Let me start by saying this:
I have never been Roman Catholic a day in my life, nor have any of my close relatives.
But having spent my young adult life in the Bible Belt, Evangelicals drilled into my brain the idea that we Christians were to enthusiastically study the Bible on our own. I think they expected that doing so would lead people like me to come to the same conclusions as them. But by my mid-30’s, I found that the more I studied the Bible open-mindedly, the more I came to different conclusions.
One of those conclusions was that the afterlife isn’t so simple as heaven vs hell, that there are multiple possibilities for what happens after we die. Jesus frequently mentioned the “outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Revelation speaks of the “second death” in the “lake of fire,” where the wicked are destroyed, not eternally tormented. Eternal torment appears to be reserved for the likes of the Beast, the False Prophet, and the devil himself.
But only in the last couple years have I taken special notice of passages promising or at least implying that we will be punished for our unrepented sins in the afterlife, and that the punishment will vary according to what we have done. That’s effectively what purgatory is – temporary punishment. Granted, this goes against the popular Protestant ideology that we are forgiven all our sins just because we call Jesus our Lord. However, Jesus shot down that idea a long time ago by saying he’ll refuse to even recognize those who call him “Lord,” yet do the devil’s will:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform, many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers [Matt 7:21-23].”
The Bible is loaded with passages refuting the notion that simply believing there was a guy named Jesus, who was the Son of God, sends you straight to heaven. But we’ll save those for another article. This one’s about purgatory. And here, now, is a collection of passages that have inspired me to open my mind to an idea that most Protestants find offensive:
Matthew 6:14, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your father will not forgive your sins.”
In other words, the extent to which we forgive will affect the extent to which God forgives us. One might argue that God will forgive us entirely or not at all based on whether we have forgiven entirely or not at all. But the truth is that all of us forgive someone somewhere along the way, while none of us forgive all people completely. So, for God to judge us based on how we forgive cannot be an all or nothing proposition.
Matthew 7:1-2, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
This goes hand in hand with forgiveness. We have two choices when others sin against us, against others, or against God. We can judge them, or we can forgive them. If we judge others by strict and unrealistic standards (like calling for them to be imprisoned if they fail to remember every email they sent 4-8 years ago), then God will likely judge us by strict and unrealistic standards. But if everyone just goes straight to heaven or straight to hell based solely on whether they prayed the Jesus prayer, then that would have to mean Jesus was lying when he made this statement.
Matthew 11:24, “But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
Here, Jesus addresses Capernaum, not an individual. But since judgment day is for individuals, Jesus must have meant that judgment day will be more tolerable for some bad people (those in Sodom were supposed to have been pretty bad) than for other bad people (like those in Capernaum). Therefore, judgment varies based on the level of sin committed.
Matthew 12:35-37, “The good man brings good things out of the food stored up in him, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him. But I tell you that men will have to give account on the Day of Judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.”
This passage could go either way. One might take it to mean that if our judgement day defense is good enough, then we go to heaven forever, but if our words on that day fall short, then we burn for eternity. Wow, talk about pressure! But if it means God will give us a chance to defend ourselves (“give account”) for every evil thing we say, then there is hope that God will only impart a partial punishment for those wrongs.
Matthew 16:26-28, “For what will a man be profited if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and will then recompense every man according to his deeds.”
(This quote is from the New American Standard Bible, which is considered to be the most literal of the major translations. The New International Version uses “reward” instead of “recompense” and “what he has done” rather than “deeds.” But I still remember my Old Testament History book at Belmont University criticizing the NIV for translating the Bible to fit American protestant doctrine. This appears to an example of that.)
If we go by the literal translation, this passage is clearly states that our “deeds” will determine our “recompense,” rather than the mere belief that Jesus is the Son of God determining it. But don’t despair. Other passages indicate that we will be forgiven for the sins we repent of. Repentance means to not only be sorry for our sin, but to turn away from it and stop doing it. We may still slip and sin from time to time, but we should acknowledge our sin and work to eliminate it. More importantly, we must not glorify or preach sin, whether we revel proudly in drunkenness or cry “my money” when faced with having to pay taxes to help those less fortunate than ourselves. That leads us to this next verse:
Matthew 18:6, “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to sin! Such things must come, but woe to the man through whom they come!
Jesus implies here that having a millstone around your neck and being drowned is far better than the afterlife punishment for those who lead others astray. So purgatory, or the 2nd death, are not to be taken lightly.
But if we all go straight to heaven or hell based on having been told the right name to pray to, then what difference does it make if we lead others into temptation? Wouldn’t the believer in Christ be forgiven regardless what he did, and the non-believer condemned eternally regardless of what he did? Clearly for the believer and the non-believer, judgment will be worse for those leading others into sin.
Luke 12:47-48, “That servant who knows this master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his 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.”
Again, we see varying degrees of punishment here, not one person receiving eternal lashes and another receiving none, because they sang praise songs to Jesus. In this case, those who know the law of God receive more punishment than those who don’t.
So why become a Christian if you’re going to be held even more responsible for your deeds?
That’s like asking, “Why teach a ten-year-old that it’s wrong for him to bully six-year-olds and that he’ll be punished if he continues?” The answer is that protecting the innocent, defenseless six-year-olds is of far greater importance than protecting their abuser from punishment. Likewise, the more we truly seek to live the Christian life (rather than just look out for our own salvation), the more we love God and others, which makes this world a better place for everyone. That’s why sharing Jesus’ message and the Bible’s teachings is so important.
2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done in the body, whether good or bad.”
This time we even have Paul, the author of most salvation-by-faith theology, saying that we’ll be judged by what we’ve done. And the fact that he says each “will receive what is due him” implies varying rewards and punishments, while “things done in the body” implies deeds, not just beliefs. Notice, he does not say, “each may receive what is due him for having decided to believe or not believe in Jesus.” He assumes the church members to whom he writes already believe in Jesus.
Revelation 22:12, “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.”
And finally, John joins in by quoting Jesus saying that He will recompense every person based on what they have done, not so much on what they have believed.
So if Jesus will judge us according to our deeds, was He, or the New Testament’s writers, a liar for saying that those who believe in Him will be saved?
No, because such a statement was true for the audience to which he was speaking. Remember that no one in New Testament times was raised a Christian, neither was anyone living in a Christian community. Those who professed faith in Christ believed in his teachings. And they were so dedicated to his teachings that, according to the Book of Acts, they sold or shared what they had and joined what was effectively a church commune. They made radical life changes according to his teachings; they didn’t just believe in a name they were taught while continuing to live a life of greed and mercilessness.
That’s what the Pharisees (the religious establishment who persecuted Jesus) did, as they believed in the names of Abraham and Moses, but served the devil in their behavior. And that’s what many Christians do today, as they preach Republicanism in the name of Christ. I won’t say there will be hell to pay for them, but I will say that temporary punishments might be in the their future.
-K. Scott Schaeffer