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Purgatory’s Purifying Fire

Catholics often appeal to 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 to support the Catholic dogma of purgatory:

For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

But your Protestant friend may be ready for this text with his own objections. We saw one common response in “Testing a Biblical Objection to Purgatory.” Let’s take a look at a few more here.

A Protestant may object that Paul says nothing about purification because the Greek word katharizo, which means “to purify,” is not in the text. It’s not—but it doesn’t follow that Paul isn’t talking about purification. According to that logic, we’d have to say that the New Testament doesn’t teach the doctrine of the Trinity because it never uses the word.

So, the word isn’t there; but is there any evidence that the idea of purification is?

The idea of purification connotes the separation of good from bad. For example, the process of refining gold results in a separation of the gold from impurities. Is this separation motif present in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15? Yes. The good building materials (gold, precious stones, and silver) are separated from the bad building materials (wood, hay, and straw).

Furthermore, the imagery of fire conjures up the motif of purification. Peter uses it in 1 Peter 1:7 with reference to testing gold, and says that our sufferings test the genuineness of our faith. The Psalmist describes God testing Israel as through fire: “For thou, O God, hast tested us; thou hast tried us as silver is tried . . . we went through fire and through water” (Ps. 66:10,12). Isaiah describes God’s redemption of Israel in a similar way, saying that God will cleanse Jerusalem and the daughters of Zion by “a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning” (Isa. 4:4). The seraphim in Isaiah 6:6-7 purifies the “guilt” of Isaiah and takes away his sins by touching his lips with a “burning coal.”

Since Scripture uses the metaphor of fire to convey the idea of testing and purification, and Paul uses fire as a metaphor in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 within a context of testing the quality of works, it’s reasonable to conclude that Paul is describing an event that involves purification.

A third piece of evidence for the purification motif is the idea of judgment. Recall that the prophet Malachi describes God’s judgment as a “refiner’s fire,” and notes that God will “sit as a refiner” purifying the sons of Levi and refining them like gold and silver (Mal. 3:2-3). Given that Scripture describes God’s judgment as a purifying fire, it’s reasonable to infer that Paul’s description of the fiery judgment in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 speaks of purification.

Your Protestant friend may concede a purification theme but object that it’s only the works that are being purified, not the individual. Protestant apologists Norman Geisler and Ralph Mackenzie use this counter in their book Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences.

How should we respond?

First, it’s true that the fire tests the works. But these works represent a person’s actions: whether they contributed to the building up of the Church or not. And it seems difficult to conceive a mode in which a person’s actions would be tested or purified apart from the person himself. Our actions don’t float around somewhere separate from us as we stand by as an onlooker. Our deeds are connected to us, since they proceed from our will. They determine our moral character, whether for the good or bad. So if the builder’s actions (“works”) are being tested by fire, then it seems reasonable to conclude that the builder is being tested by fire as well.

Second, Paul indicates that the testing of the works will have some sort of purifying effect on the builder, for if the works are burned up “he will suffer loss.” Even if the loss were merely a loss of a greater reward in heaven (since he’s still saved—v. 15), and not the sufferings that result in the soul being purified of venial sin (see the Catechism 1031), the loss still would have a corresponding existential effect.

For example, the builder would have some sort of negative experience for losing the reward. Also, he would be disabused of the false notion that some of his works were good and thus achieve a greater spiritual enlightenment about the nature of his deeds.

Moreover, Paul makes explicit that the builder, along with his works, will go through the purifying fire: “he will be saved, but only as through fire” (v. 15). This envisions a man escaping from a burning building that he built. It would be an unpleasant and shameful experience to watch the house that you built go up in flames, knowing that you could have used better material than wood, hay, and straw to build your house. The purifying fire that tests the builder’s works is the same purifying fire that tests the builder, making him fit to receive his final salvation: the Beatific Vision.

There’s one last counter that your Protestant friend might make. The text speaks only of the builder being purified by fire; in context, this refers to ministers who build up the local churches after Paul (or another apostle) has laid the foundation. It doesn’t say anything about everyday Christians experiencing this purification. 

But even if Paul were only speaking of the minister, it would still be reasonable to apply the passage to all Christians. Paul describes what happens on the day of judgment—either at the end of our lives or at the end of the world, whichever comes first. And since all Christians will be judged (Rom. 2:6-7), it’s reasonable to think that the same principles of judgment would apply: testing of works and purification.

The wider context of the passage seems to support this view. Paul includes all Christians in his subsequent warnings about judgment. In v. 16, Paul refers to the Corinthians as God’s temple. In the next verse he warns that “if any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him.”

Paul has in mind the factions that the Corinthians were creating in their church. Some were saying “I belong to Paul,” and others, “I belong to Apollos” (v. 4). Paul sees such factionist activity as destroying the Church, the direct opposite of building up the Church. If in v. 17 Paul warns the Corinthians—and by way of extension all Christians—about judgment, then it seems reasonable that he would intend the principles of judgment he lays out in vv. 11-15 to apply to them as well, and not just to ministers.

Finally, there is evidence that Paul envisions all Christians participating in the work of building up the Church. For example, in Ephesians 4 Paul tells us that not only apostles and pastors build up the body of Christ (which we know to be the Church—Col. 1:24), but also “prophets,” “evangelists,” and “teachers” (v. 12).  In 1 Corinthians 14:12, Paul widens the scope even more to include all Christians: “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, strive to excel in building up the church” (emphasis added).

After responding to all these objections to 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, we come out with a picture that looks a lot like purgatory. It’s a state of existence in the afterlife where souls are being purified in some fashion based on the works they’ve done in life, whether for good or bad. This state of existence is not heaven, because the individual going through the purifying fire is suffering loss. And it can’t be hell, because the individual is guaranteed salvation. That pretty much fits the bill of purgatory: “[The] final purification of the elect . . . so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030).

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