“Where’s purgatory in the Bible?” Protestants ask this all the time.
Any Catholic who is familiar with apologetics knows to answer with 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:
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, straw— 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.
Paul is talking about the day of judgment that comes after death (see Hebrews 9:27). And in light of the “fire” that tests the quality of a person’s works, Catholics argue that the person is being purified. Fire is used metaphorically in Scripture as a purifying agent—in Matthew 3:2-3,11 and Mark 9:49—and as that which consumes: Matthew 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). This state of existence can’t be heaven because the individual has the defilement of bad works and is suffering loss. Nor can it be hell because Paul says the person “will be saved.” A state of purification in the afterlife that is neither heaven nor hell—that’s purgatory!
But for Protestants it’s not so clear. They offer a few reasons why they think this doesn’t refer to purgatory.
One is that Paul says these things will only happen at the final judgment—“for the Day will disclose it” (v.13; emphasis added). For this text to support the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, so the argument goes, it would need to speak of an intermediate judgment before the Second Coming. Since it doesn’t, a Catholic can’t use it to support purgatory.
What should we make of this Protestant counter? Is it a precious stone that would survive the fire of scrutiny? Or is it more like straw? Let’s test it and find out.
It’s true that when Paul speaks of “the Day” he is referring to the final judgment—that is, the judgment at the end of time when Christ comes in glory (Matt. 25:31-46). But this doesn’t prevent a Catholic from using this passage to support purgatory.
Paul was not envisioning this passage for such an intermediate state because, as some scholars point out, Paul wrote this at a time (c. A.D. 53) when he thought the Second Coming was imminent, and that he and most of his audience would experience it. For example, he writes in reference to it, “we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air (1 Thess. 4:17; emphasis added. Cf. 1 Cor. 15:51).
Given this, we wouldn’t expect Paul to think that these events take place during an intermediate judgment before the final judgment. But what if the time horizon shifted and most people died before the Second Coming? Could we say they received some kind of judgment prior to the last judgment? And would these events that Paul describes have taken place at that judgment?
The time horizon indeed does seem to shift for Paul. In 2 Timothy 4:6, he tells Timothy that he knows his death is imminent: “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come.” If he knows he’s about to die, then surely he doesn’t expect to be alive for the Second Coming.
What about an intermediate judgment before the final judgment? Scripture reveals that such a judgment does exist, and it occurs immediately after death when God determines a person’s final destiny—what the Catechism calls “the particular judgment” (1022).
Jesus makes this clear in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus is “carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22) and receives a fate of comfort (v.25). The rich man is taken to Hades where he experiences “torment” (v.23) and “anguish” (v.25). The different fates assigned to each man immediately after death imply a particular judgment.
Hebrews 12:23 speaks of our union with “the spirits of just men” as members of the New Covenant. That we approach their spirits suggests they are dead. And that they are a part of the heavenly reality that Christians participate in tells us that they exists in heaven, and thus have been judged.
Revelation 6:9 implies the same thing, for the martyrs in heaven beg God to avenge their blood on their persecutors who are still on earth. Revelation 7:9-14 describes those “clothed in white robes” who “have come out of the great tribulation” of the first century experiencing their eternal reward in heaven.
Now that we know there is such a thing as an intermediate judgment (“the particular judgment”) before the final judgment, the question becomes: “Can we apply the events that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 to the particular judgment?” We have good reason to think that we can.
The events that Paul describes have no intrinsic relation to the timing of judgment, but to judgment itself. Works are being weighed, and the soul receives its final destiny (in this case it’s heaven).
This is what happens at the particular judgment. According to the Catechism, each person has his works weighed (1021) and receives his “eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death,” “either entrance into the blessedness of heaven—through a purification or immediately,” or “immediate and everlasting damnation” (1022).
Since the type of judgment that Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (e.g., works are tested, the soul’s final destiny is determined) is the type of judgment that takes place for souls at the particular judgment, then it’s reasonable to use this passage to describe what happens at the particular judgment. And if the particular judgment, then purgatory.
Pope Benedict XVI points out in Spe Salvi that the “fire” could be “Christ himself, the Judge and Savior,” before whose gaze “all falsehood melts away.” “This encounter with him,” he explains, “burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves” (47). The particular judgment for those who die in friendship with Christ, and thus are guaranteed heaven, could be the purgatorial experience itself.
Therefore, Paul’s reference to the final judgment in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 in no way stops a Catholic from using this text for purgatory. The “Last Day” objection has been tested and proven inadequate.