Updated: Apr 13, 2022
By Luke Lancaster
"Temporal punishment" sounds like a wordy and complicated thing, as the term is frequently used when discussing the topic of purgatory or the Sacrament of Penance. But it really isn't hard to get, as it just means the sufferings which we undergo in this life on earth. Suffering is a temporary punishment from God for sin, and is to be distinguished from eternal punishment, which would be Hell. One type of suffering is within this world, the other is within in a different world. Christ died to protect us from eternal, not temporal, punishment.
Temporal punishment is similar to a child who decides to play baseball next to his neighbor's house. If he hits the ball too hard, he will break his neighbor's window. Now, does the child simply apologize to his neighbor and that's it? The moral order is rectified? No. The child's father will pay his neighbor to replace the window, and then will discipline his son in some way. The payment of the father is analogous to eternal punishment, and the discipline of the son is temporal punishment. God is a good father and wants His children to internalize their failings. If they are not disciplined, then they will never fully understand the gravity of their mistakes.
Consider another example. If your child insults you as a parent, you punish him. You take away his dessert or give him a time-out. God is no different, for He is the ultimate Father. Scripture says, "My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights" (Proverbs 3:11-12, cf. Hebrews 12:6). David and Moses experienced just that and we are no different.
The Example of David
To see temporal punishment in action, look no further than King David. When David committed the mortal sins of adultery and murder with Bathsheba and Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 11), David deserved Hell. He broke God's commandments in a grievous way, and God would punish this action. But David repented (2 Sam. 12:13).
He said, "Have mercy on me, O God...Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight...Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me" (Psalms 51:1, 4, 10-11). He realized his sins and begged God for forgiveness. God did not have to forgive David, but because of the genuineness of David's sorrow, and out of His mercy, God forgave David. Hell/eternal punishment was not an option.
David still needed to undergo some kind of punishment for his sins, though. God did not want David to take his sins lightly. He truly damaged his relationship with God. David needed to understand his sins in a deeper way, so God punished David (2 Samuel 12:15). God let David's son get sick and die. This really hurt David, but David needed to understand that he had hurt God. So, David underwent a temporal or temporary suffering here on earth, as his child's sickness ended with death.
The Example of Moses
Moses was the closest Israelite to God, communing with Him in His presence on behalf of Israel. Yet even Moses became disobedient towards God and received a temporal punishment. In Numbers 20, the people of Israel complained to Moses about needing water. Moses beseeched God about this and God told Moses to go to a rock and to tell it to bring forth water (Num. 20:8). Speaking to a rock would miraculously provide water for Israel, thereby strengthening the faith of Israel. Moses then went over to the rock and hit it with his staff twice (Num. 20:11). Moses never spoke to the rock, rather, he hit it with his staff over and over again.
This was a sin against faith. Moses did not trust the words of the Lord, even after the Lord had done profound miracles for Moses. God had spoken to Moses in a burning bush, He had sent plagues upon Egypt at the word of Moses, He had parted the Red Sea, and He had even rained down bread from heaven when the people complained of hunger. Moses was held to a higher level because he had been given so many miraculous, faith-inspiring works of God.
Because of Moses' sin against faith, God gave him a temporal punishment. It was not a moral (major) sin, but still was a venial (minor) sin. So, although Moses would ultimately live with God in eternity (Luke 9:30), God decided to discipline Moses. God knew that Moses deeply wanted to see the promised land of Canaan, which Moses had been leading the people of Israel towards ever since leaving Egypt. So, God issued the temporal punishment of forbidding Moses from entering the land of Canaan.
Num. 20:12 says, "And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 'Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.'" Moses received a punishment. God does the same thing with us today, providing us with minor punishments, like the child who broke his neighbor's window.
Catholics are given penances by their priests in the Sacrament of Penance because of this deep understanding of God's ways. It is to offset the temporal punishments due to sins. Catholics also have an understanding of purgatory because of the extra temporal punishments that we deserved on earth but did not receive. Although Christ paid the eternal, other-worldly punishment that we were due as sinners, He did not remove God's ordinary path of earthly discipline. Temporal punishment still remains.