Twisting Rich Man and LazarusAs I mentioned last week, the figurative fallacy means “either (1) mistaking literal language for figurative language or (2) mistaking figurative language for literal language.”[1]       

There I looked at how the Watchtower, in its 1917 book, The Finished Mystery, made this error and came up with a now-abandoned teaching about there being four degrees of salvation, a doctrine which Jehovah’s Witnesses today would consider both wrong and fanciful.

Today, I want to look at how the Watchtower makes a similar mistake when interpreting Jesus’ account of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).


Jesus’ Account of the Rich Man and Lazarus

Some Bible scholars consider Jesus’ story to be a narrative about real people, admittedly using some figurative language (“Abraham’s bosom,” verse 22, KJV, e.g.).

Other scholars consider it to be a parable describing what happens both to the saved and the unsaved after death.

However, the Watchtower goes far beyond this, turning it into an allegory in which virtually everything is symbolic. (They do this because they don’t believe in conscious existence after death or in torment as a punishment for the wicked).

Here is what the Watchtower teaches that the various elements of the story symbolize:[2]

  • The “rich man” represents a class—the religious leaders who had been favored with special privileges and opportunities before John the Baptist and Jesus began preaching.
  • “Lazarus” represents another class—the common people who hungered for spiritual nourishment but received next to nothing from those religious leaders.
  • “Abraham” represents Jehovah God.
  • The bosom position with Abraham represents having God’s favor.
  • “Death” represents both classes “dying” to their previous condition as a result of their response to the preaching of the kingdom message by John the Baptist and Jesus.
  • The common people accepted Jesus’ message and so “died” to their previous condition of spiritual hunger. They now receive abundant spiritual food from Jesus.
  • The religious leaders rejected Jesus’ kingdom message and so “died” to their previous condition of supposed favor with God. When the new covenant replaced the law covenant at Pentecost, it became clear that Jesus’ disciples, rather than the Pharisees and other religious leaders, were favored by God.
  • The rich man’s “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 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.
  • The “great chasm” that prevents people crossing from Jesus’ disciples’ side to the religious leaders’ side (and the reverse) is God’s unchangeable, righteous judgment.
  • The “five brothers” represent the religious leaders’ allies.
  • The spiritual “father” of the religious leaders and their allies is Satan.
  • When the rich man 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 means 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.
  • When the religious leaders tell Abraham that “if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent,” they are talking about real death, not figurative death. Abraham tells them that God will not provide special signs or miracles in order to convince them. Instead, they must read and obey the Scriptures.

It’s safe to say that the Watchtower didn’t get its interpretation by researching what these expressions meant to first century Jews or by finding an explanation in the Bible text itself. Instead, it created its own meaning out of whole cloth.


Combatting This Error

There are several ways to address this error with Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it is more difficult when dealing with current doctrine than with a teaching the Watchtower has itself abandoned.

Here is what I recommend:

  • Have them read aloud the actual Bible text
  • Ask them to explain the symbolism point by point
  • As they do, ask them one-by-one where this explanation appears in the Bible itself
  • In the absence of any Biblical explanation, ask them how the Watchtower knows that its meanings correspond to the Bible writer’s intent
  • If possible, show them contradictions in the Watchtower’s explanation (such as death being symbolic until the very end, where it is real or the rich man supposedly asking to have Lazarus water down his message when what he really asked was for Lazarus to go to the brothers with a warning)
  • If necessary, show them an example where the Watchtower followed a similar procedure and ended up abandoning its own interpretation completely, as I did last week regard the supposed four degrees of salvation.

I have done a series of posts specifically dealing with the rich man and Lazarus. Here are their titles along with links:


  1. Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible, James W. Sire (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 1980), p. 157
  1. The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived (Brooklyn: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1991), Chapter 88