The doctrine of Purgatory, central to Christianity, is brutally attacked by certain non-Catholic polemicists. Their typical view of the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory is that it was either concocted by the Church in the Middle Ages for filthy lucre’s sake, or that, if there are any ancient precedents for it among the Church Fathers, it gradually developed in scope and meaning so as to become something the early Church did not believe it to be. 1
This was done, it is alleged, so that the Church could make money from the sale of indulgences, or to keep Catholics in bondage and servitude to the priests, bishops, and popes. The claims are worthy of contempt because they are so patently false. But let us not trivialize the issue, for refusing to believe in the doctrine of Purgatory will get one into worse flames than those of Purgatory itself.
In this article, I seek to establish the truth of the doctrine using principles of right reason and Divine Revelation.
The Catholic dogma of the existence of Purgatory is a part of the Christian revelation given by Jesus Christ to His Apostles. It is the primary aim of this article to prove this from the Bible. 2
What, then are we talking about? It is necessary to define the word before we prove the doctrine it labels. Purgatory is that state of temporary punishment by which a person who is not condemned to Hell is purified of sin or the debt of sin, before entering Heaven. It is a state of “purgation,” hence the name. Purgatory is not a middle place between Heaven and Hell where people unworthy of either place go. No, Purgatory is for saved people. They will all end up in Heaven, and Purgatory will cease to exist at the General Judgment. Therefore, Heaven and Hell will be the only enduring habitations of men, and each man will spend the rest of eternity in one or the other.
The Protestant attack on this dogma claims that those who go to Heaven are in no further need of purgation, since (they say) Jesus’ finished work on the Cross paid the full debt and there is nothing more left for us to do to attain salvation. While superficially this might sound like a “holy” thing to say, its ramifications are wicked, since the process of salvation involves much more that the believer’s merely having some sort of trust in the merits of Christ. If Jesus’ death on the cross did everything, then there would be no need on our part to believe, to avoid sin, or to do good. In fact, we could live as wretched a life as possible and still go to Heaven.
Let us begin at the beginning, which is death, for only dead people go to Purgatory.
We recall that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” (Heb. 9:27) At the particular judgment, when we meet Jesus face to face, we will have to give a reckoning of our sins.
It is obvious from nature that we do not know our appointed time of death. 3 Since Judgment is an immediate consequence of death, it is a strict conclusion of reason that none of us knows the moment of his judgment. To corroborate this, the Bible assures us that judgment comes quickly, and unexpectedly. God has told us that He comes “as a thief in the night” several times in Holy Scripture: Matthew 24:43, for one. For another, there is this in the book of the Apocalypse 4: “Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent. If therefore thou shalt not watch, I will come on thee as a thief, and thou shalt not know what hour I will come upon thee.” (Apoc. 3:3)
Our Judgment will be based upon whether we were, by God’s standards, good enough for Heaven, or evil enough for Hell.
But here we have a problem. If we’ve died in the state of grace (righteousness, justice, friendship with God), we may still be defiled by sin, and nothing defiled enters the kingdom of Heaven. As it is written, “And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth 5, neither whatsoever worketh abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Apoc. 21:27)
Sin defiles a man. If not, then sin does not matter, and we can be saved regardless of whether we sin or not, whether we repent or not. If sin defiles us, there must be some way of being “undefiled” so that we can go to Heaven. What happens if we die before we are purged of our sins, or the effects of sin in this life? We go to Purgatory.
Any purportedly Christian system which would deny this must necessarily deny the justice of God, which demands that “he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done” (Col. 3:25). Again, “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Eccles. 12:14). God also demands that “every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment” (Mt. 12:36). If the wrongdoer is punished for his wrongs, and the speaker is held accountable for his idle words, then God’s justice obliges punishment for every sin. So what happens if you have some sinful “idle words” on your soul when you die? What if you die in the grace of God, but have done some wrong that you have not repented of , even a little one? 6
If you go to Hell in this condition, then all sins — even light ones (venial sins), condemn people to Hell. This is not only harsh, but it contradicts the word of St. John in the Bible (1 John 5:16) which says that there is a sin “unto death” and a sin “not unto death.”
If you can still go to Heaven without having been forgiven your sins, then forgiveness of sins is not necessary. If forgiveness of sins is not necessary, then the believing Christian has, what may ironically be called,“the best of both worlds.” He can enjoy the “benefits” of the kingdom of Satan by sinning continuously, and be happy forever in Heaven immediately when he dies in his sins. But this contradicts Scripture, which shows that sin is not compatible with Heaven. And if not all sins merit Hell in the next world, then there must be a way for sin to be forgiven and expiated for before the soul enters Heaven. We call this way Purgatory.
The logical conclusion of rejecting the doctrine of Purgatory is this: Sin does not matter.
If the name “Purgatory” is not in the Bible 7, certainly the idea of forgiveness of sins in the after-life is, since our Lord Himself refers to it: “And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come” (Matt. 12:32). 8
Further, there are passages in scripture which tell us that we are to be made “perfect.” Our Lord commands us in Matthew 12:36 to be perfect: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in Heaven is perfect.” Not only did our Lord command perfection, He also stated, through His Apostle, that it would certainly happen: “Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform 9 it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
Jesus commands perfection, and St. Paul, speaking for Jesus, guarantees that it will be given. These are not the only places in Holy Scripture which refer to perfection, or completion of the supernatural life of grace. In fact, Holy Scripture, especially the Epistles, swarms with references to perfection and completion. 10
If perfection is not necessary, then the Bible not only commands something that is superfluous, but it is factually errant in its description of Heaven as a place inhabited by the “souls of the just men made perfect” (Heb 11:23).
Now we have a variation on the question above: What happens if we die before we are “perfected” or “completed”? Do we go to Hell? Can we still be saved? Here again, the Catholic teaching is the only one that makes sense. If we die before achieving perfection, there is a place to undergo perfection. We Catholics call it Purgatory.
In the reference from Philippians, St. Paul says that the good work Christ begins in us will be perfected “until the day of Jesus Christ.” The “day of Jesus Christ” is the day of the General Judgment. 11 St. Paul was talking to people in the first century and referring to a process of perfection that could last until the General Judgment. This corresponds perfectly to the Catholic teaching that Purgatory will end at the General Judgment.
Damned if You Don’t
Of course, all this talk about doing things for your salvation will elicit the loud protest that “we cannot save ourselves,” and that the doctrine of Purgatory is just another proof that we Catholics believe in salvation through works. The critic will be quick to cite St. Paul to the Ephesians (2:8-9): “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
This passage of St. Paul is — like all of Holy Scripture — Catholic doctrine. Salvation is a free gift. Grace is necessary for salvation. Through grace, sins are forgiven and holiness is bestowed upon the soul, and it is allowed to “bear fruit,” whereas before, it was barren and hellbound. The merits of Jesus’ death on the Cross having been applied to the soul, it is now on its way to Heaven.
That said, there are other questions: What happens in the case of sin committed after belief and conversion? As we have seen above, in the Catholic system, sin matters. If it is a sin “unto death” and no repentance is made, the believing Christian will go to Hell (which “once saved always saved” Protestants don’t profess). If it is not a sin “unto death,” and he repents and confesses it, then it is forgiven in this life. There is a third possibility: If he dies before repenting of one of these lighter sins, then he goes to Purgatory for it.
Here is another question regarding securing one’s salvation: After someone is born again and is washed in the Blood of the Lamb, does he still need to do anything, or can he just wait until he dies to assume his throne in glory?
In the Catholic system, one has to work out his salvation. He has to do good works and avoid sinning again. In other words, he has to “do his part.” In the Protestant system (in its original versions, anyway), all one has to do is trust that he is saved; therefore good works — which are constantly commanded in the Bible — do not matter. If there is nothing you have to do to be saved, then all of the things commanded to be done in the Bible are idle words. This is a bit of a digression into the subject of good works, but it is a necessary one, because what we are talking about is the role each individual has in his salvation. Purgatory and good works are each part of the same “big picture.”
In the description of the Final Judgment in the Gospel of St. Matthew, our Lord tells of the sheep and the lambs being divided, one on His right and the other on His left. As He passes sentence on each, the sole criterion — as our Lord tells the story — is good works. For the elect, their good works occasion their salvation, and for the damned, their lack of good works merits their damnation. Also, in the judgment scene in the Apocalypse, it is twice stated, in two consecutive verses, that the dead will be judged “according to their works” (Apoc. 20:12 & 20:13).
So what does this have to do with Purgatory? Everything. If salvation has to be “worked out,” and, in addition to the free gift of God’s grace there is something demanded on our part to complete this work, then what happens if we die before all that is finished? Do we go to Hell, or can we still go to Heaven?
Pain and Suffering
Another scriptural theme that points to Purgatory is suffering. It is common knowledge that all men suffer. This hardly needs proof. God allows suffering. More than that, He even causes suffering at times, for His own just and merciful designs.
Since God can do no evil, then this suffering must be a good thing. It must have some value regarding man’s highest end, which is eternal life with the Blessed Trinity in Heaven. Anyone who believes that God inflicts worthless pain and suffering on his friends, believes in a cruel, pagan god, not the God of the Christians.
If suffering is beneficial then the above mentioned concepts of perfection and completion, becoming “undefiled,” and “working out one’s salvation,” can, with suffering, be fit into a perfectly consistent, just, and merciful economy of salvation. If not, then the only alternative is to believe in a pagan deity who tortures his worshipers to no good end.
Does the Bible back this up? Yes. In Acts 14:21 (verse 22 in the KJV Bible), Sts. Paul and Barnabas, preaching in Lycaonia, exhort the people “to continue in the faith, and that we must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God.” Here a principle is stated, a condition for salvation. It is that we must suffer to enter into Heaven. Romans 8:17 teaches the exact same doctrine: “And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.” If we suffer with Christ, then we will be glorified with him. It is stated dogmatically as a truth proposed for our belief. Paul states also, “If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us” (2 Timothy 2:12).
One may object that this suffering is not necessary for our salvation, but that it is merely a consequence of following Christ. It is a consequence of following Christ; as St. Paul states, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). But it is not only a consequence of following Christ. Suffering is clearly stated as a condition for salvation. Note the “if/then” statements above. If we suffer, then we will be saved. In the passage from second Timothy, St. Paul presents two options: Either suffer for Christ or deny him. If we deny Him, he will deny (i.e., damn) us. It could not be clearer that this suffering is a necessary condition for salvation.
Scripture undeniably asserts that God causes suffering, as this text from Hebrews (12: 5-11) shows: “And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live? For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.”
God chastises, rebukes and scourges His sons. This causes a “grevious” feeling in them. What’s more, if He does not chastise someone, that person is a “bastard” and not a son. So this particular pain and suffering is inflicted only on believing Christians. Further, it is meritorious and has a causal relationship with our salvation: “…for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness.” This shows that suffering is meritorious of salvation. Thus the Catholic doctrine of merit and good works is vindicated against the Lutheran heresy that we can do nothing in matters of salvation and that all of our good works are profitless.
How does this relate to Purgatory? First, since Purgatory is a state of suffering, then the doctrine of Purgatory is consistent with the Biblical doctrine that suffering is necessary for salvation, and is an agency by which we are made fit for Heaven. Second, we can apply the principle above to the idea of suffering. Suppose that a “son” dies before he is chastised enough? What happens? Purgatory. 12
Nothing defiled enters Heaven. We must be completed and perfected. We have to suffer. But does the Bible actually say that this can be done after death, or are we just going by odds? In the Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul makes a reference to purgatorial fires, a reference commonly interpreted to support our doctrine. I quote it here at length:
“According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” (1 Cor. 3: 10-15)
Rather than give my own explanation of how this teaches the doctrine of Purgatory, I will let three fathers of the Church do it for me. They show not only the reasonableness of the application of this passage to Purgatory, but also the fact that the Church has historically received this as a proof of Purgatory.
Origen: “For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones (1 Cor., 3); but also wood and hay and stubble, what do you expect when the soul shall be separated from the body? Would you enter into Heaven with your wood and hay and stubble and thus defile the kingdom of God; or on account of these hindrances would you remain without and receive no reward for your gold and silver and precious stones; neither is this just. It remains then that you be committed to the fire which will burn the light materials; for our God, to those who can comprehend Heavenly things, is called a cleansing fire. But this fire consumes not the creature, but what the creature has himself built, wood, and hay and stubble. It is manifest that the fire destroys the wood of our transgressions and then returns to us the reward of our great works.” (Homilies on Jeremias, PG 13: 445, 448 [A.D. 244])
Augustine: “If the baptized person fulfills the obligations demanded of a Christian, he does well. If he does not — provided he keeps the faith, without which he would perish forever — no matter what sin or impurity remains, he will be saved, as it were, by fire; as one who has built on the foundation, which is Christ, not gold, silver, and precious stones, but wood, hay, straw, that is, not just and chaste works but wicked and unchaste works.” (Faith and Works, 1:1 [A.D. 413])
Caesarius of Arles: “If we neither give thanks to God in tribulations nor redeem our own sins by good works, we shall have to remain in that purgatorial fire as long as it takes for those above-mentioned lesser sins to be consumed like wood and straw and hay.” (Sermon 179 : 2 [A.D. 542])
At least three other fathers give the same purgatorial interpretation of 1 Cor. 3: St. Ambrose (commentary on the text, and Sermo xx in Ps. cxvii), St. Jerome, (Comm. in Amos, c. iv), St. Gregory (Dial., IV, xxxix).
The typical Protestant explanation of the passage is flimsy. They commonly believe in the “loss of reward” in Heaven, but totally ignore the punitive nature of the passage.
On the subject of Purgatory, history is not silent. The reality of Purgatory is attested to in the writings in many of the Church Fathers. The above quotations are only a taste of the vast patristic testimony. Other historical testimonies come from the Christian catacombs, where prayers for the repose of the souls of the faithful departed were inscribed in stone.
But the subjects of the catacombs, quotes from the Church Fathers, and other additional proofs of Purgatory would exceed the limits of this article, which is, essentially, to use the Protestant edition of the New Testament to prove that Purgatory is Christian Doctrine. Those interested in a good (but not at all extensive) list of patristic passages are referred to Joseph Gallegos’ Corunum web site.
Those interested in the Christian catacombs are referred to the web site, The Christian Catacombs of Rome: http://www.catacombe.roma.it/, which has lots of good pictorial evidence of the above mentioned stone inscriptions.
Another proof a bit out of our range is the Scriptural proof from the Old Testament book of the Machabees. The reason is that, according to Protestant tradition, this book is not a part of the Bible. The passage I mean is 2 Machabees 12:46: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.”
Even though a more thorough usage of the verse from Machabees is not in the scope of our article, we will allow ourselves this one comment on it: If the book is rejected as being not authentically Biblical, it still has to be accepted as pre-Christian evidence that at least some Jews believed that prayers for the dead would loose them from their sins.
Adding It Up
To add up all of our proofs, what we can say from this article is that —
• Not all sins condemn one to Hell, and that God’s justice demands that all sins be expiated.
• According to Holy Scripture, we need (and will receive, if we are saved) “perfection” and “completion.”
• Death can come before expiation or perfection happens, and that there must be a place in God’s economy for this to happen.
• We have given a Biblical passage illustrating the purgatorial flames, and some of the historical evidence that early Christians took this passage to mean Purgatory.
As a further proof, we have briefly alluded to the facts that pre-Christian Jews believed in it, and so did the early Christians of the catacombs.
While there are some Protestants who believe in Purgatory privately, there is no particular sect that teaches it. The Orthodox, interestingly, will deny the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory while professing all of its constituent parts. It seems to be a case of rejecting something simply because Rome teaches it. But if Purgatory is true according to Biblical principles, then those who reverence the Bible as the inerrant word of God should belong to the Church that teaches the doctrine of Purgatory: the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
- This latter view is taken by John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. ↩
- I am using the King James Version of the Bible, not out of preference, but because it is the version most esteemed by Protestants. ↩
- There are exceptions to this. Some Saints (including St. Peter, see 2 Peter 1:14) were given to know either the general time frame of their death, or the exact date. ↩
- The Book of the Apocalypse is called “Revelation” in the Protestant Bibles, after the opening word of the book. ↩
- The Catholic Bible (Douay-Rheims) had “defiled,” which agrees more with the other Protestant Bibles than they agree with the KJV: The NIV has “impure”; the RSV and NASB have “unclean.” ↩
- In Catholicism, repentance includes two aspects: turning away from sin and doing penance. In other words, we both “have a change of heart” and we “expiate for sin.” Protestants take only the first part, the “change of heart” as being necessary. The (Biblical) idea of expiation is, as we will see, foreign to them. One proof of the necessity of expiation is found in 2 Kings 12: 13-18 (2 Samuel 12: 13-18 in the Protestant Bible), in which David is punished by the death of his son after he has sought (and received) forgiveness. ↩
- I once had an argument with a sectarian, who pointed out to me that the word “Catholic” is not in the Bible. I mentioned to her that neither is the word “Bible” in the Bible. She confidently pointed to hers, and said, “It’s right here on the cover, ‘Holy Bible!’” Some demons can only be driven out by prayer and fasting. ↩
- This purgatorial interpretation of Matt. 12:32 is nothing I made up. St Augustine, in his City of God XXI, 24, explicitly interprets the passage in that manner: “As also, after the resurrection, there will be some of the dead to whom, after they have endured the pains proper to the spirits of the dead, mercy shall be accorded, and acquittal from the punishment of the eternal fire. For were there not some whose sins, though not remitted in this life, shall be remitted in that which is to come, it could not be truly said, ‘They shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, neither in that which is to come.’” St. Gregory the Great in his Dialogue IV, 29, gives the same interpretation. ↩
- This is another instance of the Douay-Rheims (which says “perfect”) agreeing with other Protestant Bibles over the KJV: The NIV had “carry it on to completion”; the NASB: “perfect”; and the RSV: “bring it to completion.” ↩
- Here are a few references: Heb. 11:40; Heb. 12:23; 1 Pet. 5:10. ↩
- That the “day of Jesus Christ” is the General Judgment is believed by Catholics and most Protestants. ↩
- The idea of making expiation for sin in this life is something some Protestants say they believe. Others will reject it as coming too close to their false conception of the Catholic system, in which a man can save himself by good works. Neither of these groups say they believe in Purgatory. The ones who agree that suffering is given to expiate for sin will say that such suffering only happens in this life and not beyond the grave. As the Catholic apologist Vincent Lewis pointed out, this leads to a manifest absurdity:
Q: What if a saved Christian sins? A: He gets a toothache (or some other punishment) to expiate for it. Q: What if he sins again? A: He gets another toothache. Q: Suppose he keeps sinning? A: He keeps getting toothaches.
Note that in this scenario the “sinning Christian” will not die until he has expiated his sin, since there is no Purgatory. As long as the man keeps sinning, he will never die. Ergo, “The wages of sin are eternal life.” (Paraphrased from a tape of Vin Lewis, “Building Technique.”) ↩