How Can I Explain Purgatory to a Protestant?

Dear Catholic Exchange:

I'm hoping you can help with this challenge presented by a Protestant brother of ours, as we're not quite sure how to respond to it. He apparently only accepts Scripture as his basis for faith.

His challenge is: “But I still don't get how purgatory works with the verse that says to be absent of the body is to be present with the Lord.”

Thanks for any help you can give use with this.

God bless you and Mary keep you,


Dear Denise,

Peace in Christ!

The Scripture passage, 2 Corinthians 5:8, is often cited as an argument against the doctrine of Purgatory. St. Paul says, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” The objection to the reality of Purgatory would be that this verse lists only two options, either in the body on earth or with the Lord in heaven, and thus excludes a third possibility of any “time” in Purgatory.

There are far too many “loose ends” with this kind of reasoning. The same St. Paul who speaks here in 2 Corinthians also said in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 that each man’s work would be tested and revealed by fire as to what sort it is, silver and gold or wood, hay and stubble. The latter is burned by fire, though “he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (v. 15). There is an everlasting fire of damnation for the condemned, but there is also a fire of purgation for those who are saved by God’s grace. Did Paul contradict himself to the faithful at Corinth? Had he changed his theology by the time he wrote his second epistle to them?

Every orthodox Protestant would maintain the inerrancy of Scripture. Paul neither contradicted himself nor changed his theology. Could it be that he simply spoke of two different states, (in the body or present with the Lord) without filling in details? That is to say, this verse in no way logically precludes or excludes a purging. Consider by way of analogy that to be absent from work is to be home having dinner. Does this mean that traveling home, setting the table, preparing the meal and washing up beforehand can’t happen just because I am either at work or at home having dinner? Likewise, does being with the Lord necessarily preclude purgatorial preparations? A related problem with this either/or thinking is to attempt to explain an eternal state (at home with the Lord) in temporal/spatial terms.

However, all these considerations are secondary. The primary error of using this verse for a proof-text, and imposing an objection to Catholic teaching upon it, is to miss the point of the passage. Paul here is speaking of the glorified body. We consulted a number of Protestant commentaries, and each one recognized Paul’s words in the preceding verses as referring to the glorified body:

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. Here indeed we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety; not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that which is mortal may be swallowed up in life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (emphasis added).

From here Paul goes on to say that we are of good courage and walk by faith when we are in the body and not with the Lord (i.e. not in our glorified body). However, we would “rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (v. 8). So to be absent from the body and present with the Lord is, as Paul clearly says, not to be unclothed from a body, being found naked, but clothed with our heavenly body.

An interpretation of verse 8 that excludes any interim state presents an irreconcilable problem, even excluding the question of Purgatory. This interpretation requires the conclusion that a person absent from the body already has a glorified body prior to the general resurrection. We know of absolutely no orthodox Protestant community that believes this. The resurrection of the body is rightly held by them to be at the end at a general resurrection and final judgment. While Protestants set forth many “end times” theories, there is general agreement that the glorified body is something at the end, not before. Though they do not accept the words of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel about the Real Presence, they do receive the words in the same verse, “I will raise him up at the last day” (Jn 6:54).

Therefore, Paul’s words to the faithful at Corinth concerning being away from the body and present with the Lord, must be understood to mean also having a glorified body in order to be faithful to the context. And if we are to hold, with the faith of the Church in all ages, that the heavenly body is given at the general resurrection on the “last day,” then Paul’s words must be understood not to exclude “in-between” states or events. Therefore, this verse cannot be used as an argument against Purgatory, without also being used as an argument against the orthodox teaching of the resurrection of the body at the last day. To reduce these words about a heavenly situation to terms of time and space is to presume to know more than what is revealed to us concerning the eternal state.

United in the Faith,

David E. Utsler

Information Specialist

Catholics United for the Faith

827 North Fourth Street

Steubenville, OH 43952

800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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