Sometimes Jehovah’s Witnesses will ask you for your interpretation of the rich man and Lazarus passage (Luke 16:19-31). If they give you this opportunity, I suggest making the following points:
In view of what Jesus says here, Ecclesiastes 9:5-6 should be interpreted as the mistaken worldview of the human narrator rather than as being God’s viewpoint. After all, in Ecclesiastes 9:5 the narrator says the dead “have no further reward,” and that certainly isn’t consistent with God’s revelation elsewhere in the Bible.
- If the rich man and Lazarus really are dead, as Jesus said, that would explain his references to “being buried” and “rising from the dead.” It would also explain why neither Lazarus nor the rich man can go give a warning to the five brothers.
- The rich man seems to want his five brothers to avoid coming to the place of torment. Yet he doesn’t repent and join Abraham and Lazarus in order to end his own torment, and they never try to persuade him to do so. That leads me to believe that after a person dies, it is too late for him to repent. He can’t get to God’s side, nor can anyone from God’s side get to him to help him.
- Although the rich man describes his torment in terms of agony in flame, he is not screaming in pain as he would if he were actually on fire. He describes his agony in terms of extreme thirst. That leads me to believe that his punishment is like a longing that never gets satisfied.
- This interpretation accords with Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 11 and the statement in Hebrews 10 which show that there are different levels of punishment depending on the nature and depth of the person’s sins and the amount of light he had.
Other scriptures that show conscious existence after death
There are other scriptures you can use to show conscious existence after death. Have the Witnesses read them aloud one at a time and ask for their feedback.
John 11:25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Ask, “Because Jesus says that whoever lives and believes in him will never die, do you see why I believe that there is a part of us that never ceases to exist?”
2 Corinthians 5:1: “Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”
Ask, “Doesn’t this say that our physical bodies are merely earthly tents in which we live?”
2 Corinthians 5:8-9: “We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it.”
Ask, “Doesn’t this passage show that Christians exist either at home inside our bodies or with the Lord outside of their bodies and that this part of them survives physical death?”
Philippians 1:21-24: “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.”
Ask, “According to this passage, did Paul expect to go out of existence for thousands of years until the resurrection or did he expect to leave his body and be with Christ immediately as soon as he died?”
Because of the emotional barriers, the subject of conscious everlasting punishment of the unrepentant is a very difficult topic to discuss with anyone, especially Jehovah’s Witnesses.
This approach appeals to their sense of justice by pointing of that in order for the Judge of all the earth to do right, a man like Adolf Hitler would have to be punished more severely than an ordinary unrepentant sinner. You will have made substantial progress if you are able to lead Witnesses to question the reasonableness and the righteousness of the Watchtower’s one-size-fits-all annihilationist position.
- Regarding the Christian interpretation of Jesus’ rich man and Lazarus story (pp. 262-263):
- Does Jesus’ story contradict Ecclesiastes 9:5?
- Why can’t Lazarus or the rich man go to the five brothers to warn them?
- Can a person repent after death?
- How does the rich man describe his own agony?
- Please read these scriptures. After each one, what follow-up questions might you ask in order to show Jehovah’s Witnesses that the Bible teaches conscious existence after death? (pp. 263-264)
- John 11:25-26
- 2 Corinthians 5:1
- 2 Corinthians 5:8-9
- Philippians 1:21-24