Proof-Texting and Purgatory

In another post, we explored the error of proof-texting: wrenching a single verse from Scripture out of context and assuming it means only what the verse says at face value.

In that post, we looked at two examples of proof-texting to support erroneous views, and by restoring the context to the verse, we were able to recapture the intended meaning and show the errors to be... errors. As we've seen consistently throughout Sacred Scripture, context is critical. Not only do we need to see how the verse fits into the whole passage, and how the passage fits into the whole of Scripture, but also what literary and cultural contexts are included in the text.

But there is another kind of proof-texting often used, and we should be aware. We might call it converse proof-texting. This is when someone demands a proof-text for our belief. They deny a Christian belief and say, “The Bible doesn’t even mention such and such.” They mean you can’t find a proof-text proving your particular belief of such and such.

A very common example of this converse proof-texting is used by people who do not believe that Jesus is God. They will say that Jesus never said He was God – that you cannot find Him making such a claim anywhere in the Bible. They demand we produce a verse wherein Jesus states unequivocally, “I am God.” And we cannot produce such a statement. Where, then, did we come up with such an idea that Jesus is the Lord God incarnate? From Scripture, of course; but not in a concise statement. As we’ve seen in another post, Jesus did more than say He was God (for I could make the same claim); He proved He was God by doing things that bore witness to His divinity, which is simply a very robust way of stating He was God. But understanding this required us to explore the context of Jesus’ miracle stories, as explained in that essay.

Likewise, many moderns challenge us, asking us where in the Bible is homosexual sex identified as sin? Where does it teach purgatory, or transubstantiation, or popes, or the Immaculate Conception, and so forth? A reformed Christian might attempt to prove their beliefs in sola Scriptura and sola fide by simply reciting:

16 All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness. 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:16-17)


9 If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom 10:9)

It seems so simple; why can’t Catholics prove their doctrines with such simplicity? We cannot, because proof-texting is no way to prove anything. The above two texts, often recited as proofs of reformed doctrine, do not prove those doctrines when restored to their contexts. Conversely, a Catholic doctrine such as purgatory can be understood only by a rigorous understanding of Sacred Scripture as a whole. Purgatory is, in fact, one of the most difficult doctrines to show in Scripture, for the simple reason that one of the clearest mentions in Scripture is in a deuterocanonical book, and so rejected by reformed Christians.

39 On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas [Maccabeus] and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers. 40 Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. 41 So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; 42 and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. 43 He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. 44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin. (2 Mac 12:39-45)

Here the Judean general Judas Maccabeus offers a sin offering for his deceased warriors who had sinned. He obviously thought such a posthumous offering was meaningful, as v.43-45 explains. It makes atonement for the dead, so that they may be delivered from their sins and may look forward to the resurrection of the dead. We can now look at Revelation’s explanation of the resurrection:

11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it; from his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. 13 And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. 14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; 15 and if any one's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Rev 20:11-15)

The dead were judged by what they had done. This is also the criteria which the Lord explained in His sermon on Mt. Olivet (Mt 25): We will be judged based on how we treated others in life, notably the poor and needy. What good was it, then, to offer a sin offering for the slain warriors of Judas Maccabeus? Their lives were over; what they had done was finished. We must conclude that their lives were not over, that there was more for them “to do,” specifically, to experience atonement. Were they in hell, atonement would not be possible. Were they in Sheol (limbo of the Just before Christ), there would be no need. And so we seem to have a third state, which is neither heaven nor hell, but is still an extension of our life of atonement.

And we have other texts regarding purgatory; they indicate a state after bodily death in which a soul is freed from the penalty of sin (note: not the guilt of sin, but the penalty of sin). Mt 5:26 refers to getting out of prison after paying the last penny; the person is in prison, and then released. Heaven is not a prison, and hell has no escape. Again, St. Paul says:

9 For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. 10 According to the grace 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. 11 For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw -- 13 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. 14 If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 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 3:9-15)

In this architectonic analogy, we are buildings with a foundation on Christ; we build on that foundation via our work. Even should our work not be fire-proof, we are still saved, though we must suffer loss, “as through fire.” The Day will disclose such work. We understand this Day to be the day of my particular judgement, at my death. (Were it the Day of General Judgment at the end of the world, it’s hard to understand how a saved person will suffer loss as through fire.) When I am judged by Christ at my death, my works will be manifest; although many of my works are sinful, I will be saved (because of the Foundation), but I must go through the fire, I must suffer. And here I can experience atonement, even offered by others as the Judean warriors experienced the atoning sin offering of Judas Maccabeus.

That was just a cursory review of purgatory in Sacred Scripture; nevertheless, it was quite long and required us to explore the whole of Scripture. There is no easy proof-text. Likewise, we can find scriptural explanations of our other beliefs that some say are not in the bible, although we have no easy proof-text to satisfy them. The bible is not an apologetic work to convert unbelievers. It’s for us, to immerse ourselves in the Faith and grow closer to God.