Purgatory as a perennial time-out
David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.” – 2 Samuel 12:13-14
As a parent who used to be a child, I know something about punishment. Most of us do. We remember the spankings, groundings, and time-outs we got as kids, as well as the ones we meted out ourselves. We understand that children who suffer no consequences of disobedience will likely make a habit of it, having little respect for authority because the primary authority figures in their lives failed to enforce their own rules. Many of those grow up to populate prisons.
But we also understand that a child who is truly repentant does not need the same disciplinary measures that a rebellious child does. We know that our responses to their disobedience will not and should not be “cookie-cutter” but instead tailored to the child and circumstances.
As I continue to argue against the Catholic Church’s doctrine of Purgatory, I come now to a passage on punishment that may be her strongest argument for it. When King David committed adultery with Bathsheba then had her husband killed, God conveyed his displeasure through the prophet Nathan, telling him that his sin was forgiven yet his child with Bathsheba would die as a result. So the Church sees this as evidence that though God forgives our sins we still have to “pay” for them somehow. But there are a number of things we can say regarding this event demonstrating that a universal place of temporal punishment should not be extrapolated from it.
1. David’s position meant that his sin defamed God in the eyes of multitudes.
If the man selected by God himself to rule his people scorned him and literally got away with murder, God’s name and honor would be seriously denigrated. David’s influential status necessitated an extreme response, for his own discipline and to vindicate God’s honor in the eyes of the watching world. It does not follow that all must suffer appropriate consequences for every forgiven sin, not even in this life, much less in an other-worldly state that is not taught here nor anywhere else in Scripture.
2. God’s mercy towards those who belong to him means we don’t get the consequences we deserve.
David knew this better than anyone and we read about it throughout his psalms. He knew he deserved to die right then and there but God in his mercy forgave him. He says in Psalm 32:1-2, “Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.” And in Psalm 51 which is a lament for the sins that God had reproved him for, he offers a payment of sacrifice but acknowledges, for our instruction, that all God wants and requires is repentance and contrition.
For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
3. David sinned under the terms of the Old Covenant but we are now under the New.
In Deuteronomy 28 God decreed blessings and curses for the Israelites according to whether they obeyed or disobeyed. But in Jeremiah 31 he declares a future New Covenant under which he says, “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
When God’s response to David’s sin is viewed in light of the whole context of Scripture, it becomes very difficult to see it as evidence for a state or place of purification for forgiven sins. I pray that those who are still fearful of death because of this false doctrine of Purgatory and “subject to lifelong slavery” which Hebrews 2 says Jesus delivered us from, will be released from this fear and bondage through the counsel of the whole of God’s Word.