In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, do you think the rich man was in Hell? Well, I personally don’t think so and I’ll tell you why a little further down.
Until Jesus paid the ultimate price giving all of us access to heaven no one went to heaven but they didn’t necessarily deserve to go straight to hell either. We can know this quite easily by looking at Peter’s declaration that after His death Jesus descended to preach to those in ‘prison’. The word translated as ‘prison’ in the Revised Standard Version (RSV) is translated as… ‘He descended into hell’ in our Apostles Creed.
What would be the purpose of descending into Hell to preach the good news if the good news can’t benefit anyone (since there is no escaping hell)? The translation of our Apostles Creed is actually a rather bad translation. Most translations of the Bible describe Jesus’ descent as a descent to prison, not hell. This makes more sense since we can understand now why Jesus would preach the Good News to those awaiting entrance into heaven. They are given the choice to accept Him or to reject Him.
And so we see that before His perfect sacrifice all went to ‘prison’ to wait for the choice of accepting or rejecting Jesus and determine where there final destination would be. That is, Heaven or Hell.
We can also know that there were many levels of comfort in the afterlife prior to the perfect sacrifice of Jesus. In the story of Lazarus and the poor man (Luke 16:19-31) we see that the poor man was more faithful to God and had already suffered his share. And so after his death he rested in Abraham’s bosom while the rich man, after he died, suffered torment. The rich man suffered but still had love for his still living brothers because he tried to have Abraham warn them of the consequences of their lifestyles. The fact that he had love for others as opposed to love for self tells us that this man wasn’t in Hell either because Hell is, by definition, a complete separation of self from God and since we know that God is Love means that the rich does indeed have God in his heart. So, where is he then? Well, we know with certainty that the rich man is certainly not in Hell since he has love of others but he certainly is not in heaven either since he is suffering torment (Luke 16:24) and there is no suffering in heaven. Which means that the rich man, as well as Lazarus, are in a ‘holding pattern’ awaiting the Good News. They’re waiting for the day when their savior, the Christ, comes to preach to them the Good News allowing them to choose or reject Him (1 Pet 3:19).
The same principal occurs after Jesus’ sacrifice, once the gates of heaven have been opened. Paul describes to us on that Day, our day of judgment. Paul says: “12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.”
And so, after we die we are judged and our final destination is known but, even though we are saved, we can suffer loss and yet are saved as Paul describes. But there is no suffering in heaven and no one is saved in hell. Therefore, this burning, this suffering is occurring outside of heaven or hell. This temporary suffering is the state of being that the Church calls Purgatory.