Understanding the REAL meaning behind the rich man and Lazarus parable is critical, as countless churches use it as their primary argument to justify the existence of an ever-burning Hell. The New Testament NOWHERE uses the 'fires of Hell' or the threat of unending pain as a way of spreading the good news of the gospel!
A parable is a short symbolic (but not literal) story designed to teach some principle or lesson. They are a teaching method that involves a comparison. They use situations, events and circumstances known to those being taught to, like a bridge, to teach them a principle or convey a meaning that it not understood. In Jesus' case, he used them to convey spiritual truths and, in the case of the rich person and Lazarus, as correction. By their very nature they are NOT to be taken literally true in every detail.
Jesus' use of parables was not uncommon. The Jewish Rabbis of his day commonly used them as teaching tools. This is in part why he used them to correct the Pharisees (self-righteous religious leaders) who were unjustly criticizing what he taught.
Why did Jesus give it?
In the first thirteen verses of Luke 16 we find Jesus teaching his disciples about being wise stewards and that man cannot serve both God and mammon (money, earthly possessions, etc.). The Pharisees overheard what Jesus said and, knowing it also applied to them, roundly criticized him: "Now the Pharisees who were also covetous (greedy and lovers of money), heard all these things; and they ridiculed Him." (Luke 16:14, NKJV throughout)
Jesus tells the Pharisees that they seek to justify themselves before men and not God. After a few more comments he speaks a parable that is in direct response to their finding fault with what he taught.
The story begins
19. Now there was a certain rich man, and he was clothed in purple and fine linen, and daily indulged himself in luxury. 20. And there was a certain poor man named Lazarus, who was laid at his porch, full of sores (Luke 16:19 - 20)
Why did Christ refer to this poor beggar as Lazarus? The meaning of his name is 'assistance of God' or 'whom God helps.'
The Pharisees prided themselves on their righteousness through strict obedience to their interpretation of God's law. They also despised others, especially sinners and tax collectors (see Luke 18:9 - 14). The irony here is that those who truly believed they served and represented God would not help someone "whom God helps." They disdained someone whom God accepted.
This beggar was what we today would call a street person who had become terminally ill. He is portrayed as having no one that could or would help him - he was entirely on his own and had nothing. Note that Lazarus was in so desperate a need that he DESIRED to eat (but did NOT get) the food scraps that fell on the floor (Luke 16:21). Because of the depth of his plight, he was willing to eat food trash since the wealthy person of the parable would not help him AT ALL. In stark contrast we have a rich man (symbolic of the Pharisees) whose house Lazarus is placed in front of. He, however, is so callused regarding the human condition that he won't even let the beggar eat his trash!
22. Now it came to pass that the poor man died, and he was carried away by the angels into Abraham's bosom. And the rich man also died and was buried (verse 22)
Now note what verse 22 does NOT say! It does NOT state that the beggar went to heaven. It also does not say the rich man, immediately upon death, was tossed into some eternal Hell. The verse says the beggar is carried to "Abraham's bosom." But what does this phrase mean?
One of the definitions of "bosom" at Dictionary.com says the word represents something intimate or close, like a relationship. Likewise Lazarus is carried into a close relationship with Abraham (who represents faith in God and salvation). The beggar is allowed entrance into God's kingdom (but it doesn't state when this occurs)
We now come to the verse that, because of an erroneous translation of one word, has led countless people who study the Bible to believe in a fiery Hell where sinners suffer forever. The word translated in the NKJV, NASB, NRSV and other Bibles as 'Hades' in verse 23 and 'Hell' in the KJV and NIV translations comes from the Greek word hades (Strong's Concordance #G86). This Greek word is the exact equivalent of the Hebrew word sheol (#H7585). Both hadës and sheol mean the GRAVE, as the following translation shows.
"And in the GRAVE he lifted up his eyes and was in torment, for he saw Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom." (Luke 16:23, HBFV, see also Acts 2:27, Revelation 1:18, 20:13)
We also find proof in verse 23 that this parable is not meant to be taken literally in every last detail. Both the rich man and Lazarus are shown to be alive after they died. If we take verse 22 and 23 literally, it would mean the resurrection of the dead has already taken place! The Bible clearly states, however, the first resurrection of the dead is a yet future event that occurs after the Great Tribulation (see Revelation 20:4 - 6).
Why was the rich man tormented in the grave? It is because he saw a lake of fire before him and realized the time of his judgment before God has arrived. WHEN is he brought back to life? In the second resurrection, which occurs during the Great White Throne judgment (Revelation 20:11 - 15). The purpose of this resurrection is not just to offer all mankind a first REAL chance at salvation. Its purpose is also to punish the incorrigible wicked by having them face their judgment and be thrown into the lake of fire. Is this, then, the HELL where people suffer forever? NO! The punishment of the wicked is to die a second time - for all eternity. The lake of fire totally destroys, for forever, what is thrown in it. Humans thrown in it are consumed and become eternally DEAD (Revelation 20:12, 14 - 15).
Father Abraham! Take pity on me, and send Lazarus to dip his finger in some water and cool off my tongue (Verse 24)
Seeing Abraham, the rich man appeals to him to send Lazarus to cool his tongue with a drop of water. What happens when one is suddenly so horrified with fear? His mouth goes dry. His tongue sticks to his mouth and throat! It is in such desperation that he cries for even a drop of water - which, ironically, because of his hard heart he didn't even give Lazarus who sat by his gate.
Here is some more proof why this story should not be taken literally in all details. How could the well-off person know who Abraham was when he had been dead for 1,800+ years? Also, it would be very difficult for the rich man to recognize Lazarus in a glorified body - as he had been an emaciated pile of bones and flesh and full of sores during his physical life. The difference would have been appalling. Additionally, this verse reiterates how the roles of these two men have changed. The rich man was without need of help when the beggar was in dire straits and now he is in a dire situation when Lazarus is without need. In effect, Christ is giving a warning to the Pharisees that their state in life could quickly change, therefore they should not be so smug and look down on others.
Remember, my son, that in your lifetime you were given all the good things, while Lazarus got all the bad things. But now he is enjoying himself here, while you are in pain. 26 Besides all that, there is a deep pit lying between us . . . (verses 25 - 26)
Jesus got the immediate attention of the Pharisees by using Abraham as a character in his lesson. Christ is showing that one needs to live his life correctly today, not wait until the next life to make amends. These verses show that it was impossible for Lazarus to do what the rich man wanted because of the circumstances. The gulf shows the striking difference between a righteous spirit being and a pathetic unrighteous human being.
Next, we see the rich man trying to reach out to others. He feels lost himself, so at last, though he did not reach out to others before, he now sees this as his only possible last wish before he eternally dies. To think that he is taking in the whole scene and realizing where he is in time is not rational. In his thinking, a moment ago he had need of nothing. Now he is as good as dead, but believes his brothers are still alive. He wants to save them from this place, if possible (Luke 16:27 - 28).
In essence, what Jesus was saying to the Pharisees (through Abraham) is "you (Pharisees) have Moses and the prophets" and therefore have NO excuse for your approach to life and how you treat other people.
But if someone were to rise from death and go to them, then they would turn from their sins. 31 But Abraham said, 'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone were to rise from death' (verses 30 - 31)
Jesus ultimately tells us what is the meaning of the rich man and Lazarus parable. He was telling the Pharisees (who were self-righteous hypocrites) that since they did not truly believe and follow what Moses and the prophets wrote, no amount of miracles and wonders would be able to change their minds and alter how they lived life. It was the hardness of their hearts that kept them from truly repenting and serving God.