In all the parables Jesus told, He never used proper names; He would simply give a description of a person, e.g. “the rich young ruler.” There was one exception to this general rule, and that was in His recounting the incident with the beggar, Lazarus, and the rich man. Because of the use of Lazarus’ name, it is believed that Jesus spoke of an actual event.
In this story Lazarus had nothing in this life, whereas the rich man had all that he ever wanted. Both of them died. The rich man went to Hades (the Greek term; Sheol being the same place in Hebrew), while Lazarus went to be in the place described variously as Abraham’s bosom or Abraham’s side.
It is important to note that the direction of Sheol or Hades is always down in the Bible. Everyone, good or wicked went to Sheol. For instance, here is David in Psalm 30:3:
O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.
This is Psalm 49:13-15 penned by the sons of Korah:
This is the path of those who have foolish confidence;
yet after them people approve of their boasts. Selah
Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
death shall be their shepherd,
and the upright shall rule over them in the morning.
Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell.
But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
for he will receive me. Selah
The righteous of God always believed that despite their initial destination as Sheol, Yahweh would rescue them from this place of eternal agony and silence.
In Jesus speaking of this place where the wicked rich man went, we learn that there is constant torment, thirst, and anguish. Luke 16:24 gives us the rich man’s very words:
“And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’”
On the other hand, Lazarus doesn’t experience anything like this. He is with Abraham in a place of comfort. Jesus tells us the difference between where these two men ended up had to do with how they lived their lives. Because this relates Old Testament theology, it is based on works depending on how someone followed the Law of Moses. The rich man had no mercy on the poor; in his life he had the acclaim of others and wealth that he used only for himself. We don’t learn as much about Lazarus other than he suffered in his poverty. Despite that, perhaps he obeyed the Law – the text doesn’t tell us.
A key aspect of this incident is the description of Hades. Abraham speaks of this in Luke 16:26:
“‘And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’”
In this place of death there are apparently two compartments, with one being for the wicked – the place of torment; and the other being for the righteous – the place of peace. Between these two sections is a great chasm that cannot be breached. Those in the location of Lazarus cannot cross to Abraham, and those with Abraham cannot go to the side of the ungodly.
What is exceedingly interesting is when the rich man calls out to Abraham to warn his brothers about this awful place so that they won’t end up there. Abraham tells him (notice that they can speak to each other over this distance of separation) that his brothers have the Law and the Prophets. In other words, everything they need for salvation is found in the Old Testament.
The rich man wants Abraham, who is deceased, to somehow appear to his brothers. That is, he wants the dead to warn them because he figures the shock would be enough to set them straight. But Abraham tells him in Luke 16:31 that if they don’t obey what they’ve already been given, his warnings would do nothing.
“He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
Jesus, in relating this incident, is speaking of Himself. There are those who have every opportunity to repent and be saved. Despite that, they will reject even the evidence that His resurrection brings. The dead – even coming back to life – cannot rescue the dead in this world.
A couple more notes about this.
- When Jesus was crucified, and the thief crucified beside Him believed in salvation through Him, Jesus told the man that he would that day be with Him in paradise. Because Jesus had not yet risen from the dead, He, like everyone else up to that point, would go down to Hades. It was only after Jesus rose from the dead that those who die believing in Him go directly to be with Him in heaven and thereby bypass Hades as the place of death.
- We are told that when Jesus descended to Hades that He had the keys to the prison that held the Old Testament saints, and that He set these captives free. Once He completed those three days in hell, Jesus released all those kept in the side of Sheol with Abraham and brought them with Him to heaven. He also demonstrated to those in the unrighteous compartment how He had now won the victory over death and the grave. Paul repeats in 1 Corinthians 15:55-57 what the Old Testament in Hosea 13:14 told believers:
“O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
When Jesus came to live and die and rise again for us, He changed everything, even the dynamics of death. Because He lives, we also will live. Praise be to the Lord!