There’s no such thing as a free lunch. As a young man, I heard that cliché uttered countless times by the pragmatic adult regime. It seemed almost a taunt to a teenager who was growing fast and would have appreciated some free lunches. With that phrase, we “youngsters” learned that we have to work for what we want in life. We also learned that the firewood had better be chopped and stacked by lunchtime.
In the divine plan that God has authored, this maxim still applies. There is a dire consequence to be paid for sin. Romans 6:23 starts out, “For the wages of sin is death…” This spiritual law is a constant. It does not change. It is eternal, and immutable. However, in God’s plan, a new element comes into play – grace. My dictionary defines grace as “divine love and protection freely given.” FREE?! Well, yes and no. Sin still requires the penalty of death, but God’s plan is completed in the rest of Romans 6:23, “…but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” The price for the lunch still had to be paid. Sin still required a death penalty. God loves us so much that Jesus offered himself up as the death sacrifice. He paid for our lunch.
Never have I heard such an affront to the power and grace of God as in the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. What God has freely given, man has spent thousands of years trying to earn. Why? Does he not trust God to deliver? In this article, we’ll study the doctrine of purgatory, how the Catholic Church supports this doctrine, and we’ll find out what the Bible has to say about it.
Purgatory comes from the Latin word “purgare,” which means to make clean, to purify. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines purgatory as, “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.”1 In other words, Catholics believe that purgatory is a place where we go after death to be cleansed and purified of our venial (minor) sins before we can be allowed into heaven. In some traditions regarding purgatory, it is a place of purifying fire. Other traditions hold that there will be a process of purification, but the fire will be metaphorical as opposed to literal. In either case, this purifying fire is different from the fires of hell. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.”2
The doctrine of purgatory is based largely on Catholic tradition (post-biblical writings and oral history), and was formulated into a cohesive doctrine of the church at the Councils of Florence and Trent.3 According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, can. xi) reminds the faithful that God does not always remit the whole punishment due to sin together with the guilt. God requires satisfaction, and will punish sin…”4 This portrayal of a vengeful God seems to say that the grace of God was not sufficient to forgive all of our sins. Let us examine the supports given by the Catholic Church to buttress this doctrine.
Returning to the Catholic Encyclopedia, we read, “For unrepented venial faults for the payment of temporal punishment due to sin at time of death, the Church has always taught the doctrine of purgatory. So deep was this belief ingrained in our common humanity that it was accepted by the Jews, and in at least a shadowy way by the pagans, long before the coming of Christianity.”5 It seems incomprehensible to me to cite a pagan belief in the doctrine of purgatory as one of its defenses. Furthermore, the author paints an overly broad stroke over the Jews by implying that all Jews accepted this belief. Throughout history, Jews and Christians have proven over and over again that man is inherently sinful. Disobedience to God by Jews and Gentiles alike is well documented in scripture. The test of a doctrine should not rest on how accepted it is or was among other religious groups. Rather, we should look towards the Bible. With that, let’s move on to the scriptural “supports” that Catholics cite for the doctrine of purgatory.
“The tradition of the Jews is put forth with precision and clearness in II Maccabees.”6 The most clear scriptural reference in support of purgatory is from II Maccabees. If this book does not sound familiar to you, perhaps it is because II Maccabees is one of the books of the apocrypha (known to Catholics as the “Deuterocanonical Books”). The apocryphal books were not part of Jewish scripture, and are not part of the Protestant Bible. The Jewish scribes discarded the apocrypha as scripture largely because of the sundry historical and chronological errors within. As God is not the author of error, He is obviously not the author of the apocrypha. The same issues that prevented the induction of the apocrypha into Jewish scripture almost resulted in St. Jerome’s refusal to translate them into the Vulgate. He objected to their inclusion in scripture, but was overruled by the Council at Nicea. These same issues are the reason that these books were excluded from Protestant Bibles during the Reformation. While Catholics rely on tradition in addition to the Bible, the Protestant reliance on the Bible alone (a belief the Catholic Church refers to as sola scriptura) resulted in tighter constraints on what could be considered divinely-inspired. That has not stopped Rome from attempting to find non-apocryphal biblical supports, though.
“God forgave the incredulity of Moses and Aaron, but in punishment kept them from the ‘land of promise’ (Num., xx, 12). The Lord took away the sin of David, but the life of the child was forfeited because David had made God’s enemies blaspheme His Holy Name (II Kings, xii, 13, 14).”7 The above statement is correct, but makes a poor support for purgatory. The punishments listed here were meted out during Moses’, Aaron’s, and David’s earthly lives – not in some afterlife limbo. Additionally, the instances above occurred during the dispensation (age) of the law – prior to the dispensation of grace that commenced with the death and resurrection of Jesus.
A very common Bible verse cited by Catholics as a support for purgatory is Matthew 12:32, in which Jesus said, “And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come.” The Catholic explanation of this passage holds that “the world to come” is purgatory. They contend that there is a purgatorial “world to come” in which sins not forgiven in “this world” may be forgiven (with the exception of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit). The Greek word aion is used here for “world.” Of the 128 times aion is used in the Bible, most of its uses refer to an age, or period of time. In fact, our current word “eon” comes from this word. Most scholars agree that when Jesus mentioned “this world,” He was referring to the Age of the Law into which He was born. The “world to come” to which He referred, is the Church Age, or Age of Grace that began with his resurrection and continues today. To say that this verse alludes to purgatory is to make a huge stretch that simply does not match the facts.
“Modern Protestants, while they avoid the name purgatory, frequently teach the doctrine of “the middle state,” and Martensen (“Christian Dogmatics,” Edinburgh, 1890, p. 457).”8 Here, they reference the work of Danish Episcopal Bishop Hans Martensen. It is well known that Bishop Martensen also had a proclivity for mysticism and theosophy, and therefore might not make the best witness to orthodoxy. Regardless of Martensen’s personal theological beliefs, we have already stated that support of a doctrine by other groups or individuals is not an acceptable support. Furthermore, the broad stroke of the author’s brush if far too broad in painting Protestant beliefs on this issue. He would have been more accurate to say that SOME modern Protestants believe in a middle state.
Now that we have examined the Catholic supports for purgatory, let us turn to the Bible to examine what the Word of God says on the matter. For the sake of space, I will list several portions of scripture consecutively before making any additional comment.
1 Corinthians 6:10-11
”…nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” [emphasis added]
Romans 8:1-4“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”
“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions–it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God–not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” [emphasis added]
“Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation–if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.” [emphasis added]
“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” [emphasis added]
We have seen a common theme here. We’ve read words like “justified,” “sanctified,” and “made holy.” In Catholic practice, justification is achieved through adherence to the seven sacraments. Yet we’ve just read that we are all justified by grace through our faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We’ve also read that due to Christ’s atoning sacrifice, God seeks no further punishment for those who have accepted that free gift. Perhaps nowhere else in the Bible is the doctrine of purgatory more heavily refuted than in the following passage:
“First he [Jesus] said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them’ (although the law required them to be made). Then he said, ‘Here I am, I have come to do your will.’ He sets aside the first to establish the second. And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:
‘This is the covenant I will make with them
after that time, says the Lord.
I will put my laws in their hearts,
and I will write them on their minds.’ Then he adds:
‘Their sins and lawless acts
I will remember no more.’ And where these have been forgiven, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin.” [emphasis added]
What a wonderful assurance! Because of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we have been forgiven. There is no longer any sacrifice required. That is what purgatory is all about – an additional sacrifice for venial sins. To say that purgatory is a necessary purification is to deny that the grace of God is sufficient. What a tremendous blessing to us that God has shown His unbounded love for us through His grace! 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” In 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul said that Christ’s grace was sufficient for him. Indeed, Christ’s grace is sufficient for us all. Praise God!