The Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man—a Rebuke to the Pharisees— not a Discourse on Eternally Burning Hell Fire
Don E. Mansell
In order to understand why Jesus told the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, one must take into consideration who was in His audience. Luke 16:14 tells us who were among his chief listeners. They were "The Pharisees . . . [who] heard all these things [the preceding parables]: and . . . derided him." Jesus' purpose in telling this parable was to show the Pharisees that from their own belief's they were condemned. So the question is: What did the Pharisees believe about life after death?
The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (AD 37 -95?), a near contemporary of Christ, and himself a Pharisee, tells us in graphic detail in his, "Discourse on Hades" exactly what the Pharisees believed about death. Here is what Josephus wrote:
Hades is a place in the world not regularly finished; a subterranean region, where the light of this world does not shine. . . . This region is allowed as a place for custody of souls, which angels are appointed as guardians to them, who distribute them temporary punishment, agreeable to everyone's behavior and manners. In this region there is a certain place set apart, as a lake of unquenchable fire, wherein we suppose no one hath hitherto been cast; but it is prepared for a day aforedetermined by God, in which one righteous sentence shall deservedly be passed upon all men; when the unjust and those who have been disobedient to God . . . shall be adjudged to this everlasting punishment, . . . while the just shall obtain an incorruptible and never-fading kingdom. These are now indeed confined in Hades, but not in the same place wherein the unjust are confined.
For there is one descent into this region, at whose gate we believe there stands an archangel with an host; which gate when those pass through that are conducted down by the angels appointed over souls, that do not go the same way; but the just are guided to the right hand, and are led with hymns sung by the angels appointed over that place, unto a region of light, in which the just have dwelt from the beginning of the world. . . . This place we call the Bosom of Abraham. But as to the unjust, they are dragged by force to the left hand, by the angels allotted for punishment. . . Now these angels that are set over these souls, drag them into the neighborhood of hell itself; who, when they are hard by it, continually hear the noise of it, and do not stand clear of the hot vapour; but when they have a nearer view of this spectacle, as a terrible and exceeding great prospect of fire, they are struck with fearful expectation of a future judgment, and in effect punished thereby; and not only so, but where they see the place [or choir] of the fathers and of the just, even hereby are they punished; for a chaos deep and large is fixed between them; insomuch that a just man that hath compassion upon them, cannot be admitted, nor can one that is unjust, if he were bold enough to attempt it, pass over it.--The Works of Flavius Josephus, William Whiston, trans. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1984), vol. 4, pp. 239-243.
The most effective argument is that which takes the weapons of an opponent and uses them against him, and this is exactly what Christ did. The Pharisees, who "were covetous" (Luke 16:14), believed that riches were a sign of divine approbation and blessing, whereas poverty was a sign of God's disfavor and curse.
In His parable, Christ reversed these roles. Instead of placing the rich man in the comfort of "Abraham's Bosom", where the Pharisees expected him to go, Jesus placed him in "Hades". And then instead of placing the poor man, Lazarus, in "Hades", where the Pharisees confidently expected him to go, Christ placed him in the comfort of Abraham's Bosom.
Then, Jesus made the point that, "if they [meaning the Pharisees] believe not Moses and the prophets (see Matt. 23:2), neither will they believe, though one rise from the dead" (Luke 16:31).
As a matter of fact, this is exactly what happened. When Christ arose from the dead, the Pharisees, who professed to believe in future resurrection, continued to reject Him, and in fact, they were among the worst persecutors of Christ's followers who taught that Christ had indeed been resurrected.