Before we can tackle some of the nuances in this parable, let's first read through this passage with a caricature of the traditional reading. I'm elaborating slightly to bring out some subtle nuances that you may not have noticed in the original reading.
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day:
The story begins with the description of a rich man. In the Latin Vulgate, he was given the name "Dives" (pronounced dee-vez) which means rich man. We are not told here that he is a sinner, only that he is rich.
And there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, which was laid at his gate, full of sores,
Next, Jesus introduces a poor character with the name Lazarus. We are not told that Lazarus is a particularly righteous person, only that he is poor. This is the only time in the New Testament that a character in a parable is given a name, which causes most traditional readers to believe this is an indication that this is not a parable, but rather a historical event.
And desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
Clearly the rich man did not actually share any crumbs with Lazarus. The traditional readings aren't sure whether dogs licking his sores is a good thing or a bad thing. If it's a good thing, the meaning is that animals cared for this guy more than people. If it's a bad thing, the meaning is that even the master's dogs came and insulted his sickness.
And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried;
Lazarus eventually dies, and goes to heaven. The traditional reading says that just the spirit goes to heaven. Likewise, the rich man's spirit goes to hell.
And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
The rich man's spirit, upon arriving in hell, starts off an eternity of suffering by gazing off to heaven with eyes. There he sees Abraham's bosom, and in it, this poor beggar that he ignored.
And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
Above the roaring blaze of the inferno of hell, this disembodied spirit screams across the cosmos, "Abraham! Send that poor beggar that I ignored all of my life to dip his finger in some nearby water, and then float over to me, so he can cool down my tongue. That should help me to feel better. It's hot in hell!"
But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.
Abraham coolly replies: "Rich man, remember all those nice drinks you had while you had a body? Now that you're a bodiless spirit, you can't have even water for the rest of time. This poor man, when he lived in a body, got only bad things. Now, I'm giving him a big hug for the rest eternity to make up for all crumbs that you didn't give him for those few months that he was at your gate."
And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence.
"Oh, I just remembed. Even if you did deserve the water, we don't know how to get it over to you. There's this giant chasm that disembodied spirits can't float over. It was put there so that people from heaven who really badly want to burn in hell can't get there. It's also there so that people in hell who want to give me a hug can't come here either."
The rich man thinks to himself for a moment, and realizes that all this business about being punished in a unquenchable inferno forever because he had lots of money totally make sense–particularly because Abraham himself lived for about 120 years and had heaps of money too.
It also makes perfect sense to this rich guy that somebody put a giant pit that spirits cannot float over. Spirits (and angels) can apparently float to and from earth, but they haven't figured out a way to get a non-stop flight to hell, and they don't seem particuarly interested in finding a way to help their suffering friends in hell, even if they wanted to.
Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father's house: For I have five brethren; that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment.
Realizing he has no deliverance, the rich man is suddenly overcome by altruism, and implores Abraham to warn his brothers. He wants Lazarus to float back to earth (because he can't float to hell) and paint in gory details all of the fiery punishments this rich man is now enduring.
The traditional teaching here is that hell is full of people that are very compassionate and merciful, wanting none to perish, but for all to have everlasting life [in heaven].
Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
Abraham says, "Why do I need to send Lazarus to warn them about what hell is really like. Moses and the rest of the prophets wrote lots about the torments and eternal suffering that goes on in hell. Let them read about it in their Old Testament."
The traditional teaching here is that heaven is run by this ornery old guy named Abraham who doesn't care that people are on the road to destruction. If they won't read the Old Testament, then they rightfully deserve to burn in hell forever. Good riddance!
And he said, Nay, father Abraham: but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent.
The rich man responds, "Father Abraham, you are quite mistaken. If they saw a ghost appear to them, particularly if it was someone they recognized, came from heaven and explained to them that they're going to go to hell just like their brother, and that hell is full of all this fire, and they're going to be tormented forever, they'd believe in a heartbeat."
And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
Abraham has the last words: "People who read the Bible don't believe in ghosts. No spectre, or scary movie, or haunted house ever influenced somebody's belief in the afterlife. Otherwise, I might send this guy named Jacob Marley over here to warn his business partner Ebenezer Scrooge, so that Mr. Scrooge won't have to be tormetned forever for his greed and disregard of the poor. These would make heartwarming Christmas stories if they actually worked, but they dont."
There are obviously a couple problems with this reading that I'm going to receive flak for.
Granted, we aren't told that the rich man was wicked, and we aren't told that the poor man was righteous, but elsewhere in scripture Jesus says it's dangerous to be wealthy and righteous to be poor. This parable is a warning against being rich.
- If it's a warning against being rich, then the same hermeneutic is telling us we should all get boils on our skin and beg outside of people's houses to get into heaven.
- Jesus shows that a very rich man named Abraham is in heaven.
- It seems that this parable is trying to get the audience to be more thoughtful of the welfare to the poor.
These aren't disembodied spirits in hell. They have reincarnated bodies.
- Many body parts are listed here. The rich man lifts up eyes he's not supposed to have, and sees Abraham's bosom that he is not supposed to have. Later he proposes that Lazarus dips the finger Lazarus isn't supposed to have, and cool the rich man's tongue that he's not supposed to have. Are these literal body parts, or are these symbols? If symbols, then what else in this parable is symbolic?
- Reincarnation happens at the resurrection (Daniel 12:13, John 6:39-40, 44, 54, 11:24, 1 Thessalonians 4:14-17 ). The "last day" hasn't come yet because the rich man's brothers are still walking around.
The gulf is not there to prevent people in Abraham's bosom who want to go and suffer in hell. It's to prevent them from ministering to those suffering in hell.
- Abraham seems quite ambivalent about helping out the rich man. Lazarus doesn't seem to be taking any initiative either. If the rich man is being punished eternally for not caring about the welfare of others, what are Lazarus and Abraham doing in heaven?
Lazarus isn't supposed to describe hell. Lazarus is intended to warn the brothers to care for the poor. That's what he means by "that he might testify unto them, lest they also come to this place of torment." That's what the Old Testament warns about.
- If we are to prepare for the afterlife according to the instructions of the Old Testament, then our view of what happens after death should also be consistent in the Old Testament.