who lived morally impure lives by seeking the praise of men, not turning away from their sins, and not helping the poor. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus’ use of the Greek Hades with its reward and punishment system furthers his point that those who would turn to God and live a kingdom life are spiritually far removed and much better off than those who would not.

Jesus’ parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus is just that, a parable. Jesus used what was familiar to his listeners to illustrate a new concept. In his day, the rich and prestigious were favored in society; they were the ones who held the reigns of power or could bend the ears of those in power, while the poor were overlooked and left to fend for themselves. Jesus was turning the system upside down, telling them during his ministry that the last would be first and the humble would be exalted. This story was a further illustration of that concept. The self-righteous exalted will be the ones clamoring to get inside the kingdom, while the humble poor will be enjoying peace and prosperity.


Tony Arnold said...

Impressive analysis. I keep saying you should be a preacheress.

Now I have to decide if I agree. :)

I have studied these scriptures in this detail. Pretty deep stuff. Great research on the linguistic and cultural aspects.


jettybetty said...

Yep, if the teacher thing doesn't pan out--I think you have lots of options--the skid loader, preaching...

So, you think this is just another way Jesus is trying to get through to people that up is down and down is up?
Especially, *rich* people?

WERBEH said...

Might I suggest an excellent article on the OT view of hell by Daniel Block:

“What Does the Old Testament Teach About Hell.” in Hell Under Fire. C. W. Morgan and R. A. Peterson, eds. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).

Viewable on Google Print here:
Block Article

Tony Arnold said...

I meant to write, "I have not studied these scriptures in this detail."

Big difference for leaving out one word.


JMG said...

Tony, it won't bother me a bit if you disagree. I think I know you well enough to know that you won't brand me a heretic.

JB, I don't think it's just about being rich. It's being rich combined with the seeking the praise of men, the hoarding up of wealth instead of helping others with it, the using of one's wealth to influence others and win alliances that favor oneself. There's nothing wrong with being wealthy if one uses that wealth to benefit the needy. I think that was the point Jesus was making every time he talked about the rich.

People talk about what happens when one dies and use this parable as the basis for that logic. They also say that the soul is separated from the body and goes to God or goes to hell. For one, what is the soul? And if the soul has no body connected to it, how does one experience any type of sensation or state of mind if there's no brain there? When does one's soul come into existence? Is it at conception, at birth, or did it always exist? If it always existed, where was it? Why don't people have a memory of existence before birth? If it came when the body began to exist, why does it hang around after the body dies?

It seems to me that none of the explanations of afterlife that I have heard take all of these questions into account.

Sorry, I don't mean to go on and on, but I'm just really tired of hearing all the same circular reasoning.

Tony Arnold said...

JMG, I probably agree rather than disagree, but to be frank, I am out of my league on this particular passage. I just haven't done the in depth study as you have, which I find rewarding to read BTW. Thanks for the work.

Also, as Jesus showed the Pharisees, a good dose of "heresy" is often needed to get us back on the path of Truth. Heresy is when we deviate from the message of Christ and the will of God.

The cool thing is we can be following both the message and His will even while struggling to know if we are on the right path. Just because your not sure where you are doesn't mean you are on the wrong road.


Mike Kear said...

Good stuff.

I've referenced you in my latest report from hell.



JMG said...

Thanks Dr. Mike.

I encourage everyone to go read Dr. Mike's reports from hell. They're very informative and much more entertaining than my writing.

Thanks, werbeh, for the article. I'll check it out.

jettybetty said...

Yes, I am with you on this one--
You did quite a good job explaining things here!

I am working on a post on heaven, I hope to get it done next week (you know, life keeps getting in the way of writing on my blog!)--but I *might* cover some of my beliefs on what the afterlife might be.

If I understand what you are saying, we *might* agree on some stuff!

Wasp Jerky said...

That's a really nice analysis of Judaic and Greek views of the afterlife. I think that viewing this story through the lens of trying to figure out what the afterlife will be like, though, misses the point of the parable (which isn't to say that I think you're doing that, but I grew up a conservative Baptist in Tennessee, so do the math :)). Christians who believe the Bible literally do so very selectively. They strain over passages like this to try to piece together details that ultimately are pretty meaningless in the big scheme of things. Meanwhile the entire point of the story, that we should take care of the least of these, is completely missed. I don't know if you've ever read Slacktivist, but he does a weekly analysis of the poor theology (and awful writing) inherent in the first Left Behind novel. He had a post recently on one of Jesus' parables on hell that really nails what I'm getting at.

JMG said...

Thanks for your comment Wasp. I have been to Slacktivist's blog. I started reading the Left Behind novels a few years ago. I knew beforehand that I disagreed with the basic premise, but I sort of got caught up with the characters and read several of the books before finally becoming completely fed up with the theology.

I completely agree with you about the interpretation of the parable. People have taken verses about "hell" out of their intended context and read into them something that was never intended by the speaker.

There's more to come from my word study of hell.

Wasp Jerky said...

"There's more to come from my word study of hell."

Very good. I'll be looking forward to it.

jettybetty said...

I am looking forward to what you have to say, too!
Have you studied what "second death" means??

JMG said...

Haven't studied it in depth, JB. I've got a word study of Jesus' use of Hades and Gehenna, but that's as far as I've gotten for now. But rest assured I'll have all the answers for you in the weeks to come!