A Discussion Stuck in Limbo
Dear Reader: The following is a fictional conversation written to initiate discussion on an important topic concerning different traditions of the Christian faith. This article is not meant to be a divisive but to spark informative, honest and respectful discussion. One author happens to be Protestant and the other Roman Catholic. We are good friends (so far), go to the same church (somehow), and do not intend to ignite another “holy war” (yet). Instead, we thought this would be an entertaining and humorous way to discuss serious issues of doctrine.
John Paul and Luther Van Calvin, two 16th century commoners, mysteriously find themselves on the campus of the University of Chicago during the University’s club fair orientation. They are unsure of what age of history they are in but through a series of discussions with the locals (and each other), they may soon find out.
Luther Van Calvin: (yawns) Now indeed by the mysterious sovereignty of God I find myself awake in such a peculiar location! (glancing around at the U of C campus) Is this the long awaited Paradise? Pardon me, sir, I see you find yourself in a similar predicament. My name is Luther Van Calvin. Tell me, why are there so many young people roaming about, bustling here and there in such chaotic disarray?
John Paul: I am not sure where we are. Perhaps a type of learning institution. You and I seem to be the few God-fearing people in this place. My name is John Paul. I wonder what all these booths are for? It seems that they are having some kind of club information day. “The Marijuana for Michigan” club? Hmm…Some of these clubs seem questionable. I wonder if the Magisterium has approved of them. Wait a minute, I see your carrying around your Gutenberg Bible. Does that mean you are a Reformer?
LVC: ….Indeed, I do carry with me the Word of God, and I give thanks to the Lord that because of you I am not without a fellow Christ-loving companion…(scanning the booths)…And yet I fear…this place…truly must not be Paradise for His chosen elect. I sense traces of the Fall still lingering in this place…
University of Chicago Student #1: Who are you guys? And interesting outfits you guys got on. Are you hipsters? So, hey, would you sign my petition to save the environment?
LVC: From what does the environment need saving?
University of Chicago Student #2: Are you kidding me? Are you like still in the Dark Ages, man? You know, there was that recent gulf of Mexico oil spill, global warming, off-shore drilling… We are totally destroying this earth for future generations!
LVC: Humans do seem to be treating creation as badly as you say. However, it would seem that humans are the ones who first need to be saved, no?
UofCStudent #1: What? Saved? You mean, like saved from our “sins” or “hell” or something? Oh man, here we go with those Christian fundamentalists again… You know what, forget it. I’ll go talk to that guy over there (walking away and addressing another student).
JP: Interesting… So these young people do not believe in eternal damnation, nor do they fear God’s final judgment. Hopefully they haven’t strayed too far from Christ. Surely there’s a chance for them enter heaven and receive purification through the fires of Purgatory.
LVC: Purgatory? Brother, I do not doubt your sincerity of heart, but here you are badly mistaken on that point. For the Holy Scriptures speak nothing of the sort.
JP: Really? But Revelation teaches that nothing unclean will enter heaven (21:27), and Hebrews tells us that without holiness we cannot see God (Heb 12:14). Alas, I must not be as holy as the Reformers, for even though I have loved Christ since I was a child, I still commit venial sins. Purgatory is meant to cleanse me of this remaining dirt by the fire of God’s love. What a blessing! Praise God!
LVC: Indeed, the Scriptures to which you refer indicate the necessity of being cleansed of our sins to come into God’s holy presence. But it only indicates the necessity of being cleansed and not the necessity of a special place which you call Purgatory. Indeed, if anything, it is a special Person, not a special place that does this purifying work. And the Scriptures clearly say that it is the blood of Christ that cleanses us from our sin (1 John 5:7-10; Heb 10:19), not the fires of Purgatory. Shouldn’t we be worried that the idea of Purgatory will detract from Christ’s work on the cross for our sins? Brother, I fear you are adding to scripture which the book of Revelation firmly condemns.
JP: I would never do such a thing! Nor would I take away from scripture (winking at Luther Van Calvin). The emphasis in Purgatory is also a Person and not a place. The tradition of the Church has always conceptualized Purgatory as a process in which we encounter the consuming fire of our God (Hebrews 12:29). Both Saint Peter and Saint Paul spoke of such a process where we would be purified by fire (Peter 1:6-7; 1 Cor 3:15). Can the wonderful light of God detract from God? Purgatory is just a process by which you are clothed with the fire of God in preparation for the wedding feast. What guest would enter his gracious master’s home without proper attire (Matt 22:11-14)?
LVC: Indeed, but this proper attire is already given to us when we clothe ourselves with Christ (Rom 13:14). I wonder, my dear friend, whether you are confusing Purgatory with the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. All the Scriptures from which you quote about the consuming, purifying fire of God refers to the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. Remember it was the Spirit-like tongues of fire that descended on the believers on Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), and John the Baptist refers to the work of the Spirit as fire (Lk 3:15-18). Although I agree with you that this fiery, consuming, purifying work of the Spirit is a process, I do not think Scripture gives us evidence to think of Purgatory as a place of any kind.
JP: But brother, the passages are specifically referring to an afterlife. Have you ever considered Matthew 12:32 where Jesus says that a word against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven in this age or in the next age to come? What age could that be if there is no forgiveness in heaven?
LVC: The Age to Come is not referring to Purgatory, brother, but more likely the period of end times when Christ returns. For when Christ returns, 1 John 3:2-3 says that when he appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see him as He is. The Apostle John does not say that when he returns, we first go to Purgatory for purification and then we shall be like our Lord Jesus; it simply says that we will be like Christ — which the Apostle Paul says will happen in a flash, in a twinkle of an eye (1 Cor 15:52). Unless you think that during that brief moment of a twinkle of an eye, we undertake a momentary trip to Purgatory.
JP: You know your Bible well. But keep in mind that the Greek, ” in the next” (en to mellonti) generally refers to the afterlife (see, for example, Mark 10.30; Luke 18.30). But I suppose it could mean the Second Coming. What about when Jesus asked us to come to terms with our opponents or we would be handed over to the judge and thrown into prison where we would not get out until we have paid every last penny (Matthew 5:26;18:34; Luke12:58-59)? Or the story about the unmerciful servant who was sent to a prison and not released until he payed back what he owed (Matt 13:32-34)? What else could this prison be? Surely there is no escape from hell, and obviously we wouldn’t want to escape from heaven, as there are no debts to be paid in heaven. So, logically, purgatory must surely exist.
LVC: Remember, brother, that Jesus is speaking in parables to communicate a spiritual truth and does not necessarily describe something literal with every detail in the parable. The point of the parables you quote is the truth of God’s judgment for those who don’t repent. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a literal prison that collects every last penny. Jesus simply communicates that sin requires punishment. And you are correct in the sense that our sin does need to be paid. But, fortunately, our Lord Jesus paid our sin-debt in full when he said on the cross, “It is finished.” No need to pay any more pennies there. Brother, it is finished! (John 19:30).
JP: Yes, not all parables are meant to be taken literally. But if Purgatory wasn’t meant to be taken literally, then why did Jesus use the same image in so many descriptions of the afterlife? Why would he bother differentiating between the two types of afterlife (neither of which refer to hell) in multiple passages? For example, the story of the master who beats the slaves but allows them to live. Or when St. Peter talked about Christ preaching to the spirits in prison? (1 Pe 3:18; 4:6) Peter uses the word prison, the exact same word Jesus used.
LVC: Hmm…I confess the 1 Peter passage is a difficult one to interpret (1 Pe 3:18), and at first glance it does appear to provide support for your position. But I believe this prison of the spirits refers to Hades. This reminds me that when we recite the Apostle’s Creed, we affirm that Jesus descended into Hades. I am not exactly sure what Hades is, but this could be the Paradise of the dead where the Old Testament saints were located before the coming of Christ. They were all awaiting the Messiah’s promised coming until Christ, after his crucifixion, descended to them in Hades and bore witness to them the Gospel.
JP: So you do grant that there might be a place that is not heaven, nor hell, but some intermediary place which I call Purgatory but which you call Hades?
LVC: Yes, tentatively, but I would not martyr myself over this belief. And you too have to grant, however, that nowhere in this passage does St. Peter talk about this prison as being a place where people are trying to pay off their sins, or “pay every last penny.” It may be a prison in the sense that the spirits of Old Testament saints were held there before Christ, but such a prison of Hades must no longer be necessary in the era of Christ. For now that Christ finished the work of salvation, we can say like Apostle Paul that when we die, we are “absent from the body” but will be “present with the Lord”! (2 Cor 5:8)
JP: Brother, I have to honestly say that you are completely misinterpreting Scripture. I should say a rosary for you.
LVC: Indeed, the basis of both our positions all rest on a particular interpretation of Scripture. We seem to be at an impasse. You defend your position with Scripture; I defend mine with Scripture. We each accuse the other of misinterpreting Scripture. Who then gets the final word? Who is the final arbiter?
JP: That is why we need a Magisterium, don’t you think?
LVC: Good question, brother. Let’s discuss that next time. For now, Let us simply open up it up for discussion at UBFriends. Does Purgatory exist?