Here is a compendium of various commentators, who tend to reach one conclusion.
First, let’s look at the pericope (section). The translation is mine.
19 “A rich man clothed himself with purple cloth and fine linen, celebrating each day in ostentatious luxury. 20 And a poor man named Lazarus, who had sores, was laid at his gate. 21 And he yearned to be fed from the things falling from the rich man’s table. Instead, even dogs were coming and licking his sores!
22 “And it happened that the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s side. And the rich man died and was buried. 23 And while he was in torment in hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham a long way off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out and said, ‘Father Abraham, pity me and send Lazarus so that he would dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am suffering in these flames!’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you enjoyed your good things in your life, and Lazarus likewise bad things. Now he is comforted here, and you are in misery. 26 Besides all these things, a huge chasm is fixed between us and you, so that those wanting to cross over from here to you is unable; neither could they go over from there to us!’ 27 Then he said, ‘Then I ask you, father, that you send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he would warn them, so that they do not come to this place of torment!’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. They should listen to them!’ 30 Then he said, ‘No, father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent!’ 31 But he said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead!’” (Luke 16:19-31)
So is this a true account about real people or just a parable?
Here is what the commentaries say on whether we should interpret the details of this parable as a clear, doctrinal teaching on the afterlife, or whether it is just a parable. Most of the commentators stress caution in over-interpreting the details, though we may learn a few key life lessons and doctrines, like judgment awaiting everyone. They all acknowledge that Jesus adopted and adapted Jewish and Egyptian stories and even folktales about the rich guy getting his just punishment. These folktales had been circulating around this world, so again caution is needed in basing doctrine on the parable.
It may distress beginners to believe that Jesus would adopt and adapt Jewish and Egyptian stories and folktales, but preachers today often adopt and adapt stories in their own days. Recall that Paul even quoted from pagan authors to make some points (Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 15:33; and Titus 1:12). This borrowing does not take away from Jesus’s authority. The moment he spoke the parable, he put his divine stamp on its basic truths for his own purposes. He was simply relating to his own culture, as we do today.
Some may object that the excerpts from the following commentators may be taking them out of context. However, I have read the contexts, and the excerpts accurately reflect their views. Further, this post could be dismissed as relying too much on authorities (an “appeal to authority” fallacy). But the quotations from their books are conclusions based on their extensive arguments. I just don’t have the space here to summarize the arguments. You can get their books and look them up.
Let’s quote eighteen prominent commentators, in chronological order.
1. Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel of S. Luke, the ICC, 5th ed. (1896, 1922)
He agrees that Jewish sources lay at the heart of the parable. In his comment on v. 22, the part that says angels carried up the body or soul, he cautions against over-interpreting the details theologically. He advocates instead looking at general principles:
The general principle is maintained that bliss and misery after death are determined by conduct previous to death; but the details of the picture are taken from Jewish beliefs as to the condition of souls in Sheol, and must not be understood as confirming those beliefs. The properties of bodies are attributed to souls in order to enable us to realize the picture. (p. 393)
And he does draw this general principle, as well:
In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, there is nothing to show whether Hades is intermediate or final: but the doctrine of its being a place of retribution, with a complete separation of the righteous from the wicked, could hardly be more clearly marked. (p. 398)
So the general principle is that the parable agrees with the basics about judgment in broad outline.
2.. Charles Erdman, The Gospel of Luke (Westminster, 1949)
He says that the parable indicates “eternal pain” (p. 151). However, the problem is that the parable nowhere says it is “eternal.” And he says it is a story about hardheartedness with money, which puts the rich man at fatal risk. In other words, the lesson is about generosity here on earth and general judgment.
3. Wilfred J. Harrington (OP), The Gospel according to St. Luke: A Commentary (Newman, 1967).
He acknowledges the Jewish and Egyptian sources and says the idea of a rich man and a poor man in their respective afterlives was brought over to Israel by Alexandrian Jews (Alexandria is in Egypt). He further writes: “in all this Jewish imagery, we are not given anything resembling a ‘topography of hell’; besides, it is a description of the intermediate state before the Last Judgment” (pp. 204-05).
In other words, judgment happens at the last judgment, not immediately after death. So Jesus is using popular imagery to make a main point about living on earth and being generous and the punishments for being ungenerous.
4. E. Earl Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, New Century Bible, rev. ed. (Attic, 1974)
The story of punishments and communicating with the dead to bring them to repentance was popular in rabbinic stories (p. 206). The angels transporting someone also reflects popular belief, implying that it is not theologically precise. He adds: “The picture of judgment and reward immediately at death is contrary to the usual New Testament understanding. … [He references many Scriptures]. Probably it should be understood simply as part of the setting of the story” (ibid.).
5. I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke, A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Eerdmann’s, 1978)
He seems to understand it as a fluid description of the afterlife, so no one should build doctrine on it. However, he says Hades may describe the temporary abode of the dead before the final judgment (pp. 636-37).
6. Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary in the New Testament (Eerdman’s 1979).
He clearly states that this is only a parable and not to be taken as something that really happened.
Although Luke does not expressly state that this is a parable, and although the Saviour has given the beggar a name, it is by no means necessary to assume that we have here the story of something that really happened and not a parable. … The name Lazarus is a Greek form … “God has helped.” The sick beggar was in the highest sense one who, being totally neglected by the privileged fellow-men, was yet helped by God (with the rich gift of eternal salvation). For this reason the Saviour called him by this name in the parable. The name also points to the fact that the beggar, amid his misery, looked to God for aid. …
[W]e should not regard the parable as a literal historical occurrence, or Abraham had died like other people and only his spirit is in the abode of the bliss—not until after the resurrection at the second coming will his spirit and glorified body be united. So we cannot take in a literal sense the description given here of “carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom” (p. 428)
7. Walter I. Liefeld, Luke: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1984)
It should be understood as a story containing some limited eschatological ideas familiar to Jesus’s audience. Thus understood, the story makes a powerful case for (1) the future reversal of the human condition (cf. Luke 6:20-26), (2) the reality of future judgment based on one’s decisions in this life, (3) the futility of even a resurrection to persuade those who persist in rejecting God’s revealed word. (p. 991)
So his second point says that in general terms judgment and justice is taught in the parable, but it does not offer the details about the afterlife.
8. Joseph A. Fitzmyer (SJ), The Gospel according to Luke (X-XXIV), The Anchor Bible, (Doubleday, 1985)
He advocates a minimalist interpretation, namely, retribution, not a detailed description of the afterlife.
Jesus may be using in that part [the first part when the two men are alive] folkloric material and the details may be derived from such a background; to identify as such does not eliminate the critical character of the message itself. Indeed the first part of the parable inculcates that there is a reward-aspect to human conduct and that Christian disciples are called upon to recognize it (vol. 2, p. 1129).
9. Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Intervarsity, 1987)
One of the most misinterpreted of Jesus’ parables is the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), which has been used repeatedly to provide in great detail a realistic depiction of life after death. In fact, the picture of the rich man in Sheol and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom separated by a chasm but able to call to each other across it is paralleled by popular Jewish and Egyptian folk tales. Jesus may have simply adopted well-known imagery but then adapted it in a new and surprising way (qtd. in Steven Gregg, Hell: All You Wanted to Know about Hell: Three Christian Views of God’s Final Solution to the Problem of Sin [Thomas Nelson, 2013])
10. Frederick Danker, Jesus and the New Age: A Commentary on St. Luke’s Gospel, completely revised and expanded (Fortress, 1988).
In his comment on Lazarus going up to Abraham’s bosom (v. 22), Danker writes:
The subsequent narrative does not aim to give information on the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell. Dialogue and description are all designed to sharpen the contrast in the conditions of the departed and to reinforce the perception that external circumstances on earth are no criterion of moral worth. (p. 284)
So don’t over-interpret the story elements.
11. Richard Bauckham, “The Rich Man and Lazarus: The Parable and the Parallels,” New Testament Studies, 37 (1991), pp. 225-46.
He is the scholar who said that popular folktales circulating at the time say that the rich guy will “get his” in the afterlife. Jesus simply borrowed from these folktales to prove a point about living here on earth. Bauckham also writes about the moral and theological dimension and not to be overly literal about the details of the eternal afterlife:
If the theme of eschatological reversal were taken as a literal description of how God’s justice will operate after death it would be morally intolerable. However, if it is taken as a popular way of thinking which the parable uses to make a point, it can be seen as serving primarily to express and to highlight the intolerable injustice of the situation where one enjoys luxury and another suffers want. The motif of the eschatological reversal of fortunes for rich and poor surely belongs properly to the religious folklore of ordinary people, the poor. It is their hope in the justice of God against the injustice of this life as they experience it. Jesus in the parable takes up that perception, that hope and a popular way of expressing it. The parable is one of many indications that Jesus was close to both the religious folklore and the concerns of ordinary people. (p. 233)
12. Robert Stein, Luke: The New American Commentary (Broadman, 1992)
He sees some elements in the parables as corresponding to reality, but he expresses caution. In his comment on the word torment (v. 23), he says the following:
Although many aspects of the parable do not have a corresponding reality, the reality being taught by the parable would be meaningless unless it [torment] were true (p. 424).
He says that the parable denies annihilationism, the belief that everyone in hades will eventually be annihilated or caused to no longer exist (ibid.). Apparently Stein wrongly believes of annihilationism that a person is annihilated immediately after death and is not judged and sent in hell to be punished. This is not what the more developed annihilationism teaches. Rather, the better explanation of annihilationism says that people will be punished in hell, but their punishment will not be eternal. They will be annihilated at some time after their punishment is over.
13. N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Fortress, 1996)
The parable is not, as often supposed, a description of the afterlife, warning people to be sure of their ultimate destination. If that were its point, it would not be a parable: a story about someone getting lost in London would not be a parable if addressed to people attempting to find their way through the city without a map. (p. 255)
14. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:52, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, vol. 2 (Baker, 1996)
He mentions the parallels in Jewish and Egyptian literature and how Jesus merely adapted them for his own purposes. Then he cautions against over-interpreting the story in its details, but one or two key elements remain.
Calling the account an example story [a subset of a parable] implies that its details about the afterlife are graphic portrayals, not necessarily actual descriptions of the afterlife. This does not mean that there is no afterlife or no place like Hades. It means that that the conversations are simply part of the story’s literary means to depict the great chasm in the afterlife between the righteous in paradise and those in Hades. Such a separation is permanent. (vol. 2, p. 1363)
Actually, the parable does not mention permanence, as if it is eternal, but Bock’s overall point is right, in my view.
15. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke: The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Eerdmans, 1997)
He also says that the parable has parallels in Jewish stories and should not be over-interpreted:
This portrait [of their lives in Hades] has many analogues in contemporary literature, where Hades is represented as the universal destiny of all humans, sometimes with the expected outcome of the final judgment mapped through the separation of persons into wicked or righteous categories. (p. 607)
In footnote 343 he states that this parable is not a precise teaching on the fate of the soul, since the characters of Lazarus and the rich man are human agents with corporeal existence. This story element “bears witness to the lack of precision in statements about the afterlife.” In other words, clearer doctrine says that our spirits are disembodied until the final resurrection, when our bodies will be reunited with our spirits, and Luke’s parable, if taken as clear doctrine, instead of a story, would contradict this reuniting of spirit and body at the right time in the future. (This agrees with Norval Geldenhuys, above.)
16. N.T Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress, 2003)
I stressed in the earlier volume that the parable of the rich man and Lazarus is to be treated precisely as a parable, not a literal description of the afterlife and its possibilities [see Jesus and the Victory of God, above]. It is therefore inappropriate to use it as prima facie evidence for Jesus’ own sketching (or Luke’s portrait of Jesus’ sketching) of a standard post-mortem scenario. It is, rather, an adaptation of a well-known folk-tale, projecting the rich / poor divide of the present on to the future in order to highlight the present responsibility, and culpability, of the careless rich. (pp. 437-38)
17. David E. Garland (Zondervan, 2011)
In his comments on vv. 23-24, which describes the tortures of Hades, and after referencing ancient literature that parallels these details, Garland writes: “These details are not intended to describe the nature of Hades but to underscore the great reversal that has taken place for the two men in the afterlife” (pp. 671-72). He then goes on to say that the rich man experiences the hellish life that Lazarus experienced on earth, but greater and irreversible in Hades.
However, if he means eternally irreversible, then the story does not go that far.
18. François Bovon, A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 9:51-19:27, Hermeneia, vol. 2, trans. Donald S. Deer (Fortress, 2013).
He discusses the Jewish and Egyptian sources, but he adds that Greco-Roman thought and even popular thinking believed in punishment in the afterlife (pp. 474). But Bovon nowhere says we should take this parable as a clear foundation of doctrine. For him it is a parable.
I say it is a parable. Here’s why.
First, the parable starts off in a standard way that parables do: “a certain man” or “a man” (Luke 6:48-49; 10:30; 12:16; 13:19; 14:16; 15:14; 16:1).
Second, if Jesus knew Lazarus, then why didn’t he help and heal him? If Jesus had heard of him from a distance, then why didn’t he send a team of disciples to help and heal him (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-12, 17-24)? Jesus himself seemed to go on a rescue mission for the lame man by the pool of Bethesda (John 5:1-9). Peter and John healed a lame man at the gate Beautiful (Acts 3:1-10).
Third, the extra-stark contrast of the two men—extremely rich and extremely poor in the same vicinity and the poor man being laid at the rich man’s gate—comes across as a story element. An extreme element of his already abject poverty is added by noting that dogs licked Lazarus’s sores. It seems like the rich man’s servants would have chased Lazarus away, if this were real events.
Fourth, the fact that they died around the same time seems like a story element.
Fifth, as for the name Lazarus, it means “God helps,” and that may be why he is given a name in the story. Jesus’s original and informed Jewish audience would have known this. It was a common name: the third most popular name among Palestinian Jews 330 BCE to 200 A.D. (Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospel as Eyewitness Testimony [Eerdman’s 2006], p. 85). So we should not make too much of the fact that this man is the only named character in all of Jesus’s parable.
Therefore, the details of this parable are purposed to highlight the powerful reversal that happens from this life to the afterlife. Therefore, let’s not over-interpret the details about the afterlife and build massive doctrines on it. But be warned! There is such a thing as hades and the kingdom of heaven. Avoid hades, and pursue the kingdom of God.
In Luke 1:51-53, Mary sang of the great reversal when the rich and powerful would be demoted, and poor and helpless would be exalted, after the kingdom enters their lives. In Luke 2:34, Simeon had prophesied that Jesus was appointed for the rising and falling of many. Here in this story, the rich man started out on the high perch on earth, and Lazarus was on the lowest of the low. When the story ends in the afterlife, their positions will be reversed. The kingdom of God startles and overturns (reverses) (defective) traditional beliefs. The Great Reversal is the main point of the parable.
How does this post help me grow in Christ?
Make no mistake! Just because this section of Scripture is a parable, and we should not over-analyze the details about the afterlife, there is still hades to avoid and kingdom of heaven to gain.
From the parable, the most important things we have to know are these:
Hades = bad; cruel and unjust rich go there
Abraham’s bosom = good, and the unjustly poor and suffering people go there
Therefore be generous and good, if rich. And the poor and miserable will be comforted in the age to come.