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Does 1 Corinthians 3:15 Teach the Doctrine of Purgatory?

Foundational to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory is their understanding of the double-effect of sin. Continue reading . . . 

Foundational to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory is their understanding of the double-effect of sin. Note carefully the following description taken from the Catholic Catechism:

“Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification [in purgatory] frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin” (CC, 1472).

As for purgatory itself:

“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CC, 1030-31).

According to Peter Kreeft, purgatory “refines and purifies those who at the moment of death are neither good enough for an immediate heaven nor bad enough for hell. . . . Purgatory is like heaven’s porch, or heaven’s incubator, or heaven’s wash room” (149).

Thus purgatory is the means or mechanism by which Catholics believe God applies the merits and atoning sufficiency of Christ’s death to believers. One must ask: “How is it that the sufficiency of Christ’s suffering for sin is applied by requiring Christians themselves to suffer for sins? Was not the former designed to eliminate the latter?”

On what grounds does Rome base this doctrine? They typically appeal to three lines of evidence.

First, the author of 2 Maccabees (a document that Rome includes in its list of inspired and thus authoritative books) contends that Judas Maccabeus obviously believed in resurrection of the dead and the possibility of those who are alive interceding on their behalf. He contends that if Judas “were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” (12:44). Later he writes: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (12:46).

Second, Catholics also appeal to the ancient church practice of praying for the dead. In other words, they insist that the early church fathers would not have prayed for the dead were it not possible to assist the latter through intercession.

Third, most Catholics acknowledge that there is no explicit biblical evidence for the concept of Purgatory, but often you will find them appealing to 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (cf. 1 Peter 1:7):

“For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).

Six things may be said regarding this appeal to 1 Cor. 3:11-15.

(1) The text says nothing about believers suffering the temporal consequences for their sins in purgatory; they are not burned or purged in the fire. Their works are burned.

(2) This text does not refer to the consequence of sin but of the reward for service. The issue is not sin and its punishment but service and its reward. The “loss” one suffers is loss of reward for not having served Christ faithfully.

(3) The “fire” does not purge an individual or his/her soul from sin but rather serves to reveal or disclose the quality of one’s works (see v. 13). The fire of purgatory is supposed to sanctify and change the soul of the believer to make him fit for heaven. But here the fire reveals or tests the quality of one’s works to determine what is and is not worthy of reward.

(4) Contextually, this passage focuses specifically on church leaders, those like Paul and Barnabas and Peter who build on the foundation of Christ. There is doubt whether all believers are in view.

(5) 1 Cor. 3:15 may well be similar to Amos 4:11 and Zech. 3:2. Paul’s point is that the person who persists in building badly will be saved, but like one plucked from a fire in the nick of time.

(6) Nowhere does the passage say this occurs during the intermediate state. Why could not Paul be referring to what happens on the day of final judgment preceding entry into heaven, especially given the emphasis in v. 13 on “the day” (a likely allusion to the Day of the Lord or the Day of Judgment on which Paul often speaks)?

In the final analysis, there is no biblical warrant for the doctrine of purgatory. In keeping with Philippians 1:19ff. and 2 Corinthians 5:8-10, among other texts, I affirm that upon physical death all believers pass immediately into the presence of Christ in heaven, there to enjoy conscious fellowship and joy with him forever.

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