Last Things

Burnin’ For Your Love: A Biblical Primer on Purgatory

by Ryan Prong

A modern Evangelical Protestant, who finds himself in the unlikely position of being submerged into the subterranean world of the early Christian catacombs, would most probably be dumbfounded by what he discovered there. Crudely inscribed upon the cold and damp stone of these places, amongst the human remains and primitive stone altars, where the very first believers in Christ sought refuge from the wrath and fury of the Roman Empire, are numerous expressions of piety that take the form of what we in the modern Church would refer to as prayers for the dead.

One of the most famous examples of these prayers for the dead is found in the poignant beseeching of an early Roman Christian who, wishing to honor those who have already died and, no doubt aware of their own imminent demise, requested of the faithful, “In your prayers remember those of us who have gone before you,” underneath which is written in a different hand, the response, “May you have eternal light in Christ”.(1) This practice cannot be accounted for in Protestant theology which argues that the justified soul which dies “already having been saved” is, of course, without need of prayers for their salvation since it was already an accomplished fact at the moment of their conversion. Prayers for the dead are, in fact, a universal practice of the early Church which in itself is indicative of a long-standing theological proposition that, after death, exists a middle state of souls who are aided by those of us still alive.

Ultimately, this Roman Catholic teaching on the middle state of souls, called purgatory from the Latin purgatorio (Lit. “purifying”), is derived from Catholic thought regarding sanctification; which insists that the holiness of God is actually infused into the soul of the justified person when they move from a state of sin to a state of grace. Catholic theologian Karl Adam stated it well when he wrote:

But since, according to the Catholic conception, justification does not consist in an external imputation of the merits of Christ, but in a true re-creation of the inward man, in his re-birth and in the supernatural emergence of a new love for goodness and holiness, therefore justification, of its nature, demands sanctification and perfection, and is only completed and finished in this sanctification. (2)

We are, in essence, stained by sin, and are made unclean in the regular act of sinning. In response, we must make ourselves “clean” again through the channels of Grace found in God’s Church, namely the sacraments and prayer. We do this because we are reminded by the Scriptures that, in reference to heaven, “Nothing unclean may come into it,” (Rev 21.27). It is informative to know that the Greek term used here for “unclean” is koinon , which is literally translated as an “unclean thing” and refers to a ritual defilement or a spiritual corruption. This is clearly a reference to sin since the examples given in the verse are of those “who do what is loathsome and false,” and they are contrasted with “those who are listed in the Lamb’s book of life”.

However, while we are aware that sin makes us “unclean” and unable to enter heaven, we are also aware, together with John the Evangelist that there is some sin from which spiritual death does not follow:

If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that is not a deadly sin, he has only to pray, and God will give life to his brother, provided that it is not a deadly sin. There is sin that leads to death and I am not saying you must pray about that. Every kind of wickedness is is sin, but not all sin leads to death. (1 Jn 5.16-17)

The tiered degree of sin envisioned by John fits precisely the Catholic concept of a gradation of sins and their effects into those that are “venial” and those that are “mortal”. Most Protestants deny this demarcation, accounting all sins as equal, while at the same time refusing to concede that even the justified sinner, though still worthy of the Beatific Vision, is still held accountable for the guilt wrought in the commission of transgressions against God.

The Scriptures make it clear on numerous occasions, for example, that the guilt due sin is remitted through temporal punishment. We must be clear; first, that sinning is a type of hatred toward God, and makes one an enemy of the Creator. God promises ominously “I shall take vengeance on my enemies,” (Dt 32.41) and we note also that he will “repay to their face those that hate him” (Dt 7.10). Many Protestants, clinging to their distinction between justification and sanctification, argue that once a sin has been forgiven the temporal punishment due that sin is immediately remitted. Yet notice the classic example of David. David committed a horrible sin by having Uriah the Hittite killed in order to take the man’s wife, and, being grieved by what he done, prayed that God might forgive him. In response, God sent the prophet Nathan to David, who proclaimed:

Yahweh, for his part, forgives your sin; you are not to die. But since you have outraged Yahweh by doing this, the child born to to you will die. (2 Sm 12.13-14)

Later, we are told “on the seventh day (of David’s pleading) the child died” (12.18). In this example, we are made aware of God’s infinite justice, which, while being far from capricious or arbitrary, is a valued, though reluctant, response to human action.

In this same vain, contrary to Protestant soteriology, there is a perfect “holiness without which no one can ever see the Lord” (Heb 12.14), for Christ exhorts us to “Be therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5.48), warning us that unless our “righteousness surpasses that of the Scribes and Pharisees, (we) will not get into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5.20). It is obvious that given this latter requirement of holiness and perfection, and in consideration that through sin we are made less than perfect, there are those who die in a state of justifying grace who have not yet extinguished the “debt of temporal punishment (that) remains to be discharged...before the gates of heaven can be opened”. (3) It is into this vacuum, the idea of purgatory imposes itself.

A Middle State of Souls

Scripture is replete with references to a state of existence after death, which is neither heaven nor hell. While the preponderance of these occasions does not fully envision the Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory, they do suggest that the Protestant theory, that either eternal reward or punishment is immediate upon expiry is lacking and, in fact, completely ignores the entire biblical record.

What are we to make, for example, of the lamentation to God by the Psalmist that “in death there is no remembrance of you; who could sing your praises in Sheol?” (Ps 6.6; see also Is 38.18). Or further,

Do you work wonders for the dead, can shadows rise up to praise you? Do they speak in the grave of your faithful love, of your constancy in the place of perdition? Are your wonders known in the darkness, your saving justice in the land of the oblivion? (Psalm 88.10-12)

This abode of the dead appears to be a place of quiet, the souls there are in a certain state of repose, for “the dead cannot praise Yahweh, those who sink into the silence” (115.17). There also appears to be total lack of cognition in this place for “the living are at least aware that they are going to die, but the dead know nothing whatever” (Qo 9.5). The book of Job gives a number of examples of this sort of non-existence after death (c.f. 3.11-19; 10.21-22; 14.10-14; 21.19-21 etc.), all of which would seem argue in favor of the rejected concept of “soul-sleep” (hypnochites) in which the soul “rests” in a kind of non-sensory suspended animation prior to the general resurrection. The Church opposes this idea primarily because of its belief in purgatory.

This ancient Hebrew concept of Sheol as an abode of the dead has a varied and quite vague biblical theology. We know for instance that God’s fiery anger reaches down to it (Dt 32.22), that it is an “abyss” to which God abandons the unfaithful (Ps 16.10), that it is for the “evil” (Ps 55.15); the greedy and the drunken (Is 5.8-14) and for despots and the prideful (Is 14.9, 11-15). Children may be literally “saved” from Sheol if brought up in corrective discipline by their parents (Pr 23.13-14), and it has been described as a “sinking into oblivion” by those who have been “slaughtered by the sword,” (Ez 31.16-17; 32.18, 21). Yet, Sheol is also used figuratively for the depths of spiritual despair from which God rescues his faithful servants (2 Sm 22.6; Ps 18.5; 86.13; 116.3) and, we should note, God’s presence can be felt there (Ps 139.8).

We should also note that Samuel, whom Yahweh “was with” throughout his life (1 Sm 3.19) and whose very words were “as the very words of Yahweh himself” (4.1) was subject to the place of Sheol as is made evident following his summoning by the necromancing witch of Endor. After she “summons him” he asks Saul “Why have you disturbed me and brought me up? ” (1 Sm 28.15). This “up” imagery is clearly not a reference to heaven, and we should assume that he was not damned. Rather, this passage would naturally suggest a tertiary, or middle state.

Early Jewish soteriology was rather undeveloped in terms of states after death, so much so that many denied the existence of the afterlife altogether. The Sadducees, for example, who “accepted only the Torah, the written law of Moses, as authoritative,” (4) and who rejected the Rabbinic approach to a larger Hebrew canon, “denied that there is a resurrection” (Mt 22.23). Old Testament references to Sheol, or a third state, seem to imply not total punishment akin to what we would consider hell, but rather they envision a non-existence in which, paradoxically, both suffering and comfort are realized in both sinners and the just alike.

A middle state of souls can be detected within the New Testament as well. We are told for instance, that Christ “in the spirit, went to preach to the spirits in prison. They refused to believe long ago, while God patiently waited to receive them, in Noah’s time” (1 Pt 3.18-19). This occurred after Christ’s death and before his resurrection, and while the event was beyond what we would typically consider “time”, we may see it as having taken place on “Holy Saturday”. Christ’s state after the Crucifixion and the place of his preaching is elsewhere described as “in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12.40), “the pains of death” (Acts 2.24), “the depths” (Rm 10.7), “the deepest levels of the earth” (Eph 4.9), and “the dead” (Heb 13.20); all of which reflect typical Jewish imagery and language use. Christ’s mission to this place was evidently successful since Paul tells us that he “took captives” (Eph 4.8), freeing those righteous dead who passed before the advent of the gospel but who accepted the message in the grave.

That Christ was able to redeem these souls at all is an important point, and is one that lends support to the notion of purgatory. After all, this cannot be hell since no souls there are ever redeemable.

The “under the earth” imagery of the New Testament is also a clear indication of third or middle state of souls. Note:

So that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and other the earth. (Php 2.10)

This is obviously not hell since those in hell would clearly not worship Christ. However, to avoid the clear implications that this middle state poses for their theology Protestants will sometimes argue that this place was done away with after Christ preached there. Scripture nowhere indicates this, and on the contrary, reveals that the opposite is true, telling us, for instance, that the place still exists up to the point of Christ’s second coming. Note:

And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or look at it. (Rev 5.3)

And also:

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea and all that is them, singing. (5.13)

Thus, we have a place of souls, which is contrasted with heaven and earth and is clearly not hell. This sounds a great deal like an early indication of purgatory, or at least something very much like it, which Protestants have no room for in their soteriological scheme. It should also be pointed out that since those “under the earth” in Rev 5.13 are witnessed as singing out praise, we must further discount them as residing in hell since God does not receive prayer from the unrepentant sinful, evildoers, murderers, or those who do not fear him, all of which certainly describes those in hell (c.f. Ps 66.18; Pr 1.28-30; Is 1.15; 59.2; Jer 6.20; Amos 5.21-24; Mic 3.4; Mal 1.10; Jn 9.31). We have no suggestion, however, that God rejects these praises.

By way of one final indication in the New Testament of a middle state of souls, is the admittedly difficult parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16.19-31). In this pericope, Lazarus, a poor beggar, “died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s embrace (Gk. kolpon Abraam, Lit. ‘bosom of Abraham’)” (v. 22). The unnamed rich man, on the other hand, died and found himself in “Hades where he was being tormented” (v. 23), while Lazarus, in a place far preferable, was “being comforted” (v. 25). The rich man’s suffering, being so acute, cried out to Abraham begging him to permit Lazarus to assist him in his pain. Abraham, denying the rich man’s request, pointed out that between them “a great chasm had been fixed, to prevent those who want to cross from our side to yours or from your side to ours,” (v. 26). In literary style this text is, of course, a parable and therefore undoubtedly a fictive theological and moral exhortation. Nevertheless, in it we can detect a definite eschatological expression completely in step with popular Jewish usage. Notice that no one argues with Christ as to the voracity of an account which describes an afterlife in which those who are in a hell-like torment are able to communicate not only with those who are “being comforted” elsewhere, but with the great patriarch himself; Abraham. Concerning this text, Tertullian wrote:

Every soul, therefore, is shut up in Hades? Do you admit it? Whether you do or not, it is a fact. And there are already punishments and rewards there; and there you have a poor man and a rich one. (5)

Tertullian, no doubt convinced by the problems which this text presents, perceives the Hades spoken of here to be merely a multi-tiered middle existence, which contains the souls of both the righteous and the non-righteous before the general, judgment. This is an interesting hypothesis which actually creates more questions than it answers, though it does indicate further the early Church’s understanding of a purgative state after death since heaven is clearly not spoken of here.

Prayers for the Dead

As mentioned above, the practice of praying and the making of offerings for the dead was a universal practice of the early Church. Adopted from the Jewish belief that the dead are aided by the prayers of the faithful (the Jewish mourner’s prayer known as Kaddish is a perfect example of this practice and theology), the Church taught not only that those who die in a state of justifying grace but who are still stained by the guilt of unremitted temporal punishment due sin are subjected to a purgation, but that the Church in her liturgical practice and prayer may aid those in purgatory by easing their pain or quickening their stay. As the Second Vatican Council expressed it:

Very much aware of the bonds linking the whole Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the pilgrim Church from the very first ages of the Christian religion has cultivated with great piety the memory of the dead. Because it is a ‘holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sin,’ she also offered prayers for them. (6)

The primary Scriptural evidence for the efficacy of this practice, indeed, one of the central texts of the debate on purgatory itself, is that of 2 Maccabees 12.38-45. The full theological weight of this text, so important in the debates of the Reformation, cannot, upon close exegetical inspection, be underestimated. The narrative, for instance, informs us that upon discovering “objects dedicated to the idols of Jamnia, which the Law prohibits to Jews” (v. 40) under the tunics of their fallen fellow combatants, the surviving army of Judas Maccabaeus “gave themselves to prayer, begging that the sin committed might be completely forgotten” (v. 42). In affect, they became prayerful apologists for their dead friends, asking God to forgive the transgression. Protestants must here ask themselves, if the fallen soldiers were already in hell of what use could prayers for their souls be? Conversely, the similar question need be asked, if the soldiers were in heaven would not the prayers for them have been superfluous? The answer to both is obvious, the soldiers who still survived thought their comrades were in a position whereby they would be in need of prayerful assistance. We are then told that Judas took from his soldiers

a collection amounting to nearly two thousand drachmas, and sent it to Jerusalem to have a sacrifice for sin offered, an action altogether fine and noble, prompted by his belief in the resurrection. (v. 43)

In the fashion of a diatribe, the author of 2 Maccabees asserts, most probably against those who denied the existence of an afterlife, that it would have been “superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” (v. 44) had Judas not expected his dead soldiers to again rise to their just rewards.

The typical Protestant strategy in dealing with this text, so damaging is it to their theology, is to argue against the canonicity and therefore the doctrinal binding of the pericope itself. This is an old diversion, first employed by Luther. James White, for instance, the popular Evangelical apologist and frequent anti-Catholic crusader, inexplicably leaves out any mention of 2 Mc 12 in the chapter dealing with purgatory in his well known book The Roman Catholic Controversy: Catholics and Protestants - Do the Differences Still Matter?.(7) Scarcely better is the treatment offered in Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie’s book Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences in which this example of profound exegesis is offered:

The Protestant response to the use of this text is simple: 2 Maccabees is not part of the inspired canon of Scripture, and therefore has no authority...Indeed, (it was) not infallibly added to the Roman Catholic Bible until after Reformation (A.D. 1546) in a futile attempt to support purgatory and prayers for the dead, which Luther attacked. (8)

Even if it be denied that 2 Maccabees is excluded from the properly constituted canon of scripture, an act of exclusion, which, ultimately, rests on poor historical, theological and textual foundations, is not the historicity of Judas Maccabaeus’ belief and practice beyond doubt? After all, need a document be inspired and canonical to be historically accurate? Of course not. Protestants, for all their casual dismissals of this text must at least concede that what is there found is a sound example of theological history as it describes the faith and practice of Temple Judaism shortly before the birth of Christ.

The pious example found within the text echoes other closely related theological premises, namely that “the heartfelt prayer of someone upright works very powerfully,” (Jas 5.16) and the exhortation “Let your generosity extend to all the living, do not withhold it even from the dead,” (Sir 7.33); a striking text if we consider that the only coherent meaning we can derive from it is that offerings should be made on behalf of those who have died.

It is also highly likely that Paul himself records a prayer for the dead in his Second letter to Timothy, note:

May the Lord grant him to find the Lord’s mercy on that Day. (2 Tm 1.18)

Clearly in this context Paul’s friend and assistant Onesiphorus is dead when Paul wrote these words. First, consider that while it was Onesiphorus himself who “had been a comfort” to Paul and who had never “been ashamed of his chains” (v. 16), Paul mentions only that he hopes that the “Lord will be kind to all his family” (see also 4.19). The use of the past tense in reference to Onesiphorus, together with the reference to “that Day”, a clear eschatological usage typical of Paul (c.f. Rm 2.5, 16; 1Cor 1.8; 3.13; 5.5; 2 Cor 1.14; Php 1.6, 10; 2.16; 1 Th 5.2, 4, 5, 8; 2 Th 2.2, 3; 2 Tm 4.8) makes this a clear prayer for Onesiphorus’ soul. Paul, far from having confidence in his friend’s salvation and present union with God, instead asks humbly for the Lord’s mercy to be brought to Onesiphorus at his resurrection.

Paul also mentions a seemingly discordant practice in the early Church with the following words:

Otherwise, what are people up to who have themselves baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, what is the point of being baptized on their behalf? (1 Cor 15.29)

Setting aside the question of what exactly it is that Paul here describes when he mentions a “baptism for the dead”, we turn our attention rather to Paul’s seeming acceptance of the fact that what is being done here on earth is efficacious for the dead. Paul in no way denigrates the practice or the idea behind, and neither does he forbid his followers from imitation. On the contrary, Paul himself seems to indicate that his own actions and suffering are likewise beneficial for the dead:

Why should we endanger ourselves every hour of our lives? I swear by the pride that I take in you, in Christ Jesus our Lord, that I face death every day. If I fought wild animals at Ephesus in a purely human perspective, what had I to gain by it? If the dead are not going to be raised, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall be dead. (1 Cor 15.30-33)

Purgatory Itself

Scripture abounds with typological conceptualizations of “burning”, “cleansing”, and “purification” in an eschatological sense. As the ancient Jewish idea of the afterlife, couched as it was in the language of a suffering nation, began to emerge and clarify itself with the help of rabbinic commentary and the so-called inter-testamental literature, a definite trend developed toward the modern Catholic idea of purgatory. A relatively late example of this development can be found in the following:

But the souls of the upright are in the hands of God, and no torment can touch them. To the unenlightened, they appear to die, their departure was regarded as disaster, their leaving us like annihilation; but they are at peace. If, as it seems to us, they suffered punishment, their hope was rich with immortality; slight was their correction, great will their blessings be. God was putting them to the test and has proved them worthy to be with him; he has tested them like gold in a furnace, and accepted them as a burnt offering. (Wis 3.1-6)

A purgatorial understanding of this text is so self-evident that further commentary can scarcely be given in demonstration. Here the “souls of the upright” (v. 3) go through a “slight correction” (v. 5) and are tested by God “like gold in a furnace” (v. 6). The Catholic understanding of purgatory is found here, virtually in its entirety, even to the point that it mentions that the “hope” of these souls “was rich with immortality” (v. 4). This last idea is echoed, for instance, in the teaching that the souls in purgatory “are indeed assured of their eternal salvation” (CCC #1030). (9)

This precise language and sentiment is utilized similarly by Paul, who wrote:

For nobody can lay down any other foundation than the one which is there already, namely Jesus Christ. On this foundation, different people may build in gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay or straw but each person’s handiwork will be shown for what it is. The Day which dawns in fire will make it clear and the fire itself will test the quality of each person’s work. The one whose work stands up to it will be given his wages; the one whose work is burnt down will suffer the loss of it, though he himself will be saved; he will be saved as someone might expect to be saved from a fire. (1Cor 3.11-15)

Again, this is so obviously a description of a purgatorial model that few words could be added in further establishment. Evangelical commentator James McCarthy avoids the full weight of this verse by arguing that “the Roman Catholic interpretation completely misses the point. Paul is using an analogy. He is not talking about a real fire. He is not talking about real men and women burning”. (10) It is McCarthy, however, who misses the point. Paul’s specific reference to the person “being saved” (Gr. sothesetai, Lit. “He will be saved”) makes it clear that he has salvation in mind, and, what’s more, the loss of that salvation, save for the corrective fire. In the final analysis, Mr. McCarthy’s interpretation is in conflict with Augustine, who wrote:

Lord, rebuke me not in your indignation, nor correct me in your this life may you cleanse me and make me such that I have no need for the corrective fire, which is for those who are saved, ‘but as if by fire’...for it is said, ‘He shall be saved, but as if by fire,’. And because it is said that he shall be saved, little is thought of that fire. Yet plainly, though we be saved by fire, that fire will be more severe than anything a man can suffer in this life. (11)

Christ seems to also have had a clear, though linguistically veiled, understanding of purgatory. After all, he warned his disciples

But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother, you will be liable to the council; and if you say ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the Gehenna of fire. (Mt 5.22)

Note that of the three transgressions described by Christ only the third is punishable by damnation (Gehenna being a frequent appellative for hell) and yet the first transgression, being “angry with a brother” is “liable to judgment”. The word used here for “judgment” is the Greek term krisei which is, in every instance of use in the Gospels, the domain of God alone. Thus, Christ is indicating a negative form of divine judgment to which one is subject which is not punished by hell but in another form, without prejudice to the final justification of the sinner. A couple of verses later Christ again suggests a purgatorial meaning, when he wrote:

Come to terms with your opponent in good time while you are still on the way to the court with him, or he may hand you over to the judge and the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison. In truth I tell you, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny. (5.25-26)

Keeping in mind that this example is part of the Sermon on the Mount its parabolic nature becomes apparent. Christ clearly was not telling his disciples how to deal with mundane debt issues, but was, rather, revealing eschatological truths. The “opponent” here (the Greek antidiko) is probably a reference to Satan. We note for instance, that in 1 Pt 5.8 the same term is used, “Keep sober and alert, because your enemy (antidikos) the devil is on the prowl like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour”. The term is a legal one and refers generally to an opponent in a lawsuit, as this immediate context implies. (12) Satan is elsewhere seen as an accuser against man (c.f. Job 1.6-12; Zec 3.1; Rev 12.10), and if we allow that the “judge” here refers to God (an image which has abundant witness) then we see that Christ was actually warning his followers that if they have not dealt with sin (“terms” with Satan) then there is a “prison” from which they cannot escape “till they have paid the last penny”. This seems like a clear reference to the duration of purgatory being in accord to man’s remaining unresolved sin.

Christ also suggested elsewhere that some sins could be forgiven in the next world when he wrote:

And anyone who says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but no one who speaks against the Holy Spirit will be forgiven either in this world or in the next. (Mt 12.32) (13)

If considered closely, this is an interesting verse in that it establishes an important precedent regarding the nature of sin forgiveness after death. The phrase “in the next” is from the Greek expression en to mellonti (Lit. “in the one coming”) and is a frequently used term to refer to the afterlife (c.f. Mk 10.30; Lk 18.30; 20.34-35; Eph 1.21 which use similar language). It would have been utterly nonsensical for Christ to have stated that some sins would not be forgiven later if, no sins were forgiven later at all. As Gregory the Great stated it:

Everyone is presented in judgment just as he is when he departs this life. But nevertheless, it must be believed that there is, for the sake of lesser faults, a purgatorial fire before the judgment, in view of the fact that truth does say that if anyone speak blasphemy against the Holy Spirit it will be forgiven him neither in this world nor in that to come. In this statement we are given to understand that some faults can be forgiven in this world and some in the world to come. For if something denied to one particular, the intellect logically infers that it is granted for some others. (14)

A Protestant Counter-Argument Answered

Besides their sincere belief that the idea of purgatory leads to a “denial of the sufficiency of the cross” (15) a second Protestant quibble with the doctrine centers around their idea that it is “contrary to the immediacy of heaven after death”.(16) In support of this theology, which derives itself, once again, from the Protestant understanding of justification, some Protestants may cite the following verses:

He answered him, ‘In truth I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise,’ (Lk 23.43)

We are full of confidence, then, and long instead to be exiled from the body and to be at home with the Lord. (2 Cor 5.8)

I am caught in this dilemma: I want to be gone and to be with Christ, and this is by far the stronger desire. (Php 1.23)

Since human beings die only once, after which comes judgment. (Heb 9.27)

Understood properly, none of these texts pose a problem for the concept of purgatory. First, as we have seen, a middle state of souls is well established throughout Scripture, which would immediately militate against this immediacy of heaven. Second, neither of the Pauline verses indicates any concept of time. For instance, I can say ‘I long to be away from my house and to be in Hawaii,’ and this would not establish that the moment I left my house I would be on the beach. There is no causal linkage between the clauses in Paul’s statements that indicate that he thought he would be immediately in heaven. Third, the example from Hebrews corresponds precisely with Catholic dogma, which teaches that at a person’s death they face a “particular judgment” to decide whether they are to be consigned to hell (sinners), purgatory (justified sinners), or heaven (perfect). After this come a “general judgment” at a later time in which everyone stands “at the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor 5.10). Finally, is Christ’s promise to the thief on the cross that “today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23.43). On its surface this is essentially a non-argument because it fails to take into consideration every aspect of the matter. We note for instance that on the day Christ was supposedly taking the repentant thief to paradise he “went to preach to the spirits in prison” (1 Pt 3.19; see also Rm 10.7; Eph 4.8-10). Notice that after his resurrection Christ told Mary Magdalene not to “cling to him” for he had “not yet ascended to the Father,” (Jn 20.17). Further, it is clear that he was never actually in heaven until forty days after his resurrection and appearance to the disciples (c.f. Acts 1.3, 9-10). These facts make it clear that the traditional Protestant reading of the text in question needs a major overhaul.

Ryan Prong
The Catholic Legate
July 20, 2004


1. English translation of Latin inscriptions and a description of other such secret catacomb hagiography can be found in A. S. Barnes; The Early Church in the Light of the Monuments. (New York, NY. Longman, Green and Company, 1913) Pp. 150-57.

2. The Spirit of Catholicism. (Dom J. McCann, tr. Garden City, NY.: Image Books, 1957) Pg. 107

3. Council of Trent, Sixth Session ‘On Justification’, Can. 30 in The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. (Tr. by H. J. Schroeder, Rockford, IL.: Tan Books and Publishers, 1978) Pg. 46

4. Everyday Life in Bible Times. (Washington, DC.: National Geographic Society, 1967) Pg. 295

5. De anima 58.1 (inter A.D. 208-212). English translation from W. A. Jurgens; The Faith of the Early Fathers . (Collegeville, MN.: Liturgical Press, 1970) Vol. 1, pg. 143

6. “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church,” #50, in A. Schreck; Catholic and Christian: An Explanation of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs. (Ann Arbor, MI.: Servant Books, 1984) Pg. 198

7. Minneapolis, MN.: Bethany House Publishers, 1996. See for instance pp. 181-96.

8. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1999 [5th Printing]. Ibid. Pg. 334

9. Catechism of the Catholic Church. (Ottawa, ON.: Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Publication Service, 1992) Pg. 221

10. The Gospel According to Rome: Comparing Catholic Tradition and the Word of God. (Eugene, OR.: Harvest House Publishers, 1995) Pg. 111

11. Enarrationes in psalmos 37.3 (inter A.D. 392-418). Jurgens, vol. 3, pg. 17

12. See W. F. Arndt and F. W. Gingrich; A Greek - English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957) Pg. 73

13. Tertullian’s exegetical correspondence with this opinion (De anima 58.8) is sufficiently well known and attested that it scarcely needs repeating here.

14. Dialogi de vita et miraculis patrum Italicorum 4.41 (A.D. 544). Jurgens, vol. 3, pg. 320

15. Geisler and Mackenzie, pg. 338

16. Ibid. Pg. 339