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Temporal Punishment

Question: There is evidence in Scripture for the doctrine of temporal punishment to repair damage even after the sin is forgiven. Thus even though his sin of doubting God’s word had been forgiven, Moses was still not allowed to enter the Promised Land. David was forgiven his adultery with Bathsheba, but still he had to endure the pain of seeing the child die.

Answer: It is not enough to say that the purpose of temporal punishment is “to repair damage.” That is too vague. All too often, clever Catholic apologists extrapolate Catholic doctrines by presenting self-evident truths that have little or nothing to do with the core issue.

Catholic theology teaches that there are two punishments for sin; one is called eternal and is inflicted in hell, and the other is called temporal and is inflicted in this world or in purgatory. The sacrament of penance remits the eternal punishment and only part of the temporal. Doing penance (prayer, fasting, almsgiving, works of mercy and patient suffering) remits temporal punishment. The purpose for temporal punishment is a satisfaction for sin, and to teach the penitent the great evil of sin and to prevent from falling again. (See Baltimore Catechism, questions 629, 804, 805):

It must be emphasized that the primary reason for temporal punishment is to make satisfaction for sin. The Council of Trent emphasizes that the penitents should keep in mind that “the satisfaction imposed by them is meant not merely as a safeguard for the new life and as a remedy to weakness, but also as vindicatory (i.e. avenging) punishment for former sins.” (Council of Trent, Session 14, Chapter 8). The penitent must “fully satisfy the justice of God.” Satisfaction (or penance) is an act of the penitent “by which he makes certain reparation to the justice of God for his sins” (See The Catechism off St. Pius X, questions 105,118)

We readily affirm that sin has temporal and eternal consequences, and that sin affects the sinner himself, and his relationship with God and his fellow people. We also affirm that though God forgives a person, the consequences of sin may still remain. A murderer may be forgiven and yet his victim remains dead. A repentant drunkard is forgiven but the damage to his liver and brain may well be permanent. The biblical examples you mention are excellent illustrations of this principle.

However this does not in any way prove the Roman position. The Roman Catholic must show from the Scriptures that God’s purpose for allowing forgiven people to suffer the consequences of sin in this life is a vindicatory punishment, a restitution, the payment of debt to divine justice and not just for teaching and preventive purposes. Moreover he has to demonstrate that as long as this satisfaction is discharged the forgiven person is not yet in a right relationship with God, or, as the Council of Trent puts it, the temporal punishment remains to be paid “before access can be opened to the Kingdom of heaven.” This they cannot do!

Take David’s case as an example. David had to suffer the loss of his son even though he was forgiven. But we should ask whether the Bible indicates that the purpose of his son’s was for the expiation of David’s sin or whether it was for some other reason. The prophet Nathan spells out the reason why the infant had to die: “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die” (2 Samuel 12:13, 14). King David had caused a public scandal, and the Lord chose to vindicate His honour by showing his displeasure against David for his sin and He chose to do it by the death of the child.

The Bible clearly spells out the reasons why God the Father sometimes deals severely with his children. He disciplines us for own benefit, that we may repent from our evil ways (Psalm 32), to grow in righteousness and holiness (Hebrews 12:5-11), and to teach us that we should not repeat the same failures (1 Corinthians 10:6). He also allows us to suffer to keep us humble (2 Corinthians 12:17) and to strengthen our faith (2 Corinthians 1:9). That is not vindicatory punishment!

Recently a Catholic friend wrote to me, “I believe performing penance on earth is the means by which we show God that we love him and are truly sorry for what we've done. It's the same thing when you did something wrong when you were a child. You said that you were sorry, but your father still gave you a punishment. It's the same thing with our heavenly father.”

My earthly parents loved me and disciplined me in order to correct and train me. Their punishment was disciplinary, not vindicatory or to pay a legal debt. That is so different from what the Catholic Church teaches: they insist that God’s punishment is also vindicatory, and until you have expiated all your sins, you would not be allowed in the Father's house. You will be left out - or worse - in the torments of purgatory. That, my earthly father, never ever did.

Moreover, where does the Scripture describe prayers, good works, fasting and almsgiving as ‘vindicatory punishment’? Prayer is a joy to the Christian, not punishment! Similarly, Christians perform good works and help the needy out of love, not to make up for their sins. Catholic doctrine changes the joyful privileges of God’s people into a punishment and the motive of love for doing good works into a payment for sin.

The woman in the Gospel (Luke 7:36-50) was forgiven by faith. Jesus said to her, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” The woman loved the Lord Jesus; she wept, kissed his feet, and anointed them with ointment. Did she do so to pay the debt of temporal punishment? Or because she was grateful to the mercy and goodness of the Lord who had forgiven her sins? Clearly, nothing could keep her from expressing her jubilant love to Christ who had forgiven and received her. The Christian life – including prayers, good works and patient suffering - is the grateful response to the goodness of God who forgives us all our debt.

Catholics live under the cloud of punishment yet to be experienced which keeps them separated from God. Even after death, this separation remains until expiation is made through fire, torments and purifying punishments. What a contrast to the comfort of the Gospel! Christians know from experience that in Jesus Christ our Lord “we have boldness and access with confidence through faith in Him” (Ephesians 3:12). We are assured of God’s welcome because Christ takes away the partition wall, sin, which separates the sinner from God. “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). Christ is the propitiation; that is, by His sacrifice on the cross He has expiated and made satisfaction for our sins.

Jesus’ blood is our only satisfaction for sin. We have absolute confidence in God’s mercy and Jesus perfect sacrifice. Therefore we do not attempt to satisfy God’s justice by anything we do but wholly trust in Christ. God’s fatherly discipline is the proof of His love and not the sign of the need to satisfy divine justice.


The Catechism of St Pius X

105 Q: What is satisfaction? A: Satisfaction, which is also called sacramental penance, is one of the acts of the penitent by which he makes a certain reparation to the justice of God for his sins, by performing the works the confessor imposes on him.
109 Q: Why is a penance imposed in confession? A: A penance is imposed because, after sacramental absolution which remits sin and its eternal punishment, there generally remains a temporal punishment to be undergone, either in this world or in Purgatory.
118 Q: Do those who die after having received absolution but before they have fully satisfied the justice of God, go straight to Heaven? A: No, they go to Purgatory there to satisfy the justice of God and be perfectly purified.

The Baltimore Catechism Part 4 Lesson 19

In the Sacrament of Penance God forgives the insult offered by sinning, but requires us to make restitution for that of which the sin has deprived Him...We pay the temporal debt due to our sins, that is, make the restitution, by our penances upon earth, or by our suffering in Purgatory, or by both combined.

The Baltimore Catechism Part 3

Q. 629. What punishments are due to actual sins? A. Two punishments are due to actual sins: one, called the eternal, is inflicted in hell; and the other, called the temporal, is inflicted in this world or in purgatory. The Sacrament of Penance remits or frees us from the eternal punishment and generally only from part of the temporal. Prayer, good works and indulgences in this world and the sufferings of purgatory in the next remit the remainder of the temporal punishment.
Q. 804. Why does God require a temporal punishment as a satisfaction for sin? A. God requires a temporal punishment as a satisfaction for sin to teach us the great evil of sin and to prevent us from falling again.
Q. 805. Which are the chief means by which we satisfy God for the temporal punishment due to sin? A. The chief means by which we satisfy God for the temporal punishment due to sin are: Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving; all spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and the patient suffering of the ills of life.

© Dr Joseph Mizzi