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Purgatory in 1 Corinthians 3

Updated: Aug 15, 2021

By Luke Lancaster

In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he uses an image that seems to suggest the Catholic teaching of Purgatory. He says,

According to the commission of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—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. 3:10-15).

Paul is giving an analogy for the Corinthian church. He came to the community and spoke about Jesus, converting a number of people and formed a church. They were baptized "into the body" of Christ, and took on His life (1 Cor. 12:13). The works they did after that would be similar to the different types of material used to build houses.

The weak houses that are made out of wood, hay, and stubble would be considered the sins of the people, such as their prideful divisions (1 Cor. 1:10), their jealousy and quarrels (1 Cor. 3:3), their bad motivations (1 Cor. 4:5), their immorality (1 Cor. 5:1), etc.

Those bad works are contrasted with the good works, which would be houses made out of solid stones, gold, silver, etc. That would be like feeding and supporting Paul and Barnabas (1 Cor. 9:11), imitating Paul's actions (1 Cor. 11:1), love that is patient, kind, and humble (1 Cor. 13:4-5), and faith with hope (1 Cor. 13:13).

At the end of time, when Christ judges mankind of His works (Paul calls this the "Day"), it will be like the man's house will be set on fire. This fire reveals what works he did on earth that were good and bad. What virtues and what vices he had.

Whatever virtues and good works he did will withstand the flames of Christ's judgment, for they will be solid stone, gold, or silver. Whatever vices or sins he did will be burned or purified from his house, such as the flammable wood, hay, or stubble. This judgment at the end of time is similar to Purgatory. The good works will be rewarded in Heaven. The bad works will be purified from the man, for "nothing unclean" shall enter Heaven (Rev. 21:27).

Just as the prophet Malachi spoke of the "refiners fire" in Mal. 3:13, so Paul takes this image and applies it to God's judgment at the end of time (see Kittel's Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol. 6, p. 944). This fire consumes the bad works, which causes the man pain and a loss of rewards. The man "suffers loss" from it, which in Greek, the preponderant meaning is "punishment." The man receives the temporal punishment due for his sins.

In the older version of the Expositors Bible Commentary (vol. 10), edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, evangelical scholar Dr. W. Harold Mire commented some striking words relating to the passage in 1 Corinthians. Dr. W. Harold Mire wrote that “Fire in the Scripture is used figuratively in two ways: as a purifying agent in Matthew 3:11 and Mark 9:49 and that as that which consumes. So it is a fitting symbol here for God’s judgment (Matthew 3:12; 2 Thessalonians 1:7; Hebrews 12:29)” and “The quality of what sort of works is to be equated with the kinds of materials of doctrine and life that are used” (pgs. 207-208). This fits well with the Catholic understanding of 1 Corinthians 3.

The man who has Christ as His foundation will still be saved. This means that the man will go to Heaven. However, there is no suffering in Heaven, so the purification of wood, hay, and straw must be in preparation for Heaven. Catholics call this state "purgatory."

St. Augustine of Hippo speaks of purgatory in connection with the “fire” of 1 Corinthians 3. He prays that God may cleanse him from temporal punishments on this earth, so that he does not need the “corrective fire” after death. For the “corrective fire” in purgatory (after death) is much worse than the suffering on earth.

He says, "Lord, rebuke me not in Your indignation, nor correct me in your anger…. In this life may You cleanse me and make me such that I have no need of corrective fire, which is for those who are saved, but as if by fire….For it is said, “He shall be saved, but as if by fire” (1 Cor 3:15). And because it is said, “he shall be saved,” little is thought of that fire. Yet, plainly, though we be saved by fire, that fire will be more severe than anything man can suffer in this life" (Explanations of the Psalms, 37.3, Quoted in Jurgens @ 1467).

Purgatory has been found in 1 Corinthians 3 since the very beginning of the Church.

Some will attempt to argue that this passage is only referring to the types of rewards a Christian will receive in heaven. To answer this point, 1 Cor. 3 cannot only be referring to rewards in Heaven because the wood, hay, and straw represent sins. Those sins are purged from the person. So this is not just about rewards.

Some will also attempt to argue that only the WORKS are judged, not the person. However, the works being judged are attached to the person; they cannot be separated from him. Bad works are purged, and the text says that “HE will suffer loss,” meaning a painful process for the PERSON, not just the works. The person will be saved “through fire,” meaning that the person goes THROUGH the fire.

St. Paul gave a very good explanation of what Catholics call "purgatory" in his first letter to the church at Corinth. God's judgment is like a refiner's fire, purifying the good from the bad. The bad are removed from the person, thus making the person perfect and fit for eternal life. Heaven is complete perfection, and only perfect people go there (Rev. 21:27). Read more about this topic in Pope Benedict XVI's theological work Spe Salvi, specifically paragraph 47.

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