Over at Catholic Convert, pilgrimage peddler Steve Ray has a post arguing that a certain frequently cited Scripture does not dictate against Purgatory, that other Scripture does teach Purgatory, and that Purgatory involves being in the presence of the Lord (link to post). In the following analysis, we’ll consider his arguments piece by piece:
I realize now — that as a Protestant — I misquoted the Bible when challenging Catholics about Purgatory. Catholics taught that there was a “transition” between earth and heaven—a place or state of final purification called Purgatory.
“But how can there be a Purgatory?” I asked. “Doesn’t St. Paul teach that ‘to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord’? Since ‘absence from the body’ means that we are immediately in ‘the presence of the Lord,’ there can’t be anything called Purgatory. Catholics deny the clear teaching of the Bible!”
Whoa! Slow down! Is this really what the Bible says?
First off, I don’t necessarily buy that Mr. Ray actually used arguments against Roman Catholicism when he was not yet a part of that communion. I’ve heard him previously say on the Catholic Answers program that he doesn’t remember when he was baptized. So, I have my doubts about whether Mr. Ray means to say that he really made these sorts of arguments when he was a “Protestant” or whether he’s simply talking about a hypothetical “Protestant.” The words themselves that Mr. Ray uses don’t ring true to the “Protestant” ear. We tend to say “Paul” or the “Apostle Paul” not “St. Paul.” But let’s pass over whether Ray has Canerized his biography here without further comment.
Second, Mr. Ray has set up his hypothetical “Protestant” in a weak position. Paul’s exact words are not “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” even if that is a teaching that they imply. Paul’s exact words are:
2 Corinthians 5:1-9
For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: if so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life. Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who also hath given unto us the earnest of the Spirit.
Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) we are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him.
Paul does set up the matter as a dichotomy: present or absent. There is no third option that Paul raises. And Paul makes this dichotomy several times:
1) “if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens“
2) “in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven“
3) “we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life“
4) “whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord:“
5) “willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord“
6) “whether present or absent“
But the sextuple dichotomy that Paul draws is evidently not clear enough for Mr. Ray. Mr. Ray states:
First, that is a misreading of the Bible—a twisting of Scripture to score a point. The Bible does NOT say “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Rather it says,
“So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:6-8).
This is very different from my old argument. Paul would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord, but certainly doesn’t say it the way I twisted it in my old anti-Catholic days.
If I want to be away from Michigan in the winter I might say “In the winter we would rather be away from Michigan and present in Arizona.” It does NOT say that to be away from Michigan that I am instantly or automatically in Arizona. My in-laws go between Arizona and Michigan twice a year and they stop a lot along the way. It usually takes them 3-4 weeks to get from one to the other as the visit and camp along the way.
We understand that this language leaves room for a transition period—especially in an automobile or plane with a possible motel or visit along the way. Paul’s words also leave room for such a transition; it does not exclude Purgatory.
This argument from Mr. Ray uses an analogy that is not in the text (the analogy of interstate travel) to try to smuggle a possibility into the text. The analogy in the text is either in this tabernacle (tent) or out of it. The outside of a tent is not 1000 miles away from the inside, it’s right there. If this tent dissolves, we’ll be clothed with another one – not with another two (one purgatorial and one heavenly) but with another one, a heavenly.
While the existence of two states may not, in itself, dictate against a third, the apostle’s argument is plainly about a dichotomy, as seen in the six contrasts identified above. There’s no reason in the text to suppose any sort of transitory place or state between the two in the text.
Worse than that, the very point of the text is that believers are, in this life, yearning for the next life, specifically for heaven. If to be absent from the body is to enter a further place or state of yearning and groaning, the apostle’s point is dulled. Surely the apostle is not suggesting that the desire is to be absent from the body so that one can be present in purgatory, but rather in heaven with the Lord.
But let us see how Mr. Ray continues his argument:
Second, Paul teaches that we will pass through fire. Notice what he says in 1 Corinthians 3:15: On “the Day” if “any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:15, RSVCE). Sounds like Purgatory to me.
Contrary to Mr. Ray’s assertions, Paul does not say that we will pass through fire. The text says that on “the day” men’s works will have their character revealed.
1 Corinthians 3:12-15
Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
As you can see, it is the man’s work that will be evaluated by fire and placed in the fire, not the man. All sorts of work from “gold” to “stubble” will be tried in the fire, which shows that it cannot refer to Purgatory, since Romanism teaches that those who build the best work on their foundation will skip Purgatory entirely.
The brief reference to “so as by fire” is a simile. “So as by” shows us that it is not through fire, but it is as though fire. In other words, a person may have only the foundation left, and may get through by the skin of their teeth with just the foundation – namely Christ. When we combine the idea of Christ being the foundation and the work we do being anything ranging from “gold” to “stubble,” hopefully it should be plain that the fire is metaphorical. The point is simply that we have done will be evaluated on the last day as to whether we built well or poorly on the foundation. We will be saved regardless of how well we built, since we have the foundation of Christ – although if we do no works beyond mere stubble, it will be a bare escape from hell, like a person who escaped from a house-fire.
One should note that Steve Ray, in his private judgment, thinks that this passage sounds like Purgatory. One may also note, however, that we’ve previously seen that the eminent Roman Catholic scholar Estius (1542-1613) has essentially acknowledged (with some cautious comments) that in this passage “the Apostle, omitting all mention of the purifying of souls which takes place in the mean time, speaks only about the fire of the last judgment” (see full discussion here).
Likewise the Roman Catholic New American Bible states plainly that Purgatory is not taught in this passage (see discussion here) and the Roman Catholic Navarre Bible says that we can’t be sure whether Purgatory is under discussion (more details here).
Even Bellarmine, a doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, is unwilling to say that the entire passage is about Purgatory. He chooses instead to say that much of the passage is about other things, with only the very last reference to fire being a reference to Purgatory (link to more complete discussion).
Augustine himself explains the passage this way:
Now wood, hay, and stubble may, without incongruity, be understood to signify such an attachment to worldly things, however lawful these may be in themselves, that they cannot be lost without grief of mind. And though this grief burns, yet if Christ hold the place of foundation in the heart—that is, if nothing be preferred to Him, and if the man, though burning with grief, is yet more willing to lose the things he loves so much than to lose Christ,— he is saved by fire. If, however, in time of temptation, he prefer to hold by temporal and earthly things rather than by Christ, he has not Christ as his foundation; for he puts earthly things in the first place, and in a building nothing comes before the foundation. Again, the fire of which the apostle speaks in this place must be such a fire as both men are made to pass through, that is, both the man who builds upon the foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, and the man who builds wood, hay, stubble. For he immediately adds: “The fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he has built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.” The fire then shall prove, not the work of one of them only, but of both. Now the trial of adversity is a kind of fire which is plainly spoken of in another place: “The furnace proves the potter’s vessels: and the furnace of adversity just men. [Sirach 27:5]” And this fire does in the course of this life act exactly in the way the apostle says. If it come into contact with two believers, one “caring for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord,” [1 Corinthians 7:32] that is, building upon Christ the foundation, gold, silver, precious stones; the other “caring for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife,” [1 Corinthians 7:33] that is, building upon the same foundation wood, hay, stubble—the work of the former is not burned, because he has not given his love to things whose loss can cause him grief; but the work of the latter is burned, because things that are enjoyed with desire cannot be lost without pain. But since, by our supposition, even the latter prefers to lose these things rather than to lose Christ, and since he does not desert Christ out of fear of losing them, though he is grieved when he does lose them, he is saved, but it is so as by fire; because the grief for what he loved and has lost burns him. But it does not subvert nor consume him; for he is protected by his immoveable and incorruptible foundation.
– Augustine, Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Love, Chapter 68 (written about A.D. 421-22)
Notice that Augustine explicitly refers this fire to the fire that “in the course of this life” tries men through various temptations. Whether or not we agree with Augustine’s analysis of the text, it is plain that Augustine did not agree with Steve Ray (perhaps because the concept of “Purgatory” lay yet uninvented – perhaps because the text so clearly indicates that the work of every man is tested by this fire – we need not decide that matter here).
And this is not the only time Augustine discusses the matter, for he says again:
We shall then ascertain who it is who can be saved by fire, if we first discover what it is to have Christ for a foundation. And this we may very readily learn from the image itself. In a building the foundation is first. Whoever, then, has Christ in his heart, so that no earthly or temporal things— not even those that are legitimate and allowed— are preferred to Him, has Christ as a foundation. But if these things be preferred, then even though a man seem to have faith in Christ, yet Christ is not the foundation to that man; and much more if he, in contempt of wholesome precepts, seek forbidden gratifications, is he clearly convicted of putting Christ not first but last, since he has despised Him as his ruler, and has preferred to fulfill his own wicked lusts, in contempt of Christ’s commands and allowances. Accordingly, if any Christian man loves a harlot, and, attaching himself to her, becomes one body, he has not now Christ for a foundation. But if any one loves his own wife, and loves her as Christ would have him love her, who can doubt that he has Christ for a foundation? But if he loves her in the world’s fashion, carnally, as the disease of lust prompts him, and as the Gentiles love who know not God, even this the apostle, or rather Christ by the apostle, allows as a venial fault. And therefore even such a man may have Christ for a foundation. For so long as he does not prefer such an affection or pleasure to Christ, Christ is his foundation, though on it he builds wood, hay, stubble; and therefore he shall be saved as by fire. For the fire of affliction shall burn such luxurious pleasures and earthly loves, though they be not damnable, because enjoyed in lawful wedlock. And of this fire the fuel is bereavement, and all those calamities which consume these joys. Consequently the superstructure will be loss to him who has built it, for he shall not retain it, but shall be agonized by the loss of those things in the enjoyment of which he found pleasure. But by this fire he shall be saved through virtue of the foundation, because even if a persecutor demanded whether he would retain Christ or these things, he would prefer Christ. Would you hear, in the apostle’s own words, who he is who builds on the foundation gold, silver, precious stones? “He that is unmarried,” he says, “cares for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord.” [1 Corinthians 7:32] Would you hear who he is that builds wood, hay, stubble? But he that is married cares for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. [1 Corinthians 7:33] “Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it,”— the day, no doubt, of tribulation— “because,” says he, “it shall be revealed by fire.” [1 Corinthians 3:13] He calls tribulation fire, just as it is elsewhere said, “The furnace proves the vessels of the potter, and the trial of affliction righteous men.” [Sirach 27:5] And “The fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide”— for a man’s care for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord, abides— “which he has built thereupon, he shall receive a reward,”— that is, he shall reap the fruit of his care. “But if any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss,”— for what he loved he shall not retain:— “but he himself shall be saved,”— for no tribulation shall have moved him from that stable foundation—”yet so as by fire;” [1 Corinthians 3:14-15] for that which he possessed with the sweetness of love he does not lose without the sharp sting of pain. Here, then, as seems to me, we have a fire which destroys neither, but enriches the one, brings loss to the other, proves both.
– Augustine, City of God, Book 21, Chapter 26 [City of God was written from A.D. 413-427]
You’ll notice that both of these comments from Augustine are from about the same time, toward the end of his life (he died A.D. 430). In both cases, Augustine uses essentially the same argument about this passage. And we can see, from City of God, what the opinion was of those whom Augustine opposed:
There are some, too, who found upon the expression of Scripture, “He that endures to the end shall be saved,” [Matthew 24:13] and who promise salvation only to those who continue in the Catholic Church; and though such persons have lived badly, yet, say they, they shall be saved as by fire through virtue of the foundation of which the apostle says, “For other foundation has no man laid than that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day of the Lord shall declare it, for it shall be revealed by fire; and each man’s work shall be proved of what sort it is. If any man’s work shall endure which he has built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. But if any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire.” [1 Corinthians 3:11-15] They say, accordingly, that the Catholic Christian, no matter what his life be, has Christ as his foundation, while this foundation is not possessed by any heresy which is separated from the unity of His body. And therefore, through virtue of this foundation, even though the Catholic Christian by the inconsistency of his life has been as one building up wood, hay, stubble, upon it, they believe that he shall be saved by fire, in other words, that he shall be delivered after tasting the pain of that fire to which the wicked shall be condemned at the last judgment.
– Augustine, City of God, Book 21, Chapter 21
Notice that this position that Augustine is opposing is the idea of some Christians being saved after tasting the pain of hellfire for a short time. Now, granted that’s not exactly Purgatory, but you’ll notice that Augustine’s response is not to say that the believers face the fire of Purgatory rather than the fire of hell. Instead he refers this passage to the fire of the tribulations of this life. It is true that Augustine leaves open the possibility of a general posthumous fire through which all men pass:
But if it be said that in the interval of time between the death of this body and that last day of judgment and retribution which shall follow the resurrection, the bodies of the dead shall be exposed to a fire of such a nature that it shall not affect those who have not in this life indulged in such pleasures and pursuits as shall be consumed like wood, hay, stubble, but shall affect those others who have carried with them structures of that kind; if it be said that such worldliness, being venial, shall be consumed in the fire of tribulation either here only, or here and hereafter both, or here that it may not be hereafter—this I do not contradict, because possibly it is true.
– Augustine, City of God, Book 21, Chapter 26
Notice the important differences even between this possibility and Purgatory: (1) the bodies (not the souls) of the dead are exposed to this fire and (2) all of the elect are exposed to the fire (not only those who need purgation). Furthermore, while Augustine says that such may “possibly” be true, he certainly does not affirm that it is true, or say that he believes it to be true.
However, Steve Ray wants to insist that to be in Purgatory is to be present with the Lord. Steve writes:
Third, Purgatory is not “away from the Lord” strictly speaking. Those in Purgatory—whether it is a place or a state of transition—are not apart from the Lord. In fact, it is the love of God that is purifying them. I have always said that Purgatory is like the front porch of heaven. Those who are in Purgatory know they have arrived! But you can read more about that in my article on Purgatory here.
So, don’t let someone trick you with the old “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” argument. It is fallacious and deceptive. Again, the Catholic Church is correct.
Although Mr. Ray loves to claim that the argument from Scripture against Rome’s false doctrine of Purgatory is “fallacious and deceptive,” one should immediately see that Mr. Ray himself is here employing a fallacious and deceptive argument. The love of God is with believers at all times. Indeed, Scripture teaches us that “Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:39)
That means that we have the love of God right now, here on Earth. Consequently, the kind of “present with the Lord” that Paul is talking about cannot possibly have to do with experiencing the love of God, for we experience the love of God now. It has to do, instead, with a presence of location. Christ is physically in heaven now, and we will join him there when we die. Purgatory is not where Christ is, nor should we believe the pushers of transubstantiation who tell us “Lo, here is Christ” in the priest’s hands “or, lo, he is there” in the monstrance (quite the opposite, “And then if any man shall say to you, Lo, here is Christ; or, lo, he is there; believe him not:” Mark 13:21). Instead, Christ is seated at the right hand of God the Father (1 Peter 3:22 Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.), from whence he will come (John 14:28 Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I. ) to judge the world (Psalm 96:13 Before the LORD: for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth: he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth.) at the last day (John 12:48 He that rejecteth me, and receiveth not my words, hath one that judgeth him: the word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.).
Mr. Ray states that he has always said “Purgatory is like the front porch of heaven.” However, Thomas Aquinas (considered a doctor in the Roman Catholic church – and arguably her foremost theologian) states:
Nothing is clearly stated in Scripture about the situation of Purgatory, nor is it possible to offer convincing arguments on this question. It is probable, however, and more in keeping with the statements ofholy men and the revelations made to many, that there is a twofold place of Purgatory. One, according to the common law; and thus the place of Purgatory is situated below and in proximity to hell, so that it is the same fire which torments the damned in hell and cleanses the just in Purgatory; although the damned being lower in merit, are to be consigned to a lower place. Another place of Purgatory is according to dispensation: and thus sometimes, as we read, some are punished in various places, either that the living may learn, or that the dead may be succored, seeing that their punishment being made known to the living may be mitigated through the prayers of the Church.
Some say, however, that according to the common law the place of Purgatory is where man sins. This does not seem probable, since a man may be punished at the same time for sins committed in various places. And others say that according to the common law they are punished above us, because they are between us and God, as regards their state. But this is of no account, for they are not punished for being above us, but for that which is lowest in them, namely sin.
– Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Appendix II (Purgatory), Article 2
By “situation” Thomas means the place where Purgatory is situated, that is, its location. Notice that the first option that Thomas gives is one that represents the teaching that Augustine opposed (namely that the elect taste the fires of hell). The second option that Thomas gives is more broad, but notice that Thomas rules out the possibility that the place of Purgatory is above us, as it would be if it were the front porch of heaven. So while the magisterium of Ray may teach that Purgatory is the front porch of heaven, the traditional teaching in Romanism is that Purgatory is a place of immense suffering, probably adjacent to hell.
But that’s not quite the end. Ray ends his article by providing a caption for one of the pictures that decorate his article. The caption reads:
(Piccture: Purgatory is a place of mercy; it is a place of joy for having arrived.)
(error in original)
Ray’s warm and fuzzy view of purgatory as a place of mercy and joy are not what we would call the traditional view. Traditionally, purgatory is a place of strict justice and misery. The whole point of purgatory is that people have unexpiated guilt for their sins, which guilt is expiated through their suffering. It is only an expression of “mercy” and “joy” in that vicarious acts (alms, masses, and the like) can liberate the person without the person undergoing the full extent of the torture, and the torture is of finite duration, coordinate with the amount of sin that is to be purged. And whatever else Purgatory may be, it is supposed to be a place of transition, not arrival. It is not designed (in Romanist theology) as a destination in itself, but as a means to the end of heaven.
If, as Scripture teaches us, “no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous” (Hebrews 12:11) and if Purgatory is indeed a place of chastening (as the Romanists so frequently allege) then it follows that Purgatory is not a place of joy but of grief. Why does Mr. Ray oppose both the implications of Scripture and the traditional view of his own church? The answer to that question requires speculation.
Possibly, Mr. Ray realizes that the idea of God torturing those he loves after their death is not a doctrine that makes any sense. Perhaps Mr. Ray thinks that the view of Purgatory as a horrible place – a view that helped folks like Tetzel fund papal luxury in the middle ages – is something that is repulsive and repugnant to the folks who Mr. Ray is attempting to convert to Romanism.
Dr. White recently debated Tim Staples on the subject of Purgatory, and particularly touching on the discussion in 1 Corinthians 3, that we’ve analyzed above (link to mp3 of the debate). I had the opportunity to ask a question (at the very end of the question-answer period). The question I asked Mr. Staples was: “Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? It is God that justifieth. Who is he that condemneth?” (Romans 8:33-34) I would ask Mr. Ray the same question.
God justifies the elect. No one is able to lay anything to their charge – not “mortal sins” and not “venial sins.” No one is able to condemn the elect to suffering Purgatory because they are justified by Christ’s righteousness. It is God who justifies – who is the judge that sentences men to Purgatory?