Throughout Christian history there have been varying opinions at to whether or not the accounting of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is a parable or an actual accounting of real people. Some have argued—like many of the Protestant Reformers—that Jesus’s use of real names (something not done in parables) suggests that this is a unique accounting.
The Adventist Church—because of their abhorrence to the doctrine of conscious experience upon death and in Hell—thinks that if this is dismissed as a parable it squashes such possibilities. This is incorrect.
Whether it is an actual event or a parable doesn’t negate the fact that parables use symbols and imagery to paint a picture and make a point. Not every detail has a one-to-one correspondence with something in real life, but they represent certain realities.
It’s important to note that Jesus didn’t use stories that contradict the rest of Scripture. This means it’s not inconsistent to believe this accounting depicts actual reality. Jesus would not have told it if its implications denied the rest of what he taught regarding Hell and the afterlife. His use of historical figures—such as Abraham—supports this theory and sets this accounting apart from His other parables.
Jesus begins with a stark contrast between a wealthy man that owns expensive purple clothing only kings could afford and a poor man lacking food and his health (Luke 16:19–21). After both men die, the rich man goes to Hell and is in torments. Not because wealth is inherently evil (Proverbs 13:22), but because he ignored Lazarus’s suffering without remorse (Luke 16:22). All he asks for is a drop of water for his tongue to alleviate his pain (Luke 16:24).
The main point of Jesus’s teaching here is the finality of death regarding our eternal state. After death there is no opportunity to repent and change one’s fate. Jesus taught that the wicked (goats) will experience eternal punishment and the righteous (sheep), eternal life (Matthew 25:46). The same greek word for “eternal” is used twice in the same sentence to refer to the same fate for both the righteous and the lost. One is not an eternal conscious experience while the other is not. The lost, just like Satan, will be cast into the Lake of Fire to be tormented day and night, forever and ever (Revelation 20:10). And this is after the beast and the false prophet had been thrown in before the 1000 years and the text says they are still there when Satan and the wicked are thrown in to join them (Revelation 20:14-15).
The Adventist Church hates the idea of Hell and thinks it maligns the character of God (due to their lack of understanding how Holy God is and how wicked man truly is). Their teaching on annihilation is foundational to their system of theology. The reality is, Jesus taught about Hell more than anything and anyone else, whether we like that or not. When looking at the accounting of the Rich Man and Lazarus, it is important to look at what else Scripture has to say regarding death, Hell and the afterlife. When we read the accounting (whether parable or not) in light of all that Jesus said on the topic, we find that the afterlife of the lost is a horrendous experience involving torment in the presence of a Holy and Righteous God that will last, in Jesus’s words, forever and ever, day and night (Revelation 14:11).
When the Adventist Church claims this means everyone has eternal life and will never die they are redefining what eternal life means according to scripture. Eternal life is not merely indefinite existence. Jesus very plainly defined eternal life in his high priestly prayer (which He prayed for believers) as knowing the true God and the Son whom the Father sent (John 17:3). It’s to have life abundantly by being in Jesus (John 10:10). Those in Hell do not have this, even if their soul is immortal. That is precisely why they are in Hell, because they don’t know Christ and aren’t known by Him (Galatians 4:8-9).
Eternal life is knowing and being in right relationship with God, which Adam and Eve lost when they fell and Jesus came to restore (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). John defined it the same way (1 John 5:11-13; 20). So it’s wrong to assert that just because the wicked have a conscious experience in Hell that they have eternal life by simply possessing indefinite consciousness. One must be united to Jesus Christ (God) to possess eternal life. It isn’t believing the lie of Satan to affirm this.