Is this merely a parable or does it present a theological concept of the after life? It suggests that Jesus was saying people only get one chance. It further suggests that once a person dies, they await judgment in "Abraham's bosum" (heaven) or Hades (hell). Is this passage a refute to "soul sleep?"

  • The 'Parable of Lazarus and the Dives.' Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 15:41

9 Answers 9


The purpose of this parable is not to convey factual information about Heaven, Hell, or Abraham's bosom.

Rather the purpose of this parable of the conscience is to awaken an awareness of the dichotomy of choosing this world above the eternal one a relationship with YHWH presents.

In the parable the 'rich man' is rich in a worldly sense (Luke 16:19) but impoverished in a moral sense (since he did not share what he possessed Luke 16:21) whereas 'Lazarus' is rich in a moral sense but impoverished in a worldly sense (Luke 16:20).

The parable shows since this world is passing away and the eternal one remains, our actions now have eternal consequences.

Ironically Yehshua's parable contains secondary references to his own death and resurrection. The rich man asks to be sent back to warn his living brothers convinced they will listen to his warning, him having been raised from the dead.

In response he's told ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ (Luke 16:31). Yehshua is saying that if they harden their ears to Moses and the Prophets even a miracle such as returning from dead won't convince them.


Positive Argument

(Negative arguments in a separate post for readability)

The setting of the parable

This question is insightful because "Is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus a true story" may be the wrong question to ask. It would be like asking if the story of the Good Samaritan is a true story (for the record, I don't know). The point is that the Good Samaritan is an instructive story set in reality. The story would be much less impactful to a Jewish audience if it didn't involve a Samaritan between Jerusalem & Jericho.

It is a noteworthy feature of Jesus' stories (unlike, say, some of Isaiah's) that they are set in the real world. Jesus spoke about ordinary events of life and used them to teach spiritual and ethical principles. He used common events & items (weddings, fields, seeds) that were familiar to His audience.

It would be a striking departure from His practice, then, if Jesus were to set a parable in a mythical place, and just as strange for Him to offer a parable validating a common contemporary view (the conscious separation of the righteous & wicked in Sheol) if that view were in fact false. The value of the story diminishes quickly if His audience thinks He's endorsing apostate doctrine.

The far clearer explanation is that, as with His other parables, Jesus set the story in reality, using known features of Sheol that did not have to be painstakingly described anew to His audience.

This neither requires accepting the story as an account of real, historical events, nor claiming the parable is devoid of metaphor. Rather, it is an acknowledgement that Jesus' parables are not set in fictional universes--or long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away.


Allegory in other parables

Let's run this question for less controversial parable: the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10)

What is real in this parable:

  • Jerusalem
  • Jericho
  • The route and that travelers could be found upon it
  • Jews
  • Samaritans
  • Thieves
  • Priests
  • Levites
  • Inns & innkeepers
  • Even minor details such as raiment, oil, wine, beasts of burden
  • Down to the very coin: δηνάριον ("denarion") is a real monetary reference

Candidates for allegory in this parable:

  • The 7+ (depends on how many thieves) individual people referred to in the story and their individual words & actions
  • ...{ }


Let's try another parable: the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15)

What is real in this parable:

  • Fathers
  • Sons
  • Inheritances/money
  • Far away countries
  • Riotous living
  • Famines
  • Even minor details such as employers, fields, pigs, husks, servants, bread, rings, robes, fatted calves
  • Down to the Biblical concept of death: the son was "dead" (v 24, 32) because he was separated (from his family, from his faith); when reunited he was "alive" again

Candidates for allegory in this parable:

  • The 6+ (depends on how many servants) individual people referred to in the story and their individual words & actions
  • ...{ }

We could run the same analysis for other parables but it would probably become tedious. Here we have multiple parables given by Jesus, written by the same author, and we arrive at a common conclusion.


Back to Lazarus & company

Applying the analysis from other parables recorded by Luke we find:

  • The parables describe real places and practices
  • The parables are set in reality
  • The individual people in the parable may or may not be real

As to %...no way to assign a definitive number, but this sounds to me like >90% real.

That it aligns so well with contemporary/near contemporary beliefs about the afterlife only strengthens the case that this is sincere commentary about the afterlife.


Other writers

(not all of these are Apostolic Fathers, but all are ante-Nicene fathers)


[T]he just are guided to the right hand, and are led...unto a region of light, in which the just have dwelt from the beginning of the world. Not constrained by necessity; but ever enjoying the prospect of the good things they see, and rejoicing in the expectation of those new enjoyments which will be peculiar to every one of them: and esteeming those things beyond what we have here. With whom there is no place of toil; no burning heat; no piercing cold: nor are any briers there: but the countenance of the fathers, and of the just, which they see, always smiles upon them: while they wait for that rest and eternal new life in heaven, which is to succeed this region. This place we call the bosom of Abraham.

But as to the unjust, they are dragged by force to the left hand...as prisoners driven by violence...angels...drag them into the neighbourhood of hell it self...But when they have a near view of this spectacle, as of a terrible and exceeding great prospect of fire, they are struck with a 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.

This is the discourse concerning Hades; wherein the souls of all men are confined, until a proper season; which God hath determined: when he will make a resurrection of all men from the dead.

(see here; note that this discourse is often mis-attributed to Josephus)

Hippolytus' views align clearly with the parable.



The Lord has taught with very great fullness, that souls not only continue to exist, not by passing from body to body, but that they preserve the same form [in their separate state] as the body had to which they were adapted, and that they remember the deeds which they did in this state of existence, and from which they have now ceased — in that narrative which is recorded respecting the rich man and that Lazarus who found repose in the bosom of Abraham...

By these things, then, it is plainly declared that souls continue to exist that they do not pass from body to body, that they possess the form of a man, so that they may be recognised (Against Heresies 2.34.1)

Irenaeus treats the parable as a literal statement by the Lord on the realities of the afterlife.



Hades...a place of repose for the Saints wherein indeed the righteous are seen and heard by the wicked, but they cannot be carried across to them (Commentary on the Apocalypse 6.9)


Origen of Alexandria:

all the saints who depart from this life will remain in some place situated on the earth which holy Scripture calls paradise, as in some place of instruction, and, so to speak, class-room or school of souls, in which they are to be instructed regarding all the things which they had seen on earth, and are to receive also some information respecting things that are to follow in the future...all of which are revealed more clearly and distinctly to the Saints in their proper time and place." (De Principiis 2.6)

Those who, departing this world in virtue of that death which is common to all, are arranged in conformity with their actions and deserts--according as they shall be deemed worthy--some in the place which is called 'hell,' others in the bosom of Abraham. (De Principiis 4.23)



All souls, therefore, are shut up within Hades...there are already experienced there punishments and consolations; and there you have a poor man and a rich...

Why, then, cannot you suppose that the soul undergoes punishment and consolation in Hades in the interval, while it awaits its alternative of judgment, in a certain anticipation either of gloom or of glory? You reply: Because in the judgment of God its matter ought to be sure and safe, nor should there be any inkling beforehand of the award of His sentence; and also because (the soul) ought to be covered first by its vestment of the restored flesh, which, as the partner of its actions, should be also a sharer in its recompense. What, then, is to take place in that interval?

Shall we sleep? But souls do not sleep even when men are alive: it is indeed the business of bodies to sleep, to which also belongs death itself, no less than its mirror and counterfeit sleep...Do you think this state is a foretaste of judgment, or its actual commencement? A premature encroachment on it, or the first course in its full ministration? Now really, would it not be the highest possible injustice, even in Hades, if all were to be still well with the guilty even there, and not well with the righteous even yet? What, would you have hope be still more confused after death? Would you have it mock us still more with uncertain expectation? Or shall it now become a review of past life, and an arranging of judgment, with the inevitable feeling of a trembling fear? ...

Full well, then, does the soul even in Hades know how to joy and to sorrow even without the body...

It is therefore quite in keeping with this order of things, that that part of our nature should be the first to have the recompense and reward to which they are due on account of its priority. In short, inasmuch as we understand the prison pointed out in the Gospel to be Hades, and as we also interpret the uttermost farthing to mean the very smallest offense which has to be recompensed there before the resurrection, no one will hesitate to believe that the soul undergoes in Hades some compensatory discipline, without prejudice to the full process of the resurrection, when the recompense will be administered through the flesh besides (A Treatise on the Soul ch. 58)


Justin Martyr:

The souls of the pious remain in a better place, while those of the unjust and wicked are in a worse, waiting for the time of judgement. (Dialogue with Trypho ch. 5)

even after death souls are in a state of sensation (First Apology ch. 18)


The Shepherd of Hermas:

the apostles and the teachers who preached the name of the Son of God, after they had fallen asleep in the power and faith of the Son of God, preached also to them that had fallen asleep before them (Hermas 92:5)

This passage contains clear, conscious echoes of 1 Peter 3:18-20, but expands upon it to teach that not only Jesus, but His followers, taught the dead in the intermediate state. This supports the literal realities of the parable in showing that the dead are conscious and there is a distinction between righteous/prepared & wicked/unprepared.


See also Clement of Alexandria:

The Lord preached the gospel to those in hades (Ante-Nicene Fathers 2:490)

(I am indebted to Tad R. Callister for his extensive survey of the Ante-Nicene Fathers in The Inevitable Apostasy)



Lazarus & the stereotypical rich man may not have been real people, but:

  • By induction from other parables
  • On the understanding of the earliest Christian scholars

We can reasonably conclude that the setting of the story is real.

  • 4
    This answer makes as strong a case as you're gonna get for the parable of the rich man and Lazarus NOT taking place in a fictitious setting. Perfect for building a steel man. Good job. +1
    – Rajesh
    Commented Jan 31, 2022 at 23:36
  • 3
    @Rajesh thanks for the kind words; I look forward to your rebuttal Commented Jan 31, 2022 at 23:37
  • 2
    This copious number of citations from the Ante-Nicene Fathers reinforces the premise of my CSE question: According to soul sleep adherents, why would God allow people to be massively misled by the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31)? (+1, solid answer)
    – user38524
    Commented Jan 31, 2022 at 23:57
  • 1
    One small thing about this parable I've never fully understood is Genesis states repeatedly that Abraham himself was a very rich man and had many good things. Cattle, goods, slaves, gold and silver etc. (Gen 13:2). It even states lot and Abraham had to seperate because they were so rich in goods and cattle. Clearly we know Abraham was also a servant of God and worked towards Gods will - but the juxtaposition of wealth and having good things leading to hades vs suffering and poverty leading to heaven seems to not make sense in the context of Abraham himself being a very very rich man
    – Marshall
    Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 7:43
  • 2
    +1 Excellent answer. It answers the question I had, "When did Jesus ever give a parable in which the circumstances of the story weren't true to life?"
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Feb 14, 2022 at 16:38

I know this almost a waste of electrons but I will post for completeness and balance.

Many still believe that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as told by Christ in Luke 16:19-31 is a literal representation of heaven and hell after death. This view has some serious problems, for example:

  1. If this parable is understood literally, are we to interpret all parables literally? Did the trees in Judges 9:8-15 really hold a political conference? Is the shrewd (and dishonest) manager a real model of behavior in Luke 16:1-8? Will the angels actually use scythes to gather the righteous “harvest” into the kingdom as explained in Matt 13:24 - 30? Will we all wear “wedding garments” in heaven, and will there be a few who accidentally get in who shouldn't have as in Matt 22:1-14? Rather, parables must be understood as teaching by analogy (that is the meaning of the Greek word parabole). In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the point of the story is given in the text,

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” Luke 16:31.

  1. If this parable is understood literally, will it really be possible for the suffering of those in hades to be relieved by a single drop of water (Luke 16:24)? Do the saints actually live in “the bosom of Abraham,” (Luke 16:22)? Are heaven and hades so close that it is possible to have a conversation between the inhabitants of each despite the chasm between? Will the bliss of heaven be somehow enhanced by the spectacle of a numberless mass writhing in agony?
  2. If the parable is literal, we must address the matter of the physical body. No matter what one believes about the theology of death, the physical body does not vanish from the grave and accompany the spirit/soul to hades. Thus, how can physical pain be inflicted on a spirit/soul without a body. Why do such entities need water to quench a thirst in a body that does not exist? It is at this point that a literal interpretation collapses under the weight of its own absurdities!
  3. There are yet more problems with the literal understanding of this parable. The operative word here is hades (Luke 16:23). All other references to hades in the New Testament show hades to be a place of unconsciousness and darkness; never with fire. Gehenna is the place of fiery destruction. This provides another clue to the correct allegorical interpretation.
  4. A literal interpretation of this parable would have people receive their reward immediately at death. This contradicts the plain teaching of Scripture that man receives his reward at the resurrection, see Rev 22:12, “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” Luke 14:14 says: “Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” 2 Tim 4:8 says: “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day--and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” See also 1 Cor 15:51-54.

In short, as Dr William Smith (Dictionary of the Bible, vol 2, p.1038) insists: “It is impossible to ground the proof of an important doctrine on a passage which confessedly abounds in Jewish metaphor.”

  • I will post for completeness and balance - Thank you for bringing balance to the force, +1 Commented Feb 7, 2022 at 22:56

These 11 parables from Luke include the Greek word “τις” translated "certain"

  1. A certain moneylender had two debtors... (7:41-43)
  2. A certain lawyer... (10:25-37) rhetorical discussion
  3. The land of a certain rich man produced good crops... (12:16-21)
  4. A certain man had a fig tree... (13:6-9)
  5. A certain man was preparing a great banquet... (14:16-24)
  6. A certain man had two sons... (15:11-32)
  7. There was a certain landowner who planted... (20:9-18)
  8. There was a certain rich man who had a manager... (16:1-13)
  9. There was a certain rich man... (16:19-31)
  10. A certain nobleman went to distant country... (19:12-27)
  11. In a certain city there was a judge... (18:2-8)

These are all plausible observations of people in (albeit) precarious situations. One parable (10:25) is presented as an actual exchange between Jesus and another man.

The narration of these parables is by Jesus. And Jesus is attributed with following qualities:

  • the exact image, form and representation of the nature of God (Hebrews 1:3, Col 1:15, Phil 2:6),
  • the God for whom it is impossible to lie (Hebrews 6:18, Titus 1:2, Numbers 23:19),
  • and with whom there is no variation or shadow of shifting (James 1:17)

So, hermeneutically speaking, when the narrator (who cannot lie or deceive) begins a parable stating with twice certainty, using a proper name, and includes such vivid, random detail:

...there was a certain rich man, and he was clothed in purple and fine linen, making good cheer in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus, being full of sores, was laid at his gate and desiring to be fed from that falling from the table of the rich man; but even the dogs, coming, were licking his sores...

It's probably safe to assume that He is providing eye-witness testimony for the entirety of the parable and not just giving good moral counsel.

To your point: If one is willing to accept this parable in this context, yes, it directly contradicts the concept of "soul sleep"

  • You're projecting modern expectations of "truthfulness" onto a witness that came out of a culture with a much different understanding of what makes something "true" or "a lie". Jesus didn't work for the Washington Post, the NY Times, or even the Wall Street Journal. He lived in first century Palestine.
    – Michael C
    Commented Feb 23, 2022 at 20:39
  • Stating “…the narrator (who cannot lie or deceive) …” accurately describes Jesus - all that is being projected is what scripture says of him - that he is entirely truthful.
    – Neville
    Commented Apr 16, 2022 at 1:09
  • Have you ever remotely considered that "Truthful" didn't mean the same thing to a first century Hebrew as it means to a 21st century documentarian? You have to let the writers of the Scripture define the words they used, not someone from a radically different culture roughly 2,000 years later. When one tells a parable it should not be required that the teller say, "This was not an actual documented historical event, it's a story designed to illustrate a truth." The historicity of the story has no bearing on the truthfulness of the point it makes.
    – Michael C
    Commented Apr 16, 2022 at 7:18

Note: I don't claim to be an expert or scholar by any means, so don't expect the most scholarly references in this answer. Whatever factual errors I made, please let me know in the comments below, and I'll be happy to edit the answer accordingly.

Question: Was Jesus a Christian Mortalist (aka a 'Soul sleeper') or a believer in the immortality of a conscious spirit/soul?

I will attempt to build a case for the latter option.


Sadducees and Pharisees

We know from the Bible and secular history that the two major Jewish sects at the time of Jesus' ministry were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. In terms of their differences, this answer from Judaism Stack Exchange indicates:

A major point of conflict between the Pharisees and the Sadducees was the latter's belief in there being no reward and punishment after death, while the former stressed it as an integral article of faith. That is mentioned by Josephus (Wars of the Jews, 2.8.14), who says that the Pharisees believe "that all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies, - but that the souls of bad man are subject to eternal punishment", and that the Sadducees "take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul, and the punishments and rewards in Hades" (trans. William Whiston).

The Wikipedia article on the Sadducees lists additional characteristics and differences:

The Sadducees rejected the Oral Torah as proposed by the Pharisees. Rather, they saw the Written Torah as the sole source of divine authority.[12] The written law, in its depiction of the priesthood, corroborated the power and enforced the hegemony of the Sadducees in Judean society.

According to Josephus, the Sadducees believed that:[13]

  • There is no fate.
  • God does not commit evil.[14]
  • Man has free will; "man has the free choice of good or evil".
  • The soul is not immortal; there is no afterlife.[15]
  • There are no rewards or penalties after death.

The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection of the dead, but believed (contrary to the claim of Josephus) in the traditional Jewish concept of Sheol for those who had died.[16]

According to the Christian Acts of the Apostles:

  • The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection, whereas the Pharisees did. In Acts, Paul chose this point of division to gain the protection of the Pharisees.[17]
  • The Sadducees also rejected the notion of spirits or angels, whereas the Pharisees acknowledged them.[18]

In other words, the Sadducees were an extreme version of "Christian Mortalists" who rejected any form of afterlife, and even the existence of angels and disembodied spirits. In contrast, the Pharisees held beliefs about conscious immortal souls, disembodied spirits, angels and Sheol as a real place hosting the spirits of the dead.


The afterlife theology of Jesus and his disciples

As should be already obvious from the previous section, the Sadducees and the Pharisees held completely different theological views on the spiritual world and the afterlife, which sometimes led to heated debates between the two sects (e.g. see Acts 23:6-10).

And Jesus was well aware of these theological discrepancies. And his disciples were well aware too.

And disciples ask many questions of their masters :-)

And we know that Jesus was an expert in afterlife theology. This expertise became quite evident the time when Jesus corrected the Sadducees for their misunderstanding of the Scriptures:

29 But Jesus answered them, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. 30 For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 31 And as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God: 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living.” 33 And when the crowd heard it, they were astonished at his teaching. [Matthew 22:29-33 ESV]

From this we can conclude that:

  • The Sadducees were not a reliable source in matters of the afterlife.
  • Whatever afterlife theology Jesus advocated, it didn't look much like that of the Sadducees.

In contrast, we find evidence from other passages in Scripture suggesting that Jesus' understanding of the spirit world and the afterlife was more in line with that of the Pharisees:

  • Jesus believed in angels, just like the Pharisees.

  • Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead, just like the Pharisees.

  • Jesus (likely) believed in disembodied spirits, just like the Pharisees (see Did Jesus believe in ghosts / disembodied spirits?)

  • Jesus (likely) validated the Pharisees' understanding of Sheol by setting a Parable (the topic of this question) in Sheol (see @HoldToTheRod's excellent case here).

  • Jesus even let Peter, James and John witness Moses and Elijah (who were already dead) during the Transfiguration (Matthew 17), which only served to reinforce a belief in a conscious afterlife.

  • Jesus chose Paul (aka Saul), "a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee" (Phil 3:5), to become one of his Apostles. As a Pharisee, Paul was an expert in the Law and the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), including those verses from Psalms & Ecclesiastes that are commonly cited by Christian mortalists. As we saw in the previous section, the Pharisees believed that some form of conscious existence continues after death. Therefore, Paul, as a Pharisee, couldn't have been a Christian mortalist, which means that he interpreted the "Christian mortalist" verses differently. But then Paul became an Apostle, with privileges no less extraordinary than being visited personally by Jesus himself (Acts 9) or having private lessons in the third heaven (2 Cor 12:2-4). This Paul, with all his knowledge and spiritual status, and despite being an Apostle of Christ, continued to identify himself as a Pharisee:

    6 Now when Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, he cried out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” 7 And when he had said this, a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 For the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all. 9 Then a great clamor arose, and some of the scribes of the Pharisees' party stood up and contended sharply, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” 10 And when the dissension became violent, the tribune, afraid that Paul would be torn to pieces by them, commanded the soldiers to go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks. [Acts 23:6-10 ESV]

    Here we have an Apostle of Christ who was also a Pharisee, and continued to identify himself as a Pharisee, and as such, there is no reason whatsoever to think that Paul changed his mind and adopted Sadducean beliefs on the afterlife, and every reason to believe that he remained consistenly siding with the Pharisees on afterlife matters, as Acts 23:6-10 seems to confirm.

I personally find the "Paul" argument above quite compelling (see an expanded and stronger presentation of the argument by Hold To The Rod here), but perhaps for others it is not. Perhaps none of the arguments above (or their combination) is enough.

Did Jesus and his disciples truly believe in a conscious post-mortal existence? How do we know they were not Christian mortalists? Are there any other lines of evidence that we can inspect?


The afterlife theology of Jesus' disciples' disciples

It stands to reason that Jesus most assuredly taught his disciples about the afterlife. And whatever he taught them, it was reliable information. And these theological revelations would only increase over time as the disciples became Apostles and received the fullness and guidance of the Holy Spirit, who would lead them to all truth (John 16:13).

Thus, the afterlife theology of the Apostles must have been very accurate. And we know that the Apostles preached the gospel, made many disciples and taught them sound doctrine.

So the following are natural questions to ask:

  • What did the Apostles preach regarding the afterlife?
  • What did the Apostles' disciples believe about the afterlife?
  • What did the Apostolic Fathers believe about the afterlife?
  • What did the Early Church believe about the afterlife?

I'm no expert on patristics, but fortunately that's what Stack Exchange is for--you can ask questions and have users more knowledgeable in the topics answer them. Thus, I'd like to refer readers to two questions I asked on Christianity Stack Exchange:

The answers are quite conclusive. The patristic evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority of the Early Church believed in post-mortal consciousness.

The accepted answer here concludes:

Every writer I've cited was born within a century of the Apostolic era.

The early church fathers are nearly unanimous in their belief that Sheol/Hades was a real place where the dead are conscious. They provide abundant support to the view that Hades is divided into (at least) two sections, and offer multiple attestation that 1 Peter 3:18-20, 4:6 speaks of Jesus visiting & teaching the dead in Hades.

Did they believe that it was a real supernatural place that houses the spirits of the dead? Yes, by an overwhelming supermajority.

Did they believe that it was a collective term / metaphor for the set of all the graves of the dead (i.e. just an abstract concept, nothing supernatural)? No.

Did they believe that it was a metaphor for the state of non-being / non-existence of the dead (see Christian mortalism)? This was a very small minority view until later generations.

Did they believe that Abraham's Bosom was a real compartment within Sheol? Yes, this is multiply attested above.

What about Heaven? Did they believe that Christians go to Sheol or Heaven at death? The most direct comment (I have been able to locate) is the statement by Irenaeus emphatically denying that Christians can skip Sheol and go straight to Heaven. This is interesting when juxtaposed with the statement of Polycarp that the martyrs are in the presence of the Lord.



  • The evidence from the New Testament appears to suggest that, in the heated afterlife debate between Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus was on the side of the Pharisees.
    • This is confirmed extra-biblically by the writings of the Apostolic Fathers.
    • Also confirmed extra-biblically by the writings of the ante-Nicene Fathers.
  • If Jesus and the Apostles were Christian Mortalists, it would mean that (1) Paul had to have adopted Sadducean beliefs on the afterlife despite his continued siding with the Pharisees and without leaving any traces of evidence of this "change of mind" (as paradoxical as that sounds) and (2) that Jesus and his Apostles did a terrible job at teaching Christian mortalism to subsequent generations of disciples. On the contrary, if Jesus and the Apostles were believers in a conscious afterlife, the historical data would confirm that they did a pretty good job, and everything would make sense :-)

Let me close this post with a quote from Polycarp, disciple of John the Apostle:

I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as you have seen [set] before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. [This do] in the assurance that all these have not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are [now] in their due place in the presence of the Lord (Epistle to the Philippians, chapter 9)

  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Rajesh
    Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 6:37
  • 1
    Great use of historical context! And nice Polycarp quote - he has now been quoted more on this site in the last 2 weeks than he was in all the previous 10 years combined. No doubt he's thrilled (if he's conscious =) ) Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 21:31
  • 1
    @HoldToTheRod - I added a new argument and fleshed out the conclusion a bit. Please let me know your thoughts :-)
    – user38524
    Commented Feb 5, 2022 at 4:17

Among other things, the parable indicates that (a) the soul is conscious after death and that (b) man will be subject to a particular as well as a general judgment:

The state of the soul after death, according to the clear testimony of the word of God, is not unconscious but conscious (for example, according to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Luke 16: 19– 31). After death man is subjected to a judgment which is called “particular” to distinguish it from the general Last Judgment. It is easy in the sight of the Lord to reward a man on the day of death according to his conduct, says the most wise son of Sirach (11: 26). The same thought is expressed by the Apostle Paul: It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment (Heb. 9: 27). The Apostle presents the judgment as something which follows immediately after the death of a man, and evidently he understands this not as the General Judgment, but as the Particular Judgment, as the Holy Fathers of the Church have interpreted this passage. Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise (Luke 23: 43), the Lord uttered to the repentant thief.

Michael Pomazansky, Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (3rd ed.), (St. Herman's Press, 2005), p. 331

  • 1
    So then - you're saying 'parables' convey specific truths? Or do they convey general truths through metaphor? If the latter - (a) can't be correct since it's specific*, and (b) appears to be a ***non-sequitur since the parable is about the relationship between the rich man and Lazarus during and after life, and not specifically about judgement.
    – user34445
    Commented Feb 21, 2017 at 21:30

Negative Argument

In my prior post I made a positive argument for a literal setting of the parable. In this post I’ll offer a negative argument–that is, I’ll respond to competing views.

My compliments to Rajesh for presenting a thoughtful opposing argument here.

Extended & Dropped Arguments

In my original argument I defended 2 principal contentions:

  • An inductive argument for a literal setting, derived from other parables recorded by the same author
  • An appeal to the understanding repeatedly upheld by early Christian leaders

Argument 2 was dropped in Rajesh’s post, no substantial counter was offered. I’ll offer a brief response to critiques of argument 2 that have surfaced in the comments, and then focus on the principal contention of Rajesh’s post, employed against argument 1.

Why We Cannot Reject the Ante-Nicene Fathers

As SpiritRealmInvestigator noted here:

In the context of related debates such as … [a variety of theological topics listed]...I think it would be quite helpful to know the views held by the Apostolic Fathers, as they had the unique privilege of receiving direct or almost direct teaching from the Apostles themselves.

That at least some Biblical teachings can lead to more than one well-argued interpretation is demonstrated immeasurably well by this site. I agree that there is value in understanding what early Christian leaders understood–especially considering that it is on their authority that the New Testament was compiled & delimited.

This is not to argue for Patristic inerrancy–they in fact disagreed with each other all the time–but to highlight how singularly significant it is when a supermajority of Ante-Nicene fathers agree on something! Their trust in and usage of the 27 books of the New Testament we have today is the reason these books–and only these books–were repeatedly ratified in the 4th century and later (e.g. Athanasius, Synod of Hippo, etc).

To accept their authority (when nearly unanimous) regarding the contents of the New Testament but to reject their authority (when nearly unanimous) regarding the afterlife is contradictory. There are 2 approaches that permit logical consistency:

  • Reject both the New Testament and the early Patristic statements on the afterlife
  • Accept both the New Testament and the aforementioned early Patristic statements as well-attested and more likely than not to be accurate

Note that I’m only making this argument on matters where there is broad agreement among the Ante-Nicene fathers–there are many topics where they obviously did not see eye to eye and this argument would not apply.

Even the original apostles did not always agree with each other (see Galatians 2), but where they unambiguously hold a consistent position (such as the reality of Jesus’ resurrection), there’s little ground to stand on to try to disagree with them. If Peter & Paul agree on something, that’s pretty solid ground. What about their disciples?

Irenaeus of Lyons & Clement of Alexandria were contemporaries, living on opposite corners of the Mediterranean in the late 2nd century. Irenaeus was from a region where Christianity was planted by Paul (and doubtless influenced by John); Clement was from a region where Christianity was planted by a disciple of Peter (see here). Irenaeus & Clement represent very different strands of Christian thought and their theologies don’t always align (Clement in particular is interesting for his willingness to talk about things Irenaeus doesn’t dare touch).

A useful rule of thumb: when Irenaeus of Lyons & Clement of Alexandria agree on something we have particularly solid attestation. In my original post I cited both Irenaeus & Clement in favor of post-mortal consciousness.


I am willing to grant for sake of argument the plausibility of Jesus employing satire in His teaching (though I would not grant it was one of His principal methods).

I will note, however, that satire is most effective when it is tied to reality (e.g. when the Onion or the Babylon Bee runs a news story about something you’ve never heard of, it isn’t funny. Whereas, if you know the real story that is being parodied, it may be funny…or offensive…but either way, it’s meaningful)

This is exemplified by one of the modern masters of satire, Mark Twain. His classic Huckleberry Finn is a satire of the post-bellum US South. His criticisms are so trenchant & piercing because what he’s describing is not the way people think things are or wish things were, but the way they really are.

The Parable of the Unjust Steward

Rajesh proposes that this parable is intended as satire, setting the stage for proposing that a subsequent parable in the chapter is satire as well. I propose 3 difficulties here:

  1. If a pericope (“story”) adjacent to a satire is also satire, does that make the Prodigal Son satire? There were no chapter breaks when the Gospel of Luke was written.

  2. This parable and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus are not adjacent pericopes. I suggest Jesus’ comments on divorce, found between the stories, are not satire, especially when compared to parallel Gospel accounts on divorce.

  3. I am not persuaded that this parable is clearly intended as satire. It is an inventive suggestion, but for competing interpretations of this parable, see here and here. Jesus telling someone to do something bad to get laughs would be…quite unusual (and the proposal is somewhat ad-hoc).

Luke’s audience

Further complicating the rich man and Lazarus-as-satire proposal is that it’s in the Gospel of Luke, not Matthew.

Matthew’s Gospel was written to Jews familiar with the Pharisees and their customs. Luke’s Gospel is written to Gentiles (see my work on this subject here). Even if the story had originally been told as satire, it would not fit as such in the Gospel of Luke.

As noted above, satire works when the audience is familiar with what is being satirized–the Greco-Roman audience to whom Luke is writing would be even more confused by a Jewish Sheol satire than the original audience was! If, as my disputant suggests, the Greek influence of the time led people to adopt a view on Hades that contradicts the Jewish beliefs about Sheol, Luke’s inclusion of this parable was blatantly misleading.

They cannot be expected to understand the subtle nuance of Pharisaic false-doctrine, let alone the point the story is making (if it’s satire). Whereas, if the story is–as I’ve claimed above–a fictional account in a real setting, this difficulty is largely ameliorated.

Luke was written as an evangelizing (and/or apologetic) text, not as a live-stream video–if a story would be confusing or irrelevant to his audience, Luke didn’t have to include it (as evidenced by the vast quantity of Jewish material found in Matthew but not in Luke).

Though the satire argument might work if the parable were found in Matthew–written to an audience who would understand the satirical point–this would be at best out-of-step and at worst downright deceptive to Luke’s audience. As demonstrated in Patristic citations in my prior post, if the setting of the parable is not reality, the parable was indeed grossly misleading to generations of Christians who clearly missed the point.

Abraham’s statement

My inductive argument allowed specific exclusions for the individual people, and their individual actions & words–thus, to defend the inductive argument there is no need to explain Abraham’s words.

That said, it is not challenging to infer what is intended here–there’s a rich man eating really well, and a poor, sick man begging outside, and the best he gets are crumbs. The rich man makes no effort to make the poor man’s life better, and doesn’t even offer him protection from animals that seem keen to exacerbate his infection. That failure to extend charity has consequences in the afterlife.

My disputant suggests nowhere in scripture is this concept taught. The idea that there will be blessings for serving the poor and punishments for withholding aid is found in Matthew 25:

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.


Absence of contradiction

Even if I were to grant that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus was intended as a parody (I do not), it does not contradict the fundamental contention I make in argument 1: all of Jesus’ other parables–including the unjust steward–are set in reality.

If we adopt the premise:

  • Satire => fictional setting (if satire then fictional setting)

The very argument made for satire would have to claim that the parable of the unjust steward is in a fictional setting. I contend there is nothing in this parable to support that view. The analysis conducted in my original post for the Good Samaritan & the Prodigal Son can be employed to the same effect for the parable of the unjust steward.

Furthermore, no counterexample to my inductive argument has been provided.

It is therefore possible for my inductive argument for a real setting & Rajesh’s argument for witty satire to both be true (this doesn’t mean they are, it just means one does not disprove the other).

Other arguments for a setting outside reality

Some would have an entire theology be constructed using this one passage. I have not done this. One example (of many) here.

A passage that is only 12 verses long. Can all doctrines attested by 12 or fewer verses be rejected? (Aside: the parable under consideration is 13 verses long)

Terms…and concepts…entirely unheard of in the rest of the Bible! All hapax legomenon, outside of their single occurrence, are unheard of in the rest of the Bible.

If this parable is understood literally, are we to interpret all parables literally? I have not argued for interpreting this parable literally; I have argued that it is set in reality–my inductive arguments highlights the features of Jesus’ parables that are to be found in reality, and those that are candidates for allegory. Parables told by other individuals would have to be analyzed on their own merits.

Will it really be possible for the suffering of those in hell to be relieved by a single drop of water? Note that this is a desperate belief held by the rich man, but is never attempted nor acknowledged as true.

Are heaven and hell so close that it is possible to have a conversation between the inhabitants of each despite the chasm between? Will the bliss of heaven be somehow enhanced by the spectacle of a numberless mass writhing in agony? I do not argue that the conversations are historical or literal, but that the setting of the story is reality.

How can physical pain be inflicted on a spirit/soul without a body? This was addressed by Tertullian 1800 years ago (see prior post)

Gehenna is the place of fiery destruction. Indeed it is (though we may differ on the meaning of “destruction”). The presence of fiery torment in one place does not eliminate the possibility of fiery torment in another. Many of the trials humans endure in this life are to them as “fiery torments.” Contemporary Jewish beliefs about Sheol held that the "wicked" section of Sheol was not a pleasant place (see also Patristic quotes in my prior post).

A literal interpretation of this parable would have people receive their reward immediately at death. A division in Sheol between righteous and wicked does not imply that final judgement has been made or that final rewards have been given. Sheol was an intermediate step. God gives many intermediary blessings/punishments--in fact all blessings & punishments in this life are intermediary if there is an afterlife.

It is impossible to ground the proof of an important doctrine on a passage which confessedly abounds in Jewish metaphor. All Biblical doctrines are grounded in a set of texts that abound Jewish metaphor: the Bible

Occam’s razor

My compliments to Rajesh for an accurate description of Occam’s razor! (a concept that is often misrepresented)

Rajesh acknowledges here that the passages for Christian mortalism in the Psalms are at least somewhat ambiguous:

David(and others inspired by God to write Psalms), had a much clearer picture of the state of the dead; I cannot say for sure if he knew that they were fully unconscious/unaware. Perhaps, perhaps not.

But follows it up with certainty obtained through Ecclesiastes 9. In another post I argue that Ecclesiastes 9 does not support Christian mortalism but rather is focused on events “under the sun”, which refers to the things of this life. Therein I also offer a reductio ad absurdum that if Ecclesiastes 9 is used to argue for Christian mortalism, it could be used to deny the resurrection just as well.

  • My counterargument on Ecclesiastes 9 here
  • My counterargument on Psalm 146 here
  • A review of approx. 50 other passages sometimes employed to argue for Christian mortalism in the appendix here

If, as demonstrated in the above-linked posts, Biblical passages used to argue for Christian mortalism are subject to straightforward, alternate interpretation, Occam’s Razor will not favor one position or the other in this debate–both must posit entities/interpretations from a variety of Biblical texts.

I further propose that Jesus’ deliberate teaching of false doctrine, and meticulous Luke’s decision to include it in a Gospel written to an audience that would be decidedly misled by it, are substantial assumptions that are disfavored by Occam’s Razor.

Finally, assuming early, well-informed Patristic writers located in Rome, Gaul, Slovenia, Alexandria, Carthage, and Palestine, diverse in time, space, and thought, are all flat-out wrong–this multiplies assumptions considerably.


I appreciate respectful debate and dialogue and am grateful for the thoughtful exchange of views here.

I submit that the 2 basic contentions presented in my prior post–in favor of a literal setting for the parable of the rich man & Lazarus–can explain the textual & historical evidence better than can competing hypotheses.

  • 2
    A simply brilliant rebuttal! You have me quaking in my boots. ;) I'll start working on a rebuttal to your rebuttal to my rebuttal. But it won't be done until the end of this week(I've been loaded with schoolwork recently[I'm a college student]). Amazing job! +1
    – Rajesh
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 15:37
  • 1
    @Rajesh thanks! Good luck with the schoolwork. Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 16:02

I believe that a parable does not name names, so in this case it is not a parable and is showing us where the OT saints waited until the Lord came down to Sheol (the Paradise side) to collect them and share with them the Gospel, what He had done for them (and us) He then took Paradise up to Heaven, to await the believers spirits who have died and then the Rapture where all believers will have glorified bodies...my research is my teacher Arnold Fruchtenbaum


Is this a true story? Yes!

Consider that in parables Jesus consistently used nameless characters, like Luke 19:12

He said therefore, A certain nobleman went into a far country to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return.

Or Mark 4:26

The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil

Another parable from Mark 12

A certain man planted a vineyard, and set an hedge about it...

Now, BAM! He mentions 2 persons Abraham and Lazarus, by name. He does not mention the name of the ruler because He has honor. This is a historical account of 2 deceased persons and their interactions with Abraham, who all still exist as I type this.

Also recall Mark 12:26-27

And as touching the dead, that they rise: have ye not read in the book of Moses, how in the bush God spake unto him, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?

God of the dead, but the God of the living: ye therefore do greatly err.

It's not that complicated, if you ignore the sick and infirm person at your gate every single day as you live in luxury, you are wicked. You should have done something to help the person. He had his good things (which he should have shared) and Lazarus had his bad things (which he should have been assisted with).

  • Notice how Abraham never actually states that the reason the rich man was in torment was because he was never shared(out of his abundance) with Lazarus; instead, the only justification Abraham gives was that the rich man received good things in life. And the only justification for Lazarus being comforted was that he received bad things in life. Abraham doesn't say that Lazarus was a righteous man who put faith in God or anything like that; simply that he had bad things in life. Is that all one needs to do to be saved(i.e. live a life of suffering)? That contradicts scripture.
    – Rajesh
    Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 5:11
  • 2
    How is it possible that the rich man suffered torment without a physical body - physical torment and the need for water without a physical body is a contradiction. Were all Jesus parables literal?
    – Dottard
    Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 11:18
  • @Dottard the Bible indicates Hell affects at least body and soul. Matt 10:28 And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 21:23
  • If the soul can exist apart from the body and experience all pleasures and pains, what point is there to a body?
    – Dottard
    Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 21:27
  • @Rajesh Not preaching salvation by works, but the Bible says you will know a tree by its fruits (Matt 7:16). Commented Mar 8, 2022 at 21:28

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