Thursday, May 07, 2009

Lazarus and the Rich Man

Assistant Village Idiot has a post about Lazarus and The Rich Man which reminded me that I never addressed the case against annihilation.(You'll have to scroll down to find it.  He went on a posting spree a few days ago...and his post titles are not set up for direct links)

Out of all the obstacles standing in the way of annihilation/conditional immortality, the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is probably the most difficult passage to surmount.  I've dealt with the passages using the term "hell". I've dealt with the affirmative side of what Scripture says about what happens after death. I've made a pretty strong case for my views.

However...there are 2 major passages which complicate things--Lazarus and the Rich Man, and some verses in Revelation which specifically mention everlasting torment. Revelation, I'm not too worried about. It's full of dramatic, apocalyptic language, and images which people don't fully agree on how to interpret or understand. Just as I don't really expect a literal seven-headed dragon to rise out of the sea to start the ball rolling on Armageddon, I don't think we can base an entire doctrine of the after-life on a couple of verses from a book filled with purposely provocative language.

The parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is not necessarily evidence against the idea of annihilation. Annihilation only has as its main idea that, at some point, those who don't have eternal life are destroyed; they don't continue on for all eternity. It's feasible to believe in an indeterminate location or duration of the "soul" before that happens. Conditional Immortality, on the other hand, precludes any consciousness outside of the consciousness of the body. It would be incompatible with an interim place of conscious existence before the Resurrection.

So what to do with that parable? Honestly, I'm not sure. I think that the point of the parable is its ending line, delivered by the patriarch Abraham to the Rich Man after the Rich Man has begged him to send someone back from the dead to warn his family:

Luke 16:31
31"He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' "
Jesus is not giving a teaching on the after-life so much as he is teaching that people who refuse to believe what they already have will not believe even in the face of the miraculous.

I'm not sure we should read the parable as a literal story any more than we would read Jesus' parables about shrewd managers and vineyard owners as "true" stories. The point is not the story, but the truth which it is trying to communicate. In the same way that there doesn't have to be an actual Good Samaritan in order for the lesson to hit its mark, Lazarus and the Rich Man may simply be a vehicle leading Jesus' listeners to the place where he wants them to go.

Not coincidentally, Luke continues the theme of immediate Paradise or Punishment and relays the conversation between Jesus and the good thief on the cross. Luke records the conversation between them and quotes Jesus as saying:

Luke 23:43

43Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."

In a recent blog conversation elsewhere, one commenter noted that the gospels have no punctuation. The statement could just as easily read,"I tell you the truth will be with me in paradise." I thought that was an interesting idea and would easily clean up the whole matter....but that doesn't necessarily mean it's true.

The main problem with relying on the conversation between Jesus and the "good thief" is that Mark and Matthew do not record this conversation. Not only do they not record it, but they declare that both of the robbers were insulting Jesus.

Mark 15:32b

Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

Matthew 27:44

44In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

It's a contradiction. If you believe in an inerrant view of Scripture, you're going to have to explain this. If you don't, then you can rule out either Luke's version or Matthew and Mark's version as being either an embellishment (in the case of Luke), or mistaken information(in the case of Matthew and Mark). The gospel of John doesn't relate anything that the robbers said, so it remains silent on the issue. 

If the story of the good thief in Luke is an embellishment, it does shed some light on the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It is self-consistent with what Luke is trying to communicate about the afterlife, though none of the other gospels give such explicit references to an after-life immediately after death. Luke stands alone in his portrayal.

Taken as a whole, that leads me to give less credence to the parable as anything more than a teaching illustration.


Anonymous said...

Hey don't you go quoting me without copyright consent. :)

I don't think the thief on the cross story makes any sense (if you were beaten and nailed to a cross, would you have the energy or the inclination to start philosophical discussions?), so I don't view it as a true story. However, viewed literally, it isn't a good argument for going to heaven immediately upon death.

But that's not why I'm writing. To read a good argument for the Lazarus story being a parable, go here:

For more thought on hell:

The author had a unique theology, but he knew his Bible and history.


Buz said...

As to the two theives ... have you never been in or seen a situation where a group of people were picking on a someone, and while it is happening, one of the group realizes that this person is not deserving of the type of treatment and begins to defend him against the abuse? That is how I would interpret it.

If one were in that horrific position, being publicly tortured and executed, I would expect that person would be full of anger and lash out at anyone and everyone ... especially the weakest among them.


alfredo said...

Rev Ch 20:5 speaks of the rest of the dead who lived again after the 1000 years, where are they coming from are they coming from the place of torment. If when evil men die they are tormented why in Rev 9:6 it states that men shall pray for death but death shall flea from them, is the torment in the flesh worse than the torment at death. Rev 19:20-21 mention that only the Beast and the False prophet were both cast alive into the lake of fire and the rest were slain. Only at the final judgment were those who's name are not in the book of life cast into the lake of fire. Can something be destroyed and still exist, the destroying will be longer for some than for others.

Caleb said...

I understand enough of how the bible teaches spiritual things to get a number of different bits of meaning from the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, but the overall meaning is still out of my reach. Of the things that I can get from the parable, the “gulf” is the one that I find most significant or interesting. Someone that spent their life studying quantum mechanics could not suddenly on demand, give his understanding to someone that far too late realized that quantum mechanics held the understanding that he really needed to have. Lazarus, representing someone on the spiritual path cannot suddenly pass his spiritual wisdom to someone that too late realizes he needs spiritual wisdom.

Job was on the spiritual path and we know he stuck with it and achieved the spiritual reward he sought, because the usual biblical way of indicating this is to receive a double portion. And at the end Job receives twice as much as he had. I mention Job because with the sores and all, Lazarus has some similarity to Job. The meaning of “Lazarus” as something to the effect of, “God helps,” also steers us to understanding that he is the one on the spiritual path.

Biblically, one of the meanings of riches, is the mentality or patterns of thinking that we can develop for getting our pleasure from things of this material world and that is surely the meaning intended here. I would have to start guessing to go much further on this parable. So I'll address the thieves.

Buddhism teaches of the middle way, and that concept in biblical terms, is the teaching, “to turn neither to the right or to the left.” So far my working hypothesis on the meaning of that, is that turning to the left, is turning to things of the material world. Turning to the right, would normally seem to be a good thing, because when the bible speaks of right and left, right is usually the righteous as compared to the worldly left. But I think in this sense the meaning is extreme asceticism. Living a life of extreme asceticism, but doing so without understanding why one should shun things of the world, does not really help you spiritually, while in a certain sense you aren't going as far wrong as being on the left, you still may not reach the goal.

Going left or right will steal your spirituality from you, thus the representation as thieves. If someone too ascetic realized his error perhaps it wouldn't take much for him to make rapid spiritual progress, he has already forsaken things of this world, he just missed out on understanding the reason for doing so. That may be the reason that one of the gospels depicts one of the thieves as gaining spiritual reward.