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Gregory Koukl

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When we die, must we be cleansed with further suffering? Greg shows how the supposed biblical reference to purgatory doesn't hold water.

I'd mentioned an embarrassing circumstance where I missed a debate on the air in Southern California because I wasn't informed of it actually, the details of when and where and all that, so I missed it. But in the context of that discussion there were some questions about the issue of purgatory.

Now, I was raised Roman Catholic and many of you know that. I didn't get the gospel, frankly, when I was in the Roman Catholic Church. Some do, I didn't. I didn't become a Christian. I'd been a member of the church (or a participant) but I don't consider that genuine Christianity, sitting in a church or doing church things.

I didn't have a genuine personal faith until I was 23 years old and I'd left the church and done my own thing for awhile. Then I came back around through a simple proclamation of the gospel by my brother Mark. He told me things I'd never heard before. What he told me was about forgiveness that comes in Jesus Christ and that it's a forgiveness that is a present possession which results in the knowledge and assurance of eternal life.

I thought forgiveness was a once-a-week thing and eternal life was not anything you could know for sure. You just hoped you had it if you were good enough. No one was ultimately good enough to go directly to heaven. Everybody had their own sins to deal with. So even if you died in a "state of grace"--to use the terminology that was shared with me at the time--you still had the impurities of sin upon your soul, and you had to have those impurities cleansed away.

Now, the way it was represented to me was that I was paying for my sins. (There may be others who find a different way of explaining that, because it does seem to go against the work of the cross if Jesus paid for our sins.) But the fact is, whether I was paying for my sins or just being cleansed--however you want to spin that theologically-- it still felt the same way. Because before I could get into heaven I had to go to a place to be purged called purgatory. This is what I was taught. The purging process was not pleasant. It was painful, very painful. It was agonizing because I was being cleansed of my sins. Whether I was being punished for my sins or not is incidental because it feels the same way.

The issue came up Monday evening as the gentleman representing the Roman Catholic position was discussing Roman Catholicism. Somebody called and asked a question about purgatory. He gave his response.

There was also a big article in yesterday's edition of the L.A. Times on purgatory and how it has fallen out of favor with many Catholics. One in four polled don't even believe in it. More Protestants seem to be interested in the notion, which seems kind of ironic. They quote Peter Kreeft, a philosopher over at Boston University--a Roman Catholic Christian philosopher representing the Roman Catholic position-- and Gary Habermaas at Liberty University, a Christian apologist Protestant talking from the other side, back and forth. They give some history of it and of course they quote St. Augustine, who seemed to be in favor of the notion. They quote Macabees which has a reference to it and is a text which the Roman Catholic Church considers canonical. See The Apocrypha

They also quote C.S. Lewis, who identifies what he considers the need for something like purgatory. Lewis says this, "Our souls demand purgatory, don't they? Even if God doesn't mind people entering heaven dripping with mud and slime, should we not reply, `I'd rather be cleansed first,' even if it may hurt?" This is the quote of Lewis' in the L.A. Times . This was the rationale that was offered by the gentleman who defended the notion last week.

I'd like to speak to it very quickly because I think there are a couple of things we can learn from this particular issue. What was offered was basically one main argument--the argument Lewis just gave us--and one proof text. I'd like to talk briefly about both the argument and the proof text because I think it teaches us something about studying the Bible and coming to some conclusions about spiritual truth.

The argument is simply this: Though Jesus has forgiven our sins, we still need to be cleansed of our sins and, since God cannot countenance evil, He can't have evil in a perfectly good heaven (in other words a heaven where there is perfect goodness and there is no moral flaw). Therefore, we cannot enter heaven in a position of moral inadequacy and we must go through a period of purging in which our sins and our sinful character is purged and perfected and transformed so that we might enter heaven in perfection.

The argument is offered that we need something like this, don't we? It seems to make sense that we can't get into heaven impure and so we need something like this in order to be cleansed so we can be with God in heaven. Forgiveness is important, but is not enough to usher us immediately into the presence of the Father. Instead, what we need, in a sense, is to be ontologically cleansed. It's not just that the books are balanced and so we are exonerated with regard to the law. That is forgiveness. But we need to have a transformation in our substance, in our being itself. It is flawed, it is imperfect, it is incomplete. It must be repaired before we can enter heaven.

That's the justification for purgatory. There seems to be scriptural support for such a thing and the scripture referenced is in I Corinthians 3:10-15. (This is the New Testament scripture as opposed to the Macabees text, whose canonicity is in question. We'll set that aside for the moment. At least this is the New Testament text which is quoted.) Here's how it reads:

    "According to the grace of God which was given to me as a wise master builder, I laid a foundation and another is building upon it. But let each man be careful how he builds upon it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man's work will become evident for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. If any man's work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work is burnt up, he shall suffer loss, but he himself shall be saved yet so as through fire."

The author is the Apostle Paul. It is suggested to us that this is a reference to purgatory because clearly, there is fire and there is purging and there is cleansing. It says here (as the speaker on Monday pointed out) if any man's work is burned up, he shall suffer loss. Not just is the work lost, but he shall suffer loss, which seems to indicate that the man himself will be purged and cleansed. He will still be saved, but as through fire. So he goes through a cleansing process, the text allegedly teaches, but he will ultimately go to heaven.

I want to respond in two ways. First of all, I think it's not good exegesis. It seems to conflict with other passages, in addition to that. So does the one main argument. If the main argument isn't a good one and the text doesn't refer to it, then I don't think the doctrine can be maintained. If you look at the details in 1 Corinthians 3 and you read those verses, you will never find purgatory in there unless you bring the idea to the text. That's my concern. If you look at this, it talks about salvation that is based on Christ, the foundation, and then we ultimately work to build upon it. We may build well and we may build poorly, or a mixture. Gold, silver, precious stones or wood, hay, straw.

Now, keep in mind this is metaphoric language, obviously, because we're not building with gold or straw. We're building with things that have durability and value and other things that don't have durability and value. And then God says He will test the work we build on the foundation, which is Christ, and the work will be tested by fire, as it were. The fire is a metaphor also, because the fire can burn up the wood, hay, straw--the temporal things--but it can't burn up gold, silver, precious stone.

I guess what I'm trying to appeal to here is a common sense use of words. This is metaphoric. It's metaphoric for whatever it is that we build--it will be tested. Some will endure and some won't. That which won't endure will be lost. Notice what's being tested. Not the man, not his being that is burned and purged of sinful tendencies, but rather his work. What seemed to be compelling to the Roman Catholic apologist is the phrase "he will suffer loss," as if the pain and the purging was going to happen to his person and was evident in the phrase "he will suffer loss."

But let me ask you a question. If you have a bright, shiny new car and someone blows it up, do you suffer loss? Of course you do. You lose this other thing. this possession of yours which is now destroyed. But he doesn't blow you up. When you say you suffer loss it doesn't mean that you're blown up. Yes, If any man's work which he has built upon this foundation remains, as Paul says in verse 14, he shall receive a reward. But if his work is burned up, he suffers loss. Nothing mystical or magical about that. It's very straightforward. But he himself shall be saved yet as through fire. In other words, the things that he's taking with him will be burned up but he's okay. He's safe. The point I'm making here is there's no reason whatsoever to infer from this passage purgatory.

In fact, if purgatory were somewhere in the Bible, don't you think it would be taught? Don't you think it would be told to us: You won't go immediately to heaven; you'll go to a temporary place in which you'll be transformed in the painful process of purging before you can be with the Lord. It's not there, that's what I'm saying. This is a foreign doctrine that is brought into the Scriptures and then someone searches for a hint somewhere to justify the doctrine.

In fact, the Scripture teaches quite differently--the same author to the same people. In 2 Corinthians 5:8, Paul says, "I prefer rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord." No intermediate stage. Paul says to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.

What about cleansing of impurities? It isn't like you have spiritual mud on yourself with evil deeds on your soul. That isn't what an impurity is. An impurity is simply a moral privation. You're missing something that should be there. You don't have dirty stuff on you, ladies and gentlemen. Evil isn't a dirty, slimy ooze that floats through the universe and gloms onto us and causes us to look filthy before God. Evil is a description of a privation of good. We're missing something. We're missing perfect goodness. So, there's nothing to be burned out in purgatory, first of all. Certainly we can be improved, obviously, but how is the improvement done?

Paul says this to the people in Corinth, in 2 Corinthians 3:18: "We all with unveiled face beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory." In other words, it is beholding the Lord Jesus that transforms us from morally imperfect to moral perfection. The text also says in another place that, when we see Him, we shall be like Him because we will see Him as He is. 1 Corinthians 13, same book. So Paul's answer is a different answer than our Roman Catholic friends give to this issue.

Transformation is accomplished by the work of Christ and the writer of Hebrews makes that, I think, eminently clear. Look carefully at Hebrews 9:27-10:18. That whole section there. It says the law and its sacrifices are not able to make perfect those who draw near. That's why Jesus came to do God's will. He takes on a body. The Holy Spirit then bears witness to us because of Jesus, as it says in Hebrews 10:10, that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And that's why it says in Hebrews 10:17 "their sins and lawless deeds I will remember no more."

Now the writer of Hebrews says that Old Testament sacrifice couldn't cleanse you; that's why Jesus had to come. Jesus cleanses you. He just doesn't wipe the list away. You are cleansed by the blood of Christ and because of that there is this wonderful application in Hebrews 10:19-23:

    "Since therefore brethren we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated through the veil that is His flesh, we have a great priest over the house of God. Let us draw near with sincere heart and full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful."

Very clear, very straightforward teaching that we have been fully cleansed and therefore we have the privilege of going right into the holy of holies in the presence of Jesus Christ. This is the explicit teaching of Scripture.

No purgatory, ladies and gentlemen. Rather, to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord. We will be with Him because we have already been cleansed by the blood of Christ.

©1995 Gregory Koukl  Reproduction permitted for non-commercial use only.



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