Between heaven & earth

“Some Protestants pose a general scriptural objection to Catholic teaching on purgatory: that the doctrine of purgatory contradicts the Bible’s teaching on the immediacy of heaven after death. There are three passages that Protestants commonly appeal to:

  • Luke 23:43—Jesus promises the good thief on the cross to be with him in Paradise on that day.
  • 2 Corinthians 5:6-8—“While we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord . . . we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”
  • Philippians 1:23—“I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

Protestants who make this argument see each passage teaching that a believer enters heaven immediately after death. This doesn’t leave any room for an intermediate state like purgatory.

What can we say in response?

Let’s first take Luke 23:43, the passage about the good thief on the cross. After the good thief asks Jesus to remember him when he enters into his kingdom, Jesus says in response, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Protestants who appeal to this passage argue that if heaven is given to the good thief on that day, then there’s no need for any sort of final purification.

The first thing we can say in response is that the challenge assumes that “paradise” is heaven. But that is not necessarily true. “Paradise” (Greek, paradeisos) could be referring to the “dwelling place of the righteous dead in a state of blessedness,” which at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t heaven because Jesus had not yet ascended (CCC 661, 1023). And this probably is how the good thief would have understood it, given that he wasn’t aware of any revelation concerning the Christian concept of the beatific vision.

Such a place was instead the “prison” to which Jesus went after his death in order to preach to the spirits held there (1 Pet. 3:19; cf. CCC 633). So on that day, Jesus may have been promising to be with the good thief in the abode of the dead, not heaven. In that case, this verse does not rule out the good thief ’s (or anyone else’s) need for final purification before entrance into heaven.

Even if we say for argument’s sake that Jesus was talking about heaven when he spoke of “paradise,” and the good thief was going to receive heaven on that day without a final purification, it wouldn’t disprove the existence of purgatory. The Church teaches that it’s possible someone can have such a fervent degree of charity at death that it’s sufficient to remit all guilt of venial sin and satisfy the temporal punishment due for his sin and thus bypass purgatory (CCC 1022, 1472). The good thief may have been one of those people.

Moreover, the good thief was suffering on a cross for his crime. He was being justly punished for his crime and voluntarily embracing it as such: “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds” (v.41). The good thief’s suffering, therefore, could have been sufficient to free him from the temporal punishment due for his sins. And since Jesus’ promise to be with him in “paradise” implies that his sins were forgiven, it’s possible the good thief didn’t have to experience any postmortem purification.

This challenge assumes, grammatically, that “today” refers to the time when the good thief will be with Jesus in paradise. This is due to the punctuation in the English translation: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” But there are no punctuation marks in the original Greek. So the passage could be read as, “Truly, I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise.” On this reading, “today” refers not to when the good thief will be with Jesus in paradise, but to when Jesus tells the good thief that he will be with him in paradise.

Let’s now consider the objection from 2 Corinthians 5:6-8. Paul writes, “While we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord . . . we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.”

Some Protestants argue that 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. Yet they fail to note that Paul doesn’t say “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 I could instead be away from work and at home. Can we conclude from this that if I’m away from work, I must 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.

The third passage that some Protestants use to support the immediacy of heaven after death is Philippians 1:23. Paul writes, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

In response, it’s important that we first establish the context for what Paul is saying. He is expressing a conflict, for he writes, “I am hard pressed between the two” (v.23). What are the two things that he’s in conflict about?

He’s torn between living and serving Christ on earth and being with him in heaven. In verses 22-23, he writes, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If it is to be life in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two.”

Then in verses 24-25, he writes, “But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all.”

All Paul is saying, then, is that his desire to serve Christ on earth conflicts with his desire to be with him in heaven. Paul doesn’t say this union takes place immediately after death, nor does the context suggest that he intends to say this in some implicit way.

Our Protestant friend might object, “You’re just begging the question. Paul is saying that this union takes place immediately after death because he says, ‘I desire to depart and be united with Christ.’”

But the unity that the two concepts have (departure from this life and union with Christ) doesn’t mean they must be simultaneously concurrent in time.

Similar to what we saw above, there is a conceptual unity between “being away from work” and “being at home with my family.” But that doesn’t entail that both concepts are united in time, since I have to drive home, and on the way I may be impeded by errands, traffic, or a flat tire. So just because Paul desires to depart and be with Christ, that doesn’t mean departing this life must immediately be followed with being with Christ in heaven.

Trent Horn makes a great comparison to illustrate this point. Consider 2 Corinthians 5:2, where Paul writes concerning our glorified bodies, “Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling.”

If we were to follow the logic of the immediacy objection, we’d have to say that because Paul desires to die and have his glorified body, after death he immediately gets his glorified body. But we know from 1 Corinthians 15:52 that we will not get our glorified bodies until the future at the end of time, for Paul speaks of the “last trumpet” in verse 52.

So the fact that Paul desires to have his glorified body after death doesn’t mean that he will get it immediately after death. Similarly, just because Paul desires to depart and be united with Christ, it doesn’t follow that his union with Christ will be immediate.

Therefore, the appeal to passages where Paul expresses his desire to depart from the body and be present with Christ fails to undermine the Catholic belief in purgatory.”

Love,
Matthew

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