Hell, is it real? A closer Look at “The rich man and Lazarus” [Advanced Reading, Solid Food]


Is Hell real?

The rich man and Lazarus (Lu 16:19-31)

Taking a first look:

The setting, in Luke 16:14, 15, shows that the money-loving Pharisees were listening and sneering. But Jesus told them: “You are those who declare yourselves righteous before men, but God knows your hearts; because what is lofty among men is a disgusting thing in God’s sight.”

The “purple and linen” * in which the rich man was decked out were comparable to garb worn only by princes, nobles, and priests. (Es 8:15; Ge 41:42; Ex 28:4, 5) They were very costly. Hades, where this rich man is said to have gone, is the common grave of dead mankind. That it cannot be concluded from this parable that Hades itself is a place of blazing fire is made clear at Revelation 20:14, where death and Hades are described as being hurled into “the lake of fire.” The death of the rich man and his being in Hades must therefore be figurative, figurative death being mentioned elsewhere in the Scriptures. (Lu 9:60; Col 2:13; 1Ti 5:6) So the fiery torment was experienced while he was figuratively dead but actually alive as a human. Fire is used in God’s Word to describe his fiery judgment messages (Jer 5:14; 23:29), and the work done by God’s prophets in declaring his judgments is said to ‘torment’ those who oppose God and his servants.—Re 11:7, 10.

Lazarus is a Grecianized form of the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means “God Has Helped.” The dogs that licked his sores were apparently scavengers that roamed the streets and were viewed as unclean. Lazarus’ being in the bosom position of Abraham indicates that he was in a position of favor (compare Joh 1:18), this figure of speech being drawn from the practice of reclining at meals in such a way that one could lean back on the bosom of a friend.—Joh 13:23-25.

Now taking a second closer and deeper look at this illustration.

The name given to the beggar in Jesus’ illustration commonly known as the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. The Greek word pto·khosʹ, used by Luke (16:20, 22) in recording Jesus’ reference to Lazarus as a beggar, describes one who crouches and cringes, and it refers to the very poor, the destitute, the beggars. In the Vulgate the word “rich” has been rendered by the Latin adjective dives, which is often mistakenly used as the proper name of the rich man. However, the Jewish name Lazarus itself was common in ancient times, a fact borne out by ossuary inscriptions.

In the parable, the ulcerous beggar, Lazarus, was put at the gate of the rich man, desiring to be fed with the things that fell from the rich man’s sumptuous table. Lazarus subsequently died and was carried off by angels to the bosom position of Abraham (a place comparable to that occupied by a person in ancient times when he reclined in front of another on the same couch during a meal). Abraham had a conversation with the rich man, who had also died, was buried, and was in Hades, existing in torments. “A great chasm” that could not be crossed separated the rich man from Abraham and Lazarus.
Jesus depicted “the rich man” as desiring to get Lazarus to do even the least thing for him (bring only water on “the tip of his finger”), this request being designed to get Lazarus away from his favored position with Abraham.Lu 16:22, 24.
The rich man’s request that Abraham send Lazarus to his five brothers to “give them a thorough witness,” in the hope of sparing them the same experience, met with rejection on the grounds that these had “Moses and the Prophets,” and, if unwilling to listen to them, “neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”

For Jesus’ illustration of the rich man and Lazarus, did he draw on rabbinic beliefs concerning the dead?

Teachers and students of comparative religion have in some cases suggested that in giving this illustration, Jesus Christ drew upon the ancient rabbinic concept and teaching regarding the underworld. Josephus furnishes the following information regarding the then-current view of the Pharisees in this regard: “They believe that souls have power to survive death and that there are rewards and punishments under the earth for those who have led lives of virtue or vice: eternal imprisonment is the lot of evil souls, while the good souls receive an easy passage to a new life.” (Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, 14 [i, 3]) However, Jesus flatly rejected false teachings, including those of the Pharisees. (Mt 23) Hence, it would have been inconsistent for him to frame his illustration of the rich man and Lazarus according to the outlines of the false rabbinic concept of the underworld. Consequently, it must be concluded that Jesus had in mind the fulfillment of the illustration and framed its details and movement in harmony with the facts of the fulfillment rather than according to any unscriptural teaching.

The context and the wording of the story show clearly that it is a parable and not an actual historical account. Poverty is not being extolled, nor are riches being condemned. Rather, conduct, final rewards, and a reversal in the spiritual status, or condition, of those represented by Lazarus and by the rich man are evidently indicated. The fact that the rich man’s brothers rejected Moses and the prophets also shows that the illustration had a deeper meaning and purpose than that of contrasting poverty and the possession of riches.

* Purple Dye

Murex-Trunculus-ShellPurple dye was obtained from shellfish or mollusks such as the Murex trunculus and Murex brandaris. In the neck of these creatures there is a small gland containing but a single drop of fluid called the flower. Initially it has the appearance and consistency of cream, but upon exposure to air and light it gradually changes to a deep violet or reddish purple. These shellfish are found along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, and the shades of color acquired from them vary according to their location. The larger specimens were broken open individually, and the precious fluid was carefully removed from them, whereas the smaller ones were crushed in mortars. Since the amount of fluid acquired from each shellfish was quite small, accumulating a considerable amount was a costly process. Hence, this dye was expensive, and garments dyed purple became the mark of wealthy persons or those in high station. (Es 8:15; Lu 16:19) Another shellfish (the cerulean mussel) has been suggested as the source of a blue dye.

Ancient Tyre became famous for a purple or deep-crimson dye known as Tyrian or Imperial purple. Though the Tyrians are said to have employed a method of double-dyeing, the exact formula used to obtain this color is unknown. The coloring matter was evidently obtained from the Murex and Purpura mollusks, piles of emptied shells of the Murex trunculus having been found along the shore of Tyre and in the vicinity of Sidon. The Phoenician city of Tyre is depicted by Jehovah as having wool dyed reddish purple and other colorful materials, as well as carrying on trading in such articles.Eze 27:2, 7,24


In the illustration, Jesus said the beggar Lazarus was carried at his death to “the bosom position of Abraham,” and John refers to Jesus as being in “the bosom position with the Father.” (Lu 16:22, 23; Joh 1:18) The expression “bosom position” alludes to one’s reclining in front of another person on the same couch at a meal.

Guests reclined on their left side with a pillow supporting their left elbow, leaving the right arm free. Usually three persons occupied each couch, but there could be as many as five. The head of each one would be on or near the breast, or bosom, as it were, of the person behind him. The person with no one at his back was considered in the highest position and the one next to him in the second place of honor. In view of the nearness of the guests to one another, it was the custom that friend be placed next to friend, which made it rather easy to engage in confidential conversation if desired. To be in such a bosom position of another at a banquet was indeed to occupy a special place of favor with that one. So the apostle John, whom Jesus dearly loved, “was reclining in front of Jesus’ bosom,” and in such a position he “leaned back upon the breast of Jesus” and privately asked him a question at the celebration of the last Passover.—Joh 13:23, 25; 21:20.

For these reasons John, in describing the very special position of favor enjoyed by Jesus, said that he was in “the bosom position” of his Father Jehovah. Likewise, in Jesus’ illustration, Lazarus was carried to “the bosom position” of Abraham, denoting that this beggar finally came into a position of special favor with one who was his superior, yes signifying favor with God.


Definition: The word “hell” is found in many Bible translations. In the same verses other translations read “the grave,” “the world of the dead,” and so forth. Other Bibles simply transliterate the original-language words that are sometimes rendered “hell”; that is, they express them with the letters of our alphabet but leave the words untranslated. What are those words? The Hebrew she’ohlʹ and its Greek equivalent haiʹdes, which refer, not to an individual burial place, but to the common grave of dead mankind; also the Greek geʹen·na, which is used as a symbol of eternal destruction. However, both in Christendom and in many non-Christian religions it is taught that hell is a place inhabited by demons and where the wicked, after death, are punished (and some believe that this is with torment).

Does the Bible indicate whether the dead experience pain?

Eccl. 9:5, 10: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all . . . All that your hand finds to do, do with your very power, for there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol,* the place to which you are going.” (If they are conscious of nothing, they obviously feel no pain.) (*“Sheol,”AS, RS, NE, JB; “the grave,” KJ, Kx; “hell,” Dy; “the world of the dead,” TEV.)

Ps. 146:4: “His spirit goes out, he goes back to his ground; in that day his thoughts* do perish.” (*“Thoughts,” KJ, 145:4 in Dy; “schemes,” JB; “plans,” RS, TEV.)

Does the Bible indicate that the soul survives the death of the body?

Ezek. 18:4: “The soul* that is sinning—it itself will die.” (*“Soul,” KJ, Dy, RS, NE, Kx;“the man,” JB; “the person,” TEV.)

“The concept of ‘soul,’ meaning a purely spiritual, immaterial reality, separate from the ‘body,’ . . . does not exist in the Bible.”—La Parole de Dieu (Paris, 1960), Georges Auzou, professor of Sacred Scripture, Rouen Seminary, France, p. 128.

“Although the Hebrew word nefesh [in the Hebrew Scriptures] is frequently translated as ‘soul,’ it would be inaccurate to read into it a Greek meaning. Nefesh. . . is never conceived of as operating separately from the body. In the New Testament the Greek word psyche is often translated as ‘soul’ but again should not be readily understood to have the meaning the word had for the Greek philosophers. It usually means ‘life,’ or ‘vitality,’ or, at times, ‘the self.’”—The Encyclopedia Americana (1977), Vol. 25, p. 236.

What sort of people go to the Bible hell?

Does the Bible say that the wicked go to hell?

Ps. 9:17, KJ: “The wicked shall be turned into hell,* and all the nations that forget God.” (*“Hell,” 9:18 in Dy; “death,” TEV; “the place of death,” Kx; “Sheol,” AS, RS, NE, JB, NW.)

Does the Bible also say that upright people go to hell?

Job 14:13, Dy: “[Job prayed:] Who will grant me this, that thou mayst protect me in hell,* and hide me till thy wrath pass, and appoint me a time when thou wilt remember me?” (God himself said that Job was “a man blameless and upright, fearing God and turning aside from bad.”—Job 1:8.) (*“The grave,” KJ; “the world of the dead,” TEV; “Sheol,” AS, RS, NE, JB, NW.)

Acts 2:25-27, KJ: “David speaketh concerning him [Jesus Christ], . . . Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell,* neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” (The fact that God did not “leave” Jesus in hell implies that Jesus was in hell, or Hades, at least for a time, does it not?) (*“Hell,” Dy; “death,” NE; “the place of death,” Kx; “the world of the dead,” TEV; “Hades,” AS, RS, JB, NW.)

Does anyone ever get out of the Bible hell?

Rev. 20:13, 14, KJ: “The sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell* delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire.” (So the dead will be delivered from hell. Notice also that hell is not the same as the lake of fire but will be cast into the lake of fire.) (*“Hell,” Dy, Kx; “the world of the dead,”TEV; “Hades,” NE, AS, RS, JB, NW.)

Why is there confusion as to what the Bible says about hell?

“Much confusion and misunderstanding has been caused through the early translators of the Bible persistently rendering the Hebrew Sheol and the Greek Hades and Gehenna by the word hell. The simple transliteration of these words by the translators of the revised editions of the Bible has not sufficed to appreciably clear up this confusion and misconception.”—The Encyclopedia Americana (1942), Vol. XIV, p. 81.

Translators have allowed their personal beliefs to color their work instead of being consistent in their rendering of the original-language words. For example: (1) The King James Version rendered she’ohlʹ as “hell,” “the grave,” and “the pit”; haiʹdes is therein rendered both “hell” and “grave”; geʹen·na is also translated “hell.” (2) Today’s English Version transliterates haiʹdes as “Hades” and also renders it as “hell” and “the world of the dead.” But besides rendering “hell” from haiʹdes it uses that same translation for geʹen·na. (3) The Jerusalem Bible transliterates haiʹdes six times, but in other passages it translates it as “hell” and as “the underworld.” It also translates geʹen·na as “hell,” as it does haiʹdes in two instances. Thus the exact meanings of the original-language words have been obscured.

Is there eternal punishment for the wicked?

Matt. 25:46, KJ: “These shall go away into everlasting punishment [“lopping off,” Int;Greek, koʹla·sin]: but the righteous into life eternal.” (The Emphatic Diaglott reads “cutting-off” instead of “punishment.” A footnote states: “Kolasin . . . is derived from kolazoo, which signifies, 1. To cut off; as lopping off branches of trees, to prune. 2. To restrain, to repress. . . . 3. To chastise, to punish. To cut off an individual from life, or society, or even to restrain, is esteemed as punishment;—hence has arisen this third metaphorical use of the word. The primary signification has been adopted, because it agrees better with the second member of the sentence, thus preserving the force and beauty of the antithesis. The righteous go to life, the wicked to the cutting off from life, ordeath. See 2 Thess. 1.9.”)

2 Thess. 1:9, RS: “They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction* and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” (*“Eternal ruin,” NAB, NE;“lost eternally,” JB; “condemn them to eternal punishment,” Kx; “eternal punishment in destruction,” Dy.)

Jude 7, KJ: “Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.” (The fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah ceased burning thousands of years ago. But the effect of that fire has been lasting; the cities have not been rebuilt. God’s judgment, however, was against not merely those cities but also their wicked inhabitants. What happened to them is a warning example. At Luke 17:29, Jesus says that they were “destroyed”; Jude 7 shows that the destruction was eternal.)

What is the meaning of the ‘eternal torment’ referred to in Revelation?

Rev. 14:9-11; 20:10, KJ: “If any man worship the beast and his image, and receive his mark in his forehead, or in his hand, the same shall drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out without mixture into the cup of his indignation; and he shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels, and in the presence of the Lamb: and the smoke of their torment [Greek, basa·ni·smouʹ] ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night, who worship the beast and his image, and whosoever receiveth the mark of his name.” “And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

What is the ‘torment’ to which these texts refer? It is noteworthy that at Revelation 11:10 (KJ) reference is made to ‘prophets that torment those dwelling on the earth.’ Such torment results from humiliating exposure by the messages that these prophets proclaim. At Revelation 14:9-11 (KJ) worshipers of the symbolic “beast and his image” are said to be “tormented with fire and brimstone.” This cannot refer to conscious torment after death because “the dead know not any thing.” (Eccl. 9:5, KJ) Then, what causes them to experience such torment while they are still alive? It is the proclamation by God’s servants that worshipers of the “beast and his image” will experience second death, which is represented by “the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.” The smoke, associated with their fiery destruction, ascends forever because the destruction will be eternal and will never be forgotten. When Revelation 20:10 says that the Devil is to experience ‘torment forever and ever’ in “the lake of fire and brimstone,” what does that mean? Revelation 21:8 (KJ) says clearly that “the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone” means “the second death.” So the Devil’s being “tormented” there forever means that there will be no relief for him; he will be held under restraint forever, actually in eternal death. This use of the word “torment” (from the Greek baʹsa·nos) reminds one of its use at Matthew 18:34, where the same basic Greek word is applied to a ‘jailer.’—RS, AT, ED, NW.

What is the ‘fiery Gehenna’ to which Jesus referred?

Reference to Gehenna appears 12 times in the Christian Greek Scriptures. Five times it is directly associated with fire. Translators have rendered the Greek expression geʹen·nan tou py·rosʹ as “hell fire” (KJ, Dy), “fires of hell” (NE), “fiery pit” (AT), and “fires of Gehenna” (NAB).

Historical background: The Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna) was outside the walls of Jerusalem. For a time it was the site of idolatrous worship, including child sacrifice. In the first century Gehenna was being used as the incinerator for the filth of Jerusalem. Bodies of dead animals were thrown into the valley to be consumed in the fires, to which sulfur, or brimstone, was added to assist the burning. Also bodies of executed criminals, who were considered undeserving of burial in a memorial tomb, were thrown into Gehenna. Thus, at Matthew 5:29, 30, Jesus spoke of the casting of one’s “whole body” into Gehenna. If the body fell into the constantly burning fire it was consumed, but if it landed on a ledge of the deep ravine its putrefying flesh became infested with the ever-present worms, or maggots. (Mark 9:47, 48) Living humans were not pitched into Gehenna; so it was not a place of conscious torment.

At Matthew 10:28, Jesus warned his hearers to “be in fear of him that can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” What does it mean? Notice that there is no mention here of torment in the fires of Gehenna; rather, he says to ‘fear him that can destroy in Gehenna.’ By referring to the “soul” separately, Jesus here emphasizes that God can destroy all of a person’s life prospects; thus there is no hope of resurrection for him. So, the references to the ‘fiery Gehenna’ have the same meaning as ‘the lake of fire’ of Revelation 21:8, namely, destruction, “second death.”

What does the Bible say the penalty for sin is?

Rom. 6:23: “The wages sin pays is death.”

After one’s death, is he still subject to further punishment for his sins?

Rom. 6:7: “He who has died has been acquitted from his sin.”

Is eternal torment of the wicked compatible with God’s personality?

Jer. 7:31: “They [apostate Judeans] have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, in order to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, a thing that I had not commanded and that had not come up into my heart.” (If it never came into God’s heart, surely he does not have and use such a thing on a larger scale.)

Illustration: What would you think of a parent who held his child’s hand over a fire to punish the child for wrongdoing? “God is love.” (1 John 4:8) Would he do what no right-minded human parent would do? Certainly not!

By what Jesus said about the rich man and Lazarus, did Jesus teach torment of the wicked after death?

Is the account, at Luke 16:19-31, literal or merely an illustration of something else? The Jerusalem Bible, in a footnote, acknowledges that it is a “parable in story form without reference to any historical personage.” If taken literally, it would mean that those enjoying divine favor could all fit at the bosom of one man, Abraham; that the water on one’s fingertip would not be evaporated by the fire of Hades; that a mere drop of water would bring relief to one suffering there. Does that sound reasonable to you? If it were literal, it would conflict with other parts of the Bible. If the Bible were thus contradictory, would a lover of truth use it as a basis for his faith? But the Bible does not contradict itself.

What does the parable mean? The “rich man” represented the Pharisees. (See verse 14.) The beggar Lazarus represented the common Jewish people who were despised by the Pharisees but who repented and became followers of Jesus. (See Luke 18:11; John 7:49; Matthew 21:31, 32.) Their deaths were also symbolic, representing a change in circumstances. Thus, the formerly despised ones came into a position of divine favor, and the formerly seemingly favored ones were rejected by God, while being tormented by the judgment messages delivered by the ones whom they had despised.—Acts 5:33; 7:54.

What is the origin of the teaching of hellfire?

In ancient Babylonian and Assyrian beliefs the “nether world . . . is pictured as a place full of horrors, and is presided over by gods and demons of great strength and fierceness.” (The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, Boston, 1898, Morris Jastrow, Jr., p. 581) Early evidence of the fiery aspect of Christendom’s hell is found in the religion of ancient Egypt. (The Book of the Dead, New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1960, with introduction by E. A. Wallis Budge, pp. 144, 149, 151, 153, 161) Buddhism, which dates back to the 6th century B.C.E., in time came to feature both hot and cold hells. (The Encyclopedia Americana, 1977, Vol. 14, p. 68) Depictions of hell portrayed in Catholic churches in Italy have been traced to Etruscan roots.—La civiltà etrusca (Milan, 1979), Werner Keller, p. 389.

But the real roots of this God-dishonoring doctrine go much deeper. The fiendish concepts associated with a hell of torment slander God and originate with the chief slanderer of God (the Devil, which name means “Slanderer”), the one whom Jesus Christ called “the father of the lie.”—John 8:44.


2 thoughts on “Hell, is it real? A closer Look at “The rich man and Lazarus” [Advanced Reading, Solid Food]

  1. Pingback: Abraham [Advanced Reading, Solid Food] | Last Minute Talent

  2. Pingback: Why Are There So Many Christian Denominations? | Last Minute Talent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s