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Is There A Purgatory?

Jason Engwer

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"in purgatory the souls of those 'who died in the charity of God and truly repentant, but who had not made satisfaction with adequate penance for their sins and omissions,' are cleansed after death with punishments designed to purge away their debt." - Second Vatican Council, "Sacred Liturgy", "Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences", no. 3

    "For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God" - 1 Peter 3:18

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Christians may have to suffer in Purgatory before going to Heaven in order to complete the atonement for their sins. The Bible tells us, however, that Christ has already, by Himself, suffered to atone for all sins (Hebrews 1:3, Hebrews 9-10). The Catholic Church claims that a person can be forgiven of a sin, yet have to suffer to further atone for the "temporal" portion of that sin. Supposedly, the Eucharist, an indulgence, or something else can be offered to complete the atonement for a sin that has been forgiven. Yet, the Bible teaches:

    "Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin." - Hebrews 10:18

The concept of a person being forgiven of a sin, yet still needing to make offerings to atone for that sin, is contradicted by scripture. There are consequences to sin, and God disciplines His children (Hebrews 12:6-7), but never for atonement. Only Christ, the just, could suffer once and for all for the atonement of the unjust (1 Peter 3:18). Christians are already perfected (Hebrews 10:14) and complete (Colossians 2:10) in Christ, even before they've been completely sanctified. All suffering for atonement was accomplished by Christ Himself (Hebrews 9-10), eliminating any need for a Purgatory. The completion of the Christian's sanctification, which has nothing to do with atoning for sins, will take place "in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye" (1 Corinthians 15:52). Christians are sanctified in this life, but that process of sanctification will abruptly be completed at the end of this life through God's power (1 Corinthians 15:52-53, Philippians 3:21), not through suffering in Purgatory.

The scriptures repeatedly refer to believers being at ease, experiencing peace, being with the Lord, etc. upon death or being raptured. Rather than suffering in Purgatory, believers are to expect to go to Heaven upon death or rapture:

    "Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb? Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed? For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest with kings and counselors of the earth, who built for themselves places now lying in ruins, with rulers who had gold, who filled their houses with silver. Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day? There the wicked cease from turmoil, and there the weary are at rest. Captives also enjoy their ease; they no longer hear the slave driverís shout. The small and the great are there, and the slave is freed from his master." - Job 3:11-19

    "And Ióin righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness." - Psalms 17:15

    "You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you?" - Psalms 73:24-25

    "The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death." - Isaiah 57:1-2

    "As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance." - Daniel 12:13

    "Then the King will say to those on his right, ĎCome, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world." - Matthew 25:34

    "The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abrahamís side....But Abraham replied, ĎSon, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony." - Luke 16:22, 16:25

    "Then he said, 'Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.' Jesus answered him, 'I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.'" - Luke 23:42-43

    "In my Fatherís house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am." - John 14:2-3

    "Now we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." - 2 Corinthians 5:1-8

    "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far" - Philippians 1:21-23

    "For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage each other with these words." - 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18

    "And he said, 'These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.'" - Revelation 7:14-17

The doctrine of Purgatory, like so much else the Roman Catholic Church teaches, was a gradual post-apostolic development. Though Catholic apologists often cite prayers for the dead as evidence of early belief in Purgatory, prayers for the dead are never encouraged in the hundreds of scriptural passages that mention prayer. And even the prayers for the dead that became popular in the early post-apostolic era don't support Purgatory. As William Webster explains in The Church of Rome at the Bar of History (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995):

    For at least the first two centuries there was no mention of purgatory in the Church. In all the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr there is not the slightest allusion to the idea of purgatory. Rome claims that the early Church nevertheless believed in purgatory because it prayed for the dead. This was becoming a common practice by the beginning of the third century but it does not, in itself, prove that the early Church believed in the existence of a purgatory. The written prayers which have survived, and the evidence from the catacombs and burial inscriptions indicate that the early Church viewed deceased Christians as residing in peace and happiness and the prayers offered were for them to have a greater experience of these. As early as Tertullian, in the late second and beginning of the third century, these prayers often use the Latin term refrigerium as a request of God on behalf of departed Christians, a term which means 'refreshment' or 'to refresh' and came to embody the concept of heavenly happiness. So the fact that the early Church prayed for the dead does not support the teaching of purgatory for the nature of the prayers themselves indicate the Church did not view the dead as residing in a place of suffering. (p. 114)

Though Catholic apologists often quote men like Tertullian and Origen referring to something resembling Purgatory, what they believed in was only an early form of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, which would still take centuries longer to develop into what it is today. The earliest post-apostolic writers, who predate Tertullian and Origen by about a hundred years or more, had no concept of a Purgatory.

Clement of Rome, the earliest of the church fathers, writes about Peter, Paul, and some deceased Corinthian presbyters being in Heaven:

    "Peter, through unrighteous envy, endured not one or two, but numerous labours and when he had at length suffered martyrdom, departed to the place of glory due to him....Thus was he [Paul] removed from the world, and went into the holy place, having proved himself a striking example of patience....Blessed are those presbyters who, having finished their course before now, have obtained a fruitful and perfect departure from this world; for they have no fear lest any one deprive them of the place now appointed them." (First Clement, 5, 44)

Papias, a Christian of the late first and early second centuries, wrote concerning Christians and the afterlife:

    "As the presbyters say, then those who are deemed worthy of an abode in heaven shall go there, others shall enjoy the delights of Paradise, and others shall possess the splendour of the city; for everywhere the Saviour will be seen, according as they shall be worthy who see Him. But that there is this distinction between the habitation of those who produce an hundredfold, and that of those who produce sixty-fold, and that of those who produce thirty-fold; for the first will be taken up into the heavens, the second class will dwell in Paradise, and the last will inhabit the city; and that on this account the Lord said, 'In my Father's house are many mansions:' for all things belong to God, who supplies all with a suitable dwelling-place, even as His word says, that a share is given to all by the Father, according as each one is or shall be worthy. And this is the couch in which they shall recline who feast, being invited to the wedding. The presbyters, the disciples of the apostles, say that this is the gradation and arrangement of those who are saved, and that they advance through steps of this nature; and that, moreover, they ascend through the Spirit to the Son, and through the Son to the Father; and that in due time the Son will yield up His work to the Father, even as it is said by the apostle, 'For He must reign till He hath put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.' For in the times of the kingdom the just man who is on the earth shall forget to die. 'But when He saith all things are put under Him, it is manifest that He is excepted which did put all things under Him. And when all things shall be subdued unto Him, then shall the Son also Himself be subject unto Him that put all things under Him, that God may be all in all.'" (Fragments, 5)

Papias refers to different degrees of reward in Heaven (1 Corinthians 3:11-15), but says nothing of Christians suffering in Purgatory.

Polycarp, a disciple of the apostle John, wrote:

    "I exhort you all, therefore, to yield obedience to the word of righteousness, and to exercise all patience, such as ye have seen set before your eyes, not only in the case of the blessed Ignatius, and Zosimus, and Rufus, but also in others among yourselves, and in Paul himself, and the rest of the apostles. This do in the assurance that all these have not run in vain, but in faith and righteousness, and that they are now in their due place in the presence of the Lord, with whom also they suffered. For they loved not this present world, but Him who died for us, and for our sakes was raised again by God from the dead." (The Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, 9)

When Polycarp died as a martyr, an account of his martyrdom was written and circulated among the churches afterward, part of which reads:

    "For, having through patience overcome the unjust governor, and thus acquired the crown of immortality, he now, with the apostles and all the righteous in heaven, rejoicingly glorifies God" (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, 19)

Catholic apologists may attempt to avoid the implications of these comments by suggesting that these people were viewed as going right to Heaven only because they died as martyrs. However, the concept that martyrs would not have to go to Purgatory is a later concept, one which we can't read back into the writings of this time. And not all of the people mentioned in the comments above died as martyrs anyway. The earliest post-apostolic Christians, like the apostolic Christians, did not believe in a Purgatory.

Catholics suggest that Purgatory is at least alluded to in passages such as Matthew 5:26, Matthew 12:32, 1 Corinthians 3:15, Colossians 1:24, and 1 Peter 3:19-20. Do such passages actually support Purgatory, though?

Matthew 5:26 is part of an analogy Jesus makes concerning the sin of hatred. Catholic apologists suggest that since Jesus refers to a person remaining in prison until he's "paid the last cent", that might be a reference to people suffering in Purgatory until their sins have been completely atoned for. But if Jesus is referring to the afterlife, as opposed to just referring to the consequences of sin in this life, He's referring to Hell, not Purgatory. In verse 22, He mentions Hell. Somebody who goes into eternity without having the sin of hatred atoned for would go to Hell, not any Purgatory. The person would indeed be there until he had "paid the last cent", but we know from other passages that the price is paid eternally (Matthew 25:46, Revelation 21:10).

Matthew 12:32 doesn't actually support Purgatory either. In the parallel passages in the other gospels (Mark 3:29, Luke 12:10), the sin is described as "never" being forgiven and "not" being forgiven. Obviously, the message is that blaspheming the Holy Spirit is an eternal sin. Many people believe, as I do, that this sin must be a rejection of Christ, since that's the only sin that would keep us from accepting forgiveness for every other sin. Just because Matthew 12:32 mentions that a sin won't be forgiven in the afterlife, that doesn't mean that people have an opportunity to have sins forgiven through Purgatory. The Catholic Church teaches that Purgatory is for the atonement of sins that are already forgiven, so the passage isn't even relevant.

1 Corinthians 3:15, another passage often cited in support of Purgatory, is about works being evaluated. Paul uses the imagery of fire, but the works are burned, not the person. Since Paul writes that even a person without any good works can be saved (1 Corinthians 3:15), as long as he's resting on the foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11), the passage actually contradicts Catholic teaching about salvation and works rather than supporting Catholic teaching about Purgatory.

Colossians 1:24 also has nothing to do with any Purgatory. Christ alone suffered once and for all to atone for all sins (Isaiah 53:5, 53:10-11, Hebrews 1:3, Hebrews 9-10, 1 Peter 3:18, 1 John 1:7). Christians are released from sin through His blood (Revelation 1:5). They don't have a shackle remaining on one of their legs that has to be burned away in Purgatory. What is Colossians 1:24 about, then? It's about Christ's ministerial suffering, not His redemptive suffering. In other words, Christ alone suffered for our redemption, but He didn't endure all of the suffering needed to accomplish everything that the church is to accomplish. In that regard, there is suffering that remains to be endured by individual Christians throughout history. John Walvoord and Roy Zuck write:

    This reconciliation by Christ of Jews and Gentiles to God in one body is a mystery revealed only in Christ. Paul rejoiced that he was able to suffer for them what was still lacking in regard to Christís afflictions. By this he did not mean that Christís suffering on the cross was insufficient (cf. Rom. 3:21-26; Heb. 10:10-14). He was speaking not of salvation but of service. Christís suffering alone procures salvation (1 Peter 1:11; 5:1; Heb. 2:9). But it is a believerís privilege to suffer for Christ (2 Tim. 3:11; 1 Peter 3:13-14; 5:9; Heb. 10:32). The word 'affliction' (thlipsis)ónever used in the New Testament of Christís deathómeans 'distress,' 'pressure,' or 'trouble' (which Paul had plenty of; 2 Cor. 11:23-29). Ordinarily it refers to trials in life, not the pains of death. Christ does indeed continue to suffer when Christians suffer for Him. He asked Saul (later called Paul) on the Damascus Road, 'Why do you persecute Me?' (Acts 9:4) Since the church is Christís body, He is affected when it is affected. For the sake of Christís body Paul willingly suffered (Phil. 1:29). (Logos Library System [Oak Harbor, Washington: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997], The Bible Knowledge Commentary)

Warren Wiersbe writes:

    In v. 24, Paul is not saying that he suffered as Jesus did or that his suffering was a part of Christís suffering on the cross. Rather, he is saying that as Christ suffered for others, so he suffers for others, and his suffering is on behalf of the body, the church. The word for 'suffering' here is never the one used for the sufferings of Christ on the cross. It speaks rather of His sufferings during His earthly ministry, sufferings that Godís people experience as they seek to live for Christ in a hostile world. (Logos Library System [Oak Harbor, Washington: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997], Wiersbeís Expository Outlines on the New Testament)

William MacDonald writes in his Believer's Bible Commentary (Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, Inc., 1995):

    First of all, this cannot refer to the atoning sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. Those were finished once and for all, and no man could ever share in them....

    Thus, the Apostle Paul looks on all the suffering that Christians are required to go through for the sake of the Lord Jesus as being part of the sufferings of Christ which still remain. They include suffering for righteousness' sake, suffering for His sake (bearing His reproach), and for the gospel's sake. (p. 1997)

Catholic apologists often claim that they don't deny the sufficiency of Christ's finished work of redemption, yet their interpretation of Colossians 1:24 does deny it. Paul refers to something that is actually lacking in Christ's suffering. It isn't possible, then, to claim that Paul is referring to Christ's redemptive suffering while claiming, at the same time, that Christ's redemptive suffering is sufficient. The passage obviously has nothing to do with Christ's redemptive suffering, making it irrelevant to Purgatory, indulgences, and every other false doctrine for which Catholic apologists cite this passage as support.

1 Peter 3:19-20, though often cited in support of Purgatory, also fails to actually support the doctrine. This passage is one of the most controversial in all of the Bible. Nobody knows who the "spirits in prison" are. The passage may just mean that Christ told the souls in Hell about what He had accomplished at Calvary, which could have saved them if only they had believed. There are other possible interpretations as well. The reference in verse 20 to the people having been "disobedient" suggests that what's being discussed is Hell, not Heaven or any Purgatory. Whatever Peter is referring to, the passage isn't enough of a basis upon which to build a doctrine such as Purgatory, especially when so many other passages contradict the doctrine.

Catholic apologists anachronistically read Purgatory into passages of the New Testament, but none of the passages they cite actually support the concept. Other passages contradict the doctrine.

Not only is the doctrine of Purgatory not supported by anything Jesus and the apostles taught, but it also has led many people into disobeying God and following false gospels. The Protestant historian Philip Schaff wrote, concerning the selling of indulgences:

    Nowhere, except in the lives of the popes themselves, did the humiliation of the Western Church find more conspicuous exhibition than in the sale of indulgences. The forgiveness of sins was bought and sold for money, and this sacred privilege formed the occasion of the rupture of Western Christendom...

    In the thirteenth century, it came to be regarded as a remission of the penalty of sin itself, both here and in purgatory. At a later stage, it was regarded, at least in wide circles, as a release from the guilt of sin as well as from its penalty....

    St. Peter's Dome is at once the glory and the shame of papal Rome. It was built over the bones of the Galilaean fisherman, with the proceeds from the sale of indulgences which broke up the unity of Western Christendom. The magnificent structure was begun in 1506 under Pope Julius II., and completed in 1626 at a cost of forty-six millions scudi, and is kept up at an annual expense of thirty thousand scudi (dollars).

    Jesus began his public ministry with the expulsion of the profane traffickers from the court of the temple. The Reformation began with a protest against the traffic in indulgences which profaned and degraded the Christian religion.

    The difficult and complicated doctrine of indulgences is peculiar to the Roman Church. It was unknown to the Greek and Latin fathers. It was developed by the mediaeval schoolmen, and sanctioned by the Council of Trent (Dec. 4, 1563), yet without a definition and with an express warning against abuses and evil gains....

    The granting of indulgences degenerated, after the time of the crusades, into a regular traffic, and became a source of ecclesiastical and monastic wealth. A good portion of the profits went into the papal treasury. Boniface VIII. issued the first Bull of the jubilee indulgence to all visitors of St. Peter's in Rome (1300). It was to be confined to Rome, and to be repeated only once in a hundred years, but it was afterwards extended and multiplied as to place and time.

    The idea of selling and buying by money the remission of punishment and release from purgatory was acceptable to ignorant and superstitious people, but revolting to sound moral feeling. It roused, long before Luther, the indignant protest of earnest minds, such as Wiclif in England, Hus in Bohemia, John von Wesel in Germany, John Wessel in Holland, Thomas Wyttenbach in Switzerland, but without much effect.

    The Lateran Council of 1517 allowed the Pope to collect one-tenth of all the ecclesiastical property of Christendom, ostensibly for a war against the Turks; but the measure was carried only by a small majority of two or three votes, and the minority objected that there was no immediate prospect of such a war. The extortions of the Roman curia became an intolerable burden to Christendom, and produced at last a successful protest which cost the papacy the loss of its fairest possessions....

    The common people eagerly embraced this rare offer of salvation from punishment, and made no clear distinction between the guilt and punishment of sin; after the sermon they approached with burning candles the chest, confessed their sins, paid the money, and received the letter of indulgence which they cherished as a passport to heaven. But intelligent and pious men were shocked at such scandal. The question was asked, whether God loved money more than justice, and why the Pope, with his command over the boundless treasury of extra-merits, did not at once empty the whole purgatory for the rebuilding of St. Peter's, or build it with his own money.

    Tetzel approached the dominions of the Elector of Saxony, who was himself a devout worshiper of relics, and had great confidence in indulgences, but would not let him enter his territory from fear that he might take too much money from his subjects. So Tetzel set up his trade on the border of Saxony, at Jueterbog, a few hours from Wittenberg.

    There he provoked the protest of the Reformer, who had already in the summer of 1516 preached a sermon of warning against trust in indulgences, and had incurred the Elector's displeasure by his aversion to the whole system, although he himself had doubts about some important questions connected with it.

    Luther had experienced the remission of sin as a free gift of grace to be apprehended by a living faith. This experience was diametrically opposed to a system of relief by means of payments in money. It was an irrepressible conflict of principle. He could not be silent when that barter was carried to the very threshold of his sphere of labor. As a preacher, a pastor, and a professor, he felt it to be his duty to protest against such measures: to be silent was to betray his theology and his conscience. (The Master Christian Library [Albany, Oregon: AGES Software, 1998], History of the Christian Church, Vol. 6, p. 555; Vol. 7, pp. 118-120, 123-124)

The truth is that there is no Purgatory. Even when the apostle Paul knew he was imperfect (Philippians 3:12), he knew he would go to be with the Lord when he died (Philippians 1:21-23). We read in scripture:

    "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple" - Revelation 7:14-15

People go to Heaven because of what Christ has done for them, not because of what they've done for Christ. The ungodly person who believes in Christ while not working (Romans 4:5-6) is assured of avoiding God's wrath (Romans 5:9-10) as a free gift of God's grace (Romans 6:23). God invites anybody who thirsts to...

    "take the water of life without cost" - Revelation 22:17


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