When most people hear the term “purgatory” they are thinking of it as a type of waiting place. It’s not quite hell, but it surely isn’t heaven. The more sin you commit on earth, the longer your time in purgatory—unless you can have a few dear people on earth pray for your departed soul or give money on your behalf. That, of course, is a rather crude representation of the doctrine of purgatory. This view of purgatory is not a faithful portrayal of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.

I will be making the argument that the doctrine of purgatory, as stated within Roman Catholicism, is not a doctrine faithful to the Scriptures. But I aim to be fair and accurately represent this doctrine from a Roman Catholic perspective. It is only then that we will be in a position to ask whether or not such a doctrine is found in the Bible.

What Is Purgatory, according to the Catholic Church?

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church purgatory is the belief that:

“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 Catholic Encyclopedia is also informative, teaching that it is “a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.”

Notice a few things here. First, this is not teaching that purgatory is a waiting place to determine if you’ll go to heaven or hell. The person in purgatory is enduring a temporal punishment for venial (pardonable) sins of which “there was no true repentance.” The person in purgatory will eventually be in heaven. Secondly, the language of purification and punishment are both used. It is a type of cleansing one endures in order to be made ready for heaven as well as to “pay the satisfaction due to their transgressions.”

Purgatory, in Roman Catholicism, is also intricately tied to prayer for the dead. This was decreed at the Council of Trent: “there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar.” In other words, prayer for the departed and Mass on their behalf assists to shorten their suffering in purgatory. If Scripture and tradition teaches a prayer for the dead, then clearly it must be effectual. Catholic Answers asks “For why pray for the dead, if there be no belief in the power of prayer to afford solace to those who as yet are excluded from the sight of God?”

Purgatory, then, is the belief that when we die, we are not yet prepared to see God. A time of purification is needed in order to make us ready for the beatific vision (a direct self-communication between God and an individual). Throughout the history of the church, we see prayers on behalf of the departed—thus providing solace while this purification process takes place.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis, a Protestant, gives an apt description of the necessity of purgatory. In his Letters to Malcom, Lewis says this:

“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It’s true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here [meaning, in heaven] and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ — ‘Even so, sir.’ (145–46)

But is this concept biblical? Is this doctrine found in the Bible?

Is Purgatory in the Bible?

Is the concept of nothing impure being able to enter into heaven found in Scripture?

You bet. Revelation 21:27 and Habakkuk 1:13 tell us about both the holiness of God and the purity of heaven. And it’s not difficult to believe both from Scripture and personal experience that none of us leave this world perfectly free from sin.

Do the Scriptures speak of a type of after-life purification process?

Some would go to Isaiah 4:4 as evidence of this “burning” and “judgment” as part of the process of washing away the filth of the people of God. Others would see in Matthew 5:25-26 the idea that our sin must be paid to the last penny. And evidence for this being through the refining fires of purgatory, they would say, is found in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. Here stubble is burned up but the soul remains and is saved.

Where does the idea of praying for the dead come from? Or of a type of forgiveness happening after death?

One example, which will not be persuasive for Protestants, is found in 2 Maccabees 12:41, 42, 45. In that text Jewish soldiers have fallen because of wearing amulets of Jamnia. But Judas Maccabeus leads his army to pray for the dead and to make an expiatory sacrifice on their behalf. This is the clearest example of something akin to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. And it could be argued that even if you do not accept 2 Maccabees as inspired Scripture, it is, nevertheless, evidence of the concept within religious history.

Where in Scripture is there a type of forgiveness happening after death? 

Some would use Matthew 12:32 as evidence of Jesus speaking of a type of forgiveness happening even in the “age to come.” Jesus, it is said, is here leaving open the possibility of forgiveness in the next world—just not for speaking against the Holy Spirit. Augustine argued this in part and Gregory the Great held this position a bit more dogmatically.

Most of the case for a doctrine of purgatory rests upon tradition. But if one wanted to put together a biblical case for the doctrine, this is the best argument that I have found. I think a case can be made that early on in church history, a belief in a necessary stage of purification can be established, though it is far from that decreed by the Council of Trent. But to me, the more weighty and definitive argument needs to be given to the Scriptures, and I—along with other Protestants--ultimately find a biblical argument for purgatory to be unpersuasive.

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Why Don't Protestants Believe in Purgatory?

The biggest reason for not believing in a doctrine of purgatory has to do with a different understanding of the nature of the gospel and forgiveness. My Roman Catholic friends, feel free to correct me and help me out if this illustration is too simplistic. I cannot remember where I heard the illustration but I’ve shared it with a few professing Catholics who said it seemed to accurately sum up their view of salvation and the need for the sacraments.

Imagine you have a cup. In that cup is “grace.” In order for one to “see God,” the cup needs to be full. The sacraments (things like baptism, eucharist, etc.) will fill up the cup. When a child is baptized their cup is full. The problem, though, is that whenever we engage in a venial sin our cup leaks. When we engage in a mortal sin our cup is drained. It must be filled back up. If your cup is empty when you die then it will lead to damnation. If your cup isn’t full (but it’s not drained through an unconfessed mortal sin) then you’ll need to endure purgatory in order to have the cup filled back up. (This is why the living souls engaging in the Eucharist is connected to souls being given comfort in purgatory).

A Catholic would argue that it is grace and the work of Jesus applied throughout the entire process. But as a Protestant I am going to find that system of forgiveness and grace to be in error. I would lean heavily upon the book of Hebrews to show that the sacrifice of Jesus is not something that needs to be perpetually applied.

Hebrews 10:12-14 helps us to see that “For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” 1 Peter 3:18, Romans 5:18-19, 2 Corinthians 5:21, John 19:28-30, and a host of others are what I would lean upon to say that when we are united to Christ our “cup” is immediately and forever full. Not because of our righteousness but because we trade “cups” with Jesus. We inherit his fully and forever righteous record and he drinks the cup of God’s wrath (the cup we’ve inherited) to the dregs.

I would be okay with saying that upon the moment of death, there is a type of change that has to take place in order to make our souls entirely and experientially pure and ready for heaven. But I would argue that this process is likely the removal of something (the flesh) which happens at death. It’s hard for me to argue with things like 2 Corinthians 5:8 that to be “away from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord.”

To put it simply, I don’t believe in purgatory because Jesus has already endured it on our behalf. His sacrifice and his perfect record are delivered to our account through our union with him.

Why Does This Matter?

Does this ultimately matter? If someone believes in purgatory what is the harm? I do not think one’s view of purgatory is an issue of salvation. You can trust in Jesus but be confused about the process or differ on the way his sacrifice is applied. However, I cannot help but think that there are ramifications to wrong belief in this area.

For one, an erroneous belief in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice will have consequences on things such as fear, security, and walking in the freedom of Jesus. It will, perhaps, change the nature of our discipleship. (And I suppose our Catholic friends could encourage us not to be lax in our obedience because we deny purgatory, and this would be a fair admonishment).

It matters because walking in truth matters. God will be honored and our lives will be enriched when we trust in what God says in His Word and live accordingly. If purgatory is not biblical (or not in accordance with truth) then it would behoove us to have a correct view of what happens to us after death.

1 Thessalonians and 2 Thessalonians are examples of what happens when our view of death is askew. So ultimately, we ask whether or not this is biblical—because if it’s not biblical then we do not want to base our faith upon such a thing. We want to teach the truth as is in Jesus and not fall into speculation.

I hope I have fairly represented the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory and have also shown why Protestants ultimately find their arguments unpersuasive. I do not believe that a simple reading of Scripture would lead one to believe that there is an extended time of purifying that a believer must endure upon their death. On the whole the Scriptures seem to proclaim that to depart is to be with the Lord Jesus. If one did not already begin with a belief in purgatory from tradition, I think you would be hard pressed to find it in the Scriptures. For this reason, and because of our different views of the nature of salvation, I do not believe we can say that the doctrine of purgatory is a biblical doctrine.

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Mike Leake is husband to Nikki and father to Isaiah and Hannah. He is also the lead pastor at Calvary of Neosho, MO. Mike is the author of Torn to Heal and his writing home is http://mikeleake.net