THE PROTESTANT CHALLENGE: How can the Catholic Church teach that there is an intermediate state after death, like purgatory, when the Bible says that the only place for a Christian to be (besides this life) is heaven?
Referring to a soul’s “entrance into the blessedness of heaven,” the Catechism teaches that it will enter either “through a purification or immediately” (1022). This presupposes that it’s possible for a soul to die in God’s friendship but yet not be present with the Lord in heaven. Some Protestants view Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 as contradicting this belief. Paul writes:
“So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord…and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
Since the Bible says that for a Christian to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord,” there can’t be any intermediate state in the afterlife.
MEETING THE CHALLENGE
1. Paul doesn’t say what the challenge assumes he says.
Protestants who appeal to this passage often fail to realize that Paul doesn’t say that “to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord.” Paul simply says, “While we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord” and that “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” Protestants may reply that although Paul doesn’t exactly say what the challenge claims, that’s what he means. Are they right? Does the logic follow? Does the statement, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” mean the same as, “To be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord”?
Suppose I’m at work, and I’m wishing that I could instead be away from work, and at home. Can we conclude from this that if I’m away from work, I must automatically be at home? Doesn’t seem like it. I could be away from work, eating lunch at McDonald’s. I could be away from work, on my way home, but sitting in traffic. So, it’s fallacious to conclude from this verse that, once away from the body, a Christian must immediately be present with the Lord.
2. Even if we concede the interpretation of 2 Corinthians 5:8 that the challenge asserts, it still doesn’t rule out purgatory.
But let’s assume for argument’s sake that the interpretation this challenge offers of 2 Corinthians 5:8 is true, and that to be away from the body is to be immediately present with the Lord. That still wouldn’t pose a threat to purgatory.
First, because the challenge assumes that purgatory involves a period of time (during which we are “away from the body” but not “with the Lord”). But as we’ve seen, the Catholic Church has never defined the precise nature of the duration of purgatory. We simply don’t know what the experience of time is beyond this life. If purgatory did not involve a duration of time as we know it, it would be perfectly compatible with the challenge’s interpretation of this verse.
A second reason is that the challenge assumes purgatory is a state of existence away from the Lord. But, as we have also seen, purgatory could very well be that encounter with the Lord that we experience in our particular judgment, as we “appear before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10). This makes sense because Paul describes the soul’s judgment as being one of a purifying fire (1 Cor. 3:11-15). It makes sense for God’s presence, not his absence, to be part of our soul’s purification.
COUNTER-CHALLENGE: Shouldn’t you make sure that the Bible passage you use to challenge a Catholic belief actually says what you think it says?
AFTERTHOUGHT: The early Christian writer Tertullian (c. A.D. 160-220) affirms the existence of a state after death before entering heaven when he writes, “Inasmuch as we understand the prison pointed out in the Gospel to be Hades [Matt. 5:25], and as we also interpret the uttermost farthing to mean the very smallest offense which has to be recompensed there before the resurrection, no one will hesitate to believe that the soul undergoes in Hades some compensatory discipline, without prejudice to the full process of the resurrection.”