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Coffeeshop Apologetics

Jim Burnham

Dave: Hey, Carl, what did you get—iced latte?

Carl: Yeah, with vanilla. You?

Dave: Caramel frappucino.

Carl: Remember when the only choices were cream and sugar?

Dave: Here’s to a more enlightened age.

Carl: Hey, man, thanks for inviting me. That was a nice funeral. Your grandma was great—I always loved her lemon meringue pie.

Dave: Thanks, Carl. I’m going to miss her.

Carl: I’ll definitely keep her in my prayers.

Dave: Um.

Carl: Um?

Dave: Well. . . maybe it’s because I’m not Catholic, but. . . um, why would you pray for my grandma? She’s dead. She doesn’t need prayers.

Carl: Well, unless she was perfect when she died, she’s probably in purgatory.

Dave: C’mon, you believe in purgatory? I thought the Catholic Church got rid of purgatory with Vatican II.

Carl: I’ve heard Catholics say the same thing. But contrary to popular belief, purgatory is Church doctrine. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that purgatory exists and that we can help the souls there by our prayers (cf. CCC 1030–2).

Dave: Sorry, man, I’m not Catholic, so the Catechism isn’t exactly the final word for me. Of course there’s an afterlife, but the Bible mentions only heaven and hell. You know I don’t hate the Catholic Church. But, dude, purgatory is just a Catholic invention.

Carl: Let me ask you a question: If you die loving God perfectly, where will you go?

Dave: Heaven, of course.

Carl: If you die not loving God at all, where will you go?

Dave: Hell.

Carl: Great. Perfect love and you go to heaven. No love and you go to hell. But what if you are somewhere in between? Where do you go if you die sorta loving God?

Dave: What do you mean?

Carl: What if we love God but not wholeheartedly? What if our love of God is mixed with love of self? Where do you go if you’re in the middle: loving God—sorta?

Dave: You still go to heaven. God just makes up for the lack.

Carl: If you mean God makes up for the lack by purifying us for a time in purgatory, then you agree with the Catholic Church. If you mean that God makes up for the lack by sneaking us—still foul with sins and self-love—into heaven under the mantle of Christ’s righteousness, then you agree with Martin Luther.

Dave: Well, I guess I’m siding with Luther.

Carl (pulling out his Bible): But against Scripture. The Bible says of heaven, “Nothing unclean shall enter it” (Rev. 21:27).You see, God is perfect holiness (cf. Is. 6:3), and we’re supposed to have that same holiness: “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Pet. 1:15–16). Without perfect holiness, we cannot see God in heaven. Now, Dave, be honest: Do you have perfect love and perfect holiness?

Dave: No—no, of course not. Most people are in the middle: loving God, sort of.

Carl: So the reasonable answer is purgatory.

Dave: For Catholics, maybe.

Carl: For reasonable people. To loosely quote Samuel Johnson, a non-Catholic: “Purgatory is a harmless doctrine. Catholics believe that most men are neither so wicked as to deserve hell, nor so good as to merit heaven, and therefore God graciously allows a middle state, where they may be purified by certain degrees of suffering. There is nothing unreasonable in this.”

Dave: Never heard of him.

Carl: Surely you’ve heard of C. S. Lewis, another non-Catholic, who said: “Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first.’ ‘It may
hurt, you know.’ ‘Even so, sir.’”

Dave (fanning the Bible): Show me a single verse with the word purgatory in it.

Carl: There isn’t one.

Dave: Case closed. If it’s not in the Bible, I don’t believe it.

Carl (fanning the Bible back): Okay, show me a single verse with the word Trinity. Or the word Incarnation.

Dave: You mean those aren’t in the Bible?

Carl: No. But who cares? The words aren’t there, but the doctrines clearly are. Likewise, the Bible teaches the reality of purification after death. The Church calls this purgatory. The name isn’t important, but the doctrine is.

Dave: The Bible teaches heaven and hell. Where does it teach some third place?

Carl: Well, we often call purgatory a place, but it’s really a state.

Dave: Whatever. Where does the Bible teach it?

Carl: Perhaps the clearest place is 2 Maccabees 12:43–45, where Israel’s commander, Judas Maccabeus, took up a collection to make a sin offering for his dead soldiers. The Bible says this “was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead that they might be delivered from their sin.” Here, read that part again, please.

Dave: “He made atonement for the dead that they might be delivered from their sin.”

Carl: Can we help the blessed souls in heaven?

Dave: Well, no; they don’t need our help.

Carl: Can we help the damned souls in hell?

Dave: No, no, they are beyond help.

Carl: Right! Praying for the dead presumes that souls are in a middle state where they can be helped.

Dave: I’m not sure I can refute that.

Carl: You don’t have to refute it, Dave. If it’s logical, accept it. Second Maccabees explicitly affirms an intermediate state where the faithful departed atone for their sins. That’s purgatory. This verse was so contrary to Martin Luther’s justification-by-faith-alone theology that he threw 2 Maccabees out of the Bible! To sell it, Luther tossed out another six books and appealed to Jerome (who, by the way, left these seven books in the Bible). But whether we buy Luther’s reasoning or not, it was the strength of this passage that triggered his reaction.

Dave: But I heard Catholics added those seven apocryphal books at the Council of Trent.

Carl: Check your history. Even Protestant scholars like F. F. Bruce admit Luther subtracted these seven books to bolster his theological opinions. Trent merely confirmed the traditional Christian canon [list of inspired books] that had stood for more than a thousand years.

Dave: What if Luther was right?

Carl: Let’s tackle the question of whether any human authority can add or subtract from Scripture another time. But even if we follow Luther and reject 2 Maccabees as inspired Scripture, it’s still accurate history. It still confirms that Jews—more than 100 years before Christ—prayed for their dead, just as they do to this day.

Dave: Hmm. Okay, but where does the New Testament refer to purgatory?

Carl: Turn to 1 Corinthians 3:15, where Paul says that on Judgment Day every man’s work will be tested and rewarded: “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” Now, Dave, can this guy who is suffering loss be in heaven?

Dave: No.

Carl: And he can’t be suffering in hell because it says that “he himself will be saved.” This can refer only to a middle state where a man suffers temporary loss, through a purifying fire, so that ultimately he may gain heaven. This is essentially the definition of purgatory.

Dave: That’s a lot stronger. Do you have any more verses?

Carl: You bet! Check out 1 Peter 3:18–20, where it says that Jesus after his Crucifixion “went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey.” A little later in 1 Peter 4:6, it says, “For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.” Now, tell me: Is this referring to hell?

Dave: It could be, because it’s a prison for spirits who “did not obey.”

Carl: But the spirits who “formerly” did not obey but now “live in the spirit.” They became spiritually alive—saved—when Jesus preached to them. So at the very least, these passages prove that a third place can exist between heaven and hell.

Dave: Don’t you mean state?

Carl: Okay, smart-aleck. At the very least it proves a third state. At the very most, it proves the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.

Dave: So maybe purgatory exists, but is there anything in the New Testament about praying for the dead?

Carl: Sure. In 2 Timothy 1:16–18, Paul prays for his dead friend, Onesiphorus, which makes sense only if he can be helped by prayer. The early Church Fathers and Christians also endorsed praying for the dead. Some of the earliest Christian liturgies included prayers for the dead. Many ancient tombs were inscribed with requests to pray for the deceased.

Dave: Which early writers?

Carl: Tertullian presents sacrificing for the dead as an established custom: “We offer sacrifices for the dead on their birthday anniversaries” (The Crown 3:3 [A.D. 211]). In his famous Confessions, Augustine says this of his mother, Monica: “‘Lay this body anywhere,’ she says. ‘Let not the care of it in any way disturb you. Only this I ask of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you are.’” Cyril of Jerusalem says, “We offer prayers to him for those who have fallen asleep, though they be sinners. We . . . offer up Christ who was crucified for our sins; and we thereby propitiate the benevolent God for them” (Catechetical Lectures 23:10 [A.D. 350]).

Dave: So you’re saying the practice of praying for the dead goes all the way to the New Testament?

Carl: Even before then. Those who deny purgatory have to explain away at least 2,100 years of constant Jewish and Christian practice. If the Jews, Paul, and the early Christians prayed for the dead, then we should have no fear of praying for them as well. Praying for the dead presumes an intermediate state of purification after death, whatever you call it. We Catholics call it purgatory.

Dave: All right dude, I’m going to get a little cynical on you. What if someone said “purification after death” really means “a second chance for Catholics to repent”?

Carl: We should define our terms. Purgatory is a temporary state of purification for the imperfect saints. Three things to notice: First, it’s for saints. Only those who die in the state of grace can have their holiness purified in purgatory. It’s not a second chance for unconverted sinners or those with unrepented mortal sins. Second, it’s for purifying and reparation. Venial sins are purged. The damages caused by already-forgiven mortal and venial sins are repaid. Third, it’s temporary. Once the imperfect saints are purified, they enter heaven. Everyone in purgatory will go to heaven. Then purgatory will end. Only heaven and hell will remain forever.

Dave: See? That’s what I don’t get about you Catholics. Your take something simple and, I guess, biblical, like purification after death, and then introduce hair-splitting differences like mortal sin and venial sin. All sin separates us from God: “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (Jas. 2:10).

Carl: In human law, do we distinguish between smaller offenses and larger ones?

Dave: You mean like misdemeanors and felonies?

Carl: Exactly. So why should it surprise us that divine law makes similar distinctions?

Dave: I’ve never seen it in the Bible.

Carl: Then please read 1 John 5:16–17.

Dave: “If anyone sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.”

Carl: What was that? “There is sin which is not mortal“?

Dave: I’ve read this before, but I guess I never saw it.

Carl: So 1 John 5:16–17 clearly shows degrees of sin. Would you be so kind as to read James 1:14–15?

Dave: “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full grown brings forth death.”

Carl: Is desire or temptation the same as sin?

Dave: No, it’s sinful only when you give in to desire.

Carl: Something I’m very familiar with! But you’re right, giving in is when desire gives birth to sin. Now is just-born sin the same as fully grown, death-dealing sin?

Dave: Obviously not.

Carl: So James is distinguishing between desire and sin and then between beginning sin, which we call venial (wounding), and mature, deadly sin, which we call mortal. Again, it’s just a question of words. It doesn’t really matter what we call mature/mortal sin and beginning/not-mortal sin. But let’s agree that Scripture clearly distinguishes different degrees of sin.

Dave: Okay, so Catholics have another one right. Even a busted clock is right twice a day. But what’s all this talk about reparation and punishment? When God forgives our sins, they’re forgiven; they’re gone. Why would he punish us after he’s forgiven us?

Carl: There are many examples where God forgives sin and still demands reparation. Wisdom 10:1–2 says that although God delivered Adam “from his transgression, and gave him strength to rule all things,” Adam still had to eat bread by the sweat of his brow (cf. Gen. 3:19). God forgave Moses and Aaron for doubting his word, but he still wouldn’t let them into the Promised Land (cf. Num. 20:12). God forgave David’s sin of adultery and murder, but he still caused David’s child to die and David himself to suffer for the rest of his reign (cf. 2 Sam. 12:15–16, 19).

Dave: So God is vengeful.

Carl: God in his mercy forgives repentant sinners; God in his justice requires atonement. Is this vengeance or just good parenting? If I always fix my children’s mistakes for them, will they ever learn that bad actions have serious consequences? Will they ever learn that they have a responsibility to make things right?

Dave: So God is a good Father trying to teach us the seriousness of sin?

Carl: Yeah, that our actions can have eternal consequences. That sin can cause profound damage, damage that we’re responsible to help fix.

Dave: But after we’re forgiven, why do we have to make things right?

Carl: For the same reason you’d forgive a teenager for smashing your window with his baseball but still ask him to pay for it.

Dave: So there’s a difference between getting rid of the guilt of sin and getting rid of the damage of sin.

Carl: Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say that sin was like nails hammered into a block of wood. God’s forgiveness pulls out the nails of sin; but the holes of damage remain. Reparation helps fill in the holes. We must complete our reparation either in this life or the next. In the next, it’s called purgatory.

Dave: I like that nail holes in the wood thing.

Carl: Let me give you one more. Think of purgatory as a washroom where God in his mercy allows imperfect saints to scrub up before they enter the spotless and eternal banquet.

Dave: Now you’re robbing from C. S. Lewis.

Carl: I steal only from the best.

Dave: Well, you’ve given me a lot to chew on. I gotta split, but I’ll think about what you’ve said. Next time, dude, coffee’s on you.


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