In discussing the rich man and Lazarus account with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I recommend that you begin with the Watchtower interpretation. Tell them there are aspects of it you don’t understand and ask them to clarify.
I suggest dividing the account into three segments and addressing the passage topic by topic.
In this post, we’ll discuss the first segment, Luke 16:19-23:
19 “There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom.’”
I recommend that you say something like this: “I think you’ll agree that, on the surface, this is a story about two men who actually died. The rich man even was buried. One of them is with Abraham. The other one is said to be in Hades in torment and in anguish. I’d like to hear what the Watchtower believes this portion of Jesus’ story means.”
Most likely, at this point the Witnesses will tell you that the story can’t be literal because Hades is nothing more than the grave. In fact, that’s the word the Watchtower’s 2013 New World Translation uses in verse 23 in place of “Hades.” Don’t try to convince them that Hades is the same as Hell or they will take you to Revelation 20:13-14 and point out that both death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire. You don’t want to get sidetracked like that.
Rather than arguing with them, which would be counterproductive, draw them out. Let them be the teachers. Ask them to give you the Watchtower interpretation. At appropriate points, express your confusion and ask them for their help in understanding.
If they cite you Ecclesiastes 9:5. “the dead know nothing,” I recommend that you bypass that discussion and ask them to explain what they think death, burial, torment, and anguish mean in this part of Jesus’ story.
At some point, they will tell you that the story is a parable. They’ll give you the Watchtower explanation that death means a reversal of Jehovah’s favor which took place in this life when Jesus instituted the new covenant at Pentecost. “Torment” and “anguish” are what the religious leaders are experiencing because of the “fiery judgment messages proclaimed by Jesus’ disciples.” When the rich man requests that Abraham send Lazarus to “dip his finger in water” and “cool my tongue,” that means that these religious leaders are asking Jehovah to have Jesus’ disciples let up from preaching the fiery messages that are causing them this torment.
Instead of arguing with them, tell them, “With all respect, I really find that confusing. In all of Jesus’ other parables, he used as illustrations things that actually occur, things that they could relate to—a farmer sows seed, a sheep goes astray and its shepherd goes to rescue it, a woman loses a coin and hunts for it, a rebellious son leaves home and squanders his wealth, etc.”
Follow up by asking Jehovah’s Witnesses the following question: “Please help me understand why would this one story be so different. If conscious existence after death is contrary to Scripture and contrary to reality, why would Jesus use such an impossible situation as the basis for his story? Wouldn’t his hearers simply tell him, ‘This story makes no sense’?”
You can add, “Also, if conscious torment and anguish of the wicked after death is a pagan, God-dishonoring teaching, why would Jesus use such an illustration as the basis for his story? Can you help clear up my confusion?”
After they try unsuccessfully to explain that to you, rather than arguing with them, continue to draw them out by having them explain to you the Watchtower understanding of the next segment of Jesus’ story.
We’ll look at Luke 16:24-26 in the next post.
Is it your experience that expressing confusion and asking for help in understanding is more effective than telling Witnesses they are wrong and trying to persuade them that you are right? Can you suggest ways to show Jehovah’s Witnesses the flaws in the Watchtower position more effectively?
Share your thoughts in the comments.