A Universalist Looks at the New Testament – The Rich Man and Lazarus

I’m following along with my church’s reading of the New Testament and making comments when there’s a passage that might look different when read from the perspective of a universalist. Today we read Luke 16:19-31, the story of the rich man and Lazarus.

I like the discussion of this story in George Sarris’s book, Heaven’s Doors, so I’m going to copy that out here.

Note first that the newest edition of the NIV Bible correctly translates the word “Hades” in the parable rather than using “hell.” “Hades” means “the grave” rather than a place of torment. But here’s more from George Sarris:

At first glance, it certainly looks like there’s no way around understanding this parable as promoting the idea of endless, conscious torment. After all, the rich man is in hell. He is “in torment and agony in this fire.” A great chasm has been fixed between the rich man and Lazarus. And those who want to cross over that chasm cannot.

However, if we take a closer look at the passage, a few things bring that interpretation into question.

First of all, the rich man was not in hell.

As mentioned earlier, the English word hell automatically brings to mind never-ending punishment. But as we have just seen, the Greek word Jesus actually used here does not communicate that idea at all.

Jesus said the rich man was in Hades, and Scripture specifically says that Hades, as a place of punishment, does not last forever. Hades will one day give up the dead who are in it and will itself be cast into the lake of fire.

The next thing we should note is that this is a parable. Jesus is telling a fictional story to teach certain truths to His listeners.

The audience for this parable was made up of two distinct groups of people. One group, the tax collectors and sinners, were spiritually poor and recognized their need for God. The other group, made up of the Pharisees and teachers of the law, were materially rich and had deceived themselves into thinking they were favored by God. Like the rich man in the parable, many of those religious leaders were actually clothed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day.

In this parable, Jesus alluded to an Egyptian folktale that both the religious leaders and the tax collectors were familiar with. But He told it with a very important twist.

The story known to His listeners was about a poor scholar and a rich tax collector. After the two men died, one of the poor scholar’s colleagues had a dream. In his dream, he saw the fate of the two men in the next world. The poor scholar was in “gardens of paradisal beauty, watered by flowing streams.” But the rich tax collector was standing on the bank of a stream, trying to reach the water but unable to do so.

In the original folktale, the Pharisees and teachers of the law would have identified with the poor scholar since they were also scholars who prided themselves on their knowledge of Moses and the prophets. They looked with marked disdain on the tax collector who they considered a great sinner simply by virtue of his occupation. In an absolutely brilliant move, Jesus turned the tables on the listeners and identified the religious leaders not with the hero in the story, but with the villain. They were the ones who were rich in this world’s goods, but poor in the eyes of God.

Jesus wasn’t relating definitive facts about the afterlife. He was using the story to communicate specific truth about this life. The pride and hypocrisy of the religious leaders kept them from understanding what Moses and the prophets taught.

The last thing to note about this passage is that the parable was told before Jesus had risen from the dead.

A great chasm separated the rich man from Lazarus. But there is nothing in the account that says that the chasm will always be there. Neither Abraham, nor the rich man, nor Lazarus could do anything to make it possible to go from one side of the chasm to the other. That was the purpose of Jesus’ death and resurrection. God bridged the chasm through Him.

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