“For our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29)
Here is the text in question from 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.
By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (NIV)
Now I know this text can be difficult to figure out, but it really isn’t that complicated. Let’s imagine you were contracted to build a house. If you have built your house out of high quality materials like gold, silver and costly stones, a fire will not burn it down. But if you built your house out of inferior materials like wood, hay or straw, the house is going to burn down when tested by fire. Now, what about your spiritual house? Are the good works you’ve performed during your life in order to build your spiritual edifice – are these works going to withstand the fiery scrutiny on judgment day? Or have low quality and shabby materials marred the appearance of your spiritual edifice?
Now there are two things that can happen to you if you’re inside a burning house: you can either perish in the fire or escape outside to safety! In the latter instance, where you escape, the fire proves to be remedial or purifying. Your shoddy workmanship is consumed, but yet you escape and live. In the context of judgment, this image of a saving or purifying fire sounds a lot like Purgatory! And in the passage in question from 1 Corinthians 3, Saint Paul speaks of such a situation where the shoddy workmanship is burned up and yet the “the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:15).
The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible explains 1 Corinthians 3:15 in this manner:
“Some Christian workers, whose efforts are shabby and imperfect, will pass through God’s fiery judgment like a man who barely escapes a burning building with his life. This prelude to salvation will involve painful spiritual consequences, which, though severe, will spare them eternal damnation….Catholic tradition interprets Paul’s teaching in the light of Purgatory…a final stage of purification for those who are destined to heaven but depart from this life still burdened with venial sins or with an unpaid debt of temporal punishment incurred from past sins (i.e., mortal sins already forgiven but imperfectly repented of). Passing through fire is thus a spiritual process where souls are purged of residual selfishness and refined in God’s love (CCC 1030-32).” (Pages 288-89)
Here is the beautiful and profound way in which Pope Benedict explains in his encyclical, Spe Salvi, how 1 Corinthians 3 illuminates the Church’s teaching on Purgatory:
“Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.
47. Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).” (nos. 46-47, Purgatory specifically mentioned in no. 45 )
Historically, it is quite clear that the early Christians believed in a state of purification after death. We know, for example, that the Christians living in the catacombs in Rome inscribed prayers for the dead on the walls. In addition, prayers for the dead are contained in some of the earliest Christian writings. Another key proof text in scripture is 2 Maccabees 12:46, which states: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins.” Obviously, we would not pray for the dead if they were already in heaven. Every Catholic Mass offered throughout the world includes prayers for the living and the dead, and there is an extraordinary list of Catholic saints who have experienced private revelations of purgatory, the most recent of which include Saint Padre Pio and Saint Faustina Kowalska (the saint of the Divine Mercy revelations). Finally, is there not in our hearts a God-given instinct to pray for the souls of the dead? In Letters to Malcolm C.S. Lewis makes mention of this instinct to pray for the dead:
“Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him? I believe in Purgatory.”
In addition to these reasons which demonstrate the reasonableness of the Church’s teaching on Purgatory, Catholics need to be aware of the strong support found in Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (Chapter Three) for Purgatory and its purifying fires.
Tom Mulcahy, M.A.
References: Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical Spe Salvi; Ignatius Catholic Study Bible; Dr. Scott Hahn audio, “Purgatory: Holy Fire”; and Catholicism and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating.
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