(1 Cor. 3:12-15) Does the Bible teach purgatory?

CLAIM: Roman Catholic apologist Tim Staples writes, “First Corinthians 3:11-15 may be the most straightforward text in all of Sacred Scripture when it comes to purgatory.”[1] Does this passage support the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory?

RESPONSE: A number of observations can be made:

First, the context refers to a person’s SERVICE—not their SUFFERING in Purgatory. In the beginning of the chapter, Paul writes about the planting, watering, and growth of the Church. In this section, Paul mentions the believer’s “work” four times in three verses (vv.13-15).

Second, this passage refers to ALL believers—not just those with “venial sins.” Paul writes about “each man” (v.10), “no man” (v.11), “any man” (v.12), “each man’s work” (v.13), and “any man’s work” (v.14, 15). Later in verse 16, Paul refers to these people as “the temple of God,” and in verse 17, he refers to “any man” who destroys the temple of God. Thus, Paul consistently uses universal language eight times throughout verses 10-18. Clearly, Paul is referring universally to all believers.

This creates a massive problem for the Roman Catholic interpreter. After all, on their view, not all believers go to Purgatory—only those with venial sins.

Third, the fire REVEALS and TESTS, but it does not PURGE. Paul uses four different terms to show the purpose of this fire:

“Evident” (phaneron). This means “to be readily known, visible, clear, plainly to be seen, open, plain, evident, known” (BDAG).

“Shows” (dēloō). This means “to make some matter known that was unknown or not communicated previously, reveal, make clear, show” (BDAG).

“Reveal” (apokalyptō). This means “to cause something to be fully known, reveal, disclose, bring to light, make fully known” (BDAG).

“Test” (dokimazō). This means “to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine” (BDAG).

None of these terms refer to suffering or purging sin. They all refer to revealing the quality of each man’s work.

Fourth, the purpose of this judgment is not SUFFERING, but REWARD. Paul specifies that the purpose of this judgment is “reward” (v.14), not suffering or purging of sin. Earlier, Paul writes, “Each will receive his own reward according to his own labor” (v.8).

Paul does say that the man will “suffer loss” (v.15). But does this refer to judgment or purging of sin? Not at all. This Greek term (zēmioō) means “disadvantage” or “loss” (TDNT, 2:888). It can also be rendered “forfeit” (Mt. 16:26; Mk. 8:36), “loss” (Phil. 3:7), or financial “loss” (Acts 27:10).

This passage refers to the bema seat judgment, which is a well taught doctrine throughout the NT. Paul writes, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). Elsewhere, he writes, “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10). Unlike the judgment of hell, the bema seat is a judgment of reward (1 Cor. 3:14). Here, God will reward believers, according to their faithfulness (Mt. 25:21).

For more on this subject, see our earlier article “Purgatory.”

[1] Staples, Tim. “Is Purgatory a Catholic Invention? No Way!” This Rock. Volume 22. Number 2. 2011.