IS LUKE 16:19-31 A PARABLE?
by Shawn Brasseaux
In an attempt to sidestep the Biblical doctrine of eternal judgment in hellfire, certain groups have resorted to watering down one of the clearest and most graphic passages of hell. Such people say that Luke 16:19-31—the account of the Rich Man and Lazarus—is merely a “parable,” figurative language rather than literal truth. They believe there was no historical rich man who actually woke up tormented in hell, and no historical beggar named Lazarus who actually woke up comforted in paradise. After all, their denominational doctrine demands that the dead be unconscious, completely unaware of their surroundings. Furthermore, they protest, “A loving God would never send people to an eternal hell.” They particularly pick on a Bible term found in the passage—“Abraham’s bosom.” If “Abraham’s bosom” is not literal, they assert, then neither is the rest of the passage—especially the part about “tormented in this flame.” Friends, in this study, we will critically evaluate Luke 16:19-31. Literal? Or, figurative?
Dear readers, first things first. Before commenting, we must read Luke 16:19-31: “ There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:  And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,  And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.  And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;  And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.  And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.  But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.  And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.  Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house:  For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.  Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.  And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.  And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”
Now to our thorough analysis!
Friends, stop and think. After reading Luke 16:19-31, was there clarity or confusion in our minds? That is, were you more confused about that topic discussed in those Scriptures, or were you enlightened? If you do not mind, please answer the following questions.
What specific verses, phrases, or words, if any, would lead you to conclude that Luke 16:19-31 is figurative? What, if anything, do you think is nonliteral in the passage? Please write your answers in the blanks below. (If you are reading this online, please use a pen and paper.)
INDICATIONS THAT LUKE 16:19-31 IS FIGURATIVE (NON-LITERAL)
Okay, the next part. What specific verses, phrases, or words, if any, would lead you to conclude that Luke 16:19-31 is literal? What, if anything, do you think is literal in the passage? Please write your answers in the blanks below. (Again, if you are reading this online, please use a pen and paper.)
INDICATIONS THAT LUKE 16:19-31 IS LITERAL (NON-FIGURATIVE)
Now that you have written your answers, we move on to make some general verse comparisons and present some basic facts from Scripture. First and foremost, parables bear a certain primary characteristic in Scripture. Contrary to popular belief, parables are not teaching aids. They are meant to make the truth less clear. That is, parables are meant to hide the truth from people who have rejected the truth God had previously revealed to them. To repeat, parables are meant to confuse rather than to explain.
The Lord Jesus Christ admitted this quite plainly in Matthew 13:10-15: “ And the disciples came, and said unto him, Why speakest thou unto them in parables?  He answered and said unto them, Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given.  For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.  Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.  And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive:  For this people’s heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest at any time they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and should understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.”
In light of what the Lord Jesus Himself said about parables, Luke 16:19-31, if it were a parable, should have made the truth less clear. Did it? In light of what the Lord Jesus Himself said about parables, Luke 16:19-31, if it were literal, should have made the truth quite clear. Did it? Then, my dear friends, it should be very apparent to you as to whether or not Luke 16:19-31 is a parable! But, we will take it a step further.
Luke 16:19 does not begin with, “And he speak this parable unto them….” If the account of the rich man and Lazarus were a parable, the Holy Spirit should have made sure to notify the audience that this “graphic story” was merely a parable and not literal truth. Remember, this passage has been used for centuries to defend the reality of eternal hellfire. The implications are quite severe if we take Luke 16:19-31 as literal truth. Should not the Holy Spirit, having foreseen the alleged “misusage” of the passage in the coming centuries, made every attempt in the context to indicate that it was symbolic and nonliteral? You can search Luke chapter 16 for the rest of eternity, my dear readers, and never see where Jesus clearly indicated verses 19 through 31 as figurative (a parable).
Furthermore, the last parable of chapter 16 (in the context) ended with verse 8. That was over 10 verses prior to Jesus mentioning the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus began to speak literal truths from verse 9 of chapter 16 onward and into chapter 17. (We will address this quite thoroughly later, in point #7). If it were a parable, Jesus left much room for ambiguities and uncertainties; He never explained what the elements symbolized. This lack of explanation is the strongest indication that no symbolism was involved. Luke 16:19-31 was literal.
The only logical, Bible-believing view, is that Luke 16:19-31 was not a parable, but literal history. Just as we are aware of our surroundings today (we are on planet Earth), Lazarus knew he was in paradise (the heart of the Earth, the spirit world for believers of that time) and the rich man knew that he was in torments (the heart of the Earth, the spirit world for unbelievers even today). But, we will take it another step further!
Of all the parables recorded in Matthew through Luke (John does not contain parables), not one of them contains a person’s name. Check it out for yourself if you doubt me. In stark contrast, Luke 16:20 bears the name “Lazarus” (also see verses 23,24, and 25). The name was not a mistake. It is mentioned four times. Why? Lazarus was a literal, flesh-and-blood individual like us; he was not some imaginary character in a horror story. He was just as literal and physical as Abraham was, and “Abraham” was also mentioned by name in the passage (see verses 25 and 29). This great detail is never found in any of Jesus’ parables. Again, check it out for yourself if you do not believe me. Okay, we take it yet another step further!
As we mentioned in point #2, the Holy Spirit should have made it clear to identify the meaning of Luke 16:19-31. What was the purpose of telling His audience this if it were a parable without historical basis? If Jesus, when saying, “I am tormented in this flame,” meant something other than literal suffering in a literal fire, why did He not define that expression in literal terms for us? The same could be said of “Lazarus,” “rich man,” “Abraham,” “great gulf fixed,” and all the other elements in the passage. Jesus left them undefined. Why? The only logical conclusion is that those words were to be taken at face value. He gave no alternative meaning for them because there was no alternative meaning for them. Our Lord Jesus said exactly what He meant about the rich man and Lazarus, and He meant exactly what He said about the rich man and Lazarus. If we disagree with Him, we need to just come out and say that we do not believe the Bible. We should not be hiding behind some lame “figurative language” defense. (We will discuss this in our next point.) Dear friends, may we not be like all those unbelieving hearts that simply reject the simple revelations from God, just so they may keep their manmade church traditions! We take it another step….
When the Prophet Ezekiel warned Israel about God’s coming judgment upon them, note the following in Ezekiel 20:45-49: “ Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,  Son of man, set thy face toward the south, and drop thy word toward the south, and prophesy against the forest of the south field;  And say to the forest of the south, Hear the word of the Lord; Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will kindle a fire in thee, and it shall devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree: the flaming flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north shall be burned therein.  And all flesh shall see that I the LORD have kindled it: it shall not be quenched.  Then said I, Ah Lord GOD! they say of me, Doth he not speak parables?”
Did you catch it? Unbelievers equate “fire” (judgment) in the Bible with “parables.” Bible rejecters are those who do not believe in God’s literal fire of judgment! Would a Bible believer ever conclude God’s fiery judgment a “parable?” Not according to the Bible! What does this say about people who diminish Luke 16:19-31, hellfire, to a “parable?” We can take it another step!
Those who relish in “toning down” Luke 16:19-31 especially appeal to the Bible’s term “Abraham’s bosom” (see verses 22-23). To them, this figurative expression proves the whole passage is nonliteral. Abraham’s actual breast is not involved, so the entire story is fabricated… or so they say. For example, to quote official “Jehovah’s Witnesses’” doctrine, “[The] Rich man and Lazarus account [is] no proof of eternal torment. Fire [is] no more literal than Abraham’s bosom.” Friends, these dear “Russellites” are woefully ignorant of the English language. Of course, they are not interested in using English properly anyway. They just want to defend their denomination… whatever the cost!
“Bosom,” in the English language, does not necessarily mean a literal breast, as in someone resting against your upper chest. “Bosom,” as used in John’s Gospel, is most definitely Jesus’ literal breast, His upper chest (see John 13:23,25). Yet, our English word “bosom” can also mean “a state of enclosing intimacy; warm closeness.” In a similar manner, we use our English word “heart.” In one sense, the term “heart” refers to the physical muscle that pumps literal blood throughout our literal, physical bodies. Yet, another sense of “heart” is our innermost being, our seat of emotions. For instance, think about the expression, “That person is close, or dear, to your heart.” Does that mean this person is literally resting against your chest? Of course not! Yet, this figurative phrase still communicates a literal truth. You have deep emotional connections with that individual. It has nothing to do with your heart muscle, either.
You are probably curious as to why the term “Abraham’s bosom” even appears in Luke 16:22-23. I will gladly tell you. Remember, it is the title of the place where believing Lazarus went upon death. It was also the place where Abraham’s soul resided (see verses 25,29). As you may know, Abraham is the classic believer in Scripture. He is called “the father of all them that believe” in Romans 4:11. All believers who had died up to the point of Luke chapter 16, they had died believing in the God of Abraham. They, going all the way back to Adam—the beginning of the world (Acts 3:21)—had also died with faith in the message of God’s earthly kingdom. Because Abraham is called “the father of them that believe,” his “bosom” indicates the close affinity he has with other believers from that Old Testament era, as well as their closeness with him. They are all children of God, having the righteousness of Jesus Christ credited to their account, and thus have an intimate relationship with the God of the Bible. They are (even today) still awaiting bodily resurrection to enter God’s earthly kingdom (see Job 19:25-27, for instance). This is in contrast with those unbelieving souls, such as the rich man, who are (even today) still experiencing torment in the flames of hell.
By the way, if we must nitpick at the phrase “Abraham’s bosom,” saying the passage is not literal because “bosom” is not literal, then we must also dismiss John 1:18 as nonliteral. “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” “Bosom” in John 1:18 is figurative and not literal, so should John 1:18 be believed literally? As in Luke 16:22-23, “bosom” in John 1:18 carries a literal truth. The Lord Jesus is not literally leaning on God’s breast, is He? Yet, even while using a figurative term, John 1:18 is conveying a literal truth. Jesus has an intimate relationship with His Heavenly Father. (Remember our comments about “heart?”) The same sense is applied to “Abraham’s bosom.” We take it another step further!
Dear friends, to have the richest understanding of Luke 16:19-31, we would have to come to a conclusion as to what it all means. If all the elements symbolize something else (as the case in a parable), then what do they all mean as a whole (as in a parable)? Remember, even parables have real-life applications. Luke 16:19-31, even if it were a parable, would still convey literal truths. It would by no means diminish God’s revelation. But, it is not a parable. Because of its serious nature, we had better take it most seriously.
As stated earlier, the easiest way to handle Luke 16:19-31 is to simply take it at face value. When you examine its context, the natural conclusion is that it means just what it says. The context is literal; Luke 16:19-31 must also be literal. Let me tell you how we deduce that.
Luke chapter 16 opens with Jesus talking to His disciples about being faithful servants. The issue of literal wealth is mentioned. Jesus says to His disciples in verse 13: “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” Please note verse 14: “And the Pharisees also, who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him.” The Pharisees dislike what Jesus said, so they mock Him. So, from verse 15 onward until verse 31 (end of chapter 16), Jesus addresses the covetous Pharisees. Notice how He is rebuking them for their materialism. “Mammon” is wealth, specifically avarice or excessive greed. They serve their wealth instead of His Heavenly Father. Now you know why Jesus proceeded to mention the “rich man” and Lazarus. That “rich man” was one of those Pharisees! Instead of serving the Creator God by faith, he too had idolized his wealth. Jesus was warning the Pharisees that they, unless they converted to Him, would literally wind up in that same literal, eternally hopeless state of “torment in flames” as that literal rich man’s literal soul! Their covetousness (idolatry) was literal and their eternal doom was equally literal! We take the argument one step further!
At this point, perhaps, the critics of Luke 16:19-31 have seen their error in dismissing it as a parable, a nonliteral portion of Scripture. We hope and pray that they have, for it is a very serious matter. However, even if one were to recognize the merits in this study’s foregoing statements, there always lingers that last-ditch effort to dismiss eternal judgment. I can just hear it being asked: “Oh, but, Brother Shawn, how can a loving God send people to eternal hellfire?” What a great question, my friend! I am so glad you asked. I am so glad to answer it as well!
“How can a loving God send people to eternal hellfire?” The Bible believer, stumped, is perhaps convinced that the “eternal-judgment critic” has made a valid point. Has he or she? Why, of course not! That “loving God,” according to Romans 5:8, did everything to keep everyone out of hell. He sent Jesus Christ His Son to experience His wrath on our behalf, to die for our sins, that we not have to go to eternal hellfire. We just need to trust alone what He did for us at Calvary. But, if someone wants to ignore that sacrifice of Christ, that person is “unloving” because he or she has rejected God’s love. God is still loving. If they reject God’s love, they wind up in hell because of their own fault. They sent themselves to hell. God did not send anyone anywhere. He let them go where they wanted! If I, out of love, offered a million dollars to a loved one who was a million dollars in debt, and that loved one refuses the money I offer, that in no way canceled my love for him or her. My love was independent of what her or she did with my offer. If he or she wants to stay in debt, that is his or her problem—not my fault! Likewise, if someone wants to stay in spiritual debt, do not blame God! (For more information, please see our related study linked at the end of this article. There, you will find a fuller treatment of that topic.)
There are at least seven reasons why Bible believers understand Luke 16:19-31 to be literal truth, not a parable.
- Firstly, according to the Lord Jesus Himself, parables are meant to confuse, to hide the truth from people who previously rejected it. There is nothing difficult to understand in Luke 16:19-31 unless we refuse to understand it. Luke 16:19-31 is a very graphic picture of eternal hellfire, which is why people attempt to dismiss it as “figurative.”
- Secondly, Luke 16:19-31 addresses a major doctrine. For it to be a parable and for Jesus never to make it clear to His audience that is a parable, is to force it to be literal. There are no ambiguities or uncertainties. Jesus expected His audience to take what He said at face value, and He expects us to do the same.
- Thirdly, parables do not contain names of people, and yet Luke 16:19-31 mentions “Lazarus” and “Abraham” by name several times.
- Fourthly, no additional explanation follows Luke 16:19-31. Jesus moved on to other topics in chapter 17. Since no other similar discourse is given in the context, Luke 16:19-31 must be self-explanatory and self-interpreting. Again, there is no mysterious language, confusion, or hidden truths—there are no characteristics of parables in Luke 16:19-31.
- Fifthly, unbelievers in Ezekiel’s day referred to God’s literally fiery judgment as nothing but “parables,” nonliteral statements. To say Luke 16:19-31, another passage about God’s fiery judgment, is a “parable,” is to echo the complaints of lost people, those who do not serve JEHOVAH God. Do you want to sound like a Bible rejecter? Then, my friend, you just keep on calling Luke 16:19-31 a “parable!”
- Sixthly, Luke 16:19-31 contains a nonliteral phrase—“Abraham’s bosom”—and yet the whole passage still contains literal truth. The same could be said of John 1:18, which uses the term “bosom” similarly.
- Lastly, the context of Luke 16:19-31 is literal covetousness. It is a passage spoken to literal idolaters, and serves as a clear warning of the eternal wrath coming on wealth-worshippers (idolaters). It is not some fairy tale meant to pass the time and take up space in God’s Word.
The God of the Bible is so loving that He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die in our place. If we go to hell, we do so by rejecting that love God commended to us! To reject God’s love is for us—not Him—to be “unloving.”
In short, my friends, either (1) we believe Luke 16:19-31 says exactly what it means and means exactly what it says, or (2) we just stay loyal to our manmade denomination. Those are the only two options.
SUPPLEMENTAL: BUT WHAT IF SOMEONE STILL PERSISTS LUKE 16:19-31 IS A PARABLE?
Suppose, for argument’s sake, Luke 16:19-31 is a parable. Does that help us any if we deny the existence of eternal hellfire? Certainly not! Actually, relegating Luke 16:19-31 to the status of parable only proves the extreme measures people will take when twisting the Bible to fit their theology. Notice the following:
- Read Matthew 13:3-8. Do you notice how mysterious this passage is? It has hidden truths, symbolic language. This was Jesus’ first parable, commonly called the Parable of the Sower. Who is the sower? What are the seeds? What is the stony place? What about the thorns? The fowls? Now, read verses 18-23. In these statements, Jesus defines the terms of the parable. His next words will provide additional explanation.
- In verses 24-30 of Matthew chapter 13, the Lord Jesus gives a second parable, known as the Parable of the Tares—clearly called a “parable” in Matthew 13:24 and 36. Here again, Jesus utilizes various symbols. He talks about a man sowing wheat, an enemy sowing tares (weeds) among the wheat, reapers gathering the wheat and the tares, the tares are tossed into a burning fire, and the wheat is gathered into a barn. The disciples come to Jesus, asking Him to explain Himself to them (verse 36). Verses 37-43 are the Lord Jesus defining each of the various elements of the parable. He claims to be the sower of the good seed (verse 37). The field is the world (verse 38). The good seed (wheat) are the children of the kingdom (verse 38). The tares are the children of Satan, or unbelieving Jews (verse 38). The enemy who sowed the tares is the Devil (verse 39). The harvest is the end of the world (verse 39). The reapers are the angels (verse 39). The burning fire is the eternal judgment of God in hell (verse 42). The barn is the earthly kingdom of God, reserved only for Israel’s believing remnant the children of the kingdom (verse 43; cf. verse 38). Please note the fire that burns in the parable (verse 30), is, interpreted by Jesus, to be a literal fire (verse 42). The Lord Jesus thought that the fire—even in the context of a parable—was still a fire, nothing diminished. The fire did not mean something else; it meant fire. Unless of course, we reject the Lord Jesus’ interpretation so we can hold on to our church traditions? So, even if Luke 16:19-31 were a parable, the word fire means just what it says. It is a fire.
- It should be pointed out that, in the context of a parable (Matthew 13:30), “reapers” symbolize angels (verse 39). In Luke 16:19-31, the word “angels” appears (verse 22). So, the passage is not a parable; it is already reduced to a literal meaning. Unless, we are going to wrest the Scriptures even further and say that “angels” are not literal beings but rather symbols of some other things.