Do Catholics have a Punishing God?

Some middle-aged Evangelicals grew up as Catholics during the 1950's - 1970's. Perhaps they were swatted on the side of the head by a nun who was their teacher. Perhaps they were told they would suffer eternal punishment in hell every time they did any tiny thing wrong. So they left the Church swearing never to return. Later in life the need for God became apparent and they turned to another Church. I've met hundreds of Evangelicals in that situation. I want to say, "Thank God that you came back to Christ."  If you are an Evangelicas who left the Catholic Church for those reasons, I want to say to you that I am extremely sorry that you had a bad experience as a child in the Catholic Church. I'm very glad you worship Christ, no matter where you are.

Many of those who were treated poorly by nuns continued to believe in God long after they left the Catholic Church. Somehow even in the misguided discipline of some nuns who were overly harsh, the message of God sunk deep into the beings of these students. Perhaps God was able to work to some extent through these imperfect nuns. At any rate, I'm glad you are into Jesus as an adult (I have also met many Catholics who had wonderful nuns as teachers in the 1950's - 70's).

Today the tables have turned and kids are beating up their teachers. There is no discipline. In the 1950's kids got thrown out of class for chewing gum, now grade 6 kids are carrying guns and knives. There are not very many nuns who are teachers anymore. Nuns can no longer wear their habits on the street without being beaten, jeered at, or made fun of. There are a million jokes that make fun of Catholic nuns and their call to chastity. Perhaps we can begin to forgive for these women for these incidents that happened 30 years ago.

Back in the 1950's-1970's people were afraid of going to hell. Today, most of society doesn't even think hell exists. (I'm not referring to Evangelicals here.) The pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. A classroom with no discipline is as destructive to the character of youth as one with excessive discipline.

Many "ex Catholics" who left the Church for this reason, were not "born again" when they were children. They compare their childhood memories of the Catholic Church to their experience in the Evangelical Church as a born-again adult. I think this view is problematic in three ways:

(1) We compare our born again experience to our experiences before our personal relationship with God

When we see the world though the eyes of being born again everything looks different. Suddenly we see the faithful old lady in the corner of the Church who is always there. We begin to identify others who are born again and see the faith of the faithful. Before we are born again we see only hollowness and ritual. 

(2) Thirty years ago ALL churches and denominations were strict

The Catholic Church has changed in the last 30 years. We now focus on a loving God. Back then Evangelical churches were very strict, harsh, and preached fire and brimstone also. All churches worked that way back then. Evangelical Philip Yancey was Billy Graham's favorite writer. He says:

"I grew up in a strict, fundamentalist church in the Deep South, and was raised to view God as an abusive parent rigid, legalistic, angry, ready to bring the gavel down for one wrong misstep."

- www.PhilipYancey.com

There are problems comparing the Catholic Church of the 50-70s with the Evangelical Church of 2000-2010. The entire cultural context has changed in 30 years.

(3) An adult sees things much different from a child. It is problematic to compare memories as a child to experiences to an adult.

Currently, most Churches, including the Catholic Church, emphasize the Love of God - something for which I'm very grateful. Pope Benedict's first encyclical was all about the Love of God. The Priest in our parish loves the Lord and spreads that love to the entire congregation. My request to those who left the Catholic Church many years ago is this:  please do not compare your memory of a 1950's-1970's Catholic Church to your current experience in a modern Evangelical church that you are presently attending.

I have had profound experiences of God's infinite love in my Catholic Church. Sometimes during prayer I just want to burst, he is filling me up with so much love. Thank you Lord.

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Do Evangelical theologians believe there is punishment in Heaven?

The Purpose Driven Life is one of the most popular Christian books in Evangelical circles. It says:

One day you will stand before God, and he will do an audit of your life, a final exam, before you enter eternity... he will ask us two crucial questions ...First, 'What did you do with my Son, Jesus Christ?' ...Second, 'What did you do with what I gave you' ... the second question will determine what you do in eternity...(pg. 34, my emphasis)

At the end of your life on earth you will be evaluated and rewarded according to how well you handled what God entrusted to you. That means everything you do...has eternal consequences...you will receive a promotion and be given greater responsibility in eternity ..." (pg. 45)

- Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life

If you are rewarded and treated better in Heaven for the things you did in this life, then I think Pastor Rick is saying those who do not get those rewards are in fact being "punished" for not doing the things on earth that would get them those rewards in Heaven. Catholics agree that there may be consequences in the afterlife. However, I believe if the sin is very serious, then we may have severed the bond with Christ completely, and as such our soul would be in danger of hell. If the sin is not too serious, I believe Jesus will clear it up in the interim between our death and entry into heaven, which we call Purgatory.

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OK so what do Catholics believe about punishment?

Punishment is a concept that is very unpopular in today's culture. Corporal punishment is not favoured in our society and our youth have very little discipline as a result. Catholics believe God is a "loving God" but he is also a "just God" - an awesome God. Catholics believe there is a double consequence to sin:

  1. Venial sin (the not so serious stuff) entails unhealthy attachments to creatures which must be purified either here on earth or after we die. (Evangelicals might call this "Backsliding") This results in temporal punishment.  Every Christian sins every day.
  2. Grave or mortal sin (the bad stuff) deprives us of communion with God. This results in eternal punishment - hell. (2 Thes 1:9) Once forgiven, the eternal punishment is removed but there may be some temporal punishment that remains.

I'm sure some readers are now saying "yeah see, Catholics do have a punishing God!"  I say yup ...sometimes. I love my heavenly Father and I rejoice in his righteous discipline because I know he cares enough about me to want to me change for the better. Any parent with a bratty teenager will understand. Sometimes I'm that bratty teenager with God and a need a good swift kick in the pants. (Eph 6:4) God is into discipline. It is the origin of the word "disciple."

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"Temporal" Punishment - it's not about "debt"

An Evangelical emailed me and said:

 "Jesus used the Greek word TETELESTAI for "it is finished," which is translated "paid in full." It was used in his day on documents that released prisoners from jail after their relatives paid the bail."

TETELESTAI literally translates as "it is finished." "Tetelestai" can be associated with the "paid in full" connotation only from its cultural context. It was stamped on debts that were paid. I think the primary meaning of "it is finished" is that Jesus was signifying the completion of the Passover meal. I also have no problem with the possibility that he also intended other interpretations of "paid in full". Jesus always speaks at many levels.

In ancient Jewish tradition, at every Passover meal there were four cups of wine. The last supper finished with only the third cup being consumed. Christ consumed the fourth cup on the cross.

"When he had received the drink, Jesus said 'It is finished'" (TETELESTAI) . (Jn 19:29-30)

This signified that the Passover meal had been completed, Jesus being the Passover lamb. (this research was conducted by Scott Hahn)

Catholics agree He paid the price for our sins, which is "eternal" damnation. Perhaps we might look at it this way. If I was 10 years old and got into trouble with bullies and they were contemplating stabbing me to death because I stole something from them, my father would come and pay off those bullies so that I wouldn't be killed (eternal damnation). My father would have "paid in full" the debt I owe. I would owe nothing. But when I got home, my father would probably give me some consequences, not because he hated me or because I owed him a debt, but because he loved me. It is no longer about "debt", it's about "discipline." There is a difference.

Some may say that the Prodigal Son had no consequences and no punishment. The Prodigal Son had spent his whole inheritance and that was gone forever. For sure he got a great meal and a welcome home party, but even the Prodigal Son experienced consequences to his debauchery.

My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him;  for the Lord disciplines those he loves and chastises every child whom he accepts. Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?  If you do not have the discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children; Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and? live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb12:5)

Some denominations have said there is never any punishment from the Lord, especially after we surrender to him. The above passage was speaking to Christians who had already turned their lives over to Christ. They had been saved from damnation (eternal punishment) and they had entered the family of Christ. Nevertheless there is punishment at times.

The Apostle Paul had turned his life over to Jesus authentically. Although Jesus restored his vision after he was hit on the road to Damascus, Paul nevertheless had a very painful number of years. (2 Cor 24-30). He said "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body that is the church" (1 Col 24) Evangelicals believe Jesus washes us clean in "one sweeping motion" never to be dirty again. Catholics believe there is "one sweeping motion" but afterward the "washing clean" process continues for the rest of our lives and we must "endure to the end." (Mk 13:13, James 1:2, Mt 10:22, Mt 24:13)

The thief on the Cross beside Jesus received freedom from "eternal punishment", which is hell. Jesus said to him "This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). However, the thief still experienced "temporal punishment." After he turned his life over to Jesus he continued to hang on the cross which was probably pretty darn painful even if it was for only a few hours and his legs were busted - ouch! (Jn 19:32). Jesus could have easily had him taken down from the cross but he didn't. There are consequences to sin even after forgiveness.

Temporal punishment is not "vengeful" retribution from God. God is not the big fly swatter of the universe. The punishments stem from the very nature of sin itself.

One of the big complaints against the Catholic practice of confession is that it allows people to run back to the Priest every week but live poorly the rest of the time. (Sunday morning Catholics) This is where Temporal punishment comes in. Jesus, through the Priest, provides absolution (forgiveness) and grants freedom from Eternal punishment of hell. Jesus will forgive "seventy times seven" (Mat 18:22). However, not all Temporal punishment is removed in "absolution." So Catholics who don't live their faith all week long are not getting away with too much. In my experience, the only Catholics who go to confession these days are those who are serious about their faith.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate "Temporal punishment" is to describe a situation in my own  life. In 1984, I was involved in an abortion with my girlfriend (at the time) because we were chasing our careers on Broadway and films. God has long since forgiven me but in prayer he has made it clear to me that I will never become a famous person. Moses never entered the promised land because he killed one of his own people (even though God forgave him). Similarly, I do not believe the Lord will allow me to ever experience the fame I was seeking when I had the abortion. This is "Temporal punishment." I accept the punishment. Now I try to help out the pro-life movement wherever possible. I don't do it to win "Brownie points" in heaven. I do it because I love the Lord and he has put it on my heart to do this. He can use my past sin to educate others. One might call this a "penance." (My story of Abortion is here)

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Eternal Punishment

It's in vogue in today's secular society to believe that there is no hell. One of the greatest victories of the devil over the modern age is that he made them think he doesn't exist. Thankfully Catholics and Evangelicals understand that there is a hell and that evil and the devil are real. Those who blatantly and insincerely persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth will not do too well in the afterlife. (Heb 10:26). Hell is real and it is waiting for all those who turn away from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thankfully there is Reconciliation

Jesus forgives "seventy times seven" (Mat 18:22). He'll take anyone back into the fold who earnestly seeks him. For Catholics, that is a process of three acts: contrition, confession and satisfaction.

  1. Contrition (genuine sorrow for sorrow because I have offended the all-good God)
  2. Confession (helps us to face up to our sins before God, by telling them to the priest)
  3. Satisfaction (an important part of our healing; the penance the priest gives to the penitent to repair the effects of sin)

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Penance

The Catechism says this about penance:

Absolution [forgiveness] takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance."

- Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 1459

There are two parts to this restitution aspect of penance: "amends" and "make satisfaction"

"Amends"

After we confess our sins and are forgiven by God, we should do what we can to make reparation for our wrong actions. Jesus forgives us. He is a "forgiving God" but he is also a "just God." For instance, if I steal a $4,000 piece of equipment from a recording studio and then ask God to forgive me, he will forgive me if I have a humble and contrite heart. However, he will also probably want me to pay back the $4000 if possible (this is called amends).

"Make Satisfaction"

I also must move forward in his light with a changed heart looking for every opportunity to be of service. Modern society would call this a "living amends" but it is all part of penance. In article 1460 of the Catechism we find that penance can take many forms such as:

...prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbour, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and patient acceptance of whatever crosses we must bear in life. These penances help configure us to Christ, who alone can expiate our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, "provided we suffer with him" (Rom 8:17, Rom 3:25, 1 Jn 2:1-2)

At the end of my life I will stand before God. If I have made and authentic surrender to Jesus,  I believe I will not go to hell. I will either go straight to heaven or I will make a stop in Purgatory. I believe Jesus will look at what I did with the faith he gave me. How did I respond to the call?  If I have responded well and if my character is the best it could be in his light, I believe I will enjoy a direct pass to Heaven. If however, I have not responded wholeheartedly and have had some rebellion, then I believe whatever parts of my soul that have not been cleaned up here on earth will be cleaned up in Purgatory after I die.

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Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen