Hell Torments and Abraham’s Bossom – Luke 16:24 – 26


The Difficulty:

  1. Is Jesus narrating real history or a parable?
  2. Do people go to heaven or hell as soon as they die?
  3. What is the real import of the story?


Principle: Let the Bible interpret itself.

The Text

These verses are a part of Luke 16:19 – 31. That entire unit is known as a block or periscope because it contains one complete account. This particular periscope deals with two men: a rich man whose name is not given, and a man called Lazarus,

“full of sores, who was laid at his gate, 21 desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.”

24 “Then 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.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. 26 And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.’

27 “Then he said, ‘I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father’s house, 28 for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.’”

The Context

Some people think this is a real story of two men’s experiences after death. The context of the story is that it is told in a string of parables Jesus starts telling in 15:1. He tells the parable of the lost and found sheep, the prodigal son, the parable of the thrifty servant, and then this parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Only the first parable is expressly stated in the text to be a parable, and yet we do not doubt that all of them are. The same must apply to this story.


Symbol Clues

Also, Christ uses a number of symbols in this parable which help to show us its meaning.

Purple and fine linen – symbolized the royal priesthood of Israel – Exodus 26:8 and they shall make the ephod of gold, blue, purple, and scarlet thread, and fine woven linen, artistically worked. The priests wore fine linen with a purple breastplate

Fared sumptuously – Food in the Bible represents the word of God (Matthew 4:4; John 6:35, etc.) This rich man knew the law of God and its expectations of him. But he did not live according to it.

Lazarus – Greek form of Hebrew name El’azar, God is my Helper. This man was spiritually poor; did not have the law to guide him. Eating the crumbs from the rich man’s table means he lived according to the little truth he got.

The rich man represented Israel, and the poor man the Gentiles. Israel was chosen by God to shine his light unto the Gentiles (Isaiah 49:6). They however kept it to themselves. The Gentiles associated with them from a distance; they were seen as dogs. Because dogs were unclean they were kept outside the city gates, just like Lazarus of the story. But many of them came to Israel for blessing (the Roman Centurion whose daughter was healed, the Syro-phoenician woman in Matthew 15:26, 27, the promiscuous woman at the well in John 4, and more). In Matthew 15:26, 27, Jesus deliberately echos this view by calling the Jews masters and the Gentile woman a dog. She humbly replies that dogs are not denied the crumbs that fall from the master’s table… just like Lazarus fed on the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.

Hades and Abraham’s Bossom – When the two men died, the rich man went into hell; the term used is the Greek Hades; the Greeks believed in an underworld of torments, and Jesus was just using that idea to tell his story. Lazarus went to Abraham’s bossom. Abraham’s bossom simply refers to a place of safety; for example Jesus was in the “bossom of his father” (John 1:18). So from the two symbols Jesus is saying the rich man was lost, and Lazarus was saved. That is all; he is not speaking about heaven and hell.

Father Abraham – The Jews descended from Abraham, and believed that their special status as God’s people was because of him. They thought their salvation was in that fact. Jesus warned them in Matthew 3:9 – Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones. So it is interesting that in this parable, Abraham welcomes the Gentile, not the Jew. Jesus was telling the Jews that it wasn’t knowing Abraham, but keeping the word of God (Moses and the prophets), that mattered.

Though one rise from the dead – The rich man begged for Lazarus to be sent back to earthly life to warn his family to live a better life. Abraham refuses, saying if they will not listen to the clear word of God in the Scriptures, they will not accept the testimony or a resurrected prophet. Jesus was making a statement of His own resurrection. The Jews refused to believe even after he came back from the dead, and they continue to officially reject the resurrection. By and large it was the Gentiles who rather accepted the new Christian faith, and today there are more Gentile Christians than Jewish ones by proportion.

In summary

Jesus is not saying that two real men died and went to heaven and hell; He is using symbols familiar to his hearers to make an important point: If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. – Gal 3:29

In our day, the lesson is for those who think they have the truth; the word of God, and yet do not live up to its high expectations, and do not share it with their neighbors. Many will be shocked that it is those who did not have that privilege who will be saved. Romans 2:14 says Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. Nobody has a monopoly on truth or salvation. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. (1 Corinthians 10:12)


More Difficult Passages Explained Here

Until next time, keep studying the word. Prove all things, and hold fast what is good!


Dennis Cruise. The Rich Man and Lazarus. Amazing Facts Library of Sermons #28

Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.