Although non-Catholics from the original Reformer Martin Luther, to evangelical hero C. S. Lewis, to modern Protestant scholars like Jerry Walls and Roger Olson, affirm the possibility of a purgatorial state between Heaven and Hell, the idea remains generally unpopular among most non-Catholics. Some do not agree that Purgatory can be found anywhere in Scripture, and reject it on that ground. Others, though, believe that Purgatory would actually contradict Scripture. One popular proof for this alleged contradiction is the principle that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (examples: 1, 2, 3, 4). As I will argue below, while the doctrine of Purgatory might be incorrect, it does not contradict 2 Cor. 5:8 (or any other Scripture of which I am aware).
Afterlife State: Desire or Principle?
I always caution people about assuming they know a Bible passage just because they hear it quoted the same way all the time. Like “Money is the root of all evil,” or, “All things work together for good,” or, “Pride comes before the fall,” or, “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is,” or, “The lion shall lie down with the lamb,” the idea that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” comes from a misquotation of Scripture.
Here is the actual verse in question:
“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”
That’s the KJV, but the other major translations are equivalent. As is clear from the actual text, Paul is not here expressing a principle of limited afterlife conditions. Rather, he is expressing a two-fold desire: namely, to be absent from the body and be present with the Lord.
Before moving on to the alleged contradiction, note that this desire may no more guarantee its attainment than any other expressed desire in Scripture (e.g., Paul’s desire in Romans 9:3, or even God’s desire in 2 Pet. 3:9). Further, even if Paul was expressing a certainty that he would be in the presence of the Lord the instant that he was not in his body, that would not mean that all people can or should have the same confidence (e.g., 2 Tim. 4:8 cf. James 1:12). I am not saying these things are the case, simply that the text does not warrant their exclusion.
Afterlife States: Hope or Limit?
More importantly for this discussion, though, is that Paul’s stated desire does not indicate that other states of affairs are impossible. Paul indicates a two-fold desire for himself (and, by extension, us): (1) to be absent from the body and (2) to be present with the Lord. This desired state of affairs (1+2) does not exclude the possibility of some other pair of states (1+x), however. For example, we know that at least some people will eventually be (1) absent from the body and (3) in Hell. But the two-fold state (1+3) does not contradict 2 Cor. 5:8. Neither does the possibility of someone being in a fourth state of affairs: (1) absent from the body and (4) in Purgatory. This state (1+4) is also not contradictory to the passage in question.
This is simply acknowledging Paul’s desire without illegitimately turning it into a principle of limited possible afterlife states – and it is not a theology-dependent issue. To give a non-theological example, I could say that I desire to be “absent from my job and present in my home.” Although being absent from my job may be necessary for my being present in my home, it does not guarantee it. I could be absent from my job and present at a rock concert, for example. Because my desire that I be absent from my job and present in my home does not mean that being absent from my job is a guarantee of my being present in my home, it is not contradictory to assert that it is possible that I both not-be-present-at-my-job and not-be-present-in-my-home.
Since 2 Cor. 5:8 is not expressing a principle that limits possible afterlife states, the passage does not prove anything for or against Purgatory – but it does show that a contradiction between the doctrine of Purgatory and Scripture is not generated by this verse.
Afterlife State: Conditions or Confidence?
Even if Paul was expressing his certainty that he would be in the presence of the Lord the instant that he was not in his body, that would not mean that all people can or should have the same (e.g., compare 2 Tim. 4:8 with James 1:12). The confidence Paul speaks of in this passage may only pertain to himself and others who demonstrate courage (v.6,8), walk by faith (v.7), please God (v.9), and do sufficient good works (v.10). (Thus, ironically, the need for Purgatory may be implied by this passage!)
The very next verse after the one we have been looking at says what is required for being present with the Lord: “Wherefore we labor, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him” (KJV, emphasis added). The text indicates that both faith and labor are needed for acceptance into God’s presence. The verse after that speaks of our appearing “before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (KJV, emphasis added). This judgment of works is not for determining one’s final state (Heaven or Hell), yet it seems to involve reward or loss depending on what was done while “in the body.”
A few verses later we see the goal: “For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (KJV, emphasis added). But what if someone dies before his labors are complete and unrighteousness remains? Does God reject him from Heaven? No, because it is by God’s grace that we are saved, not by works (Eph. 2:8-9). But our sin still needs to be dealt with – it is only the pure who can see God (e.g., Mt. 5:8; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Rev. 21:27). Since few Christians attain perfect purity in this life, they need to be purged of their impurity (sin / sinful tendencies) between their death and their entering God’s presence. That is the doctrine of Purgatory.
If one agrees that we are sinful while “in the body,” and not sinful when we are “absent from the body” (= “present with the Lord”), then something has to happen in between. Whatever that is, it can be called Purgatory (interestingly, even Catholic dogma has very little to say about what exactly this “purging” entails).
“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” (Catholic Catechism, 1030-1031)