A friend relayed to me what happened in her Sunday school class one day. Somebody was talking about a relative recently dying, and how they were sad because they weren’t sure whether he was saved or not. Another person in the class, trying to comfort this person, said not to worry, maybe her grandfather was in purgatory.
Maybe you, like the person above, believe in purgatory. Maybe you’ve heard about purgatory but aren’t exactly sure what it is. Should Christians believe in purgatory? Is purgatory Biblical? We’ll examine those questions in light of what Scripture says.
First, we need to define what purgatory is. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines purgatory as follows:
They go on to say:
From the above definitions, we can see that purgatory involves the following:
We’ll examine most of this in depth, but briefly, let’s consider venial sins and penance. Catholicism differentiates between venial and mortal sins. Venial sins can be forgiven; mortal sins destroy the grace first received when a person is saved. Scripture makes no such distinction regarding sins; if you break one law, then you have broken the whole law, James says; the soul that sins shall die; the wages of sin is death...etc. According to the Bible, sin is sin.
With respect to doing penance, this doctrine is the result of a mistranslation in the Latin Vulgate Bible. You can read more about that here.
So, a person who goes to purgatory must be punished, essentially for unforgiven sins. Before examining what Scripture says, it’s interesting to consider how long does a person have to stay in purgatory to “satisfy” God that they have endured enough punishment for their sin (whether forgiven or unforgiven)? The Catholic church can’t say, but they do offer a way to get out early. This is called an “indulgence”; again, the Catholic Encyclopedia:
If you’re familiar with church history, you may recall that it was the practice of granting indulgences that Martin Luther wanted addressed. One aggressive Catholic seller of indulgences in particular, Johann Tetzel, came up with the slogan, “When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!” The Catholic church was selling indulgences, in part, to help pay for St. Peter’s basilica in Rome, and Tetzel was a great salesman.
Recently, the pope decided that he would grant a plenary indulgence (a plenary indulgence is the remission of the entire temporal punishment due to sin so that no further expiation is required in purgatory) for Catholics who followed the events of World Youth Day on Twitter. Specifically, the pope decreed:
“The faithful who on account of a legitimate impediment cannot attend the aforementioned celebrations may obtain Plenary Indulgence under the usual spiritual, sacramental and prayer conditions, in a spirit of filial submission to the Roman Pontiff, by participation in the sacred functions on the days indicated, following the same rites and spiritual exercises as they occur via television or radio or, with due devotion, via the new means of social communication.”
So, there you have it. God will be satisfied for the punishment you are due for your temporal sins simply by tweetin’ on Twitter. Who wouldn’t want to have his sins forgiven and receive a get out of purgatory card all by tweetin’? You can’t make this up.
Sadly, though, some people do believe this nonsense. It’s bad enough that Catholics are duped by their church into believing this lie, but it’s even worse if Christians believe this. As we saw above, however, some Christians do believe it. Given the definition of purgatory above, let’s see how it squares with the truth of God’s word.
First, it’s true that if a person is in God’s grace, he has been saved. Ephesians 2:8 says,
However, nowhere in Scripture do we read anything about purgatory, or eventually getting to heaven. Indeed, in Hebrews 9:27, we read,
When a person dies, God judges them. This verse alone could leave open the possibility of there being a purgatory. Unbelievers are judged and thrown into hell, as the Bible clearly teaches. But what about believers? Can they be judged in a way that God punishes their “temporal sins”, even if they have been forgiven?
Scripture answers this question, too. In John 5:24, Jesus says,
If we combine Hebrews 9 and John 5, we see that when a person dies, he immediately comes into judgment; believers, however, do not come into judgment, but have eternal life. To be punished in purgatory necessarily involves judgment, yet our Lord says we do not come into judgment. Therefore, purgatory is completely and utterly false, and contradicts the word of God.
Furthermore, Romans 8:1 says,
Many Catholics argue that people in purgatory are not “condemned”; they will go to heaven, but they have to be punished for temporal sins. If this is true, then the doctrine of purgatory leads to the ultimate question: did Jesus’ death on the cross completely pay for our sins, or was it only a partial payment? Scripture answers this question very clearly, and it is this lie of purgatory that makes it such a damnable heresy. Purgatory makes a mockery of what Christ did for the children of God.
First, we read in Romans 5:
To be “justified” means to be declared righteous. We are not righteous on our own; Christ’s righteousness is credited to us by faith (Romans 4). This is why Paul says,
This is why we have “peace with God”. Punishment is not peace. Does it make sense that God would still punish us when we die if He tells us in His word that we have been declared righteous and now have peace with God? The lie that is purgatory would have you believe that He would.
Moreover, speaking of the New Covenant that would be fulfilled in Christ, the Lord says through Jeremiah,
Does it make sense that God would require satisfaction for the punishment of our sin if, by faith in Christ, He tells us that He will remember our sin no more? Once again, purgatory contradicts Scripture.
Purgatory does not “purify” the believer; only Christ can and has done that. 1 Peter 1 says,
Because we have been born again, we believed the gospel (obedience to the truth), and by faith our souls have been purified. If we are already purified, we are not in need of purgatory to purify us.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the doctrine of purgatory, in my view, is that it denies what Christ accomplished on the cross, as well as his sinless life. Hebrews 10 makes clear that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was sufficient for all time:
It is true that God demands satisfaction for sin; it must be punished. On the cross, Jesus offered Himself, one sacrifice for sin for all time. Now, if Jesus’ sacrifice paid for all of our sin for all time, then there can be no punishment due the believer in Christ. That Christ rose from the dead is proof that God was satisfied with Christ’s sacrifice.
Furthermore, Jesus has perfected us by His one sacrifice. If we are perfect, then there remains no sin to be punished. His death on the cross bore the full wrath of God that was due to every believer (Romans 5:9). This is why, as we read earlier, God says He will remember our sins and lawless deeds no more.
If you are a Christian, you must believe what Scripture says and deny purgatory. Alternatively, if you believe in purgatory, you are denying Scripture. To believe that we will suffer punishment for some unknown period in purgatory is not good news. Thankfully, the good news of the gospel is that when we die we will immediately be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). We have already been declared righteous, pure, perfect, not to be judged, so there is no fear of death for the believer.
The Sunday school student was right in his concern for his relative, because there is no purgatory. This is yet another lie promulgated by the Catholic church that enslaves the Catholic to the church. Rather than rejoice always as Scripture commands us (Philippians 4:4), the Catholic must live in the fear of punishment in purgatory. He is fully dependent upon the church to help him reduce his time there; he is a slave to the church. That a person would believe he can simply tweet his way out of purgatory would be laughable were it not so deadly serious, and it demonstrates just how enslaved Catholics are to the church. To believe in purgatory is to sin, and the unbeliever is truly a slave to sin.
The good news is that Christ has accomplished everything for the believer. We are not slaves of the church nor of sin, but we are slaves of Christ. But the true believer is a slave that is free:
Use the topic of purgatory as a way to share the gospel with your Catholic friends so that, like you, they can also be free, indeed.