What is the Doctrine of Purgatory?

What is the Doctrine of Purgatory?

The Bible teaches that death closes the period of probation that all of us have here on earth and after death comes the judgment (Hebrews 9:27). All those who die will spend eternity in heaven or hell.

But before we reach our final destination, everyone is in a state of conscious existence after death. Believers are in the presence of the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:23; Luke 23:43) while unbelievers are not.

However, certain unbiblical views of the intermediate state have arisen. One of them is the doctrine of purgatory held by the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church.

Origin of the Doctrine of Purgatory

In Roman Catholic teaching, purgatory is the place where the souls of believers go to be further purified from sin until they are ready to be admitted into heaven. Thus, they have to go to halfway place between earth and heaven, that is, purgatory.

The Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church believe that not every Christian who dies goes immediately to heaven. The only people who enter heaven immediately are some martyrs and other highly favored individuals. Even if the person dies at peace with the church, if they are not perfect, they have to go through a time of purging.

Most Christians who are not good enough to go straight to heaven have to go through a time of purging. Although these people have been forgiven of their sins, they are still liable to experience some temporary punishment before their admittance to heaven.

They must be properly freed from the blemish of some defects they had received after baptism and they must work out their salvation in purgatory through suffering and a process of purification in this place. According to this view, the sufferings of purgatory are given to God in substitute for the punishment for sins that believers should have received in time but did not.

Once their sins have been sufficiently purged, they can then enter the perfection of heaven.

Further Teachings About Purgatory

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the suffering in purgatory is proportionate to the sins committed in this life. The time spent can vary from a relatively short period, such as a few hours, to thousands of years. However, there is no consensus as to the duration of stay in purgatory or the type of punishment one receives.

While Christians must spend time in purgatory, it supposedly can be lessened by a number of things. The living can do services and give gifts to the church to shorten the time of their loved one. This included purchasing indulgences or certificates signed by the pope which can forgive sin. This indicates that the pope on earth has some jurisdiction in the next world.

Prayer by priests shortens the time spent in Purgatory
Photo Credits: Crux Now

Prayers by priests as well as having masses in the name of the dead can also shorten the time a person spends in purgatory. The dead can do nothing in purgatory to help themselves. It is only their living friends and loved ones who can help them. They are completely dependent upon them to shorten their stay in this place of purging.

Purgatory is a temporary place that will end when the last judgment occurs. Like death and Hades, it will be thrown into the lake of fire. From that time forward, no more suffering will be necessary because everyone will be perfected, ready to enter heaven.

Is Purgatory in the Bible?

Will Christians have to suffer for their sins once this life is over? What does the Scripture say?

Although the Bible speaks of fire as purification, it does not mention a purifying process between death and resurrection that the believer must encounter. It’s not only that purgatory has no biblical basis but it also contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture concerning the person and work of Jesus Christ.

This, however, has not stopped people from attempting to find biblical support for this non-biblical doctrine. Let us look at some of the passages they use and then respond to them.

1. Isaiah 4:4

“When the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and purged the blood of Jerusalem from her midst, by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning.”

Argument: Burning, in this context, refers to the fires of judgment; a hint of the doctrine of purgatory.

Response: Isaiah’s reference has nothing to do with purgatory. It speaks of God refining people in this life, not the next. Therefore, this is not a reference to purging the believer after this life is over so they can eventually enter into the presence of the Lord.

2. Matthew 5:25-26

“Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary delivers you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.”

Argument: Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount teaches that prison is purgatory, and the last penny refers to the complete payment of the purgation of saints.

Response: Paying the last penny has nothing to do with paying for sin in the next life.

In Roman law, the plaintiff could bring the accused along with him to the judge. The defendant could, however, settle the matter on any terms with the plaintiff as they proceeded to the tribunal.

However, once they reached the tribunal the issue would be settled according to the law. Jesus is encouraging people to settle their differences before it reaches the judge. There is nothing here that remotely suggests a purgatory.

3. Matthew 12:32

“Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Argument: This verse has an indirect reference to purgatory seeing that Jesus left open the possibility of forgiveness in the next world.

Response: This passage compares this world and the next and supposedly hints at forgiveness in the next world. However, the phrase “this age or in the age to come” was a Hebrew phrase meaning “never.”

If we look at the other gospels which give this same account, the phrase is omitted. This is because Mark and Luke are writing for Gentiles. Besides, they each state that the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven (Mark 3:29; Luke 12:10).

Nowhere does it state, or imply that forgiveness can be achieved in the next life. Jesus said that those who commit the unpardonable sin can never receive forgiveness in this age or in the age to come. Never means never!

The subject in Matthew 12:32 is the “unpardonable sin.” Consequently, it has nothing to do with purgatory.


4. Matthew 18:34

“And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.”

Argument: This is a reference to the suffering in purgatory. People will remain there and suffer torture until they pay their entire debt for the sins they have committed. They will not be able to leave until their debt is paid.

Response: This is a parable about forgiving others. The torture which the man received was in this life, not the next. The debt he owed was to be paid in this world.

Also, those believers who do not forgive others will suffer in this present life, not in the afterlife. They may lose some of their reward in heaven but they will not be tortured for their lack of forgiveness because Jesus Christ has already paid for those sins.

5. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15

“According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”

“Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is.”

“If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”

Argument: This passage speaks of the believer being refined by fire which is a clear indication of a refining place called purgatory. Once refined, the believer can enter the presence of the Lord.

Response: “He will be saved through fire” does not mean he shall be kept alive amid hell-fire. The fire deals with the works of a person, not their character. Some of their works will receive a reward while other of their works will not.

In addition, this testing by fire occurs on judgment day, not in the intermediate state. Judgment day occurs after the person is raised from the dead. Again, we find no purgatory here.

6. 2 Maccabees 12:41-42, 45 (NRSV)

“So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen.”

“But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead so that they might be delivered from their sin.”

Argument: This passage clearly states that some type of sacrifice can be offered for the dead. The sacrifices and prayers of the living can help those who have died and are suffering in purgatory.

Response: The teaching of a purgatory found in 2 Maccabees has no relevance at all for believers. The reason is that 2 Maccabees as well as all the apocryphal books are not accepted as “inspired” and therefore should not be taken as an authoritative source of doctrine.

Note: It is in this book that the practice of praying for the dead started.

Believers are in God's presence at the moment of death a

The Doctrine of Purgatory is Unbiblical

Purgatory, a supposed place which exists somewhere between earth and heaven where the righteous are purged of any sins which have not been paid for so they can enter heaven, has absolutely no biblical basis. No such belief is taught or even hinted at.

If the Bible is our final authority on all matters of belief and practice then the fact that the doctrine of purgatory is absent reveals that no such place exists.

Furthermore, the idea of purgatory negates the promises of God that the believer can look forward to being in His joyous presence immediately upon death. Rather they have to look forward to a judgment by fire of undetermined length and character. This contradicts direct statements of Scripture that the believers are immediately with Him.

Also, purgatory robs the believer of any assurance of salvation. Since salvation is looked at as a process, rather than a past completed act, believers can never be assured that they have been completely saved from their sins. Neither can they know how much time they have to be purged before entering heaven.

It would seem to give a very uneasy feeling for those who believe purgatory lies ahead. There is really no assurance about anything.

Conclusion

The doctrine of purgatory, the teaching that people must be purged of their sins after they die before they can enter heaven, is indeed popular in many circles but is unbiblical.

Yes, there is a need for the purging of our sins before we can enter heaven, for without holiness none of us can see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). However, the Bible plainly states that this has already happened in the past. We have been purged. Jesus Christ has taken upon Himself the penalty for all of our sins. It is a past completed act. We cannot add to it. All that we can do is accept it by faith. This is what allows us to enter into heaven.

Scripture stresses that we can do absolutely nothing to gain entrance to heaven. Our suffering is meaningless as far as taking away sins is concerned. We have zero ability to get to heaven. Jesus Christ has done it all. He is the only One who can do anything about it. We cannot earn eternal life by anything that we do or say. We are granted eternal life by belief in Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 10:9).

There is a hell where people pay for their own sins and this is the only place in the next world where sins can be paid for. Unless our sins are taken care of in this life by Christ, we will have to pay for them in the next life. However, the payment will not be in a temporary place called purgatory but rather in a permanent place called the lake of fire, hell (Revelation 20:14-15, 21:8).


References:

1) What Happens One Second After We Die? by Don Stewart

2) Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem

Recommended Resource: Four Views on Hell: Second Edition (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)

Four Views on Hell: Second Edition (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) Recent years have seen much controversy regarding hell: Do we go to heaven or hell when we die? Or do we cease to exist? Are believers and unbelievers ultimately saved in the end?

This second edition of Four Views on Hell, featuring all new contributors, highlights why the church still needs to wrestle with the doctrine of hell.

In the familiar counterpoints format, four leading scholars introduce us to the current views on eternal judgment, with particular attention being given to the new voices that have entered the debate.

Contributors and views include:

  • Denny Burk: Eternal Conscious Torment
  • John Stackhouse: Annihilationism (Conditional Immortality)
  • Robin Parry: Universalism (Ultimate Reconciliation)
  • Jerry Walls: Purgatory

General Editor Preston Sprinkle concludes the discussion by evaluating each view, noting significant points of exchange between the essayists. The interactive nature of the volume allows the reader to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of each view and come to an informed conclusion.

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