Does the figurative language in Luke 16 (Abraham’s bosom, my tongue, dip his finger) suggest this is a parable?
The language used in Luke 16:19-31 has posed a problem for many believers and Bible students. This account given by the Lord Jesus is in the context of stewardship (Luke 16:1) and covetousness (Luke 16:14). Having established this, it is important to note that the rich man is not in hell because he was rich and Lazarus is not in Abraham’s bosom because he was poor. Lazarus is linked with Abraham because of his faith (Rom 4:11-12), while the rich man is in torment because he did not heed the warning of the Scriptures and believe God (Luke 16:29).
For a number of reasons I suggest this story is not a parable. First, we are not told it is a parable and the section lacks an introduction similar to what is normally given in the parables of the Lord Jesus (Luke 8:4; 12:16; 13:6, etc.). The introduction, “There was a certain rich man” does not necessarily indicate this is a parable. The phrase “a certain man” occurs eight times in Luke’s Gospel (8:27; 9:57; 10:30; 13:6; 14:2, 16; 15:11; 20:9), with at least three of these being descriptive narratives, another three are qualified by Christ as being parables. A third reason to indicate this is not a parable is that two of the characters are referred to by name; this does not normally occur in parables. In his book According to Luke, Professor David Gooding has a very pertinent statement on this passage. He writes, “A parable is based on actual things and activities in this world, e.g., wheat, tares, sheep, oil-lamps, etc., which are then used as parables of higher realities. But heaven and hell to which Lazarus and the rich man went respectively, are not parables of higher realities: they are themselves the ultimate realities.”
We should also proceed with caution in regard to the terms we use to describe the Savior’s words. The narrative has been described as “parabolic language” and the questioner calls it “figurative.” We understand that those who describe the passage in this way do not wish to detract from the literality of the Savior’s teaching. We are also aware that the Lord Jesus used terms to convey to us the reality of punishment. For this reason Abraham, the rich man, and Lazarus are still viewed as being in their bodies and figures such as eyes, finger, water, and tongue are used. The skeptic will ask, What kind of flame torments spirits? or, What water do spirits drink? Those who accept the clear teaching of Scripture understand the words of the Lord Jesus as being a solemn reminder, depicting for us the blessedness of the redeemed and the conscious torment of the ungodly following death.
How do we understand Sheol, the grave, and Hades in the Old Testament, and Abraham’s bosom in Luke 16?
The word “Sheol” is used 65 times in the Hebrew Bible. This word has various translations in English versions such as the KJV, including “the grave” (Gen 37:35), “hell” (Deut 32:22) and “the pit” (Num 16:30). In the case of the NASB or ESV it has simply been transliterated (Psa 88:3). The derivation of the word is uncertain; some scholars have suggested that it comes from a word meaning “hollow,” “a hollow way,” or possibly from a word meaning “a deep place.” Others suggest it is derived from a Hebrew root meaning to “ask” or “enquire.”
We tend to link Sheol to a location and, while this is true, the meaning of the word includes the state and condition of those who have died (Psa 18:5). It is a place of fire (Deut 32:22), pain (Psa 116:3), and sorrow (2 Sam 22:6). In many of the Old Testament references we cannot rule out the fact that the word is used of the grave, Jacob says “then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave” (Gen 42:38).
The translators of the Greek version of the Old Testament used “Hades” as an equivalent for “Sheol” in almost every case, and it is also the New Testament equivalent of the Old Testament word (Acts 2:27). This brings us to the thorny problem of “Abraham’s bosom” in Luke 16. The language of the passage clearly indicates that those who die unsaved, depart from this life to suffering and torment, whereas the righteous go to rest and peace. We still must question why Lazarus was carried by the angels to what is described in the passage as “Abraham’s bosom.” Most who are reading this article will be aware of the significance of the term “bosom” in the New Testament. We read concerning the Lord Jesus that He is “the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). John also writes, “Now there was leaning on Jesus’ bosom one of His disciples” (John 13:23). We understand from these two examples that the bosom was a place of intimacy, affection, and honor. This is the principle which is being conveyed in Luke 16. On earth, Lazarus had a life of suffering, hunger, and pain, but now he is comforted in a place of honor and privilege associated with Abraham the father of the faithful (Rom 4:16).