Dialogue: Raising of Tabitha from the Dead & Purgatory

Dialogue: Raising of Tabitha from the Dead & Purgatory January 16, 2020

My friend Tony Gerring offered an excellent guest post on my blog, entitled, Raising of Tabitha: Proof of Purgatory. This was a follow-up discussion of that article on my Facebook page. Words of  Scott Fleischman will be in blue.


Fascinating! The key point for me is that Tabitha died after Jesus’ resurrection (which opened the gates of heaven).

Other instances of Jesus’ raising people from the dead (Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter) don’t carry the same weight because it can be argued they went to the same place of the dead as all did before Jesus.

Then given one’s position on the afterlife, one can outline a few possibilities:

1) There is only heaven. Then Tabitha was taken from the bliss of heaven back to the sufferings of earth, which is an unpalatable interpretation. This seems to be the main force of the argument.

2) There is heaven and hell. Then one could hypothesize Tabitha went to hell, and Jesus brought her back from that place of torment. This is plausible but puts Tabitha in negative light.

3) There is heaven, hell and some other place. The Catholic understanding of purgatory fits the bill here nicely. This allows Tabitha to be an honorable person and coming back to earth allows for her own growth, without it being a punishment.

Great point. I don’t see how she could go to hell, though, and be brought back. She would never go there unless she were eternally condemned: in which case there would be no return.

Ah, that is a good point. Indeed the permanence of one’s state in the afterlife does make the situation more complicated than I initially outlined above. In fact, it might end up ruling out the passage pointing to purgatory specifically, depending on how purgatory is conceived.

Augustine makes a good point about the assurance in heaven–would it really be heaven if we had the possibility of losing it in the future? It would seem not. Therefore someone going to heaven and coming back to earthly life where one could sin and go to hell does not fit that viewpoint.

With hell, a common perspective is that God doesn’t send people there–the people send themselves. Given that, one might be inclined to say God could give someone a second chance (which if you allow that kind of opens up that idea that hell might be emptied out at some point in the future).

Granted, our will for or against God is one-and-for-all in the afterlife, much like the angels and devils. So in that sense, one could not have a “second chance” if that permanence of choice is due to something that would imply a contradiction (such as something within our nature, something about our souls).

Given the permanence of decision for-God or against-God in the afterlife (like the angels and devils), it would seem neither heaven nor hell are reasonable possibilities for where Tabitha went.

However, does purgatory also have that same sense of permanent choice for-God? It would seem so, since the usual description amounts to a purification of our souls on the way to heaven. It would seem rather contrary to the promised joy, to be able to fall off that road again back to hell.

So given the above, it seems to me that raising someone from the dead where they come back to life as normal on earth more likely points to some sort of temporary holding spot, where God sort of covers their eyes, so to speak, from making the final once-and-for-all choice for-God or against-God, like the angels and devils.

Another option is that Tabitha went to heaven and came back to earth with an internal assurance of her place in heaven, and God preserved her according to that internal promise. And she came to earth to suffer more in union with Christ for the redemption of the world, with the assurance she would join Him again.

I don’t see that there is any difficulty in purgatory. Say (for the sake of argument) that Tabitha was destined to go to purgatory first (like most of us). In God’s providence, Peter raised her, thus bringing her back from a temporary stay in purgatory. When she dies for good, she goes back there, en route to heaven. No difficulties there that I see. This life is itself similar to purgatory (as I have argued in papers), since God chastises us.

Having been removed from purgatory to return to earthly life with the possibility of sin, would Tabitha have the ability to mortally sin and go to hell when she dies a second time?

That makes me tend to either of two possibilities:

1) Maybe they didn’t face their personal judgment somehow. I would think purgatory would happen after personal judgment, so then they didn’t quite make it to purgatory, I would argue.

2) They did go to purgatory or heaven, and God preserves them from final sin in their return to earthly life.

or 3) it’s a mystery! Let us fall in adoration before the mystery of God, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”

She would have that ability. I don’t see why she would not. But because purgatory is not a final state (nor is the limbo of the fathers, before Christ), then it’s a possibility to go there and return from it: precisely because it is not intrinsically eternal. And also it’s possible that someone could return from it and end up in hell.

You also have examples of people who saw visions of heaven, or were “there” in some sense (before — presumably — ending up there for eternity): like St. Paul being caught up to the “third heaven” or St. John in writing Revelation.

I can see where there could conceivably / possibly be scenarios where someone temporarily went to purgatory, without their *final* state being determined. It would be an exception to the rule.

But God could have arranged it in His providence simply for Tabitha to be a person who was one of the elect.

It sounds like we are in agreement about the possibility of Tabitha being assured of her ultimate salvation after being raised and returned to earthly life. So in that sense she could have went to purgatory or heaven and returned to earthly life with that assurance.

And as far as visions and experiences go, I would distinguish between visiting heaven in a vision and actually being there in soul after your personal judgment. Maybe you might call the latter “belonging” there. In Paul’s case, I would consider that a visit/vision without belonging there per se. And I suppose one could hold Tabitha visited with her personal judgment being withheld till her final earthly death.

However, I do believe it is inconsistent with the CCC’s description of purgatory to hold that she could have went to purgatory after her first death, but then could go to hell ultimately. The CCC describes those in purgatory as assured of their salvation (1030,1031). Therefore they could not ultimately end up in hell.

So however one explains where Tabitha went while dead the first time, I guess I would have to conclude that she could not have went to purgatory after personal judgment in the “normal” way.

At the very least, there would have to have been some concession to her presence in purgatory: A) either not judged or B) having assurance of her ultimate judgment.

Which is kind of unfortunate, because I rather liked the original argument in the article, but now I don’t find it that convincing as a reference to purgatory per se.

But the passage does point to something that is not heaven or hell in the afterlife. And that possibility of some place that’s not heaven could also help discussions of purgatory (unless one takes the position she didn’t fully die).

1030 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.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.

God could have also put her in a state of soul sleep, where she didn’t go anywhere.

I don’t see that the argument is lessened at all. It’s obviously an exceptional situation, anyway you look at it. If anyone in purgatory (even temporarily) is assured of haven, then God simply would have caused in His providence, Peter to raise a girl who was always of the elect from the start, as I have said.

There is no unsolvable difficulty here (except for Protestants).

Yes I agree there is no insoluble difficulty. There are several options but none of them are a great fit, it seems to me.

However, due to our discussion (for which I am grateful, even though it appears we have some disagreement?) I do not think the passage is a great one for pointing to purgatory, except to ask the question, where did she go?

Also even if one only believes in heaven (no hell nor purgatory), I think one could make a very plausible argument she returned to earth with assurance of her salvation after having belonged to heaven.

So as you say, the passage isn’t problematic–there are answers that one could posit that are consistent. And I would take that further to say it’s not problematic in most common worldviews, if you allow for assurance of salvation on earth.

But as with many things, it’s just problematic to try to determine /which/ is the actual one. And at that note, I have no conclusive answer, . . . 


Related Reading:

Fictional Dialogue on Purgatory [1995]

25 Bible Passages on Purgatory [1996]

Purgatory: A Short Exposition [5-9-02]

New (?) Biblical Argument: Prayers for the Dead [2004]

A Biblical Argument for Purgatory (Matthew 5:25-26) [10-13-04]

“Catholicism Refuted” (?): “Father” / Purgatory / Statues / Confession (Pt. III) [12-11-04]

Is Purgatory a “Place” or a “Condition”?: Misconceptions From [Eastern Orthodox] Fr. Ambrose About My Opinion (and the Church’s View) / Also: Development and Alleged Historical Revisionism [7-24-05]

Dialogue with Lutherans on Jesus’ Descent Into “Hell” [2-1-07]

Purgatory: Refutation of James White (1 Corinthians 3:10-15) [3-3-07]

Has Limbo Been Relegated to Limbo? [12-28-07]

Luther Believed in Soul Sleep; Thus He Rejected Purgatory [2-9-08]

Dialogue on Sheol / Hades (Limbo of the Fathers) and Luke 16 (the Rich Man and Lazarus) with a Baptist (vs. “Grubb”) [2-28-08]

Luther: Purgatory “Quite Plain” in 2 Maccabees [3-5-09]

Purgatory is the Waiting Room for Heaven [4-25-09]

Luke 23:43 (Thief on the Cross): “Paradise” = Sheol, Not Heaven, According to Many Reputable Protestant Scholars [5-25-09]

50 Bible Passages on Purgatory & Analogous Processes [2009]

John Wesley’s Belief in an Intermediate State After Death [7-13-09]

Purgatory: My Biblical Defense of its Doctrinal Development [9-20-11]

John Wesley’s View of Purgatory and Analogous Processes [2013]

Dialogue: Jesus, Peter, Elijah & Elisha Prayed for the Dead (+ a discussion on apologetics methodology and effectiveness) [6-9-13]

Dialogue with an Evangelical on Purgatory [10-7-13]

Multiple Meanings of “Paradise” in Scripture [1-2-14]

Martin Luther’s Belief in Purgatory (1517-1522, 1528) [11-17-14]

Dialogue w Calvinists on Prayer for the Dead & Purgatory [3-18-15]

“Armstrong vs. Geisler” #1: Purgatory (Mt 12:32) [2-17-17]

“Armstrong vs. Geisler” #2: Purgatory (Lk 23:43) [2-17-17]

Purgatory: Exchange with a Presbyterian (Calvinist) [5-11-17]

Armstrong vs. Collins & Walls #7: Unbiblical / Non-Patristic Purgatory? [10-19-17]

Dialogue on Prayer to the Saints and Hades / Sheol [12-19-17]

C. S. Lewis Believed in Purgatory & Prayer for the Dead [6-22-10; rev. 10-8-19]

Does Time & Place Apply to Purgatory? (vs. James White) [11-6-19]


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Photo credit: Saint Peter raises Tabitha (1611), by Fabrizio Santafede (1560-1623 or 1628) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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