One of the primary passages that refutes the Watchtower’s everlasting-nonexistence-of-the-wicked doctrine is Jesus’ account of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. If necessary, set aside an entire session to study this account.
Have one of the Witnesses read the entire passage aloud. They will tell you it’s a parable.
Ask, “If conscious suffering after death is contrary to Scripture and a God-dishonoring teaching, why would Jesus use such concepts as the basis for his story?”
What the Watchtower says Jesus meant
Because Ecclesiastes 9:5 says that “the dead know nothing,” the Watchtower concludes that Jesus’ account of the rich man and Lazarus can’t really be about two men who actually died, remained conscious after death, and experienced either paradise or torment. It insists that Jesus’ story is nothing more than an allegory about a reversal of fortunes in this life. They insert their own meanings for all the people and events in Jesus’ account and then proclaim themselves defenders of reasonableness and biblical consistency. What they end up with is a fanciful and self-contradictory interpretation of their own creation.
Ask the Witnesses to go through the entire passage with you and explain to you what everything means. Don’t argue with them. If necessary, ask specific questions to draw out their entire explanation. Here is what the Watchtower teaches:
- The “rich man” represents the religious leaders who had been favored with special privileges and opportunities before John the Baptist and Jesus began preaching.
- “Lazarus” represents the common people.
- “Abraham” represents Jehovah God, and the bosom position with Abraham represents having God’s favor.
- “Death” represents a reversal of roles between “the rich man” and “Lazarus” classes.
- “Torment” is 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 is a request to have Jesus’ disciples let up from preaching the fiery messages that are causing them this torment.
- The “great chasm” is God’s unchangeable, righteous judgment.
- The “five brothers” are the rich man’s religious allies.
- When he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers, it’s not because he wants his brothers to hear the gospel message and repent. Instead, he is asking Jehovah to have Jesus’ disciples water down their judgment messages so that his religious allies will not also be tormented by them.
- Abraham’s response is that if the brothers want to avoid torment, they need to read Moses and the prophets, recognize Jesus as the Messiah, and become his disciples.
- The rich man tells Abraham that “if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” However, they are told that God will not provide special signs or miracles in order to convince them. Instead, they must read and obey the Scriptures.
Discussing the passage
Make sure the Witnesses give you this entire explanation. If necessary, keep asking questions about what they believe each element of the story stands for. Tell them that you find this interpretation confusing because it is so different from what you have been taught.
Go through the key verses covered below, asking questions similar to the ones I have set out. These questions highlight the flaws in the Watchtower’s explanation of the passage. If they don’t give you satisfactory answers, you may have to clarify or rephrase your questions.
In verse 26, Abraham says, “A great chasm has been fixed between us and you, so that those who want to go over from here to you cannot, neither may people cross over from there to us.”
- Why would those who are in Jehovah’s favor want to go over to the disfavored side except to help people who are there?
- If all these events take place in this life, why can’t Christians go over to the disfavored side to help those people?
- If all these events take place in this life, why can’t people who realize that they are not in God’s favor repent and cross over to God’s side?
- Isn’t the way open for anyone to repent as long as they are still alive?
In verse 28, the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers “in order that he may give them a thorough witness so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”
- Aren’t the brothers already in the same place of torment as the rich man? Haven’t they experienced the same reversal of circumstances? Haven’t they also been hearing Christians’ tormenting message?
- If the rich man doesn’t want his brothers tormented by Lazarus’ message, why does he ask Abraham to send Lazarus to them? Wouldn’t he rather ask Abraham to keep Lazarus away from them?
- Isn’t asking that Lazarus give the brothers “a thorough witness” the opposite of asking Abraham to have Jesus’ disciples back off or water down the message?
- How would Lazarus’ giving the brothers a thorough witness help them avoid torment? According to the Watchtower interpretation, wasn’t it a thorough Christian witness that was causing their torment?
- Why does Abraham refuse to send Lazarus to give the brothers a thorough witness? Aren’t Christians supposed to try to give everyone a thorough witness?
In verse 30, the rich man talks about his five brothers and says, “If someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”
- What does the rich man mean when he says, “If someone from the dead goes to them”? If “death” in this story is only symbolic of a change in circumstances, why doesn’t the rich man just “go from the dead” to his brothers himself? Why does he ask Abraham to send Lazarus to them?
- Why does he claim that if Abraham will send Lazarus to them they will repent? Does this mean that he wants his brothers to repent? (Witnesses deny this.)
- If he does want his brothers to repent in order to avoid this place of torment, what prevents him from repenting himself and ending his own torment? Why doesn’t Abraham even suggest that he do so?
In verse 31, Abraham answers, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”
- If, in Jesus’ story, “death” is only symbolic of a change of circumstances in this life, what does “rising from the dead” symbolize?
- Was the rich man asking Abraham for a special sign or miracle in which someone would literally rise from the dead and go to his brothers?
- Since the only person they were discussing sending to the brothers was Lazarus, wouldn’t that mean that Lazarus was literally dead?
- Why would “death” be figurative throughout the story but literal at the very end?
Go through Jesus’ story about the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 step-by-step. Please read the entire passage. (pp. 256-263)
- Take the role of a Jehovah’s Witness and give the Watchtower’s allegorical interpretation of the passage. (pp. 256-258)
- Then go back over the passage verse-by-verse. What questions might you ask in order to show the contradictions in the Watchtower’s explanation? (pp. 258-263)