The parable of the rich man and Lazarus has often been used as a story that reveals the character of hell, a hot and fiery place of torment. But the story is not about hell, but is rather about justice and God's concern to make things right ultimately-- the great reversal of fortunes between the haves and the have nots. Kacy Madsen writes,
The Rich Man and Lazarus has been grouped among the “double-edged” parables, signifying that it addresses two moral lessons. The first of these lessons concentrated on the reversal of fortunes in the afterlife for the rich and the poor (Hultgren 112). This idea of reversal was derived from a rich tradition of folk-material. According to Jeremias:
This is the Egyptian folk-tale of the journey of Si-Osiris, the son of Setme Chamois to the under-world, which concludes with the words: ‘He who has been good on earth, will be blessed in the kingdom of the dead, and he who has been evil on earth, will suffer in the kingdom of the dead.’ Alexandrian Jews brought this story to Palestine, where it became very popular as the story of the poor scholar and the rich publican Bar Ma’Jan. …[In a dream] the fate of these two men in the next world was seen: ‘A few days [after both men were buried the poor scholar was seen] in gardens of paradisal beauty, watered by flowing streams. Bar Ma’jan the publican was seen standing on the bank of a stream and trying to reach the water, but unable to do so (183).
Both Jesus and the Pharisees would have been familiar with this folklore.
One of the problems in interpreting parables is the temptation to push ancillary details too far attempting to make them say things they were not intended. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus is not interested in the nature of eternal punishment, but in utilizing well-known folklore as the backdrop for the point of the story-- that there will be a great reversal of fortunes and God will put the world to rights. In the larger context of Luke the parable reflects Jesus' warnings about wealth and the neglect of the poor. There are several details of the parable that highlight such a reversal:
First Reversal, whereas in most ancient stories the individuals on the margins are anonymous and not worthy of being named, and the important wealthy and powerful characters are specifically identified, the rich man is anonymous while the poor man is named.
Second Reversal, in life the poor man lay at the gate of the rich man longing to eat just crumbs that fell from the rich man's table, though not receiving a thing. In the afterlife, the rich man desires just to have his tongue cooled with a drop of water from Lazarus' finger, but the chasm between them prevents it. In life, the rich man can help Lazarus, but chooses not to; in the afterlife, the poor man is unable to help the rich man, even if he desires to do so.
Third Reversal, the rich man enjoyed all kinds of fine things in life, while the poor man lived in destitute poverty. The language Jesus uses is quite descriptive of their very different situations.
"There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores" (16:19-21).In the afterlife, their situations are now completely reversed. Lazarus is in the comfort and care of Abraham's presence and the rich man is in torment even worse than the poor man experienced in his life
Fourth Reversal, while there is no longer hope for the rich man to escape damnation, Jesus' wealthy hearers still have hope. The rich man ignored the Scriptures with its many commands to assist those in need. The "lovers of money" listening to Jesus (16:14) still had an opportunity to finally heed the words of the Scriptures they were supposed to know so well. In being obedient to the words of the Scriptures, they have the opportunity to participate in God's great reversal, instead of one day having that reversal fall upon them in judgment.
God will put the world to rights. Justice will be served.