Answer: Quite a number of people believe that the parable of Lazarus and the rich man proves that the dead go to heaven or hell when they die…the righteous to the arms of Jesus and the sinners into hellfire and eternal torment. But is that what this parable is really teaching us? Is the parable of Lazarus and the rich man telling us that Lazarus is in heaven, and the "rich man" is being tormented in hell? No, that is not what this parable is showing.
The Bible says plainly that "The soul who sins shall die" (Ezekiel 18:4), and Jesus Himself said that he who believes in Him "should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). Not perish…? Right here the Bible again makes it very clear that the fate of the sinner is to perish – to die – not to live and suffer forever! And of course, Ecclesiastes 9:10 also says very clearly that there is "no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave…" If the soul that sins dies, and if there is no knowledge or wisdom – no "consciousness" or "thinking" in the grave, then there is no way that the parable of Lazarus and the rich man can mean that the sinner is sent off to eternal torment in hell! So, what does the parable really mean?
Through this parable, Jesus intended to illustrate an important lesson that most fail to understand. According to Jesus' story, Lazarus died and was carried by angels to "Abraham's bosom" (Luke 16:22). We must first understand that God gave Abraham and his descendants the promise of the earth for an eternal inheritance (Romans 4:13). The Apostle Paul said if we are Christ's, we are considered by God as Abraham's seed—children—and are then also heirs with Abraham to receive this promise (Galatians 3:29). It is through faith that we may become "children of Abraham" (Galatians 3:7). Christians would have an intimate relationship or a close bosom relationship with Abraham by sharing this promise. Christ likened it to being taken to Abraham's bosom. This is what happened to Lazarus in Christ's parable.
It is also important to understand that Abraham never received these promises. That is an amazing fact that may shock some, but read it for yourself in Hebrews 11:13: "These all died in faith [including Abraham], not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off were assured of them, embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth." So, the Bible says that Abraham and the rest of the Saints will inherit these promises at the resurrection of the just, when Christ returns to establish the Kingdom of God. That is also when Lazarus and all Christians, who have that intimate relationship with Abraham, spiritually speaking, will receive them at the first resurrection. Lazarus is a type of Abraham's children who are to receive the promises at that better resurrection (Hebrews 11:35).
But what of the rich man? Notice he died and was buried (Luke 16:22). He then lifts his eyes from the grave, not from a fiery hell of eternal torment. The word "hell" used here is translated from the Greek word Hades, which means the "grave." It was not translated from the Greek word Gehenna, which represents the future lake of fire that will destroy the wicked forever (Revelation 20:14–15). The rich man is pictured as coming up out of his grave—through a resurrection—heading for that lake of fire.
As immortal sons of God, Abraham and Lazarus were on one side of the "gulf" (Luke 16:26) and the rich man, as a mortal who rejected God's way, was on the other side facing eternal death. Some look at the great gulf as the difference between heaven and hell, but that is not what the Bible teaches. This great "gulf" signifies the difference between mortality and immortality, and the soul that sins shall die. But those who will be made immortal in the resurrection will then never die because they will then be born of God by that future resurrection (Revelation 20:6). Jesus Christ was picturing the second and eternal death in the lake of fire—the final destination for those who do not accept and act on the good news of the gospel.