If I will present one verse to explain Purgatory with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I will use 1 Corinthians 3:15. In my opinion, St. Paul made a great metaphor in order to show how people, who are assured of entering heaven, with some stains will still receive their rewards through entering a metaphorical fire.
However, Protestants claim that we are taking 1 Corinthians 3:15 out of its original context, and if we read the whole chapter, they arrived at different conclusions. The issue here is not whether we can arrive at different conclusion. The issue is whether we should dismiss Purgatory as one of its possible explanations, and let’s see if that is the case by studying the 3rd chapter of 1 Corinthians.
1 Corinthians 3:1-4
3 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. 2 I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, 3 for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking [a]like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men?
Here, St. Paul started the third chapter by speaking to his brothers and sisters in Christ, and he made two categories in order for them to know what they’re doing. He used two categories to describe Christians. He used the terms “spiritual men” and “men of flesh”. He referred to the “men of flesh” as infants in Christ which means that they have not fallen from grace yet. And then, verses 3-4 show why they were called as such primarily because of the sins that they have made like leading divisions, jealousy, and strife.
1 Corinthians 3:5-9
5 What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. 7 So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. 8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own [b]reward according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s [c]field, God’s building.
St Paul used different metaphors when he explained his point to the audience and he started with the metaphor of God’s field. Because of the fact that there were divisions in the Church, St. Paul established the roles that he, together with Apollos had. He explained how they were cooperating with God, but at the same time, he also explained that it is God who “causes the growth”.
It is God who gives grace, it is God who changes a person’s soul. The verbs “plants” and “waters” indicate the works that they had done as Christian ministers and leaders, and he made a point by mentioning in verse 8 that they will receive a reward according to their works.
1 Corinthians 3:10-15
10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, [d]precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test [e]the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
Here, St. Paul used another type of metaphor when he preached something about a building being tested by fire. There are some Protestants who claim that verses 10-15 have nothing to do with Purgatory because they believe that the context continues from the passage before it to mean that verses 10-15 only discuss Christian leaders and not every Christian.
The problem there is that verse 10 already established that he, a Christian leader, already laid a foundation, and still, he used terms like “any man”, and “each man” to include his audience, and other Christians as well.
What I actually liked is how St. Paul included Jesus Christ in this metaphor, in the same way, that he included God in his earlier metaphor, in order to show how Christ-centered Purgatory is. In verse 12, he made two categories. He differentiated men who built on the foundation with gold, silver, and precious stones from men who built on a foundation with wood, hay, and straw.
The other time when gold, silver, and precious stones were used on a foundation is found in 1 Kings 5-6 which described Solomon’s temple. And then, in Malachi 3, we can find how temple, gold, and silver were used in the context of being purified by fire. And then, from verses 14-15, we can see how St. Paul made two categories.
If a man’s work were built on the foundation of gold, silver and precious stones, he will receive a reward, and if a man’s work were built on the foundation of wood, hay, and straw, he will suffer loss, but he will still be saved (an indication that he will receive his reward) as if he passed as through fire.
I will discuss some Protestant theories on this passage that tried to divert the context to another one instead of noticing the judgment that is portrayed in the same way that we understood Purgatory.
Some Protestants claim that works that were discussed from verses 10-15 have nothing to do with good works and bad works (venial sins). Rather, this talks about the motivations of the Christians. I would disagree with this primarily because of the fact that I believe that St. Paul was consistent with his argument. He already established two categories. If we believe that he is consistent, then we should acknowledge that “spiritual men” were the same men who used gold, silver and precious stones while the “men of flesh” were the same men who used wood, hay, and straws. And, because St. Paul already established that the reason why they were called as “men of flesh” was that of their sins like divisions, jealousy, and strife, this would mean that wood, hays, and straw represent bad works while gold, silver, and precious stones represent good works.
Well, some Protestants used a different type of objection given that they are aware with the continuity of the context of St. Paul. Instead of claiming that this chapter has nothing to do with good works and bad works, they believe that this chapter does not say that the believers pass through the fire, but rather, that a believer’s work passes through the fire. However, they have simply forgotten the metaphors that St. Paul used. In verse 9, he said, “For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” So, St. Paul associated the workers as God’s building, and this is why the context from verses 10-15 reflects what he just said in verse 9.
Another objection would be saying that to “suffer loss” doesn’t mean to receive temporal punishments. What it means is to not receive a reward. I don’t think that any honest person can simply dismiss the interpretation that it represents temporal punishments. The person who used wood, hay, and straws suffered loss, and then he will still be saved as if he escaped as through fire. To be saved means to receive a reward. St. Paul had differentiated these two categories, but they end up the same. They both received a reward, and they were saved. The word that St. Paul used was zémioó which literally means “to damage”. Even if we look at the verse itself, it says, “If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” What was burned here was the work of the man, and St. Paul had already shown going back to my response to Objection 2 that we cannot and we should not separate the work of man from the man itself.
So, an honest Protestant may accept everything that I have just said, but he or she might claim that even if 1 Corinthians 3:15 deals with Judgment, it has no bearing with Purgatory because it describes General Judgment and not Particular Judgment. They might say that this judgment takes place on the Last Day, not immediately after death. However, we have to recognize that one of the verses that Protestants love to use against Purgatory actually proves it.
27 And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment,
Immediately after we die, we will experience judgment, and this is what we call a particular judgment. So, if there is already a judgment immediately after a man dies, then we can say that 1 Corinthians 3:15 is applicable here since the context is about judgment.
Another reason why this chapter deals with particular judgment is that even if it’s true that we have the theme of General Judgment, what takes place in a Particular Judgment is emphasized in General Judgment. We can’t separate the two. There is an anticipation of General Judgment that occurs with the particular judgment at death. For example, Abraham’s bosom and Hades in Luke 16 foreshadowed Heaven and Hell (Lake of Fire) in Revelation 19-21. So, if particular judgment foreshadows what takes place in the General Judgment, and if some Protestants believe that 1 Corinthians 3:15 specifically deals with what will take place in the Final Judgment, then it follows that it can also be applied in Particular Judgment.