One of the great hopes of every believer is the resurrection. Because of the victory of Jesus over sin and death and his resurrection, we also have the hope of entering into eternal life. Our physical death is temporary and those who have passed on wait for the final victory of Christ when the world will be judged and we will all enter into the presence of God in heaven to be with Him forever. Remarkably, there is not a lot of detail given in the Bible about what is happening while departed believers are in this intermediate state between the physical death of our bodies and our resurrection. The passage that appears to give the most information is the story of the rich man and Lazarus found in Luke 16:19-31.
This passage would clearly seem to be of great importance in our understanding of what happens after we die. The problem is that many scholars believe that this story is a parable. As such, it is not necessarily a recounting of an actual event but is rather an illustration to support a larger point. Because of this, we must be careful about placing too much emphasis on the details rather than on the main point of the message. The message seems clearly to be that our deeds in this lifetime are going to be judged and that the teaching of scripture is sufficient warning, instruction, and testimony to this fact. Essentially, we must believe and repent because there will be a time when it is too late.
If this is a parable does that mean we can learn nothing from it about the afterlife? Even if this is not a record of an actual interaction between two real people are we to assume that none of the details are to be trusted? Beyond the question of it being a parable, there are certain difficulties with assuming that this is a literal telling of events. For example, if these are souls that are separated from their bodies and waiting for resurrection then how is it that they speak in bodily terms of having fingers, tongues, and being thirsty etc.? It is possible this is metaphorical language intended to help us to contrast the comfort of the one with the torment of the other rather than a literal description.
Let me begin by saying that I am not completely convinced this is a parable, there are reasons to think it may not be. My goal, however, is not to answer that particular question but rather to point out that even if it is there is still much here we can learn.
First, although this may be a teaching illustration rather than an actual event it is important to note that it was the practice of Jesus to use literal illustrations in his parables. For example, the actual events of the parable of the Good Samaritan may never have occurred but the characters, setting, and events were all representative of the actual world the hearers lived in. The same is true for all of the illustrations Jesus used. To put it another way, although the parables may not have been historical events there is no reason that they could not have. They are drawn from real life situations. I think that Luke 16 is very likely the same sort of thing. The only difference is that in this case Jesus is drawing upon something that the average farmer would not have observed because he was not yet dead. In addition, the ideas of a place of comfort and torment were discussed in the rabbinical literature and so Jesus is working with concepts that were probably not unfamiliar to his listeners.
Therefore, even if the sensory language is metaphorical and even if the particular conversation is just an illustration we can likely draw some conclusions from the passage. First, if the main point is the unalterable reward or punishment (justice) then we must assume that there is consciousness in the intermediate state because concepts such as comfort and torment, whether physical or not, require consciousness to be meaningful.
Some have taught that the soul sleeps awaiting the final judgment. Although the Bible often speaks of death as sleep (Matt. 9:24, 27:52; John 11:11; Acts 7:60, 13:36; 1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thess. 4:13, 5:10) this language should be understood metaphorically. It is language designed to indicate the temporary nature of this separation of spirit from body. Just as sleep will come to an end, so will death. For example, Jesus says of His friend Lazarus that he had fallen asleep (John 11:11). After the apostles misunderstand Him, He plainly tells them that Lazarus is dead (John 11:14). “Sleep" is a common Biblical metaphor for death.
The type of consciousness Jesus describes in Luke 16 is also supported elsewhere in the New Testament. For example, the apostle Paul, when speaking about dying said, "we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). In Philippians 1:23 Paul says “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” This hardly makes sense unless there is a consciousness after death. Jesus, Himself, told the thief on the cross next to Him, "today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43) and the author of Hebrews explains in chapter 12 that we worship in front of a great cloud of witnesses that apparently includes the heroes of the faith and “the spirits of just men made perfect”. In Revelation John speaks of dead believers who are conscious of what is happening on the earth and are petitioning God to act (Revelation 6:9-10).
I do not have room to develop it here but I think we can also demonstrate from other passages that the chasm between the two experiences is unbridgeable and there is one life, then judgment. Although the final judgment has not yet come, those whose physical lives have ended are aware of their status and have in some sense already entered into rest or torment. It seems, therefore that even if we accept that Luke 16:19-31 is an illustration and may possibly not be the record of an actual event, and even if we accept that some of the language is likely metaphorical, it remains an important passage dealing with what happens between physical death and resurrection.