Responding to Universalists
In Ezekiel chapter 20 we find a prophecy of judgment against Judah and Jerusalem:
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? (Ezekiel 20:46-49, emphasis added)
In the beginning of this chapter the elders of Israel visited Ezekiel “to enquire of the LORD” (v. 1). The LORD was not pleased with the elders, or with their nation. “Are ye come to enquire of me? As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I will not be enquired of by you.” (v. 2). The word that He gives to Ezekiel clearly communicates His displeasure, but the elders refused to comprehend God’s clear message. They did not want to believe that it was a warning of judgment, so they tried justifying their refusal by calling God’s message a parable.
This is exactly what Universalists do with the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.
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 Hades 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. (Luke 16:19-31)
Before going any further I want to point out that people disagree on whether or not this should even be considered a parable. Here are some reasons why:
- Jesus never calls it a parable.
- The inspired text never introduces it as a parable (see Luke 8:4; 12:16,41; 13:6; 15:3; 18:9).
- It is never introduced with a comparative that suggests it is a parable (see 13:18,20).
- It is the only one of Jesus’ parables in which one of the characters are mentioned by name.
- It is the only parable that portrays the afterlife (parables usually deal with things and activities in the physical world that we can relate to and understand).
I don’t mean to point these things out to suggest that I don’t believe this is a parable. I do believe that it is a parable. The reason I point these things out is to make others realize that this is no simple parable. No one can be certain as to exactly how it should be interpreted. For example, does the parable describe the separation of the believer and the unbeliever literally? Is there really a “great gulf” with believers on one side and unbelievers on the other side exactly like the parable describes? Or is it more likely that the “great gulf” represents the reality that the unbelieving dead in Hades are permanently separated from believers?
It is likely that the parable should be interpreted in a way similar to that of the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Many believe that stories such as these fall into a special category of parables that might best be described as “example stories.” While they are not necessarily literal or historical events, they do not require that you find some symbolic or figurative meaning behind every detail. An example where symbolic or figurative interpretation is required is in the parable of the sower (Luke 8:5-8), which even the disciples could not understand until Jesus interpreted it for them (v. 9-18). Note that in the parable of the Good Samaritan the lawyer did not need Jesus to interpret the parable for him – Jesus’ point was obvious (Luke 10:36-37). Not all parables are the same.
While no one can know for sure how we should interpret every detail of the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. We should all be very careful not to deny the obvious impression that we get when we read it. The obvious impression we get is that Hades is a place for the wicked where the torment of hell has already begun. It seems to clearly teach that immediately after death both believers and unbelievers are consciously aware of their eternal status. It teaches that believers enter immediate blessing, while unbelievers enter immediate suffering and torment. More importantly, it teaches that once a person dies their fate is irreversible. The separation between the believer and the unbeliever is permanent – there is no opportunity for repentance in the afterlife. These are all truths that we can safely take from the parable regardless of whether or not we believe the parable describes Hades literally.
But it is this obvious impression that Universalists claim is the wrong interpretation. The reason they give is the same as that of the elders of Ezekiel’s day. This is a parable. So, they argue that we should not go with the obvious impression we get when we read it, but instead find the symbolic and figurative meaning of all the elements within it. The primary goal of this argument is to find a way to make the parable appear to have nothing to say about torment in the afterlife. Universalists make some shocking claims to accomplish this. For example, one popular web sitesays,
According to the popular teaching of this parable, the Rich man is in an eternal Hell of torture and Lazarus is in eternal Heavenly bliss. Well let’s be sure then to pay special attention to those traits of character that have separated these two individuals into two entirely different realms …
Examine [each man’s character] closely. Is it not obvious that what is literally revealed here does not lend itself to an eternal life of torture for the Rich man or an eternal life of heavenly bliss for the poor man? Where else in Scripture do the character traits [of the rich man] come under eternal condemnation? And where else in Scripture do the character traits [of Lazarus] bring a promise of salvation in Heaven? Seriously, WHERE?
From what is literally stated about these two individuals it is hard to find condemnation or praise for either party. We know for sure that the Rich man is in a state of condemnation and that Lazarus is in a state of consolement, but there is nothing in the narrative to tell us why this is so.
In other words, if we believe that this parable describes torment in the afterlife, then we must also believe that the rich man went to Hades simply for being rich. This is most shocking to me. I am amazed at statements such as, “Where else in Scripture do the character traits [of the rich man] come under eternal condemnation? Seriously,WHERE?”
How about Deuteronomy 15:7-8?
If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother: But thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.
How about Isaiah 32:6?
For the vile person will speak villany, and his heart will work iniquity…to make empty the soul of the hungry, and he will cause the drink of the thirsty to fail.
How about Isaiah 58:7?
Is fasting not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house?
How about Malachi 3:5?
And I will come near to you to judgment…against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the LORD of hosts.
The rich man was not condemned because he had extravagant wealth. The rich man was condemned because his extravagant wealth led him to spiritual poverty. The rich man became consumed with his own happiness and failed to respond to Lazarus’ suffering. The rich man’s lack of compassion made his material wealth all that he would ever receive. The rich man reaped what he sowed. He was condemned because he misused his wealth, and because his wealth led him astray.
This is, after all, the point of the parable. Jesus had just finished talking about wealth in verses 1-13. He finished by saying, “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 wealth” (v. 13). The Pharisees, “who were covetous, heard all these things: and they derided him” (v. 14). These events lead up to the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Jesus was showing them that: 1) they rejected God’s Word – both in the fact that they ignored God’s instructions on taking care of the needy, and in the fact that they could not see that the Scriptures point to Christ (see v. 29-31), and 2) their extravagant wealth in this life did not necessarily mean they would be blessed in the afterlife. Jesus makes these points by reversing the situation between Lazarus and the rich man in the afterlife.
This is a consistent theme in the book of Luke. In the opening chapter we find Mary praising God, saying,
He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. (Luke 1:51-53)
In chapter 6 Jesus proclaims:
Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. But woe unto you that are rich! for ye have received your consolation. Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25)
The obvious impression that we get when we read the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is consistent with the events leading up to the parable (the context in which it was used), as well as other parts of Scripture that teach of pending judgment (an “eschatological reversal” if you will) for the rich who are spiritually poor. This, in addition to the fact that the Greek word “Hades” refers to Sheol in every other occurance in the Bible (see Part 3), is enough for me to believe that this parable should be a warning to all of us that eternal torment for unbelievers is a reality.