Can People Live in Hell?
The illustration of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16:19-31 is a parable. When Christ spoke to those who were not his intimate disciples, he always spoke in parables. "without a parable spoke he not unto them" (Matthew 13:34). The Rich Man in fire was not a literal fact and Christ did not intend it to be understood that way. This use of fire in the parable is like the allegorical usage of the apostle Paul when he said: "If your enemy hungers, feed him, if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing you shall heap coals of fire on his head" (Romans 12:20). If Paul had literal fire in mind, then one would not be helping his enemy, he would be tormenting him and killing him. The fire in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man is also figurative, not actual. This is because the whole parable is filled with various figures of speech.
Note some of these figures of speech. Recall that Lazarus (Eliezer in Hebrew) represented the Gentile servant of Abraham who was named Eliezer (Genesis 15:2). Eliezer (Lazarus) is symbolically depicted as being in Abrahams bosom (Luke 16:23). Jews at the time reckoned all righteous Jews who were dead to be "gathered to their fathers" and especially to be in father Abrahams bosom. But obviously, millions of people cannot literally embrace the single person Abraham. Secondly, the rich man is described as being in the torments of fire, yet he was able to have a normal conversation with Abraham which would have been impossible if he were literally in such agony. Also, a little drop of water on the tip of his tongue would not relieve his torment.
But more to the point. The Rich Man had five brethren (this is important in the parable) who had Moses and the prophets taught to them each Sabbath. This made the Rich Man a Jew, and not a Gentile like Lazarus (that is Eliezer). Note this. Of the twelve sons of Jacob (Israel) from two wives and two concubines, Judah actually had five brethren (that is, five full blood brothers by one mother Leah). Count the five who were from Leah. Notice Genesis 35:23. "Reuben, Jacobs firstborn, and Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Zebulun." So, the Rich Man was simply a symbol (and only a symbol) for Judah. Christ reckoned the Rich Man as "clothed in purple" (Luke 16:19)—a symbol of having the royal covenant of David, and he was also clothed with "fine linen" (verse 19)—a symbol of the priesthood which was then among the Jews.
And what is the "Great Gulf" of the parable (Greek: a chasm—a gaping cleft in the earth) that separated the Rich Man from Lazarus? This is easily identified. The second word "pass" in Christs statement about the chasm is different in the Greek from the first and provides a major clue in identifying the chasm. "They which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass [the word is diaperao] to us, that would come from hence" verse 26). On the five other occasions this word is used in the New Testament, it means "passing over water." That great gaping cleft in the earth that Christ called the chasm, had water in its lowest region. In fact, the "Great Gulf" was the worlds largest rift depression east of Jerusalem in which the River Jordan flowed into the Dead Sea. The northern part of the Dead Sea was also the region where Sodom and Gomorrah once were located (they had been destroyed by fire) and Jude said that area of those cities was an example of the judgment of "eternal [age-lasting] fire" (Jude 7). The fires were then extinguished.
Thus, Christ in symbol placed the Rich Man on the Sodom and Gomorrah side of the River Jordan at the northern end of the Dead Sea (that is, east of the Jordan and outside the Promised Land). But Lazarus (who was Eliezer the Gentile servant of Abraham) was reckoned to be in the Promised Land section of the chasm—on the west side of Jordan and the Dead Sea.
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