What is Abraham’s Bosom? By Jack Kettler
“So it was that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried.” (Luke 16:22 NKJV)
What is “Abraham’s bosom”? Is it a literal place? Does it still exist today? Is “Abraham’s bosom” in “Paradise?” Are there two areas in Hades, one for the unrighteous and torment and another “Paradise,” a place of rest for the righteous? A Biblical encyclopedia and three commentary entries will be consulted.
From the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
booz'-um (kolpos Abraam; kolpoi Abraam): Figurative. The expression occurs in Lu 16:22-23, in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, to denote the place of repose to which Lazarus was carried after his death. The figure is suggested by the practice of the guest at a feast reclining on the breast of his neighbor. Thus, John leaned on the breast of Jesus at supper (Joh 21:20). The rabbis divided the state after death (Sheol) into a place for the righteous and a place for the wicked (see ESCHATOLOGY OF THE OLD TESTAMENT; SHEOL), but it is doubtful whether the figure of Jesus quite corresponds with this idea. “Abraham's bosom” is not spoken of as in “Hades,” but rather as distinguished from it (Lu 16:23)--a place of blessedness by itself. There Abraham receives, as at a feast, the truly faithful, and admits them to closest intimacy. It may be regarded as equivalent to the “Paradise” of Lu 23:43. James Orr” (1)
The encyclopedia entry classifies the parable in Luke as figurative. The encyclopedia also notes that the two corresponding places in the parable, rest and torment, are in the same place. If this is true, “Abraham’s bosom” is not in Hades.
From the classic Pulpit Commentary on Luke 16:22:
“Verse 22. - And it came to pass, that the beggar died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham's bosom. At last kind death came, and relieved Lazarus of his sufferings. His dismissal, as might have been expected, preceded that of the rich man; for he was enfeebled by a deadly disease. We must not, of course, press too much the details we find in parables; still, from our Lord's way of speaking of the great change in the cases of both Lazarus and Dives, it would seem as though there was absolutely no pause between the two lives of this world and the world to come. The rich man evidently is pictured as closing his eyes upon his gorgeous surroundings here, and opening them directly again upon his cheerless surroundings there. Lazarus is described as being borne at once into Abraham's bosom. Indeed, some interpret the words as signifying that the body as well as the soul was carried by angels into Paradise. It is; however, better, with Calvin, to understand the expression as alluding only to Lazarus's soul; of the body of the pauper nothing was said, as men probably contemptuously, if not carelessly, buried it with the burial rites, which such homeless, friendless ones too often receive. The place whither the blest Lazarus went is termed “Abraham's bosom.” This term was used by the Jews indifferently, with “the garden of Eden,” or “under the throne of glory,” for the home of happy but waiting souls. The rich man also died, and was buried. There is a terrible irony here in this mention of burial. This human pageantry of woe was for the rich man what the carrying by the angels into Abraham's bosom was for Lazarus - it was his equivalent; but while these empty honours were being paid to his senseless, deserted body, the rich man was already gazing on the surroundings of his new and cheerless home. After the moment's sleep of death, what an awakening!” (2)
Before Christ’s atoning work:
From Luke 16:22-26, it can be concluded that after death, there is a separation into two separate places. “Hades,” where the unrighteous go after death, and “Paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom,” the place of respite for the righteous. The two places, divided as it were by a great chasm, and could not be spanned by the inhabitants on either side.
Is “Abraham’s Bosom” still a reality after Christ’s atoning work? Since the Pulpit commentary references Calvin, his thoughts will be helpful.
John Calvin’s comments on this are significant:
“It will perhaps be asked, is the same condition reserved after death for the godly of our own day, or did Christ, when he rose, open his bosom to admit Abraham himself, as well as all the godly? I reply briefly: As the grace of God is more clearly revealed to us in the Gospel, and as Christ himself, the Sun of Righteousness, (Malachi 4:2,) has brought to us that salvation, which the fathers were formerly permitted to behold at a distance and under dark shadows, so there cannot be a doubt that believers, when they die, make a nearer approach to the enjoyment of the heavenly life. Still, it must be understood, that the glory of immortality is delayed till the last day of redemption. So far as relates to the word bosom, that quiet harbor at which believers arrive after the navigation of the present life, may be called either Abraham's bosom or Christ's bosom; but, as we have advanced farther than the fathers did under the Law, this distinction will be more properly expressed by saying, that the members of Christ are associated with their Head; and thus there will be an end of the metaphor about Abraham's bosom, as the brightness of the sun, when he is risen, makes all the stars to disappear. From the mode of expression which Christ has here employed, we may, in the meantime, draw the inference, that the fathers under the Law embraced by faith, while they lived, that inheritance of the heavenly life into which they were admitted at death.” (3)
Calvin refers to “Abraham’s bosom” and “Christ’s bosom” to be synonymous. Therefore, Hades or Sheol is distinct from “Paradise” or “Abraham’s bosom.”
An additional contemporary commentary entry by William Hendriksen on Luke 16:22-26:
“22. In course of time the beggar died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died, and he was buried.
The beggar’s misery ended at last. He died. Whether he was also buried is not even mentioned. If there was a real burial, it must have been so obscure and dismal that it better be passed by in silence. On the other hand, what happened to the soul of Lazarus is all-important. He—for man’s soul or spirit is the real person—was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom.
Two expressions here merit special attention:
First of all the angels. According to Scripture
Attendants of Christ (2 Thess. 1:7), their exalted Head (Eph. 1:21, 22; Col. 2:10).
Bringers of good tidings concerning our salvation (see on Luke 2:14; 24:4–7; Acts 1:11; 1 Tim. 3:16).
Choristers of heaven (Luke 15:10; 1 Cor. 13:1; Rev. 5:11, 12).
Defenders of God’s children (Ps. 34:7; 91:11; Dan. 6:22; 10:10, 13, 20; Matt. 18:10; Acts 5:19; 2 Thess. 1:7–10; Rev. 12:7), though the latter outrank them and will judge them (1 Cor. 6:3; Heb. 1:14).
Examples in obedience (Matt. 6:10; 1 Cor. 11:10).
Friends of the redeemed, constantly watching over them, deeply interested in their salvation, and rendering service to them in every way, including executing the judgment of God upon the enemy (Matt. 13:41; 25:31, 32; Luke 15:10; 16:22; 1 Cor. 4:9; Gal. 3:19; 2 Thess. 1:7; Heb. 1:14; 1 Peter 1:12; Rev. 20:1–3).
Next, Abraham’s bosom. The fact that Lazarus was by the angels carried to Abraham’s bosom certainly proves that he had been true to his name. While on earth he had placed his trust in God as his Helper, and now God had ordered the angels to take his soul to Paradise. He who had yearned to receive crumbs and scraps is now reclining at heaven’s table, where a banquet is being held. Moreover, to recline in Abraham’s bosom, as the apostle John was going to recline in the bosom of Jesus, indicates special favor, as has been shown in connection with Luke 14:7; see on that verse. See also John 1:18. We should not forget, in this connection, that Abraham is regarded in Scripture as being not only the great patriarch (Heb. 7:4) but also the father of all believers (Rom. 4:11).
The rich man also died and was buried. It must have been a splendid burial. Note the meaningful contrast: nothing is said about the beggar’s burial; on the other hand, nothing is here said about the rich man’s soul, as to what happened to it at the moment of death.
B. In the Hereafter
23, 24. And in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes. He sees Abraham afar off, and Lazarus by his side. And he cried out and said, Father Abraham, take pity on me and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.
A few matters stand out:
a. The rich show-off is pictured as being in Hades. The popular view, according to which the term Hades in the entire New Testament is the abode of all the dead, believers and unbelievers, is certainly incorrect. As far as the Gospels are concerned the following is true:
In the present parable Hades is clearly the place of torments and of the flame. It is hell. So also hell may well be the correct rendering of Hades in Matt. 11:23 and in Luke 10:15, for there Hades is sharply contrasted with heaven, and should probably be understood in the figurative sense of thorough ruin. In Matt. 16:18 the thought may well be that not even all the demons streaming forth out of the gates of hell will ever be able to destroy Christ’s true church.
b. The condition of the dead and the communication between them is represented here in very literal, earthly terms, so that a vivid impression is created. It should be clear, nevertheless, that much of what is here conveyed cannot be interpreted literally. For example, we read about the lifting up of the eyes, of seeing people afar off, of a finger and of a tongue, even though we have been told that the rich man had been buried.
This does not take away the fact, however, that certain definite truths concerning the life hereafter are conveyed here, one of them being that the departed ones are not asleep but fully awake; another, that some are saved, others are suffering.
c. If all this is understood, it will have become clear that the one great truth here emphasized is that once a person has died, his soul having been separated from his body, his condition, whether blessed or doomed, is fixed forever. There is no such thing as a “second” chance. Therefore opportunities to help those in need and, in general, to live a fruitful life to the glory of God should be seized now.
These preliminary remarks should guard us against taking literally what was never meant to be so interpreted.
With all this in mind, note that the rich man of the parable is here represented as being in torment, a condition which is not relieved by the fact that in the distance he sees Abraham and Lazarus by his side. Very respectfully he now addresses the arch-patriarch as “Father Abraham,” and asks him to take pity on him. Such pity he, the rich man himself, had never shown when he had the opportunity to do so. He requests that Abraham dispatch Lazarus, so that the latter, having dipped the tip of his finger in water, might cool the sufferer’s tongue. “I am in agony in this flame,” he adds.
Note the word flame. That hell is a place of fire or of the flame is the language of Scripture throughout (Isa. 33:14; 66:24; Matt. 3:12; 5:22; 13:40, 42, 50; 18:8, 9; 25:41; Mark 9:43–48; Luke 3:17; Jude 7; Rev. 14:10; 19:20; 20:10, 14, 15; 21:8). This fire is unquenchable. It devours forever and ever.
Yet, hell is also the abode where darkness dwells. For some it is the place of “outer darkness” (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). It is the region where the evil spirits are kept “in everlasting chains under darkness” (Jude 6; cf. Jude 13).
But if hell is a place of fire, how can it also be a place of darkness? Are not these two concepts mutually exclusive? Well, not always necessarily. For example, by means of a certain form of radiation people have been seriously burned even though when it happened they were in a dark room, Nevertheless, it is advisable not to speculate. Everlasting fire has been prepared “for the devil and his angels,” yet these are spirits. It should be sufficient to conclude from all this that such terms as fire and darkness should not be taken too literally. Each in its own way indicates the terrors of the lost in the place from which there is no return.
Note that the rich man’s character has not changed any. He still views Lazarus as his servant, and is not a bit ashamed to ask for a favor from the very person who never received a favor from him! Also, he expects Abraham to send Lazarus, even though he, the show-off, never tried, during his life on earth, to imitate Abraham’s faith.
25, 26. But Abraham answered, Son, remember that during your lifetime you received in full your good things, and similarly Lazarus (received) the bad things. Now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a vast chasm has been fixed, in order that those who want to cross from this side to you would not be able to do so, and that those who would pass over from there to us would (also) not be able.
Abraham answers in a friendly manner, even calls him “son,” for the rich man has called Abraham “father.” Besides, is not the sufferer a child of Abraham, biologically speaking?
In his answer Abraham intends to indicate that for two reasons the request cannot be honored: to grant it would be (a) improper and (b) impossible.
It would be improper, contrary to the requirements of justice—“During your lifetime you received … your good things; that is, those things you considered good, namely, being dressed in purple and fine linen, and living in dazzling splendor day in, day out. Those matters were first on the list of your priorities.” Implied is: to help poor Lazarus and, in general, to live a life of being useful to your fellow men and of glorifying God was not at all your aim. Now, then, you receive what is coming to you. On the other hand, Lazarus received the bad things, not his bad things. He did not bring them upon himself. (On the contrary, he was true to his name.) Now he is being comforted and this, again, is as it should be.
It would also be impossible. Abraham tells the doomed man that there is a vast chasm, a yawning gorge—a typically Palestinian figure, for the country where this parable was spoken has many of these ravines (see the note on 16:26 on page 789)—separating the lost from the redeemed. Crossing over from one side to the other is, therefore, forever and absolutely impossible. This is a very graphic and unforgettable symbolical representation of the irreversibility of a person’s lot after death. The chasm was intended for rendering crossing over impossible.” (4)
“Abraham’s Bosom” is now emptied of all the inhabitants after Christ’s atonement and resurrection. “Abraham’s Bosom” still has a figurative and metaphorical value of an expression. Its expression is now synonymous with Heaven itself. Now the souls of the righteous go immediately to Heaven with Christ awaiting the resurrection of their bodies.
After the Crucifixion, Jesus went to the place of torment for the unrighteous (“By which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison.” (1 Peter 3:19) This is why the Apostle’s Creed says: “descended to hell.” Then Christ went to “Abrahams’s bosom” to bring the righteous into the heavenly kingdom with the Father.
Jesus is at the right hand of the Father:
“Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come. And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” (Ephesians 1:20–23)
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) and “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28-29)
1. Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), p. 22.
2. H. D. M. Spence and Joseph S. Exell, The Pulpit Commentary, Luke, Vol. 16, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans Publishing Company reprint 1978), p. 66-67.
3. John Calvin, Calvin's Commentaries, Luke, Volume XV1, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House Reprinted 1979), p. 186.
4. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, Luke, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker Book House, 1984), pp. 783-786.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: www.TheReligionThatStartedInAHat.com