I have suggested in The Coming of the Son of Man and on this blog that the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31 is not intended to provide factual information about the afterlife but rather belongs to Jesus’ critique of a complacent elite in Israel that served mammon rather than God (cf. Lk. 16:13-14). It is, in effect, a parable for the coming eschatological reversal of fortunes in Israel, when the hungry would be filled with good things and the rich would be sent empty away. This argument allows me to hold to my view that Jesus did not teach the existence of “hell” as a place of eternal conscious torment; rather he warned disobedient Israel, and especially the various political-religious elites, that they faced divine judgment in the form of invasion, war, slaughter, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. The disposal of the dead in the valley of the sons of Hinnom—that is Gehenna—stands as a metonymy for the appalling suffering and loss of life that would accompany the siege of Jerusalem. It is not an image for suffering after death.
But the question was recently put to me: If that’s the case, why did Jesus tell a story about the afterlife in order to make such a mundane historical point? It’s a good question.