Outward circumstances have nothing to do with a person’s eternal destiny. All people must personally respond in faith to the gospel of Christ. That gospel is available to them in the Bible, as we simply present it to them and allow the Word to do its convicting work.
Sometimes the best way to get a message across to people is to shock them with the truth. That is exactly what Jesus is about to do here in Luke’s Gospel account. He is going to talk about the afterlife—the comfort of paradise and the torment of hell.
Vance Havner was a famous evangelist of the last century from my home state of North Carolina. At one point he was pastoring a small country church, and he preached on hell. A farmer came up afterward. He was rather upset and told him, “Preach on the meek and lowly Jesus.” Havner responded, “That’s where I got my information about hell.” Let me tell you, Jesus warned His audience about hell more than any other person in the New Testament.
Jesus has been telling a number of parables, so another one here would certainly fit with that pattern. Many interpreters, however, suggest this is not a parable, because Jesus never named anybody in a parable, like He is about to here. But either way, the truth remains: Whether Jesus is describing a real event or not, He is describing a real place, as He speaks in Luke 16:
“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.” (verses 19-23)
You could entitle this account, “The Great Reversal.” The rich man had everything imaginable—he even dressed in “purple.” A purple garment in these days would cost three years of the average person’s salary. Everybody would assume this man had earned God’s favor.
Lazarus was a poor beggar. Everyone would assume he was experiencing God’s judgment. Here he is, having been laid at the rich man’s gate—the verb indicates abandonment at the gate.
In these days, people ate with their fingers, and the wealthy did not use napkins, but bread, to wipe their fingers. Lazarus hoped to get some of that bread to eat.
Jesus simply says that both men died. Lazarus ends up at “Abraham’s side,” or bosom. This represents the seat of honor, at the table next to Abraham. But the rich man ends up in the place of torment in Hades. This would have been totally shocking to the Pharisees! Evidently Lazarus had nothing but God, and the rich man had everything but God.
Now let me pull over here and explain something about the afterlife that Jesus is revealing. We think of heaven and hell as the final place for the saved and unsaved, and that’s true. But at this point, before the resurrection of Christ, and before the final judgment of unbelievers, Jesus is describing a temporary place with two compartments for the spirits of the deceased.
The Old Testament speaks of sheol as the place of the dead. Both unbelievers and believers are said to go to sheol. Hades is the Greek term for sheol. The New Testament indicates this is a temporary place of the dead, with believers in the comfort of Abraham’s presence—another name for “paradise”—and unbelievers in a place of suffering in Hades.
Now when Jesus rose from the dead, Old Testament believers in paradise were transferred to heaven (Ephesians 4:8); and since then, every believer immediately goes to heaven upon death. The apostle Paul wrote that to “be away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8).
So, the comfort side of Hades is now empty, but the suffering side is still in full operation. Every unbeliever to this day goes to Hades and awaits the final judgment, where, according to Revelation 20, Hades will be poured out into the lake of fire, which is eternal hell.
Jesus is describing the situation at that time—prior to His resurrection—picturing life beyond the grave. I want to point out six different truths about the afterlife from the Lord’s words here in Luke 16.
First, no one who dies ceases to exist. And by the way, nobody is sleeping either. The word for sleep is used of the dead simply as a way of describing their body, sleeping as it were, lying there in the tomb. But we are shown here that immediately upon death, these men are awake and fully aware of either judgment or joy.
Second, the soul or spirit is given a temporary, physical body. Jesus describes the two men immediately experiencing either enjoyment and conversation or suffering and thirst.
This rich man says in verse 24, “Send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” Evidently Lazarus has a finger and this rich man has a tongue.
Here is another truth about life beyond the grave: Individuals are recognizable in their temporary bodies. The rich man, Lazarus, and Abraham are not floating spirits that have become one with the universe. They are still identifiable as individuals. They are distinct, conscious, communicating, emotional, physical, literal people. They even have the same names.
Fourth, people have memories of life on earth. This rich man remembers his brothers, and he knows they do not follow God either.
This tormented man pleads with Abraham:
“Send [Lazarus] to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” (verses 27-28)
Surely, he thinks, if someone like Lazarus miraculously returned from the dead, his unbelieving brothers would repent and believe and avoid this place of torment. Abraham replies in verse 31, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” They have the Old Testament, the Word of God.
We need to hear this today, beloved. Abraham clearly says that miracles will not convince unbelievers of the truth of the gospel.
Just deliver the Word of God, and allow it to do the work of conviction. Martin Luther, the reformer, once said some 500 years ago, “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. The Word of God did it all.”
But wouldn’t a miracle change their minds? Well, Jesus did raise a man from the dead—ironically a man named Lazarus—and what was the response? The religious leaders still plotted to kill Jesus, and they wanted to kill Lazarus too if they got the chance. If someone denies the Word of God, all the miracles in the world will not change their minds.
Here is the fifth truth: Those who have died have an unchangeable destiny. Abraham explains to this man that the gulf between heaven and hell is uncrossable. There is a great chasm between the two, and it is fixed; it’s unbridgeable—forever impassable. Whatever you decide about Jesus in this life is a decision you will live with forever.
Here’s one final truth we observe: There is no such thing as unbelief after death. Those who would not believe the truth while they lived on earth will one day know that it is true. It will be undeniable. They will know the truth, but it will be eternally too late.
This was a surprising message to the religious leaders, and it might be shocking to you today. But it is not presented just to be shocking but to give you an invitation. The Bible says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).
Don’t wait! Let me tell you; it is not safe to die until you have trusted in Jesus for your future, eternal destination.
 Vance Havner, “On This Rock I Stand” and Other Messages (Baker, 1981), 26.