If you read my preview post a couple of weeks ago, you already knew this topic was coming, so I'll jump right in. Here's the structure of the post:
1) The recorded text of Jesus' story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:1-31). It's from the New International Version's translation.
2) My old interpretation of the story
3) My new agnosticism on the story, and an alternative interpretation
"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
"The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.'
"But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.'
"He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.'
"Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.'
" 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
"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.' "
My old interpretation
I used to think this story was pretty cut and dried. Jesus was telling us that heaven and hell are real, and that we don't want to go to hell. Bad place. Burning, pain, etc...
I also had a vague idea that the rich man might represent the Jews, since he had five brothers (just like Judah in Genesis 35). But I had a hard time reconciling this harsh future outlook for the Jews with Paul's bold assertions of the fate of the Jews in Romans 11.
My journey on the interpretation
A couple of years ago I was challenged in my interpretation by some fellow Christians. They asked why I could say that this story was proof of heaven and hell. I simply answered, "they're in the story, so they must be real."
They continued in their challenge, and asked if I would use the same reasoning to assume any of the other parts of the story as absolute truth:
--Abraham is the central figure of heaven
--If my body was burning, I would, above all else, long for a drop of water on my tongue
--People who receive good things in life go to hell
--People who receive bad things in life will be comforted in heaven
--There is a chasm between heaven and hell, but both places are close enough so that the souls on either side can see each other and communicate
--Passage both ways between heaven and hell is not permitted (...why would anyone need to be explicitly stopped from leaving heaven to go to hell?)
--Moses and the prophets taught everything you need to know to avoid hell
I had to admit that I don't believe any of those things. But they're in the story. So how could I toss away all of the above illustrations while latching onto the picture of torment as an accurate portrayal of hell?
So I studied more. And more. I was stymied by this story, just as millions (billions?) have been confused by Jesus' amazing-yet-hard-to-grasp style that often used parables and symbols. There was no moral tale here, at least not that I could see on the surface. Rich guy goes to hell, poor guys goes to heaven... but no real reasons why they get those fates.
I kept thinking it had to be teaching something about eternity, because the story is set in the afterlife. But I took none of the individual story's aspects as literal, so what truth could I glean about eternity? The story doesn't even say that the two men's fates are eternal -- for all I know Abraham could swap their places tomorrow. Stymied.
I will tell you right now that I don't assume to know exactly what Jesus meant by this story. It's the last in a series of five stories/parables told by Jesus in the same sitting, so there are all kinds of contextual possibilities. More than a brain like mine can decipher with 100% confidence. That's why I used the word "agnostic" in my introduction -- I just plain don't know for sure what the moral was. But here's one possibility:
When Jesus told this story, he was either on the doorsteps to the city of Jerusalem or had already arrived. 70 years later, in the same place where he was teaching, the following would happen:
--A trench would be dug around the city's walls by Roman commander Titus and his army (a chasm?)
--A blockade would be setup, with no human traffic in or out of the city (no crossing the chasm in either direction)
--Rich people lived inside the city walls, because they could afford the real estate. Poor people lived outside the city in tents, and normally came inside the gates during the day to do business. In this case, though, the rich were locked in, with no food or water. And the poor were locked out.
--Severe thirst and starvation soon hit the trapped citizens of Jerusalem. They would literally be willing to beg for a drip of water on their tongues.
--During fighting with the Romans, the temple was eventually set on fire. Then the fire spread to the rest of the city. The screams of those inside the city could be heard beyond the trench outside. Burning torment. Communication across the chasm.
Just before the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the bible notes that the tax collectors, Pharisees and teachers of the law were listening to him. These were the rich and powerful. The people who could afford homes inside the city. The people most in need of a warning about what was to come 70 years later.
It may not the right interpretation, but I have to admit that it fits better than my old idea. What do you think?
p.s. -- I'll be visiting my parents for Christmas for the next several days, but will keep in touch through the comments section. The next post will be on "four biblical views of hell" and will be sure to stir up plenty of things in case tonight's post fell flat. :)