The topic I’m dealing with on this destined-to-be-a-very-long thread seems to me to be particularly important. Most of my scholarship is of interest mainly to people concerned about the life and teachings of Jesus, the New Testament, the history of Christianity, and so on; but this is of interest to *all* of us. What happens when we die? Or more specifically, what happens to *me* when I die?
My current discussion of purgatory may be of little interest to people, until they think about it for a second. Do most people have to go through horrible suffering after death, even if they are not destined for the eternal flames of hell? I for one don’t look forward to getting a tooth ache or ending up in the hospital. What if there are years, decades, centuries of physical torment ahead for me? Shouldn’t I want to know about that and, well, make some preparations?
But it’s a topic most of us don’t think about. Those of us raised in a Protestant tradition simply don’t buy it (whether we’re Christian or not); many Catholics do buy it, but don’t devote a lot of thought to it. But either way, is it true?
I have no way of knowing of course, so I’m not going to give you an answer. But I do want to pursue the question of where the idea came from. Is it taught, for example, in the New Testament? Supporters of the doctrine claim that it is, deniers say it isn’t. What’s the evidence?
I’ll mention four passages that seem most relevant. Actually, the first I’ll mention seems the least relevant of the four, but it’s the one that appears to have been cited most frequently, from what I can tell, by later supporters of the reality of Purgatory. It comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew 5-7).
In his famous “Antitheses” Jesus states a Jewish law/tradition and then gives his own more radical interpretation of it. The law says: Don’t murder. Jesus says: don’t even get angry with someone. In that context he urges people to get along even with their enemies, and says: “Be reconciled with your enemy quickly, while you are still with him on the street. Otherwise your enemy will hand you over to the judge and the judge will hand you over to the guard and you will be taken off to prison. Truly I tell you, you won’t come out of there until you have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:25-26)
I will say up front that, at least as I read Matthew, he’s not at *all* talking about the afterlife. He’s telling people how to live in this present life. Don’t have enemies, and if you do have enemies, do what you need to do to be reconciled with them, otherwise there will be a heavy price. We all know this is right. There are some people you don’t want to be enemies with. They can make life miserable for you. The way to avoid that is simply to be reconciled with them ahead of time.
Later readers of Matthew’s Gospel, though, saw a much deeper meaning behind all this. They saw it as a reference to the afterlife. And they had some contextual evidence for their view. Immediately before this, in the antithesis itself (an antithesis is a “contrary statement”: Jesus states the Jewish law/tradition then gives his contrary statement), Jesus says “You have heard that it was said to the people of old, ‘Do not murder’ and whoever murders will be liable to the judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with another is liable to the judgment; and whoever says to another, “You idiot” will be liable to the council; and whoever says “you fool,’ will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.” (Matt 5:21-22)
It’s hard to know how to translate those last three words. Most English translations give them as “hell of fire,” and so most people naturally think Jesus is talking about being cast into the eternal flames of hell to suffer everlasting torment. But the word Jesus uses is “Gehenna,” which is a reference to a trash heap in a valley outside of Jerusalem, a site where garbage was burned and, according to some accounts, where unwanted human corpses were tossed. That is where Jesus says “the worm never dies and the fire never ceases” (Mark 9:48). It’s no wonder if that’s the case if there’s always garbage and cadavers being burned and gnawed there.
Jesus actually never talks about eternal torment in the New Testament. Even in Gehenna, it is not that the corpses that get tossed in there never die but experience everlasting pain. On the contrary, the corpses are dead. And they have no hope of returning to life. They’ll always be consumed with fire and eaten by worms. It is the fire and worms that never cease, not the conscious experience of torment.
When Jesus refers to judgment in the antithesis of Matt. 5:21-22 he is saying that you could get the death sentence (from God) for voicing your anger at another (not just for murdering him or her). So don’t do that. Be reconciled. Later readers, though, maintained that he was talking about the last judgment where sinners would be cast into hell.
If that’s the case, then what does it mean that you might be in danger not of being cast into Gehenna/hell but delivered over to prison “until you pay the last penny”? That is not as a severe a penalty, but it also comes from God “the judge,” who hands you over to another (“the guard”) who punishes you for a time (“in prison”), until you’ve paid your final debt for whatever it is you’ve done wrong (“until you pay the last penny”).
This passage was taken, that is, as a reference to punishment for Jesus’ own followers after death if they did not lead perfect lives in the present. And who can go through life without having enemies, without venting their animosity toward another by calling them an idiot, without even getting angry at another? None of us can. And that means all of us will suffer punishment in the afterlife until we have paid our debt for sinning.
And there we have it. Purgatory!
Share Bart’s Post on These Platforms