Purgatory & 2 Cor 5:8

Every Catholic has heard the challenge:

“How can you believe that? Don’t you know the Bible says…”

It’s a challenge we have to meet. If we can’t reconcile apparent contradictions between Scripture and Catholic teaching, how can our own faith survive? And if we can’t help our Protestant brothers and sisters overcome their preconceptions about “unbiblical” Catholic doctrines and practices, how will they ever come to embrace the fullness of the Faith?

In these excerpts from Meeting the Protestant Challenge, Karlo Broussard gives an example of how to counteract the Protestant claims about Purgatory and the rapture

“At Home with the Lord”
2 Corinthians 5:8 and Purgatory

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” (CCC 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.”

“Caught Up with the Lord in the Air”
1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 and the Rapture

THE PROTESTANT CHALLENGE: How can the Catholic Church teach that faithful Christians will experience the final trial when the Bible teaches that Christians will be raptured before such a time?

The Catechism says that that the Church “must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers,” and such a persecution will “unveil the ‘mystery of iniquity’ in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth.” And this religious deception will be “that of the Antichrist” (675).

But some Protestants believe that the Bible teaches otherwise: that Christians will not experience the persecution of the Antichrist but will be snatched up by the Lord prior to it. This is a doctrine known as the pre-tribulation Rapture.

The passage they often appeal to is 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, which reads,

For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.

Protestants argue that Paul can’t be talking about the Second Coming here, because Jesus only comes part-way down and then goes back up. Moreover, because no judgment of the nations is mentioned, like we see in Matthew 25:31-46 and Revelation 20, it must be referring to the “rapture.”

MEETING THE CHALLENGE

1. The challenge misreads the text as a partial coming-from and return back to heaven.

Verse 15 reads that the Lord will “descend from heaven with a cry of command.” But nowhere does Paul actually say that Jesus returns to heaven. If Jesus’ descent is definitive, it’s not a partial coming like the pre-tribulation rapture requires it to be.

But what are we to make of Paul’s description that the saints who are alive will be “caught up…to meet the Lord in the air”? A possible interpretation is that Paul is describing how Christians will meet the Lord in the air to escort him, in a way that is analogous to the ancient custom of citizens ushering in important visitors.

It was common for citizens to meet an illustrious person (such as dignitary or victorious military leader) and his entourage outside the walls of their city and accompany him back in. This was a way for people to honor the visitor and take part in the celebration of the visitor’s coming.

We see an example of this in Acts 28:14-15, where the brethren at Rome went out of the city to meet Paul as he approached: “And so we came to Rome. And the brethren there, when they heard of us, came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us.” This ancient custom also explains why the crowds go out to meet Jesus on Palm Sunday and usher him into Jerusalem (see Matt. 21:1-17).

So, for Paul, those who are alive at the Second Coming will do for our blessed Lord what the ancients did for their dignitaries: they will be caught up in the air to meet the approaching king Jesus and escort him as he “descend[s] from heaven with a cry of command” (1 Thess. 4:16).

2. The details of the passage reveal that Paul is talking about the final coming of Jesus at the end of time.

Notice that it’s not just the living who are caught up with the Lord, but also the dead in Christ: “And the dead in Christ will rise first” (v.16). That Paul speaks of the resurrection of the dead tells us that he’s referring to the end of time.

We know this for several reasons. First, Paul states in 1 Corinthians 15 that the end happens in tandem with the resurrection of the dead:

For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power (1 Cor. 15:22-24).

If Paul viewed the resurrection of the dead as occurring in tandem with the end of time, and if he speaks of the resurrection of the dead in tandem with Christ’s coming in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, it follows that Christ’s coming in those verses is His coming at the end of time and not the beginning of a pre-tribulation rapture.

A second reason why we know Paul is talking about the end of time is because when he speaks about the “coming of the Lord” in 2 Thessalonians, he says that the Antichrist and his reign of evil must precede it:

Now concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling to meet him him, we beg you, brethren, not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word, or by letter purporting to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God. Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you this? And you know what is restraining him now so that he may be revealed in his time. For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only He who now restrains it will do so until he is out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of His mouth and destroy him by His appearing and His coming (2 Thess. 2:1-8).

It’s clear that Paul is connecting the “coming of our Lord” here in 2 Thessalonians and the “coming of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 4:15, because he speaks of “our assembling to meet Him.”

So, if the “coming of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 must be preceded by the Antichrist and his reign of evil, those verses can’t be referring to a pre-tribulation rapture. Rather, they must refer to our Lord’s coming at the end of time, when he vanquishes all evil and condemns those “who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness” (2 Thess. 2:12).

A final clue for this being the final day of judgment is the fact that the Lord will descend with “the sound of the trumpet of God” (v.16). Paul speaks of the same trumpet when he describes the resurrection of the dead at the end of time:

Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:51-53).

Since in Paul’s mind, the trumpet is associated with the resurrection of the dead at the end of time, and he speaks of it when describing the “coming of the Lord” in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, we can conclude that the “coming of the Lord” that Paul writes of in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17 is the final coming at the end of time.

COUNTER-CHALLENGE: How can a text be used to support an idea when the text never mentions that idea?

AFTERTHOUGHT: The rapture is often portrayed as a “secret coming” of Jesus. But in 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, Paul describes Christ’s coming with “the sound of the trumpet of God.” There is nothing secret about descending with the sound of a trumpet!

Love, pray for me,
Matthew

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