I once heard a well-known radio Bible teacher offer some reflections on this particular parable of "the rich man and Lazarus" found in Luke 16. As he began his radio program, he explained that Jesus was able to share this story because "he could see into eternity" or some such statement. This particular Bible teacher took for granted that this parable was a straightforward story about Hell and what happens to people who die without knowing Jesus. Many Christians, if not most within the conservative, Bible-belt tradition, will be greatly alarmed if you don't take such a position. So, for the sake of argument, I am going to take that position and see where it leads.
The first thing I notice is that the poor man is carried away to a place called "Abraham's bosom" and not to "Heaven." I suppose that most of us would assume that "Abraham's bosom" is a fancy way of saying "Heaven, where Abraham is." But already, "Abraham's Bosom" is a description that departs from our tradition. Is this place somehow in the possession of Abraham? Why doesn't Jesus call it "Heaven"? Secondly, the poor man is carried away to Abraham's bosom without any apparent reason other than that he was poor. Did the poor man know Jesus? Thirdly, when the rich man is in torment, he lifts up his eyes and appeals, not to God and not to Jesus, but to Abraham. And to make matters worse, Abraham answers! We might need to revisit the question about "Abraham's bosom" as it seems to be a literal description. Abraham explains to the rich man that there is a great chasm between the two places and nobody is able to cross from one place to the other. This seems to be no problem for us because most of us have seen the pictures of a great chasm between God and man that has been bridged by a cross. However, there is no cross yet. In which case, how did Lazarus arrive in "Heaven" or wherever they are? How did Abraham arrive there for that matter? And if Abraham and Lazarus could already be in a place at least like Heaven (where would that be?) before the cross, what was so great about Jesus' death and resurrection? It would appear that the hope one needed, at least if you were poor, was already available before Jesus died. Fourthly, is Abraham articulating some sort of merit system or karma when he says to the rich man, "Child, (interesting choice of words), remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony"(Luke 16:25)? Once again we have to ask why Abraham is doing the talking here. How did he become the spokesperson for heaven? Isn't he just a sinner like the rest of us? Finally, the rich man implores Abraham to warn his brothers who are still on earth, lest they should also arrive at "this place of torment." To which Abraham soberly replies that they have all they need in the Law and the Prophets and if they don't listen to them, neither will they listen if someone should rise from the dead. Problem: according to the teaching that we usually receive in this vein of thought, the Law and the Prophets were only meant to condemn us. How is the rich man or any of his brothers to be redeemed with only the first half of what most consider to be "the Gospel", especially when it is the negative half? And finally finally, if read in this light, what hope to does this parable offer to its hearers concerning heaven or anything else? What most of us consider to be "the Gospel" has not been presented, nor could it! Jesus had not yet died. The conclusion I draw is this: This parable is a parable and not an eye-witness account of what happens when people die. The point that is intended for the listener of Jesus and of Luke's Gospel is found in the fact that in Jesus' Kingdom movement, roles of privilege and honor were being redefined and even reversed as the tradition from which this folk-tale parable was taken had always suggested would happen when God established His justice in the world. Yes, there is a place of judgment which we can call "Hell" but that is not what this parable is about.