Luke 16:19-31 contains the account of a very rich man who lived a life of extreme luxury. Laid outside the gate of this rich man’s house, however, was an extremely poor man named Lazarus who simply hoped “to eat what fell from the rich man’s table” (v. 21). The rich man was completely indifferent to the plight of Lazarus, showing him no love, sympathy, or compassion whatsoever. Eventually, they both died. Lazarus went to heaven, and the rich man went to hell. Appealing to “Father Abraham” in heaven, the rich man requested that Lazarus be sent to cool his tongue with a drop of water to lessen his “agony in this fire.” The rich man also asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his brothers to repent so that they would never join him in hell. Both requests were denied. Abraham told the rich man that if his brothers did not believe in Scripture, neither would they believe a messenger, even if he came straight from heaven.
There is some question as to whether this story is a true, real-life account or a parable, since two of its characters are named (making it unique among parables). Parable or not, however, there is much we can learn from this passage:
First of all, Jesus teaches here that heaven and hell are both real, literal places. Sadly, many preachers shy away from uncomfortable topics such as hell. Some even teach “universalism” – the belief that everyone goes to heaven. Yet Christ spoke about hell a great deal, as did Paul, Peter, John, Jude, and the writer of Hebrews. The Bible is clear that every person who has ever lived will spend eternity in either heaven or hell. Like the rich man in the story, multitudes today are complacent in their conviction that all is well with their soul, and many will hear our Savior tell them otherwise when they die (Matthew 7:23).
This story also illustrates that once we cross the eternal horizon, that’s it. There are no more chances. The transition to our eternal state takes place the moment we die (2 Corinthians 5:8; Luke 23:43; Philippians 1:23). When believers die, they are immediately in the conscious fellowship and joys of heaven. When unbelievers die, they are just as immediately in the conscious pain, suffering, and torment of hell. Notice the rich man didn’t ask for his brothers to pray for his release from some purgatorial middle ground, thereby expediting his journey to heaven. He knew he was in hell, and he knew why. That’s why his requests were merely to be comforted and to have a warning sent to his brothers. He knew there was no escape. He was eternally separated from God, and Abraham made it clear to him that there was no hope of ever mitigating his pain, suffering, or sorrow. Those in hell will perfectly recollect missed opportunities and their rejection of the gospel.
Like many these days who buy into the “prosperity gospel,” the rich man wrongly saw his material riches as evidence of God’s love and blessing. Likewise, he believed the poor and destitute, like Lazarus, were cursed by God. Yet, as the apostle James exhorted, “You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter” (James 5:5). Not only do riches not get one into heaven, but they have the power to separate a person from God in a way that few other things can. Riches are deceitful (Mark 4:19). It is certainly not impossible for the very rich to enter heaven (many heroes of the Bible were wealthy), but Scripture is clear that it is very hard (Matthew 19:23-24; Mark 10:23-25; Luke 18:24-25).
True followers of Christ will not be indifferent to the plight of the poor like the rich man in this story was. God loves the poor and is offended when His children neglect them (Proverbs 17:5; 22:9, 22-23; 29:7; 31:8-9). In fact, those who show mercy to the poor are in effect ministering to Christ personally (Matthew 25:35-40). Christians are known by the fruit they bear. The Holy Spirit’s residence in our hearts will most certainly impact how we live and what we do.
Abraham’s words in verses 29 and 31 referring to “Moses and the Prophets” (Scripture) confirms that understanding the revealed Word of God has the power to turn unbelief into faith (Hebrew 4:12; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23). Furthermore, knowing Scripture helps us to understand that God’s children, like Lazarus, can suffer while on this earth—suffering is one of the many tragic consequences of living in a sinful and fallen world.
The Bible says our earthly lives are a “mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Our earthly sojourn is exceedingly brief. Perhaps the greatest lesson to learn from this story, then, is that when death comes knocking on our door there is only one thing that matters: our relationship with Jesus Christ. “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26; Mark 8:36). Eternal life is only found in Christ. “God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:11-12). The truth is, if we wish to live apart from God during our time on earth, He will grant us our wish for eternity as well. As one pastor aptly said, “If you board the train of unbelief, you will have to take it all the way to its destination.”