Throughout the ‘hell debates’ of recent years, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) has repeatedly begged our attention, especially in Q&A times following the documentary, Hellbound? The dialogue has urged me towards a sharper focus on the layered functions of the parable than I offered in my contemplative read in Her Gates Will Never Be Shut. Herein, I will introduce an outline that I hope invites fuller treatment.
First, we ought to dismiss the false functions of the parable as assigned by traditional (but sloppy) literalism. Readers often imagine that Jesus’ intent is to describe the nature of divine judgment and the state of the damned—or ‘hell’ (lit. hades), defined as an inescapable place of fiery judgment. The symbolic nature of parables is frequently negated and the passage treated as a revelation of the afterlife.
Briefly, interpreting the story of Dives (Lat. ‘rich man’ in the Vulgate) and Lazarus as descriptive of ‘hell’ ignores the difference between hades and paradise vis-à-vis heaven and hell, both biblically and theologically, even by literalist standards. The text says the rich man is in hades, borrowed from Greek language and mythology to correspond with the Hebrew Sheol—the place of the dead or the grave prior to the final Day of Judgment. This is confirmed by the rich man’s desire to send a warning to his brothers before it is too late. Thus, whatever the rich man is suffering, it is a precursor to the Day of the Lord and distinct from the infernalist’s typical everlasting ‘lake of fire.’
Moreover, aspects of the story make a crass literalism awkward: how does the rich man communicate with Abraham across the chasm? Does everyone there have a direct line to the patriarch? Does someone being incinerated in a furnace care about thirst? Are these literal flames? And since hades precedes the resurrection of the body, do we have literal tongues with which to feel thirst? Is this also the literal Abraham? Do the millions in his care take turns snuggling with him? Or is his bosom big enough to contain us all at once? How big he must be! And so on into implausibility.
Taking the parable seriously means we mustn’t take it so literally. Rather than text-mining for the architecture of the underworld, we ought to be digging for the intended message of Jesus. He is using the afterlife to illuminate some truth about this life. If we read carefully, we begin to see hints of the rich strata of meaning that beckon us deeper beneath the surface. I will propose three such layers here.
 Brad Jersak, Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hope, Hell and the New Jerusalem (Wipf & Stock, 2009), Excursus 1: The Rich Man and Lazarus.