Is the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus ‘literal’? Yes, according to Tertullian
One of the most intriguing parables Jesus ever told was the parable of ‘the Rich Man and Lazarus,’ recorded only for us in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 16. I have often wondered, and have even disagreed with somebody sharply, over how ‘literally’ Jesus’ parable here is a description of the afterlife prior to the bodily resurrection. The view of the early Christian writer Tertullian on this question is clear from his treatise ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ written around A.D. 208.
First of all, the parable or story itself, from Luke 16:19-31. Note that it is the Lord Jesus speaking here, and his audience (and therefore the target of his pointed remarks) is the Pharisees (Luke 16:14).
“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.”
19“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24And 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.’ 25But 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. 26And 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 do so, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house — 28for I have five brothers — so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
As the ‘parables’ of Jesus go, this one is unusual in that it is making several main points concurrently. Firstly, beware the love of money! If we treat the poor in the way that the rich man treated Lazarus, it shows clearly whether money or God is the true object of our worship. (It should be noted that when the Pharisees were mentioned back in verse 14, they were described by Luke as “lovers of money.”)
“An unusual aspect of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is its apparent literalness.”
However, equally to the point is Jesus’ final, cutting remark, put into the mouth of Father Abraham in verse 31: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
This is Jesus of course pointing forward to his own resurrection of the dead, to be recorded in the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel. He is saying to the Pharisees and, in effect, to us, something like this: “Now is the day of salvation! You have heard that I have risen from the dead — just as the Old Testament said I would. And why do you not believe me?”
A pertinent question to ask ourselves if we have never looked seriously before into the claims of Jesus!
Another unusual aspect of this parable — indeed, some argue that this story shouldn’t even be classed as a ‘parable’ in the proper sense — is its apparent literalness.
Compare with one of the most famous parables of Jesus, perhaps the most famous: the Parable of the Sower.
Nobody is saying that the Parable of the Sower should be understood in any sense literally. The gospel isn’t propagated in the literal scattering of seed.
Rather, as is made clear just farther along, the seed is like the word of God in some of its characteristic properties: that of being generative. In other words, just as seed has in it the capacity to produce a great crop, so the preached word of God has the capacity to produce a crop of new life in those who hear it. This is the parable of Jesus par excellence.
“The parable invites us to view it as a peek into what the afterlife looks like between death and the resurrection: a place of continued consciousness; a place where the final judgement for the deeds done in the body is anticipated beforehand, either in a state of soul-bliss or soul-torment; a place where we either can enjoy the blessedness we longed for in this life, or else gnash our figurative teeth at our tragic mistake.”
Coming back to the parable, or story, of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it seems to be of a rather different character. The story seems to invite us to view it as a peek into what the afterlife looks like between death and the resurrection: i.e., a place of continued consciousness; a place where the final judgement for the deeds done in the body is anticipated beforehand, either in a state of soul-bliss or soul-torment; a place where we either can enjoy the blessedness we longed for in this life, or else gnash our figurative teeth at our tragic mistake.
That is not to say that Jesus is speaking here about a particular rich man or about a particular poor man. The fact that the rich man isn’t named points to this; and the name Lazarus means ‘God has helped,’ which may here be a symbolic name.
Nor should we press too literally the references here to “eyes” (verse 23), “finger,” “tongue” (both verse 24). Clearly, if Jesus’ story here is in any sense literal, we are looking at a picture of the afterlife before the resurrection of the body and the final judgement: it is, therefore, that the departed soul feels itself to be embodied.
None of this nuance was lost on Tertullian, the North African Christian writer and theologian of the end of the second century A.D. and the beginning of the third.
In his treatise On the Resurrection of the Flesh, he is arguing for the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, against Gnostic heretics of the second century such as Marcion who believed that the physical creation was inherently evil, and therefore denied that anything but the soul took part in the ‘resurrection.’
In his argumentation, Tertullian refers to the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and he seems to do so in a way which regards the account as literal (in the limited sense I have described above). He writes:
“Every ‘man in the street’ who agrees with our opinion will be inclined to suppose that the flesh must be present at the final judgement, even for this reason: because otherwise, being incorporeal [i.e., without any bodily substance] the soul would be incapable of suffering pain or pleasure. For our part, however, we here maintain, and [also] in a special treatise on this subject demonstrate, that the soul is corporeal: that it possesses a particular kind of solidity in its nature, enabling it both to perceive and to suffer.
“That souls are even now susceptible to torment and to blessing in Hades — although they are outside the body, and notwithstanding their being banished from flesh — is proven by the case of Lazarus.”
Tertullian, ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ chapter 17
“That souls are even now susceptible to torment and to blessing in Hades — although they are outside the body, and notwithstanding their being banished from flesh — is proven by the case of Lazarus [i.e., Luke 16:19-31]. No doubt I have given my opponent the opportunity to say: ‘Since then the soul has its own bodily substance, it will be sufficiently endowed with sense and with the capacity to suffer, as not to need the flesh to be present.’ [To which I reply:] ‘No, no; still it will need the flesh, not because it is unable to feel anything without the flesh’s help, but because it needs to possess such a capacity along with the flesh. For [the soul on its own] has a capacity for suffering only in so much as it has a capacity for action.”
He goes on to write, at the end of the chapter:
“As the soul has acted in each individual case, so in proportion does it suffer in Hades. As it was the first to induce to the committing of sin, so it is the first to taste judgement.”
Tertullian, ‘On the Resurrection of the Flesh,’ chapter 17
Therefore as [the soul] has acted in each individual case, so in proportion does it suffer in Hades. As it was the first [i.e., before the flesh] to induce to the committing of sin, so it is the first to taste judgement [i.e., in the pre-resurrection afterlife]. But still, it is waiting for the flesh so that through the flesh it may also compensate for its deeds, in so far it burdened the flesh with carrying out its own inclinations.
“This, in short, will be the process of that judgement which is postponed to the Last Great Day: so that by the exhibition of the flesh the entire course of divine vengeance may be accomplished. Besides, there would be no delaying until the end that doom which souls are already experiencing in Hades, if [the judgement] was ordained for souls alone.”
Now the early orthodox Christians were not always right about everything they put down in writing. Irenaeus, a near-contemporary of Tertullian, wrote that Jesus went to the cross when he was around fifty years old!
For all that, we should not lightly disregard the fact that so prominent a Christian theologian as Tertullian, and so relatively close to the events of the Gospels themselves, interpreted the ‘parable’ in this way.
Tertullian’s On the Resurrection of the Flesh can be read online here:
Chapter 17 can be read here:
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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 The pointed remark, “in Hades, being in torment,” in verse 23, particularly heightens this invitation to see the story as in some sense literal.
 See https://www.abarim-publications.com/Meaning/Lazarus.html for a useful discussion on the significance of the Lazarus(es) of the New Testament.
 Literally, “uneducated person.”
 On the Resurrection of the Flesh, chapter 17; in Tertullian, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian (T&T Clark, Edinburgh; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 1997), 556–57. Note, both here and the quotation which follows I have adapted the translation found there to make it easier for the modern reader.
 Ibid., p.557
 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 2.22.6; in Alexander Roberts and Arthur Cleveland Coxe, eds., The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325. 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, repr (Edinburgh: Clark, 1993), 392.
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