Responsive image
Nederlands/Vlaams Deutsch Francais English language Spanish language Portuguese language Catalan Chinese Czech Malayalam Finnish Igbo
Japanese Korean Romanian Malay language Norwegian Swedish Polish Swahili Chichewa Tagalog Urdu

The parable of Lazarus and hell fire

"In his torment in hell, the rich man looked up and saw Abraham a long way off with Lazarus resting on his lap. So he cried out: 'Father Abraham, take pity on meand send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony here in these flames!' " See Luke 16,19-31

In 1890, a parish priest approached the Sacred Penitentiary for a problem he had encountered in hearing confession.

"A penitent confessed to me that he believes that hell fire is not real, but metaphorical, that is: the punishment in hell whatever it is, is somehow called fire; for, since fire produces the mosat intense pain, there is no more appropriate an image than fire to express these horrendous torments. May I leave the penitent in that opinion and give him absolution from sin? For in this particular village there are more people who think like that."

The official answer: "Such penitents should be properly instructed. If they persist in their view, they may not be absolved!" Sacred Penitentiary, 30 June 1890

The reality of hell fire was defended by theologians with a reference to the parable of Lazarus and other occasions on which Jesus refers to hell as "that eternal fire":

"If someone calls him 'fool' he will answer for it in the fire of hell [gehenna]." Matthew 5,22

"[the angels] will throw [the evildoers] into the blazing furnace. where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth." Matthew 13,42

"It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to be thrown into eternal fire." Matthew 18,8

"Go away from me, with your curse upon you, to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!" Matthew 25,41


This document is part of an online course. If you want to study the rules of understanding Sacred Scripture methodically, join our course
Interpreting Scripture Correctly.
The course is free and offers distinct advantages.

First Observation

In the parable of Lazarus, Jesus depicts many narrative details. The rich man's torment in fire is obviously one of them.

Luke 16,19-31

The rich man "was dressed in purple and fine linen and used to feast magnificently every day" v. 19

to depict his wealth
Lazarus lay at his door "covered with sores, longing to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man's table." v. 20
to depict the beggar's poverty
"Dogs came and licked his sores." v. 21
extreme helplessness
After death the beggar "was carried away by angels" [to Abraham's bosom]" v. 22
popular image
the rich man was in the fires of hell vs. 23-24
teaching that hell fire is real?!
Lazarus was "lying in Abraham's bosom" v. 24
Lazarus is the chief guest at Abraham's dinner table = an image of heaven
the rich man in hell could see Lazarus and Abraham in heaven v. 23
surely not to be taken literally
the great gulf between hell and heaven v. 26
an image

Conclusion: Jesus constructs the parable as an imaginary story with many details which should not be taken literally. The fire of hell is just one of the images.

Moreover, as we have seen when discussing the parable of the lost sheep, a parable teaches one main point. The parable's details do not contain separate lessons.

Second Observation

Jesus' contemporaries derived the image of hell fire from Gehenna, the Aramaic name for the valley of Hinnom just outside Jerusalem in which people burnt their rubbish. The image evokes stench, flames, smoke, smouldering ashes, a fire that is never extinguished.

Some examples will illustrate this point.

"If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It will do you less harm to lose one limb than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna!" Matthew 5,29; see also 18,9

"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Fear him rather who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna!" Matthew 10,28

"Serpents, brood of vipers, how can you escape being condemned to Gehenna?" Matthew 23,33

Jesus' contemporaries were well aware that Gehenna was just an image. They may not have thought that evildoers were literally punished in an eternal fire. But even if they did, neither Jesus himself nor the authors of the Gospels taught as a revealed doctrine that the punishment in hell consisted of real earthly fire.

Languages abound with images. They are just images.

Now see the video again and ask yourself: what is the main message of the parable?


Origen was an original Christian writer in Alexandria (186-255 AD). This is what he wrote (in 230 AD!) on the fires of hell:

"We read in the prophet Isaiah that every person is punished with his/her own fire. For it says: 'You walk in the light of your fire and in the flames you have lit yourselves.' (Isaiah 50,11) . . . I believe that, as in the body the abundance of food and the contrary quality of nourishment generates a fever, . . . so the soul when it has heaped on itself a multitude of wrongdoing and an abundance of sins, at the appropriate time all that piling up of evil boils up in punishment and inflames to pains; for by God's power the mind itself or conscience draws back everything into its memory, all those things whose symptoms and shape the memory had stored when the soul sinned, and the soul will see the history of its crimes, all the horrid acts it has committed, exposed before its eyes. The conscience will be excited by its own impulses and will feel remorse and will become its own witness, accuser and tormenter." On the Beginnings, 2, 10, 4

But Origen was considered heretical by many theologians on account of his original views . . .

© John Wijngaards


The texts in our course Interpreting Scripture Correctly were written by John Wijngaards in 2009. Part of the contents is based on his earlier publications, in particular:

  • Background to the Gospels (New Delhi 1970),
  • God's Word to Israel (Ranchi 1971),
  • Handbook to the Gospels (Ann Arbor 1980),
  • Historicity in the Old Testament (Bangalore 1983)
  • and Together in My Name (London 1991).

Illustrations in the video clip by Jackie Clackson.

Correct Interpretation. Principle 1 Correct Interpretation. Principle 2 Correct Interpretation. Principle 3 Correct Interpretation. Principle 4 Correct Interpretation. Principle 5
Correct Interpretation. Principle 6

Correct Interpretation. Principle 7   Correct Interpretation. Principle 8   Correct Interpretation. Principle 9   Correct Interpretation. Principle 10