In Luke 15 and 16, Jesus tells five parables in a row. The first three are about lost things; a sheep, a coin, and a son. The last two are about lost lives; a shrewd manager loses his livelihood and a rich man loses his life.
1. Story of the lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7)
2. Story of the lost son (Luke 15:8-10)
3. Story of the lost coin (Luke 15:11-32)
4. Story of the lost job (Luke 16:1-13)
5. Story of the lost life (Luke 16:19-31)
I hope you know these parables are stories, not documentaries. They’re illustrative, not descriptive. Yet many people, including respected Bible teachers, consider the last story as some sort of Discovery Channel special. They treat the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as the Wikipedia entry for Hell. It isn’t. It’s a story and like all of Jesus’ stories it contains a powerful message.
If you’ve forgotten, the story is about a rich guy who dies and ends up in torment in Hades where he has a conversation with Abraham about sending warnings to his five living brothers. It’s gripping stuff! It would make a great movie. But as I say, it is not the Wikipedia entry for Hell.
There are three takeaways from this story, two of which are probably wrong.
Takeaway #1: Hell is a place of eternal conscious torment
“The rich man is in agony. Jesus is telling us that Hell is a place where sinners will suffer eternal conscious torment.” Except this story isn’t about Hell at all, but Hades. Different place.
In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. (Luke 16:23)
Jesus did speak about Hell from time to time (and we would do well to heed what he says about it), but not in Luke 16. This is a story about Hades, the abode of the dead. Hades is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Sheol, which is sometimes translated as “the grave” or “the depths.” Don’t ask me if Hades/Sheol is a real place – I’ve never been there – but the Jews certainly thought it was.
Sidebar: The KJV (along with older versions of the NIV) translates Hades as Hell but as I explain elsewhere, the meaning of the English word Hell has changed since the KJV was translated. Hades is not Hell. In Jewish culture, it’s the place people go when they die. This leads to the second takeaway that is probably wrong.
Takeaway #2: Hades has two compartments – smoking and non-smoking
In the story, the rich man is in the bad part of Hades, but Abraham is in the good part and so is Lazarus. From this some have concluded that Hades has two compartments, and the good part is called “Abraham’s Bosom.” This is a little weird because the Bible says a lot about Hades/Sheol and nowhere else is there any mention of different neighborhoods.
But that’s not the only weird thing Jesus says about Hades in this story:
The Jews understood Hades to be a place of silence (Ps 31:17, 115:17), yet in Jesus’ story the rich man chats with Abraham like it’s the most natural thing in the world.The Jews knew Hades as a place where the dead make no plans (Ecc 9:10), yet in the story the rich man is scheming like there’s no tomorrow.
In the Bible, Hades/Sheol is described as a dark, quiet place. There’s no talking, no scheming, and certainly no torment. In the hundred or so scriptures that describe Hades/Sheol, fire is never mentioned. Yet in Jesus’ story the rich man is in fiery torment. It’s odd. It doesn’t fit. It’s like hearing about an Eskimo getting heat stroke.
These deliberately messed-up details reinforce that Jesus is telling a story. The details are merely the scenery for the play. They’re not that important. What isimportant is the conversation that takes place between the rich man and Abraham.
Why am I saying this? Because there is a treasure in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, but if you think Jesus is giving us a Wikipedia entry for Hades or Hell, you’ll miss it. This leads me to the third takeaway, which is the one that actually matters.
Takeaway #3: God’s grace is greater than death
This story makes a lot more sense if you’re Jewish, for Jesus is alluding to a Psalm that would’ve been familiar to his listeners. It’s Psalm 49 and as we look at bits of it below, think of the rich, dead man in Jesus’ story.
Hear this, all ye peoples; Give ear, all ye inhabitants of the world, both low and high, Rich and poor together. My mouth shall speak wisdom, and… I will incline mine ear to a parable. (v.1-4, ASV)
Like Jesus, the Psalm-writer has a story to tell. Here it is:
They that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; None of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give to God a ransom for him… The fool and the brutish alike perish, and leave their wealth to others. (v.6-10, ASV)
Despite all his money, the rich man couldn’t save himself or his brothers from death.
Really! There’s no such thing as self-rescue, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. The cost of rescue is beyond our means… (Psa 49:7-8, MSG)
The one who trusts in himself and his money is a fool. Money can’t save you, for everybody dies in the end.
People, despite their wealth, do not endure; they are like the beasts that perish. This is the fate of those who trust in themselves… (Psa 49:12-13, NIV)
The rich build edifices and fund charities in the hope that their name will live on, but what good is that when you’re dead?
They are appointed as a flock for Sheol; Death shall be their shepherd… And their beauty shall be for Sheol to consume… (v.14 ASV)
The rich, along with everyone else, are herded like sheep to Sheol. Their fine houses, luxury cars and Botox treatments don’t last. Nothing remains.
But God will redeem my soul from the power of Sheol; For he will receive me. Selah. (v.15 ASV)
“Now, let me tell you some good news,” says the Psalm-writer. “God’s grace is greater than the grave. God will redeem me from the realm of the dead; he will surely take me to himself.”
Grace greater than the grave
This is wonderful news for those who trust in the Lord and it’s a heady warning for those who trust in themselves. The final verses of Psalm 49 help us interpret Jesus’ parable:
Do not be overawed when a man grows rich, when the splendor of his house increases; for he will take nothing with him when he dies, his splendor will not descend with him… A man who has riches without understanding is like the beasts that perish. (v.16-17, 20 NIV)
In this life it’s easy to be distracted by wealth and comfort, but those things are deadweights if they distract you from God. Whatever you have, you can’t take it with you. If you think your money can save you, says the Psalm-writer, you’re as dumb as a beast.
Heed the Psalm and the parable and you won’t be seduced by the transient comforts of life. You’ll understand that only God can redeem us from the grave.
That’s a life-saving takeaway, right there, yet there’s even more to this parable than that.