1 Corinthians 3:13–15—Does this passage support the Roman Catholic view of purgatory?

Problem: Roman Catholics appeal to this passage in support of the doctrine of temporary punishment for those not good enough to go directly to heaven. They point to the fact that it speaks of people who “suffer loss” when their works are “burned” by fire and yet they are eventually “saved” (1 Cor. 3:15). Does the Bible teach that there is a temporary hell (purgatory) where people suffer for their sins before they are let into heaven?

Solution: Nowhere does the Bible teach the doctrine of purgatory. This doctrine is contrary to many facts of Scripture. First, hell is a permanent place of “everlasting fire” (Matt. 25:41). It entails “everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord” (2 Thes. 1:9; see comments on that passage). Jesus declared it is a place where the fire “shall never be quenched” and where the body “does not die” (Mark 9:45, 48).

Second, once one goes to hell, he can never get out. Jesus said there is “a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass” from one side to the other cannot do so (Luke 16:26). This is true even if they regret being there (Luke 16:23, 28).

Third, the doctrine of purgatory is an insult to the all-sufficiency of the death of Christ on the cross. When Jesus died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3) He announced, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Looking forward to the cross, He prayed to the Father, “I have finished the work which you have given Me to do” (John 17:4). Hebrews informs us that “after He [Jesus] had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, [He] sat down at the right hand of God” (Heb. 10:12). “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Heb. 10:14).

Fourth, the only purgatory ever to be experienced was experienced by Christ on the cross when He purged our sins. Hebrews declares that “when He had by Himself purged our sins, [He] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3).

Fifth, the doctrine of purgatory is based on the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees (12:46, Douay) which says it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins. But this second century b.c. book never claimed to be inspired, nor did any of the apocryphal books. First Maccabees even disclaims inspiration (1 Mac. 9:27). These apocryphal books were never accepted by Judaism as inspired. Neither Jesus nor the NT writers ever cite them as inspired. Even Jerome, the Roman Catholic translator of the great Latin Vulgate Bible, rejected 2 Maccabees along with the other apocryphal books. Furthermore, 2 Maccabees was not officially added to the Bible by the Roman Catholic Church until a.d. 1546, some 29 years after Luther started his reformation during which he spoke out against purgatory and prayers for the dead. Finally, even when 2 Maccabees was added by Rome to the Bible (along with other apocryphal books), it rejected another apocryphal book which spoke against prayers for the dead. Second Esdras (called 4 Esdras by Roman Catholics), speaking of the day of death, declares, “no one shall ever pray for another on that day” (2 Esdras 7:105). Rejecting this book and accepting Maccabees manifests the arbitrariness of the decision to choose books to support doctrines they had added to the Bible.

Finally, in 1 Corinthians, Paul is not speaking of purgatory, but of the “judgment seat of Christ,” before which all believers must come to receive their rewards “for the things done in the body” (2 Cor. 5:10). All our “work” will be “revealed by fire.” And “if anyone’s work ... endures, he will receive a reward” (1 Cor. 3:13–14). And “if anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss [of reward]; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through the fire” (1 Cor. 3:14–15). Since salvation from hell is by grace, not by works (Rom. 4:5; Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:5–7), it is clear that this passage is speaking about the “work” and “reward” of the believer for serving Christ, not about any alleged purgatory where they (instead of Christ) suffer for their sins.

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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.