First, it is worth noting that the words ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ themselves do not occur in the parable. The NT talks about post-mortem life in a range of ways, not all of them easy to reconcile with one another. Perhaps the most controlling one would be the idea of ‘sleep’ as used by Paul in, for example, 1 Cor 15. ‘Heaven’ in the NT mostly appears to refer to the realm of God’s presence, reign and reality, and the central NT hope is not that we will leave the earth to go to heaven, but that God’s realm will come down to the earth (see Rev 21). (See Tom Wright’s Grove booklet for the most accessible exposition of this.)
The term used in v 23 is the Greek Hades which was usually understood as the abode of (all) the dead, and does not have a straightforward relationship with the OT notion of sheol. Interestingly, Howard Marshall (in his NIGTC commentary) thinks that a popular Egyptian tale about life after death offers the best explanation for the shape of the story, and there is some support for this in the way the text was received in that region.
Secondly, like all parables this is a story told to make a point. Such stories have varying degrees of connection with ‘reality’. No doubt sowers went out to sow in the fields of Galilee, but it is not clear that Jesus has in mind a particular such person in Mark 4. Shepherds were concerned about their sheep, but the point of the story in Luke 15 is not that a real shepherd would leave the 99 in search of the one; to the casual reader this one looks rather inept. In fact, in some parables, it is the contrast with reality which is striking. A man who paid hired workers the same regardless of how many hours they had worked (Matt 20) would not only be unjust but foolish! There is a clear sense that the parables (as it were) create their own world, and it is the shape of this world, as much as the actions of the characters, which provide the impact of the story and help to make the point.
Thirdly, therefore, we need to focus on the point(s) that Jesus was making in this parable. There is a strong link between the language here and that of Luke’s version of the beatitudes with their theme of reversal of fortunes. Lazarus longs for what the poor will have (16.21 and 6.21) and the ‘comfort’ he receives in 16.25 is that which is denied the rich in 6.25. And miracles in themselves cannot melt hearts that are hardened to God’s word (16.31). This final verse clearly chimes with the post-Easter experience of Jesus’ followers, as the majority of their countrymen refuse to accept Jesus for who he (and they) claimed him to be. To use this as a map for the afterlife is to miss these key points.
This is part of a wider issue in reading Scripture: if we seek to clarify issues which don’t appear to have been the purpose of the writer, then we are in danger of making the text say things that it does not, in fact, say.
(For an alternative allegorical reading of this parable as a judgement on the nation of Israel [which I find unconvincing] go here.)
(A shorter version of this will be published in a forthcoming entry on Scripture Union’s Word Live Bible reading resource.)