Updated: Mar 19
By Luke Lancaster
"Temporal punishment" sounds like a wordy and complicated thing, as the term is frequently used when discussing the topic of purgatory. 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 suffering is in this world, the other is in a different world. Christ died to protect us from the latter, not the former.
To understand this, consider King David. When David committed the mortal sin of adultery with Bathsheba and the mortal sin of murder to Uriah the Hittite, David deserved Hell. He broke God's commandments in a grievous way, and God would punish this action. But David repented. He said,
"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 51:10-11).
He realized his sins and begged God for forgiveness. God did not have to forgive David, but since He is a merciful God, He forgave David. David needed to undergo some kind of punishment for his sin, though.
This 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? Or does he not pay the owner the money needed to buy a new window? The same with God's dealings with mankind.
Now, since God had forgiven David's sin, he was not going to go to Hell. Eternal punishment was out of the question. God did not want David to take his sins lightly, however. He truly damaged his relationship with God. David needed to understand his sins in a deeper way, so God punished David, "And the Lord struck the child that Uri′ah’s wife bore to David, and it became sick" (2 Samuel 12:15). This really hurt David, but David needed to understand that he hurt God. So, David underwent a temporal or temporary suffering here on earth, as his child's sickness ended with death.
God is a Father, and He disciplines His children. If your child insults you as a parent, you punish him. You take away his dessert or give him a time-out. God is the ultimate Father, though. King David's next son, Solomon, had this to say, "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). David experienced just that, as do we.
This continued in the New Testament. Hebrews 12 quoted our above quotation on God's discipline (Proverbs 3:11-12). St. Paul gave a very practical example of this as well. He told the Corinthians that they were getting sick (a punishment) because of their sinful reception of the Eucharist. He said in 1 Cor. 11:27-32,
"Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we should not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world."
If somebody attempts to receive Communion in mortal sin, they is receiving the Body of the Lord in an unworthy manner. Such an evil action causes God to punish the person, so that he or she understands the gravity of the situation. In this case, the Corinthians became "weak and ill, and some have died." The Lord will "chasten" us with suffering. This is all for our good, though, for we will learn from our mistakes, and not continue in them.
What if David or the Corinthians died before experiencing temporal punishment? That is where we get the understanding of purgatory. If we die before experiencing all the pains of punishment we are due for our sins, then we experience it in purgatory. It is there, in Heaven's hospital, where we will be fully healed of our iniquities and restored to full communion with God. This is why St. Paul told the Corinthians that we could "suffer loss" when we are judged by God (1 Cor. 3:15). For when the Lord's fiery love (Heb. 12:29) burns away the sinful wood, hay, and straw in our lives, it hurts. But it's just what we need.