Purgatory

Question
Please explain this myth about purgatory, how untrue is it? Isn't it true that, once you've been saved, to be absent in the body is to be present with the Lord? Then what is this afar-off place that the Bible was talking about in Luke 16:23?
Answer
The doctrine of purgatory taught by the Roman Catholic Church does not find sufficient support in Scripture, although it appeals for such to biblical examples of temporal punishment/discipline of believers (e.g. Num. 20:12). These examples, however, do not refer to temporal punishment after death, and are best explained as disciplinary devices (Heb. 12). It also appeals to passages like 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, in which Paul spoke of fire that would destroy men's work. However, in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 it is the work of the church planters/leaders that will be tested by fire, not the church planters/leaders themselves. Those works not founded on Christ will be consumed by the fire, whereas those founded on Christ will earn heavenly rewards (cf. Matt. 6:20; 1 Cor. 9:17; 2 John 1:8). To be saved "as through fire" simply means that one will have few or no possessions/rewards, as if one's home had burned to the ground.

The doctrine of purgatory expresses the Roman Catholic idea that that unrepented venial sins must be punished temporally, and that the temporal punishment due these sins that has not been meted out prior to one's death must be meted out in purgatory after one's death. Protestants, on the other hand, correctly argue that all the punishment due believers fell upon Christ at the Cross, including all temporal punishment (Rom. 8:1-4; Col. 2:14; Heb. 10:12-14; 1 Pet. 2:24). Because Christ's sacrifice was sufficient and effective, believers can never suffer God's punishment (temporal or eternal), but only his loving discipline (Heb. 12).

An important teaching which refutes the idea of purgatory is union with Christ. Believers are united to Christ in such a way that they share Christ's own righteous status before God (Gal. 3:16-29). Perfect forgiveness is had by all who are united to Christ because they died with him on the cross (Rom. 6:3-4), and because their lives are hidden in him (Gal. 2:20; Col. 3:3). Believers are counted as having paid for their sins in full, so God will never punish/judge them for their sins (though he may discipline them in love, not in judgment).

While it is true that believers must live lives of repentance and confession (1 John 1:9), it is also true that God is not keeping a ledger of sins which have been confessed/repented of and others which have not. Confession and repentace in the life of a believer are important elements of sanctification, but there is not a one-to-one relationship between our confession/repentance and our forgiveness. Rather, John was teaching that the life of a believer is characterized by repentance and confession, and that all believers receive the benefit of cleansing and forgiveness. As John assures us in 1 John 2:1-2, whenever we sin Christ himself intercedes on our behalf, pleading his shed blood in payment for our sins (Heb. 9:12-14). His intercession for us is constant and effective (Rom. 8:34), as is the Holy Spirit's (Rom. 8:26-27). This intercession does not deflect discipline (which results from God's love and mercy), but it does deflect any and all punishment (which results from God's justice and wrath).

When believers are absent from the body (dead), their souls are present with the Lord in heaven (2 Cor. 5:8). The "far away" place of Abraham's bosom (Luke 16:22-23) is somewhat controversial, there being a debate over the nature of the passage (is it a parable, or a historical account?). At any rate, one may well argue that Abraham's bosom is heaven itself, and that hell/hades is the place of torment for the damned souls who will eventually be thrown into hell at the last judgment. Thus, being in Abraham's bosom in this passage equates to being with the Lord (the Lord is there now, as well as Abraham). Of course, at the time Jesus taught this, it was not yet true that to be absent from the body was to be present with the Lord insofar as one understands Jesus Christ to be the "Lord" to whom Paul referred in 2 Corinthians 5:8 -- Jesus had not yet ascended to heaven.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.