Two assumptions are implicit in this question, namely, (1) that hell is a condition from which is it possible to escape or emerge, and (2) that Israel has been in hell for some period of time. We agree with both assumptions. For an understanding of the significance of the word “hell” as the Bible uses it, we refer you to the booklet What Say the Scriptures About Hell? It examines every text of Scripture in which the word “hell” is found.
Has the nation of Israel been in hell? How long has it been there? Will Israel ever come out of hell? We believe that there are fully satisfying answers to these questions and they are to be found in an explanation of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. This explanation was first given in 1881, more than half a century before Israel was created as a state. We find it as timely today as when it first come off the press. This explanation of Israel’s role in human history throws remarkable light on today’s (and tomorrow’s) headlines.
The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus
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.”–Luke 16:19-31, NIV
Although many persons regard this as a parable, they interpret it as though it were a literal statement. To do so produces several interpretive absurdities. For instance: the rich man went to hell because he enjoyed many earthly blessings and gave only crumbs to Lazarus. Nothing is said about any wickedness on the part of the rich man. Similarly, Lazarus was blessed simply because he was poor and sick, not because he was a sincere child of God, or full of faith and trust, or even good.
If such literal interpretations are legitimate, then no one has any hope of entering into future bliss unless they are poor beggars, full of sores. If we have nice clothes and enough to eat, we are sure of future torment.
If literalism is true to the story, then the coveted place also must be literal. “Abraham’s bosom” surely could not accommodate all of earth’s millions of sick and poor, but that is what the story says.
Why consider such absurdities?
As a parable it is easily interpreted. A parable is, first of all, a symbolic story. The thing said is not the thing meant. We know this from the Lord Jesus Christ’s own words. When he explained some of his parables, he told the “meaning” of their various symbols. Wheat represented the children of the kingdom. Weeds represented the children of the devil. Reapers represented Jesus’ servants (c.f., Matthew 13). In other parables, the same classes are represented by other symbols–relevant to the telling of those respective stories and illustrating other characteristics of the representative groups. Thus, we have wheat in one parable corresponding to faithful servants in another, and wise virgins in still another. Here, in our parable, the rich man and Lazarus both represent categories of people.
How do we dare explain a parable which the Lord himself did not explain? We begin by acknowledging that we are presenting our opinion. If your personal examination of the scriptures supports this interpretation, we will be happy because we feel that it agrees with what the Bible reveals about God’s plan of the ages.
Abraham represents God and the rich man represents the Jewish nation. For centuries before this parable was told the Jews had feasted on God’s favors. They were a specially chosen and blessed nation. How does Paul say it–“What advantage, then, hath the Jew? Much every way: chiefly, because to them were committed the oracles of God [The Law and the Prophets]” (Romans 3:1). God had made the Jews a royal people (Exodus 19:6; Genesis 12:2; 22:18; 2 Samuel 7:11,13,16). The promises to Abraham and to David assured them of an administrative role in God’s plans, and this role is represented by the rich man’s purple garments. The Law Covenant sacrifices made them a holy nation in a typical sense. This purity (holiness or righteousness) is represented by the rich man’s fine linen garments. We remember how fine linen is used in Revelation (19:8) and is there described as the “righteousness of saints.”
Who does Lazarus represent? The outcasts from God’s favor under the Law Covenant. There were those who were sick of sin, and who hungered and thirsted for righteousness. These veritable publicans and sinners of Israel who sought a better life were united with others, the truth-hungry gentiles who were “feeling after God” (Acts 17:27). Together they constitute the Lazarus class.
This group of disparate individuals enjoyed none of the special blessings afforded to Israel at the time the parable was spoken. They lay at the gate of the rich man in spiritual poverty. No royal promises were theirs. They were not even ritually cleansed. They remained in their moral sickness, in their pollution, and their only companions were gentile “dogs.” In those days, dogs were detestable creatures, and the ritually clean Jew called all others “heathen” and “dogs.” The observant Jew would never eat with them, nor marry, nor have any commercial dealings with them as the words of the Samaritan woman illustrate: “How is it thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans” (John 4:9).
How did these disenfranchised people eat the crumbs of God’s favor which fell from the table of Israel’s bounty? The Lord’s words to the Syrophenician woman give us a clue: “It is not meet to take the children’s bread, and cast it to dogs.” Today we might say it this way, “It is not proper to take Israel’s blessings and give them to the gentiles.” She answered Jesus this way, “Truth Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:26,27). Jesus was moved by her spirit and healed this woman’s daughter, giving her the crumb of favor she wanted so desperately.
Then came a great dispensational change! Israel was rejected by God after the crucifixion of Jesus. Their typical righteousness ended and the key to the kingdom of God was taken from them and given to a nation that would bring forth kingdom fruits–the Gospel Age church. To them the names “holy nation” and “peculiar people” (which formerly applied to Israel) were given.
“Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works” (Titus 2:14).
“Unto you therefore which believe he is precious: but unto them which be disobedient, the stone which the builders disallowed, the same is made the head of the comer. But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:7,9).
“Therefore I say unto you, The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruit thereof” (Matthew 21:43).
Thus, the rich man “died” to all these special advantages. Soon the Jewish nation found itself cast off–in tribulation and affliction. Israel remained in this condition from that time until the middle of this century when it was reborn as a nation by the “mandate” of the nations of earth.
Lazarus also died. Humble gentiles and those of the Jews who were sincerely seeking God underwent a change of condition. God’s messengers the apostles–“messenger” is the English meaning of the Greek word translated “angel”–carried these once outcast people into Abraham’s [that is, God’s] bosom. The New Testament represents Abraham as the father of all faithful–and here it is Abraham who receives all the children of faith. These are the true heirs of Abraham’s promises.
The New Testament goes further in clarifying this. Not only the faithful are pictured by this parable. The failure of the natural children is also described in full. “…but the children of promise are counted for the seed” (children of Abraham); “which seed is Christ”; and “if ye be Christ’s, then are ye [believers] Abraham’s seed [children], and heirs according to the [Abrahamic] promise” (Galatians 3:29).
Death well illustrates Israel’s condition after her casting off. The people were ravaged, the national government destroyed, and the land laid waste. No more were God’s blessings enjoyed, and since they were cast off, there has been no show of favor until this century. The poor gentiles, who before were aliens from the commonwealth of Israel [national government] and who were strangers from the covenants of promise, now had hope in God in the world. They approached God by the blood of Christ and enjoyed reconciliation to God (Ephesians 2:12,13).
Israel was buried, or hidden, among the other nations during this period of disfavor. Our Lord added a new symbol to these old symbols of death and burial used to describe the dissolving of the nation of Israel. “In hell [Greek: hades, ‘”the grave”] he lifted up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off.” The dead cannot lift up their eyes, nor can they see, either near or far. It is distinctly stated that there is no work, device, knowledge, or wisdom in the grave to which men go (Ecclesiastes 9:10). The dead are described as going down into “silence” (Psalm 115:17).
Jesus wished to show that great sufferings or “torments” would possess the nation of Israel in her Diaspora. In vain would they plead for release. Beg as they would, no comfort would come from the hand of the formerly despised Lazarus class–the gentile nations.
History bears out this parabolic prophecy. The Jews acknowledge their 1800 year loss of God’s favor and the subsequent loss of their temple and the sacrifices by which to approach him ritually. This was not their only torment. Wherever they lived during this period, they have been persecuted and harassed by the nations. Professing Christians too have played their part in this persecution. Jews expected more from Christianity, as expressed in the parable. “Send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,” but the great gulf fixed between them hinders that.
God still recognizes the relationship established in his covenant with them. Even here in the parable he continues to address them as the children of the covenant (vs. 25). These torments are penalties attached to their violations of the covenant and had been predicted in the Law (see Leviticus 26). God promised blessings if they were faithful to the covenant and punishment if they disobeyed. He had been faithful to them in blessing them. He is faithful also in punishing them–for their own good.
What is this “great gulf fixed”? It is the differences between the Gospel Church and the Jew. The former enjoy free grace, joy, comfort, and peace as sons of God. The latter, holding to the Mosaic Law, find only its condemnation and torment. Prejudice, pride, and error on both sides form the bulwarks of this gulf which hinder the Jew from coming to true sonship with God by accepting Jesus Christ as their Messiah and also prevents Christians from effectively preaching the message of Jesus. Jesus teaches all men that by the works of the law no flesh can be justified. Israel remains under their bondage to the Law to this very day because they do not recognize in Jesus Christ the Messiah the only possible release from the Law. Paul says that if a man puts himself under the tenets of the law, so as to try to commend himself to God by fulfilling it, then Christ profits that man nothing (Galatians 5:24).
Those who are of the Lazarus class (Gospel Age believers) should learn an important lesson from this. They should not attempt to mix the Law and the Gospel; they cannot be mixed. We can do no good to those still clinging to the Law and who reject the sacrifice for sins given by our Lord.
The Jews, not seeing any change in dispensation, argue that to deny the Law as the power to save would be to deny their history and their race, as well as all of God’s past blessings to their fathers. Until they recognize that God has changed his way of dealing with them because of Jesus’ fulfilling of the Law, they cannot come over to Abraham’s bosom. True rest and peace await them, just as all believers in Jesus now enjoy rest and peace. Only their pride in the promises of God and his past dealings with them, and their selfishness in hoping to keep for themselves something which does not belong to them restrains them from receiving God’s blessings today. As a nation they have not learned the lesson which this period of punishment is designed, ultimately, to teach them (c.f., John 8:39; Romans 4:16; Galatians 3:29).
It is likely that some natural Jews have accepted the Christian faith at all times during the Gospel Age. After all, the early Christian church was entirely Jewish. Their numbers have been so few, however, that they are ignored in this parable which discusses the nation as an entity. As at the first, the rich man represented the orthodox Jew and not the “outcasts of Israel,” so at the close of the parable he represents a similar class. Hence, he does not represent those who have renounced the Law Covenant and have embraced Christianity or such as have cast off all faith and become infidels.
How do we interpret the rich man’s five brethren? We might answer by asking another question. How were the Judeans referred to at Jesus’ time? As “Israel,” “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” “cities of Israel.” They were so called because all the tribes were there represented even though the majority were either Benjamites or children of Judah. Some of the ten tribes returned from Babylon under Cyrus’ general commission along with descendants of the two tribes.
If the two tribes were represented in the one rich man, it would be a harmony of numbers to understand the ten tribes to be represented in the five brethren. The request on behalf of the five brothers was doubtless intended to show that all special favor ceased to all Israel. It seems evident that only Israel could have been intended as the target of this parable because they alone had “Moses and the Prophets” (vs. 29). The majority of the ten tribes had so completely discounted Moses and the Prophets that they did not even return to the promised land when it became possible to do so. They preferred to dwell among idolaters. Hence, it would be useless to communicate further with them, even by one raised from the dead–figuratively the Lazarus class of believers in Christ (Ephesians 2:5).
The parable mentions no bridge for this gulf. Other portions of Scripture, however, indicate that this gulf was to be “fixed” only during the present Gospel Age. When the Gospel Age closes, the rich man’s sins will have been sufficiently punished and he will emerge from his fiery troubles across the bridge of God’s yet unfulfilled promises to him.
Pagans, Mohammedans, and Christians have alike persecuted the Jews. The Jew today is rising to his political freedom and influence in spite of abuse. A time called “Jacob’s trouble” awaits this people, but there are strong testimonies to the important role that Israel will play among the nations of the world at the beginning of the Millennial reign of Messiah. There is a veil of prejudice which still exists (2 Corinthians 3:13-18) which must be removed as the light of the Millennial morning dawns upon the world. We should not be surprised, then, when we hear of a great awakening yet to come among the Jews. They will still acknowledge Jesus as Messiah–though perhaps not in a way that will satisfy the pride of some so-called Christians. Accepting him, they will leave their national death-state and the torment they endured when they abode in disbelief. Accepting him, they will be the first nation to be blessed by the true seed of Abraham–Jesus, the Messiah.
Today’s Israel is a largely secular state. Pride and national prejudice still exist. Many who live in the land do not observe their religion, choosing a so-called secular Jewish state over a return to their religious heritage, but pride and prejudice must fall. The number of Messianic Jews increases daily, an inkling of what will happen when they look upon him whom they have pierced and mourn for him–as a nation. Some now proclaim, “Is not this the Christ.” As these individuals look upon him, the Lord pours upon them the spirit of favor and supplication (Zechariah 12:10). Therefore, speak comfortably to Jerusalem, and tell her that her appointed time of disfavor is over (Isaiah 40:1,2, margin).
What a harmony we find in this parable with what Paul taught in Romans (Romans 11:19-33). The natural olive branches, he says, were cut off because of unbelief. Wild olive branches were grafted into the Abrahamic root or promise.
Jesus’ parable leaves the Jews in their trouble and does not refer to their final restoration to favor. This doubtless is true because such an extension of the story was not pertinent to Jesus’ lesson at the time. Paul, however, assures us that when the fullness of the gentiles come in, then natural Israel shall obtain mercy. The full number spoken about are the Christian believers who will eventually comprise the Bride of Christ, or his “body.” It is through their mercy, as the Everlasting Father’s bride, that Israel will once again enjoy divine favor.
Paul extends Israel’s role in the future kingdom of Christ by referring to God’s covenant. Israel lost the chief position of favor (as a nation) but still possesses the promises of God. Among those promises is the prospect of becoming the chief nation of earth. Proving this continuing hope, Paul quotes the prophets, saying: “There shall come out of Zion the deliverer, and shall turn ungodliness from Jacob” (Romans 11:26). Zion, or the glorified church of believers, shall play a role in turning the fleshly children of Abraham back to God.
“As concerning the Gospel, they are enemies for your sakes: but as touching the election, they are beloved for the father’s sake” (vs. 28). How true this shall be! Israel missed the chief opportunity–that of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14). They were cut off, they became “enemies.” But they are an elect people because of the faith of their fathers. God will not dishonor his promises to the father because the sons have sinned. No. He will fulfill his promises to them by bringing the children into harmony with himself, just as their fathers were beforehand.
“For God hath concluded them all in unbelief, that he might have mercy upon all. O the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God” (Romans 11:32). Yes, for the past two thousand years they lived as unbelievers; not unbelievers in God, but in the revelation of God as it is in Christ Jesus. He shall yet have mercy upon them, and what a mercy that shall be! “For if the casting away of them be the reconciling of the world, what shall the receiving of them be, but life from the dead?” (Romans 11:15).
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