Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

The Rich Man and Lazarus

Roland Clarke (with David Foster)

There is one topic that many people, even Christians don't like to talk about – death and even more so, hell. However, the Bible has a lot to say about both. In fact, a certain preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes said “A wise person thinks a lot about death.” (7:4, NLT) Indeed, the topic of death has been very much on people's minds since the COVID pandemic struck. The simple truth is, fear of death is the elephant in the room, having strongly impacted lockdown policies and restrictions across Canada and throughout the world. Obviously no one in their right mind wants to die although here in Canada euthanasia is now permitted.

The bottom line is: Fear of death, especially the second death, hell, is normal as we all know from personal experience. In fact, the Bible plainly states that God sent his Son into our world as a human so that he could “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” (Hebrews 2:14-15) To say that humans fear death is a no-brainer, whether they admit it or not. Sadly, however, few people realize that Satan is the murderer from the beginning and he exploits our fear of death, using it to hold us in bondage all our lives. (We will revisit this in our conclusion.)

Let's look at a parable in Luke 16 that Jesus used to teach a vital lesson about death. As a gifted teacher Christ captured people's attention by telling simple stories. In our passage today he pictured a familiar scenario from everyday life in which two very different people have died, one of them is a very poor man, whereas the other is extremely rich. During his lifetime the rich man saw the poor man suffering, yet he turned a blind eye and didn't lift a finger to help him.

There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, "Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame." But Abraham said, "Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us." And he said, "Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment." But Abraham said, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them." And he said, "No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." He said to him, "If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead." (Luke 16:19-31)

Notice: less than 25% of this story is about life on earth. Most of the parable focuses on life after death. Here's another interesting thing: God is mentioned only once whereas Abraham is mentioned eight times! Do you suppose Jesus was implying that Abraham is more important than God? By referring to Abraham as 'father' three times was Jesus diminishing our appreciation of God as heavenly 'Father'? Obviously not!

Let me explain. The Jewish people regarded Abraham as their “father” as did the rich man in this parable. This mindset is evident throughout the gospels. For example in John 8:38-39 Jesus addressed the Jews, “I speak of what I have seen with my Father, and you do what you have heard from your father.” They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did.”

What work was that, by the way? Scripture says, “faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness” and “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Romans 4:9; Hebrews 11:6) In a similar way, Jesus said that genuine faith/belief is the real 'work' God requires. “The Jews asked Jesus, 'What must we do, to be doing the works of God?' Jesus answered them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.' (John 6:28-29) WOW! – not by works but by grace through faith so no-one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Jesus warned the Jews on many occasions that claiming Abraham as their ancestor was of no value if they refused to repent and turn to God. Having superficial faith in the God of Abraham is useless if it doesn't yield the fruit of repentance. In fact, it is hypocrisy. When Zacchaeus the tax collector acknowledged his wrong-doing he made restitution, repaying those he cheated, thus proving he was truly repentant. Accordingly, Jesus declared, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:10)

Christ's brother, the apostle James made an interesting observation about wealth and poverty in James 2:5-7,

Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” ... Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

In a similar way, the apostle Paul noted in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29,

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

Notice Paul repeats the word “many” three times. Not “many” Christians are wise, powerful or noble according to worldly standards. In fact, Christians are often regarded as foolish, weak or low/despised in the eyes of the world. Of course, this doesn't mean there aren't exceptional cases of true believers who achieved a high government rank as did the prophet Daniel or who became very wealthy, like Job and Abraham.

The stark contrast painted in this parable between a wealthy person and a poor man calls to mind two previous occasions when Jesus mentioned riches and poverty in the book of Luke that we have been studying. For example, earlier in this chapter Jesus taught his disciples about worldly wealth, saying that the children of light should use money in a righteous way to “win friends.” Of course, the Pharisees who loved money sneered at Jesus for saying this. On another occasion, while Jesus was eating with a Pharisee, he spoke again about this godly trait of spending money lavishly to prepare a banquet for poor people. Using hyperbole he said, “Don't invite friends and rich people to a banquet but poor people ...” (14:12) Then, a couple verses later, in the parable of the great banquet Jesus highlights the generosity of the host who, likewise, invites the poor, the blind, etc.

We've considered why this parable mentions God just once while mentioning Abraham eight times. We saw that Christ's audience, who were mostly Jewish, proudly claimed Abraham as their forefather and thus their identity. Interestingly, Muslims also feel proud laying claim to Abraham as their spiritual patriarch and forefather. On Tuesday a Muslim friend brought us a parcel of baked sweet goodies as part of their annual festival called Eid ul Adha. This event, which is their most significant annual festival, involves sacrificing a sheep (or suitable animal) in remembrance of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his first-born son in obedience to God.

We've been praying earnestly for this Muslim family whom we love dearly. Not only so, over the last few years we've invited them to our home for meals on a number of occasions. However, the bottom line is, though they acknowledge that the prophets Ibrahim and Moosa (Moses) were exceptional examples of faith, the fact is, they are tragically deceived, caught in the Devil's snare. (They also are deeply afraid of death and judgment.) Muslims do not accept the long awaited Messiah who Abraham foretold would be God's perfect Lamb. As devout Muslims, our friends deny Jesus died on the cross as redeemer and Saviour. In fact, they believe that when Christ returns to earth in the last days he will break the cross.

This emphatic denial of Jesus' sacrificial death calls to mind Peter's denial and the resulting rebuke from Jesus,

“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23)

The Jewish religious leaders in Christ's time held Abraham in high esteem, yet they desperately needed to be warned about hell fire. Similarly today, even though Muslims proudly claim Abraham as their patriarch and prophet, they too must repent and turn to “Jesus the one and only Mediator between God and man.” (1Timothy 2:5) How we hope that one day this family will turn to Jesus.

The picture of hell Jesus paints in this parable is excruciatingly painful. The rich man was “in anguish in the flames”. He begs for someone to go and warn his brothers so they wouldn't also end up in this place of “torment,” but he is told "Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us." His situation was permanent, irreversible!

Now it's one thing to read this 'imaginary' conversation between two characters in a parable, but it's quite a different matter to experience one of our own neighbors or family members dying – someone who doesn't know the Lord Jesus Christ as his Saviour!

When my unsaved neighbor friend or relative dies and realizes his or her terrible eternal destiny, does he deeply regret that he did not ask questions about God during his lifetime? Does he regret not listening to a Christian who tried sharing the Gospel? Does he wonder why his Christian neighbor didn't warn him about the wages of sin and the eternal punishment awaiting those who don't repent and turn to God to accept the free gift of salvation? Should we ourselves humbly feel regret and sorrow if we are making little or no effort to tell our neighbors both the bad news and the good news?

For this very reason the wise preacher in Ecclesiastes said;

A good reputation is more valuable than costly perfume.
And the day you die is better than the day you are born.
Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
After all, everyone dies—so the living should take this to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us.
A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time.

Better to be criticized (rebuked) by a wise person than to be praised by a fool.
A fool’s laughter is quickly gone, like thorns crackling in a fire. (Ecclesiastes 7:1-6, NLT, bold added)

When someone dies it is undeniably tragic as it evokes in us deep heartache, sorrow and grief. Being faced with death is a humbling experience that can soften hearts and make people more open to hear constructive criticism, a warning or even rebuke from a wise friend. As it is written,

Better is open rebuke
Than love that is concealed.
Faithful are the wounds of a friend,
But deceitful are the kisses of an enemy. ...
For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching is light;
And rebukes for discipline are the way of life. …
There is severe punishment for one who abandons the way;
One who hates a rebuke will die.
(Proverbs 27:6; 6:23; 15:10, NASB)

We live in an age and a society (Canada) where people are uncomfortable, to say the least, with showing love through rebuke, correction or discipline. And yet we know that God showed loving concern towards Adam and Eve when he warned them of the deadly consequence of eating the forbidden fruit, although they did not obey. Today, many so-called believers make light of God's fatherly discipline, his holiness, and judgment. In fact, many Christians almost never mention hell and eternal judgment to our unsaved friends for fear of offending them.

Today we began by saying that humans intuitively fear death and as a result, often take drastic measures to avoid or delay dying. Satan knew Adam and Eve would die if they listened to him instead of God and that is what he wanted to happen. He knew humans would fear death, which is so ugly and evil. He has always used the inevitability of death to keep people under his grip, slaves to sin, dreading death and without hope.

When Jesus foretold that he was going to be killed and he would rise again Peter objected strenuously as all of us would do if faced with a terminal diagnosis of our own or a loved one. “No, no.” Peter reacted, “This can't be.” The very thought of Jesus being killed and dying was unthinkable! This shock struck fear in his heart. He had always thought of death as final and irreversible, so he was unable to grasp the implications of rising again! Rather than pausing to reconsider what Jesus meant by “rising again,” he overlooked these crucial words.

If Peter's denial of Jesus' pending death was triggered by fear driven by Satan, so too in our day, we are seeing government leaders adopt a similar mindset, setting policies and lockdowns driven by fear of death. Also they exploit this fear.

Jesus instructed each generation of believers to discern or interpret their times. Let us be careful to wisely discern the momentous times we're living in and decide to act with courage. As Jesus warned, “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?” (Luke 12:56)

In many ways we've been passing through the valley of the shadow of death these last 17 months. Government leaders have desperately focused on minimizing Covid infections with a view to reduce the death toll. For most people, death is the worst case scenario, but for us as Christians, we are confident that Jesus Christ rose from the dead conquering the grave. He removed the sting of death and holds the key to death and the grave. As it is written,

“Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1Corinthians 15:55-57)

“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:17-18)

When we understand these truths it releases us from holding on to things of this world. We also are freed from having to cling desperately onto life as long as possible. Instead we can give generously, laying down our lives for one another. As it is written, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” (1 John 3:16) In a similar way, the apostle Paul said, “I die daily” which was basically his way of testifying that he was following Jesus, taking up his cross daily. He was willing to suffer or even die so that others could hear the gospel and so Jesus would be glorified and exalted. Death is not the end for believers. As it is written,

The righteous man perishes, and no one lays it to heart; devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from calamity; he enters into peace; they rest in their beds who walk in their uprightness. (Isaiah 57:1-2)

Paul left us this inspiring testimony,

“It is my eager expectation and hope that … with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:20-21)

Yes, nothing can separate us from the love of God … We are safe in Christ's hand. As Jesus promised,

“I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand.” (John 10:28-30)

However, it's not just about us. Others, those who are not safe from hellfire, need us to love them and seek to share Jesus with them to change their eternal destiny before it is too late. Yesterday the breaking news involved a man in our community who burned to death just down the road from our church. We don't know if he knew Jesus or not. Let this be a wake up call and warning to us.

For God says, “At just the right time, I heard you. On the day of salvation, I helped you.” Indeed, the “right time” is now. Today is the day of salvation. (1Corinthians 6:2, NLT)

Endnote: The name Lazarus

Among the many parables Jesus taught, only this one mentions a character by name. In typical fashion the rich man is unnamed while the poor man is called Lazarus. Why?

Several explanations have been suggested. Let me explain three important reasons.

  1. The name Lazarus means 'God helps' which fits perfectly with how the story ends.

  2. Not many weeks after telling this parable Jesus raised a friend named Lazarus as recorded in John 11. A simple reading of this account shows that Jesus knew very well the outcome of Lazarus' illness several days in advance. Indeed, Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead some weeks before. He knew the evil hearts of the Pharisees and religious leaders who would continue disbelieving Jesus as their Messiah even when they learned that he had raised a dead man, Lazarus. (see John 12)

Of course, this is the very kind of disbelief which Jesus highlighted in the parable of The rich man and Lazarus! Jesus foreknew these evil leaders – like the rich man's brothers – would stubbornly refuse to “repent and turn to God.” But this did not stop Christ from showing concern for their eternal destiny by telling them this parable as a warning.

In modern times there are countless millions of people who believe intellectually, like the Jewish leaders, in the resurrection. Indeed, Muslims believe that Jesus (Al Masihu Isa) raised the dead, yet they have an awful struggle breaking-free from spiritual bondage. What they must do is humbly acknowledge that Jesus foretold n many occasions he would rise again after being killed by wicked people. A true understanding of what Jesus meant by raising Lazarus is evident in his statement to Martha,

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (John 11:23-27)

As we saw earlier, Peter could not conceive of an honourable, victorious outcome through Jesus being killed. So also with Lazarus: the disciples couldn't comprehend how Christ would receive more honour through raising Lazarus from the grave, as compared to simply healing him from a sick bed. Think for a moment what could have happened if Jesus had came quickly to heal Lazarus, upon hearing that he was sick. Now compare that scenario to what actually did happen! Clearly, being raised from the dead was so much more glorious! Notice, therefore, what Jesus said, upon hearing the news that Lazarus was sick,

But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4, cf. 40)

3) While it is true that Jesus receives great honour through Lazarus' resurrection, interestingly, the poor man is also honoured. Notice the parable concludes with Lazarus close by Abraham's side, in a more exalted position. By naming the poor man Jesus effectively bestows honour on him, whereas the rich man is unnamed.

All quotes are taken from the English Standard Bible unless otherwise indicated.

If any readers want to discuss these vital matters further I warmly invite you to write me here. In particular, please write me if you would like to explore further implications based on comparing the apostle Peter's satanically inspired fear of death with the exaggerated, fearful response of modern leaders during the current pandemic. I'm glad to send you a postscript containing important insights and a word of warning.

Two helpful articles exploring how Abraham foretold that God would send a perfect Lamb.