Many interpret one of Jesus' parables to mean that people have immortal souls that go to heaven or hell immediately at death. But does this parable really say that?
Let's examine the matter, paying close attention to the historical context.
Jesus presents the following story: "There was a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day. But there was a certain beggar named Lazarus, full of sores, who was laid at his gate, desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.
"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. And being in torments in Hades, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom. Then he cried and said, 'Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.'
"But Abraham said, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.'
"Then he said, 'I beg you therefore, father, that you would send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.'
"Abraham said to him, 'They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.'
"And he said, 'No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.'
"But he said to him, 'If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead'" (Luke 16:19-31).
When we look at this account in light of other scriptures and in its historical context, it becomes apparent that this is an allegory, a familiar story of the time that Jesus uses to point out a spiritual lesson to those who knew the law but did not keep it. It was never intended to be understood literally.
Bible language expert Dr. Lawrence Richards, in discussing this passage in The Victor Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, explains that Jesus used contemporary Jewish thought about the afterlife (which by this time was influenced by pagan mythology) to point out a spiritual lesson about how we view and treat others.
In this view of the afterlife, Hades, the abode of the dead, was "thought to be divided into two compartments" and "conversations could be held between persons" in the abode of the righteous and those in the abode of the unrighteous. "Jewish writings also picture the first as a verdant land with sweet waters welling up from numerous springs," separated from the second, which was described as a parched and dry land. These elements show up in Christ's allegory.
"In Christ's story God was the beggar's only source of help, for the rich man was certainly not going to do a single thing for him!...It is important to see this parable of Jesus as a continuation of His conflict with the Pharisees over riches. Christ has said, 'You cannot serve God and Money' (16:13). When the Pharisees sneered, Jesus responded, 'What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight' (16:15).
"There's no doubt that the Pharisees remained unconvinced...And so Christ told a story intended to underline the importance of what He had just said...
"During this life the wealthy man would surely have been featured on the 1980s TV program, 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.' The cameras would have focused on his marble mansion with its decorative wrought iron gates...and the fabulous feasts he held for his important friends.
"As the TV equipment was taken into the rich man's home, a cameraman might have stumbled over the dying beggar, destitute and abandoned just outside the rich man's house...Surely he was beneath the notice of the homeowner, who never gave a thought to the starving man just outside, though all Lazarus yearned for was just a crumb from the overladen tables.
"If we look only at this life, the rich man seems to be both blessed and fortunate, and the poor man, rejected and cursed. There is no question which state people would highly value, and which they would find detestable.
"But then, Jesus says, both men died. And suddenly their situations are reversed! Lazarus is by 'Abraham's side,' a phrase which pictures him reclining in the place of honor at a banquet that symbolizes eternal blessedness. But the rich man finds himself in torment, separated from the place of blessing by a 'great chasm' (16:26). Even though he begs for just one drop of water, Abraham sadly shakes his head. No relief is possible—or appropriate!...
"The rich man had received his good things, and had used them selfishly for his benefit alone. Despite frequent injunctions in the O[ld] T[estament] for the rich to share their good things with the poor, this rich man's indifference to Lazarus showed how far his heart was from God and how far his path had strayed from God's ways. They were his riches, and he would use them only for himself. Ah, how well the rich man depicts those Pharisees who 'loved money' and who even then were sneering at Jesus!
"And so Jesus' first point is driven home. You Pharisees simply cannot love God and Money. Love for Money is detestable to God, for you will surely be driven to make choices in life which are hateful to Him. A love of money may serve you well in this life. But in the world to come, you will surely pay.
"But Jesus does not stop here. He portrays the rich man as appealing to Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, who live as selfishly as he did. Again Abraham refuses. They have 'Moses and the Prophets' (16:31), that is, the Scriptures. If they do not heed the Scriptures they will not respond should one come back from the dead...
"In essence then Christ makes a stunning charge: the hardness and unwillingness of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law to Jesus' words reflect a hardness to the Word of God itself, which these men pretend to honor...
"This entire chapter calls us to realize that if we take this reality seriously, it will affect the way we view and use money, and the way we respond to the poor and the oppressed" (1994, pp. 193-195). This is the point of the allegory Jesus uses, Dr. Richards explains, not to teach the popular (but erroneous) idea of heaven and hell.