“Purgatory” and the Judgment Seat of Christ
I’ll start by warning you that I’m offering a perspective in this post that is, by “normal” evangelical standards, unconventional. To readers who fall into this category, I ask only that you to please try to keep an open mind.
I appreciate it.
A while back a Christian lady I knew took her own life. A friend of the family remarked that the pain in her life had become unbearable and “she just wanted to go to a better place.” If you reject (as I do) the old Catholic teaching that people who commit suicide automatically go to hell, this course of action doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable. As a despondent young man said to me recently, “When life’s just one f**king bout of pain after another and heaven is just one relatively painless act away, why would anyone think suicide an outlandish possibility?”
One of course might (and should) point out that suicide is murder and that our lives are not ours to take. If the person believes murder is forgivable, however, this might not deter them. One might (and should) also point out that suicide is profoundly selfish. But if the person is sufficiently despondent and/or doesn’t feel anyone loves them, this also might not deter them.
There are other considerations one could (and should) offer someone contemplating suicide, but in my opinion the best argument against suicide is that it’s simply not a short cut to heaven. As I said in response to the despondent young man mentioned above, “While your faith in Jesus in principle reconciles you to God, your character has to be refined before you enter heaven. It’s like Christ’s death on the cross let’s you out of prison but you still need to have your criminal character reformed before you are fit for the heavenly society. And there’s simply no short cut to this process of character reformation.”
The trouble is that, like most evangelicals, this young man held the view that our character is magically made perfect the moment we die. Sanctification may be hard during this life, this view holds, but if you’re “saved” you’re perfected and all struggles cease the moment you die.
Tragically, this belief not only encourages suicide for people who are desperately tired of the struggle, but it also seems to make sanctification in this life optional. Many wonder why they should go through all the hard work of character refinement in this life if they’re going to instantly be made perfect the moment after they take their last breath? I’m convinced this belief, together with the common “legal” view of “justification,” is largely behind the epidemic apathy toward Christ-like holiness that characterizes the modern western church.
As widespread as this “instantly-made-perfect-at-death” belief is today, it’s worth noting that it’s not the traditional view of the church. Throughout most of Church history Christians have believed that between death and heaven is a stage of purging during which the process of sanctification is completed. This came to be called “purgatory” (a title I avoid because of its negative associations). Unfortunately, over time purgatory came to be viewed as a place where you pay for your sins, as though Christ’s atoning work on the cross was insufficient. To make matters worse, during the late Middle Ages the Catholic Church began selling “indulgences,” claiming that a person could buy time off of purgatory for themselves or loved ones by donating money to the Church (arguably the most ingenious money-making scheme any religion has ever concocted!). This was the primary teaching Luther originally protested against when he birthed the Protestant (“protesting”) movement in the early 16th century.
The conviction that all believers are magically made perfect at the moment of death can be traced back Luther’s original protest. The concept of purgatory had become so fused with the idea of paying for your own sins and with the grotesque practice of selling indulgences that Luther and other Protestants ended up rejecting the concept of post-mortem sanctification (“purgatory”) altogether.
So far as I can see, the early Protestants threw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. While Scripture is admittedly scant on details of the next life, I find hints that suggest that there’s some sort of refining process that believers must go through on their way to their eternal home.
For example, in Matthew 5 Jesus says;
“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny” (Mt. 5:25-26).
Notice that Jesus says the person will eventually get out of prison, which tells us he’s not talking about an eternal punishment. This person is clearly “saved.” Yet, there’s a punishment this person must undergo before they are released from prison. In light of Christ’s atoning death I think we have to interpret this punishment in a pedagogical instead of a retributive sense. It’s not a matter of a person paying for their own sins. It’s rather a matter of a person learning what they have to learn. Jesus is teaching us that we either learn to be reconciled with our adversaries now or we’ll have to learn this later – and it’s apparently in our own interest to learn this now.
There are no shortcuts.
Along similar lines, in Luke 12 Jesus taught:
“The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked ” (Lk 12:47-48).
Here again it’s important to notice that for both servants the punishment comes to an end, which tells us Jesus isn’t talking about a permanent punishment. Yet the punishments vary depending on severity of the servants’ crime. The servant who knew his master’s will and intentionally disobeyed will experience harsher punishment than the servant who didn’t, presumably because intentional disobedience reflects a more hardened character that requires harsher disciplinary measures to be reformed.
Finally, Paul explicitly teaches that every disciple of Jesus must go through a “fire” that “will test the quality of each person’s work” (I Cor. 3:14). This fire refines everything that is built on the foundation of Christ but burns up everything that is not (I Cor. 3:11-15). In my view, this refining fire (or “prison,” or “beatings”) takes place at the “judgment seat of Christ” that all believers must face (Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10). The judgment is not about whether or not a believer belongs to God. It’s about a believer receiving whatever punishment they need and whatever reward they deserve as a prelude to their life in the heavenly society.
To sum it all up, while believers are justified by faith alone in the atoning work of Christ, we are nevertheless called to yield to God’s Spirit within us as we “work out [our] salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). Compelled by the love of God (2 Cor. 5:14), we are called to “purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting (or “completing”, teleo) holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Cor. 7:1). This purification is to take place in the community of disciples who constitute the bride that is making herself ready for the return of her groom (Rev. 19:7) which is why Peter says that “judgment begins with God’s household” (1 Pet 4:17).
What I’ve tried to show in this post is that this purification is not optional and this judgment is not avoidable. Whatever is not completed now will have to be completed at the judgment seat of Christ — but again, it’s in our best interest to complete this process now.
We are all in training for the eternal Kingdom. Life is the school that prepares us for heaven. And, like it or not, we will not enter our eternal Sabbath rest until we’re ready to graduate. There simply are no short cuts, so we might as well start to enjoy the learning process.
Best wishes as you continue on in the school of Christ-like purification.