A bad argument for purgatory

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I’ve started listing to Pints with Aquinas very recently. So recently that I only just listened to episode four today. But you’ve had a few too many pints with Aquinas if you think the host’s argument for purgatory is a good one.

The podcast is well made and easy to listen to, and Matt Fradd presents it well. His dedication not only to his audience but to Christ is evident, and his passion is contagious. But I don’t know how long I’ll be listening. Time will tell. In today’s episode (ie the one I listened to today), I rolled my eyes as Matt repeated as fact the chestnut that all of the books used in the Catholic Bible were accepted by Christians until the Reformation, when Protestants started throwing out books that contradicted their theology. Nobody faithfully representing history in an informed manner would say this, as I’ve shown in the past. Is the podcast going to turn out to just be another bad Catholic apologetics ministry? I hope not. As I said, time will tell. The podcast might turn out to be my all-time favourite!

The surprisingly bad argument

But what really caught my attention was something Matt thought was a great argument for the doctrine of purgatory.  A pretty bad argument, as it turned out!

Purgatory, in Catholic theology, is a place of temporary punishments after death to cleanse a saved person of their remaining sin so that they will be pure and ready for eternity in God’s presence. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it:

Purgatory (Lat., “purgare”, to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.

The argument is as follows:

  1. There will be neither sin nor attachment to sin in heaven.
  2. We are still sinning and attached to sin at the end of our earthly life

Therefore

  1. There must be a period between death and heavenly glory in which the saved are cleansed of their sin and their attachment to sin

As soon as the argument left Matt’s (virtual) lips and hit my ears, I thought “that can’t be right. He must have misspoken.” But sure enough, Matt then challenged Protestants: The only way you can bring this argument down is by attacking the truth of premises 1 or 2, because it is a deductive argument. And you wouldn’t want to do that, would you? You don’t want to say that you can be in heaven when you are still sinful and attached to sin, can you? And come now, don’t be vain, you don’t think that you are without sin, right? And you will be sinful to some extent until you die, right? So there has to be a period of cleansing after you die and before heaven, right? Purgatory! Remember that this is an argument directed to those who don’t believe in purgatory. It works by appealing to things that they already believe.

A deductive argument? “Surely,” I thought, “this fellow just doesn’t know how deductive arguments work.” But now that I have looked him up at his website, I see that Matt graduated in philosophy at the College and Seminary where he now teaches. He does know what a deductive argument is. But surely then, he knows that this is not a valid deductive argument. There is absolutely nothing controversial or questionable about this judgement: This conclusion does not follow from 1 and 2. It is logically invalid. That’s because logic is conservative. You can’t have a concept suddenly appearing in the conclusion that wasn’t present in any of the premises.

Consider the argument:

  1. If a shape is a square then it has four sides.
  2. This shape is a square.

Therefore

  1. This shape has four sides.

This deductive argument is valid, and if you pick out all the concepts in the conclusion, this shape and four sides, you can go back into the premises and find where those concepts came from. A concept can’t just appear without warning in the conclusion. But as everyone can see, that’s exactly what is going on in this supposedly great argument for purgatory.

Look at the conclusion. Look at the very element that the argument was supposed to be demonstrating: “a period between death and heavenly glory in which the saved are cleansed of their sin and their attachment to sin.” Now scan the premises and try to find this element. It’s not there! It just popped out of nowhere in the conclusion. Since logic is conservative, this proves that the argument is invalid.

Alms for the poor (argument)

Every person who understands how deductive inferences work grants at once that this is an invalid argument, and hence it is not a good argument for purgatory. We could leave the argument in the gutter and walk away now. But, charity being chief among the virtues, let’s “steel man” the argument and prop it up. How can we improve this argument until it is a valid deductive argument? We’re going to have to introduce a premise that mentions the stuff about a process of purification that shows up in the conclusion. The revised argument might go something like this:

  1. There will be neither sin nor attachment to sin in heaven.
  2. We are sinning and attached to sin at the end of our earthly life.
  3. The only possible way to go from dying in a state of sin and attachment to sin to being free of sin and attachment to sin is via a period of cleansing between death and heavenly glory.

Therefore

  1. The only way for us to get to heaven after death is via a period between death and heavenly glory in which the saved are cleansed of their sin and their attachment to sin

This is often the way with arguments that seem on the face of them to be implausible. When you make them clear and force all of their hidden premises out into he light, we see exactly what is wrong with them

Now it looks like we’ve got a decent deductive argument. All the concepts in the conclusion: Necessary conditions for getting to heaven, us, sinning and attachment to sin,  and a period of cleansing between death and glory, are all found in the premises. It looks like now the conclusion does follow. If the premises are true, so is the conclusion. And now the way to challenge people who don’t believe in purgatory is to ask which premise they deny. But now their task is easy. They don’t have to reject the claim that there will no sin or attachment to sin in heaven. They can freely admit that when they die they will still be sinful. What they quite obviously deny is premise 3. This is often the way with arguments that seem on the face of them to be implausible. When you make them clear and force all of their hidden premises out into he light, we see exactly what is wrong with them. We find out that they had smuggled in claims that we all know the people on the other side of the argument just don’t accept. Protestant theologians in general do not believe that the only way a person can go from dying in a sinful state to being sinless in heaven is via a process of cleansing between death and glory. Instead, they believe that because of what Christ has done for them, they can be free of sin all at once when they die. Alternatively, they may believe, as I do, that there is no conscious intermediate state of the soul after death, and instead that when Christ returns the saved are raised immortal and glorious, free of all sin and corruption.

It is hard to see what appeal there is in believing that these scenarios are impossible. After all, there are other transformations that take place without a drawn out process of change. The resurrection of the dead is a good example. When we die, we are mortal, frail, subject to degeneration. But in the resurrection of the dead, as Saint Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, we will be immortal, glorious, incorruptible etc. We are immortal as soon as we are raised, for that is when our immortal life begins. There was no necessary drawn-out process of death being cleansed from us leading up to the resurrection.

Although I do not believe in purgatory, I have not argued here that purgatory does not exist. I don’t need to. All I have done is spot one bad argument for purgatory and explained why it is fundamentally broken. That some believers in purgatory think it is an especially powerful argument is informative when it comes to the basis of their beliefs about theology, but it does not tell us whether or not their theology is true.

Glenn Peoples

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