more than you ever wanted to know about it!
Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi www.biblicalperspectives.com
Retired Professor of Theology, Andrews University
This essay is taken from
Chapter 5 of the forthcoming book:
BELIEFS: ARE THEY BIBLICAL?
During the five years I studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome
from 1969 to 1974, occasionally I worked as a tourist guide. One of the sites I
liked to show to tourists is called La Scala Santa or The Holy Stairs,
which consists of 28 marble steps, protected by wooden boards. It is located
opposite the Basilica of San Giovanni Laterano.
According to Catholic tradition, the stairs were part of the praetorium
of Pilate in Jerusalem, which Jesus ascended during his Passion. Medieval
legends claim that The Holy Stairs were brought from Jerusalem to Rome
about 326 by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great.
Devout pilgrims are eager to ascend The Holy Stairs on their knees,
reciting prescribed prayers, because they are promised to receive indulgences
for themselves and their loved ones in purgatory. On September 2, 1817 Pope Pius
VII granted to pilgrims ascending the stairs in the prescribed manner, an
indulgence of nine years for every step. An indulgence is the remission or
limited release from the temporal punishment believers must suffer in this
life or in purgatory for venial (minor, forgivable) sins they have
One day I took to the The Holy Stairs an inquisitive American tourist,
who bombarded me with probative questions. When we entered the Holy
Stairs, the Passionist Father caring for the shrine, gave us a small card
with the picture of the Holy Stairs on the one side, and the instructions
on how to receive nine years of indulgence per step on the other side.
After reading about the nine years of indulgence per step, the American tourist
asked the Passionist Priest: "Please, Father, could you explain to me what
will happen if I ascend the Holy Stairs in the prescribed manner four
times, earning a total of 1008 years of indulgences, but I need only for 500
years of indulgence to transit from purgatory to paradise? What is God going to
do with the 508 extra years of indulgence that I worked for?" The
priest responded in a pastoral manner, saying: "My son, do not worry about
the extra indulgences, because God will automatically apply them to your
relatives in purgatory."
This experience illustrates how the fear of purgatory motivates pious Catholics
to undertake pilgrimages to "holy shrines," to perform disciplines
like ascending the Holy Stairs, fasting, alms giving, the recitation of
prayers for the dead, and even to pay for memorial masses, all in the hope of
shortening the temporal punishment in purgatory for themselves and/or their
The Experience of Luther
When Luther was sent to Rome in the Fall of 1510 to resolve some disciplinary
reforms of the Augustinian convents in Germany, he wished that his parents were
dead that he might help them out of purgatory, by celebrating the Mass at the
St. John Lateran basilicas across the street, and by ascending the famous
Holy Stairs. However, the results of that experience proved to be totally
ascended on bended knees the twenty-eight steps of the famous Scala Santa . . .
that he might secure the indulgence attached to this ascetic performance since
the days of Pope Leo IV in 850, but at every step the word of Scripture sounded
as a significant protest in his ear: 'The just shall live by faith' (Rom
Upon hearing these words, according to Luther's son, Paul, he realized the
inconsistency of what he was doing with the words he had just heard. So he got
up, turned around, an walked down the stairs.
Later toward the end of 1512, Luther revisited Romans 1:17, while preparing his
lectures on the book of Romans. He read again: "For in it the righteousness
of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, 'He who through
faith is righteous shall live'" (Rom 1:17). This text became for Luther
"a gate to Paradise," because it lifted away the oppressive burden of
having to prove himself worthy to God. An unspeakable joy flooded his heart.
With his newfound peace, Luther could no longer tolerate the crass abuses of the church, personified by the notorious salesman Johan Tetzel, a Dominican friar commissioned to sell indulgences to fund the construction of St. Peter in Rome. His sales pitch included the infamous ditty: "As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs."
Luther blasted this ditty expressly in several of his 95 Theses that were nailed
to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517:
"27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money
clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory. 28. It is
certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be
increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God
Luther's challenge of the Doctrine of Purgatory was the first shot across the
bow that marked the beginning of the Reformation. At that early stage, however,
Luther opposed primarily the abuses of this doctrine, not the doctrine per se.
Later, however, the doctrine of purgatory was openly rejected by Luther and
other Reformers "who taught that the souls are freed from sin by faith in
Christ alone without any works, and therefore, if saved, go straight to
Of all the Catholic teachings, the doctrine of purgatory offers the clearest
understanding of the Catholic system of salvation as a dispensation of
her church. To understand how the system works, we need to consider a cluster of
related beliefs such as the treasury of merits, prayers to and for the dead, and
indulgences for the dead.
Objectives of this Chapter
This chapter examines the popular belief in purgatory by considering several significant components of this doctrine. Our procedure is first to define the Catholic arguments for purgatory and then to present a biblical response to such arguments. This is the outline of the topics examined in this chapter.
Doctrine of Purgatory.
Glimpse of the Doctrine of Purgatory
Reasons for Rejecting Purgatory
CATHOLIC DOCTRINE OF PURGATORY
The Doctrine of Purgatory is a unique and essential belief of the Roman Catholic
Church. It is based on her teaching that salvation is a gradual process of
sanctification that starts with the sacrament of baptism when sanctifying grace
is initially infused in the new born baby, and continues throughout the present
life and in most cases after death in purgatory.
The process of sanctification makes the soul holy and inherently pleasing to God. The sanctification of the soul is achieved through prayer, fasting, almsgiving, pilgrimages to holy shrines, indulgences, and especially memorial masses. These good works make the soul increasingly attractive to God.
Simply stated, the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory consists of the following
1) Christ's atoning sacrifice delivers us only from the 'reatus culpae-guilt
of our sins' and the punishment of eternal death.
2) For all the sins committed after baptism, the believer must make satisfaction by penance and good works.
3) Before a soul can enter heaven, it must be purified from all sin and satisfy the demands of divine justice.
4) If the satisfaction and purification of the soul is not completed in this present life, it must be accomplished after death in purgatory.
5) The eucharist (Mass) is a propitiatory sacrifice that can secure the pardon of post-baptismal sins, in accordance to the decision of the officiating priest. Therefore if a memorial Mass is celebrated on behalf of a soul in purgatory, it reduces and alleviates her temporal punishment.
6) The pope and his representatives, the priests, have the power to forgive sins, that is, to exempt penitent sinners from the obligation to make satisfaction for their sins. Usually this is done by granting a partial or full (plenary) indulgence, which reduces or eliminates the temporal punishment in purgatory.
Our study will show that this Catholic teachings ignores that the
sanctification/purification of our lives is an experiential
process that occurs in this life, not after death in purgatory (cf. 1 Cor
3:10-13; 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 8:1-6). For believers the only experience after death,
as we have shown in chapter 3, is their glorification on resurrection morning at
Christ's coming. Shortly we shall see that in scripture sanctification is not a
process of paying for our sins that continues in purgatory, but a process
through which God by His grace delivers us from the presence and power
of sin in our present life.
The Goal of Purgatory
In Catholic theology the goal of purgatory is to achieve the complete cleansing
of every vestige of sin before the soul can come into the presence of God.
Thomas Aquinas explains this teaching with clarity. I will quote frequently from
him, because he is rightly regarded as the most influential Catholic theologian
who perfected the Catholic beliefs like no one had ever done before.
At the Pontifical Gregorian University where I spent five years, theology students were required to take courses on Aquinas' theology, known as "Thomistic Theology," because his Summa Teologica is still regarded as the most comprehensive rational definition and defence of Catholic doctrines. He is fondly called "The Angelic Doctor."
Aquinas clearly states: "The chief purpose of the punishment of Purgatory
is to cleanse us from the remains of sin; and consequently the pain of fire
only is ascribed to Purgatory because fire cleanses and consumes."5 What Aquinas is saying is that while in hell
the pain is inflicted by various types of tortures to punish the wicked
eternally, in purgatory the pain is caused only by fire, because fire
cleanses and consumes the remains of sin. By cleansing the remains of sin,
purgatory is seen as the logical extension of the process of salvation that
begins in this present life- a process that is administered by the Church.
The fire of purgatory is essentially the same as the fire of hell. The
difference is not in the nature of the fire but in its function. Quoting
Pope Gregory, Aquinas explains: "Even as in the same fire gold glistens and
straw smokes, so in the same fire the sinner burns [in hell] and the elect is
cleansed [in Purgatory]. Therefore the fire of Purgatory is the same as
the fire of hell . . . Purgatory is either close to, or the same place as
Aquinas illustrates the function of purgatory by comparing it to the payment of
a debt. "Whoever is another's debtor, is freed from his indebtedness by
paying the debt. And, since the obligation incurred by guilt is nothing else
than the debt of punishment, a person is freed from that obligation by
undergoing the punishment which he owed. Accordingly the punishment of
Purgatory cleanses from the debt of punishment."7
Catholic teachings differentiate between the expiatory punishments of this
present life and those suffered in purgatory. In his book The Doctrine of
Purgatory, Jesuit scholar John A. Hardon, S. J., explains the difference in
this way: "We should also distinguish between the expiatory punishments
that the poor souls in purgatory pay and the penalties of satisfaction which
souls in a state of grace pay before death. Whereas before death a soul can
cleanse itself by freely choosing to suffer for its sins, and can gain merit for
this suffering, a soul in purgatory can not so choose and gains no merit for the
suffering and no increase in glory. Rather, it is cleansed according to the
demands of Divine Justice."8
Can Physical Suffering per se Purify Sinners?
The notion that the souls in purgatory have no choice but to suffer passively
and patiently in the purifying fire until God is satisfied that they have been
purified sufficiently to earn admission to paradise, suggests that physical
suffering per se can purify sinners, even without being able to make moral
choices through the free exercise of the will. This teaching, as we shall see,
is clearly contradicted by the biblical view of salvation, which is achieved
through the suffering of Christ, not of sinners. Suffering per se can harden
sinners, like in the case of the impenitent thief crucified next to Christ.
Scripture teaches that Jesus "made purification of sins" (Hebrews 1:3)
on the cross. His blood can cleanse the vilest penitent sinner (Hebrews 9:14).
There is no temporal punishment remaining for which believers must atone in
purgatory for the vestiges of sin, because Jesus paid it all: "He Himself
is the propitiation for our sins" (1 John 2:2). This fundamental "Good
News" of the Gospel is denied by the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory.
The Roman Catholic Penitential System
The doctrine of purgatory is an integral element of the Roman Catholic
penitential system. According to that system, sin consists of culpa et paena,
that is, of guilt and punishment. Through His sacrifice, Christ bore our
guilt and released us from the eternal punishment of hell. But, the
sinner must bear the paena, that is, the temporal punishment of
sins and make satisfaction by penance and good works. This satisfaction must be
completed and the soul must be purified from all sin, before it can enter
Every sin debits temporal punishment to the sinner's account. Acts of penance,
suffering, and indulgences credit this account. Since sinners may not be able to
make full satisfaction for their sins in this life, the punishment of purgatory
in the afterlife is necessary to balance the ledger.
Thomas Aquinas explains the latter concept saying: "If one who loves
and believes in Christ, has failed to wash away his sins in this life, he is set
free [from his sins] after death by the fire of Purgatory. Therefore there
remains some kind of cleansing after this life. . . . One who after
contrition for his fault and after being absolved, dies before making due
satisfaction, is punished after this life in Purgatory. Wherefore those who deny
Purgatory speak against the justice of God."9
Pope Paul VI reiterated this teaching in his Apostolic Constitution on Indulgences, promulgated on January 1, 1967. The Pope stated: "That punishment of the vestiges of sin may remain to be expiated or cleansed . . . even after the remission of guilt, is clearly demonstrated by the doctrine of purgatory. In purgatory, in fact, the souls of those 'who died in the charity of God and truly repentant, but before satisfying with worthy fruits of penance for sins committed and for omissions,' are cleansed after death with purgatorial punishments"10
This teaching that sins forgiven under the authority and regulations of the Catholic Church, must still be atoned through punishment inflicted upon the penitent sinners in this life and, for most people, also after death in purgatory, derives from the Catholic doctrine of satisfaction, not from scripture. According to this doctrine, before a sin can be absolved (forgiven), reparation must be made by fasting, almsgiving, recitation of prayers, pilgrimages, indulgences, and other good works.
Denial of the Good News of the Gospel
The Catholic doctrine that forgiven sinners must still pay the punishment of
their sins, runs contrary to the Good News of the Gospel, that "if we
confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us
from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). This text clearly states that God
is faithful and just, both to forgive us and to cleanse us when we confess our
sins. The cleansing from sin is a divine provision of grace, not a
human achievement by suffering patiently in the flames of purgatory. The blood
of Christ cleanses us from all sins. Were not Paul's sins all forgiven at the
moment he believed? Did Jesus tell the penitent thief that he would eventually
be with Him in paradise, after paying the due punishment for his sins in
It is unfortunate that the Catholic doctrine of satisfaction denies the
all-sufficiency of Christ's sacrifice, by claiming that God, after
forgiving the guilt of sin through the sacrifice of His Son, still expects
forgiven sinners to pay for the temporal punishment of their sins. This
is called the temporal punishment to distinguish it from the
eternal punishment inflicted upon the unsaved in hell.
The whole issue boils down to this question: Is salvation a divine gift of grace
or it is a human achievement by works? Did Christ die only to bear only
our guilt and the eternal punishment of our guilt, but not its
temporal punishment? Does the Bible distinguish between the temporal
punishment we must bear and the eternal punishment that Christ has
borne for us? Can guilt be legally transferred upon an innocent person? In our
human system of justice, the guilt cannot be transferred to an innocent person,
but certain penalties, like the payment for a speed ticket, can be done by an
innocent party, such as a parent on behalf of a guilty child.
The Bible makes no artificial distinction between the guilt or the punishment of
our sins paid by Christ's sacrifice. It simply tells us that "God shows his
love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8).
"Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures" (1 Cor
15:3). "He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our
iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we
are healed. . . . and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
(Is 53:5-6).11 Texts like these clearly teach that Christ's atoning sacrifice
paid in full the punishment of our sins. The teaching that penitent sinners must
suffer themselves the temporal punishment of their sins, is a clear denial of
the all-sufficiency of Christ's atoning death. This fundamental biblical
truth will be expanded shortly.
The Duration of Purgatory
The punishment of purgatory is temporal, not eternal like that of hell, because
"the purifying fire will not continue after the General Judgment"12 In other words, according to Catholic teachings, the purging fire
of purgatory will last only until the General Judgment executed at Christ's
Return. After the final judgement, purgatory will be shut down and there
will be only heaven and hell.
This teaching is contradicted by the fate of penitent sinners who die or are
alive when Christ comes to shut down purgatory. Will these sinners be given a
special dispensation to enable them to enter paradise without first being
purified by the cleansing fire of purgatory? Does God have a double standard,
one for those who die long before the great judgement Day, and other for those
who die immediately before that Day? And what about believers who are alive at
the time of Christ's Coming? Will they be admitted to paradise without the
purgatorial cleansing of venial (minor) sins? Questions such as these
highlight the irrationality of the doctrine of purgatory.
Intensity of Purgatory
"The pains of Purgatory," writes Aquinas, "are more grievous than
all the pains of this world."14
The intensity and duration of the purgatorial pains are proportional to the
gravity of the sins committed in this life. This means that believers may have
to endure the expiatory and purifying fire of purgatory for a few hours or for
thousand of years, depending on their "sin load."
Aquinas explains this Catholic teaching, saying: "Some venial [minor] sins
cling more persistently that others, according as the affections are more
inclined to them, and more firmly fixed in them. And since that which clings
more persistently is more slowly cleansed, it follows that some are tormented in
Purgatory longer than others, for as much as their affections were steeped in
"Severity of punishment corresponds properly speaking to the amount of
guilt: whereas the length corresponds to the firmness with which sin has taken
root in its subject. Hence it may happen that one may be delayed longer who is
tormented less and vice versa."12
The suffering of the souls in purgatory can be alleviated or their duration shortened, by offering prayers, almsgiving, indulgences, and especially the sacrifice of the Mass. The reason is that purgatory is administered by the authority of the Pope and his representatives, the priests. They have the right to decide at their discretion whether to remit entirely or partially the penalty of sins to be expiated by the souls detained in purgatory. This teaching is based upon the dispersion of the "treasury of merits," which is a "hevenly bank" administered by the Catholic church. The bank contains the merits of Christ, Mary, and the saints. Shortly we shall see that this teaching grossly misrepresents the biblical view of salvation as a divine gift of grace, and not a dispensation of the church.
A HISTORICAL GLIMPSE OF THE DOCTRINE OF PURGATORY
A historical survey of the origin and development of the Doctrine of Purgatory would take us beyond the limited scope of this chapter. The most we can offer here is a glimpse of a few significant developments.
The Origin of Purgatory
The origin of purgatory runs parallel to the origin of the belief in the
immortality of the soul, because the two beliefs are closely connected, the
former dependant on the latter. It was the belief in the survival of the
soul that contributed to the development of the doctrine of purgatory, a place
where the souls of the dead are purified by fire before ascending to paradise.
If the Christian church at large had remained true to the biblical wholistic view of human nature, and had rejected the Greek dualistic view of the mortal body and immortal soul, it would have never developed the doctrine of purgatory or of hellfire. The reason is simple. If the soul, as shown in chapter 2, is the animating principle of the body that ceases to exists with the death of the body, then there is no survival of the soul in purgatory, hell, or paradise. These and a host of other unbiblical beliefs that have plagued Christian church throughout the centuries, would have never seen the light of day.
Adolph Harnack, a renown nineteenth century German historian, argues that
purgatory entered the Church via the Hellenistic dualistic philosophy and thus
represents an intrusion of "unbiblical" and "unrealistic ideas
into Christianity."15 I
fully concur with this view. In fact, we noted in chapter 2 that Plato's
dualistic view of human nature, found its way into the Christian church toward
the end of the second century. It was promoted first by Tertullian, and later on
by Origen, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. The same is true of some of the
premises of purgatory which entered the Christian church at about the same time,
though the formal definition of the doctrine of purgatory did not occur until
the twelve century.
Adopted by Hellenistic Jews
The notion of a purification of the soul by fire after death is part of the
Greek philosophy developed by Plato. "The idea of a purification by fire
after death became familiar to the Greek mind, and was taken up by Plato, and
wrought into his philosophy. He taught that no one could become perfectly happy
after death, until he had expiated his sins; and that if they were too great for
expiation, his suffering would have no end."16
The Greek belief in the purification of the soul after death was eventually adopted by Hellenistic Jews during the inter-testamental period. This can be inferred from 2 Maccabees 12:42-46, which speak of Judas Maccabeus (died 161 B. C.) sending two thousand silver drachmas to the Jerusalem Temple to pay for sin offerings on behalf of fallen soldiers. "He made atonement for the dead, so that they might be set free from their sins" (2 Mac12:46).
This is the primary text used by Catholic apologists to defend the view that
"the Jewish people believed in the existence of a state of purgation where
souls are cleansed before entering heaven."17
Shortly we shall see that this argument ignores four things. First, 2
Maccabees is an apocryphal book which does not belong to the inspired Old
Testament canon accepted by the Jews and most Christians.
Second, praying for the dead is condemned in another apocryphal book 2 (4)
Esdras 7:105, thus showing that even the apocrypha disagree on prayers for the
Third, a closer look at the text indicate that prayers and sacrifices were
offered for the dead, not to alleviate their suffering in purgatory, but to
plead for God's mercy on the Day of the Resurrection. The analysis of this text
will be done shortly.
Lastly, the Old Testament never speaks of the purification of souls after death
before entering paradise. The reason, as shown in chapter 2, is that the
fate of the soul is connected inextricably with the fate of the body-the latter
being the outward manifestation of the soul.
The Platonic teaching of the immortality and purification of the soul after
death, found its way into Hellenistic Judaism during the inter-testamental
period, as indicated by 2 Maccabees, written in the second century before
Christ. Some scholars maintain that Christians may have adopted the practice of
praying and giving offerings for the dead from Hellenistic Judaism.18 This is altogether possible, since we noted in
chapter 2 that Plato's teachings on the immortality of the soul, found it way
into the Christian Church through Hellenistic Jewish writers like Philo and
Purgatory in the Early Church
The Doctrine of Purgatory as known today was developed in the late Middle Ages,
but the premises of purgatory are already present in the early church,
especially by the practice of praying for the dead. In the catacombs there are
several examples of how the faithful offered prayers for their departed
relatives and friends.19
An ancient liturgy of the fourth century illustrates the custom of offering
prayers for the dead: "Let us pray for our brother who has fallen asleep in
Christ, that the God of the highest charity towards men, who has summoned the
soul of the deceased, may forgive him all his sin and, rendered well-disposed
and friendly towards him, may call him to the assembly of the living."20
Some writers before Augustine explicitly teach that souls still stained with sin
need to be purified after death before they can enter paradise. Cyprian (died
258) taught that penitents who die before being absolved by Sacrament of
Penance, must satisfy the remaining requirements after death before their
admission to paradise.21
Both Clement of Alexandria (about 150-215) and his disciple, Origen (about 185-254), developed not only the teaching of the immortality of the soul, but also the view of the purification of the soul after death,21 drawing from the notion of the purifying function of fire in the Bible. Origen taught that the souls of the elect immediately entered paradise, but those which are not yet purified, passed into a state of punishment, penal fire, conceived as a place of purification.22
Augustine (354-430) laid the foundation, not only for the doctrine of the
immortality of he soul, but also for that of purgatory. He defended the
existence of purgatory as a matter of faith, and taught that the deceased are
"benefited by the piety of their living friends, who offer the Sacrifice of
the Mediator [memorial Masses], or give alms to the Church on their
Toward the end of his book The City of God, Augustine discusses a concept that sounds like Purgatory. He wrote: "But temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, and by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But of those who suffer temporary punishments after death, all are not doomed to those everlasting pains which are to follow that judgment."25
Purgatory in the Middle Ages
After Augustine there are no significant new developments for several centuries
in the doctrine of purgatory. In fact, in his book The Birth of Purgatory,
Jacques Le Goff argues that purgatory was "born" in the late twelve
century, when purification after death was first said to be carried out in a
specific place called purgatorium, the Latin term for purgatory.26 This view has been rightly criticized as being too
restrictive, because, as we have seen, ancient documents indicate that long
before the twelfth century Christians were offering prayers and Masses for the
dead, believing that they could influence their destiny. The coining of the term
purgatorium represents simply the refining of existing beliefs.
After the twelve century, the Doctrine of Purgatory was amplified and
systematized by Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Lyons (1274), Florence (1439),
and especially the Council of Trent (1545-1563). They rationalized the state and
purpose of purgatory by arguing that its cleansing fire was needed to purify
Christians of venial (minor) sins and to pay the debt of temporal punishments
still owed for such sins.
The Council of Trent summarized and formalized the Doctrine of Purgatory,
largely as a response to its rejection by the Reformers. The Council placed an
anathema upon those who denied the need to pay the debt of temporal punishment
in purgatory. "If anyone says that, after receiving the grace of
justification the guilt of any repentant sinner is remitted and the debt of
eternal punishment is blotted out in such a way that no debt of temporal
punishment remains to be paid, either in this life or in purgatory, before the
gate to the kingdom of heaven can be opened: let him be anathema."27
Shortly before its closing sessions (1563), the Council of Trent issued a
special Decree on Purgatory, which summarized the previous definitions
and cautioned against some of the abuses that gave rise to the Protestant
opposition: "The Catholic Church, by the teaching of the Holy Spirit, in
accordance with Sacred Scripture and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, has
taught in the holy councils, and most recently in this ecumenical council, that
there is a purgatory, and that the souls detained there are helped by the
prayers of the faithful, and especially by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar
"Therefore, this holy council commands the bishops to be diligently on
guard that the true doctrine about purgatory, the doctrine handed down from the
holy Fathers and the sacred councils, be preached everywhere, and that
Christians be instructed in it, believe it, and adhere to it."28
The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that "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 sinŠ"29
This portrayal of a vengeful, punitive God, demanding the full satisfaction for
every sin ever committed, negates the biblical view of a loving God, willing to
sacrifice His Son to atone for all our sins.
This official definition of the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory by the
Council of Trent, was reaffirmed at the Second Vatican Council and is reiterated
in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church.29 Unfortunately, this doctrine represents a radical denial
the biblical view of salvation as a divine provision through Christ's atoning
sacrifice to liberate and purify sinners from the power and penalty of sin. The
notion of purgatory to purify the souls of penitent sinners through fire,
"the prayers of the faithful, and especially by the acceptable Sacrifice of
the Altar [Mass]," is foreign to Scripture. It represents a misguided
attempt to make salvation a human achievement, rather than a divine gift of
Obsession with the Suffering
The medieval obsession with the state of the souls in purgatory led to the
flourishing of incredible legends about the cruel sufferings endured by the
souls imprisoned in purgatory. These legends inspired the graphic imagination of
the greatest medieval literary fiction, Dante Alighieri's Purgatory, the
second book of his Divine Comedy.
Dante's Purgatory is a lofty island-mountain, the only land in the southern
Hemisphere, consisting of seven level terraces, each inhabited by a different
group of sinners, doing penance to expiate their sins committed on earth. For
example, the proud are forced to circle their terrace for aeons bent double in
humility; the slothful have to run around crying out examples of zeal and sloth;
while the lustful are purged by fire.
Mystics such as Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) also made the suffering of
purgatory a central theme of their visionary teachings, thus fixing the idea in
the Western mind. In her Treatise on Purgatory, Catherine wrote:
"When gold has been purified up to twenty-four carats, it can no longer be
consumed by any fire; not gold itself but only dross can be burnt away. Thus the
divine fire works in the soul: God holds the soul in the fire of Purgatory until
its every imperfection is burnt away and it is brought to perfection, as it were
to the purity of twenty-four carats, each soul however according to its own
The desire to assist the suffering souls in purgatory led to a thriving demand
for masses and indulgences in order to lessen the time and intensity of their
suffering. The merchandising of purgatory eventually became the major contention
in the great religious crisis known as the Reformation.
The Rejection of the Doctrine of Purgatory
During the Middle Ages, the Albigenses, Waldenses, and Hussites all denied the
existence of purgatory, mostly on the ground of their understanding of salvation
as a divine gift of grace. But the major rejection of the Catholic
Doctrine of Purgatory came at the time of the Reformation.
Martin Luther initially accepted the belief in Purgatory. In 1519 he said that
its existence was undeniable. But by 1530 he came to the conclusion that
Purgatory could not be proven to exist from biblical passages. Later that year
he rejected the concept of Purgatory entirely.
Since that time, every major Protestant denomination rejected the Catholic
notion of a state of purification in purgatory between death and the celestial
glory. John Calvin (1509-1564) set the theological groundwork for the rejection
of purgatory, by teaching that salvation is a divine gift of grace alone,
without the need of satisfaction for sins in purgatory. He wrote: "We
should exclaim with all our might, that purgatory is a pernicious fiction of
Satan, that it makes void the cross of Christ, that it intolerably insults the
Divine Mercy, and weakens and overturns our faith. For what is their purgatory,
but a satisfaction for sins paid after death by the souls of the deceased? Thus
the notion of satisfaction being overthrown, purgatory itself is immediately
subverted from its very foundation.
"It has been fully proved that the blood of Christ is the only
satisfaction, expiation, and purgation for the sins of the faithful. What, then,
is the necessary conclusion but that purgation is nothing but a horrible
blasphemy against Christ? I pass by the sacrilegious pretences with which it is
daily defended, the offences, which it produces in religion, and the other
innumerable evils, which we see to have come from such a source of
Calvin's rejection of purgatory was reaffirmed in numerous Reformed Confessions of Faith, like the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterian Church, which says: "Prayer is to be made for things lawful, and for all sorts of men living, or that shall live hereafter; but not for the dead, nor for those of whom it may be known that they have sinned the sin unto death."32
The Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican (Episcopal in the USA) Church
(1563), are equally clear. They place the existence of purgatory in the same
category with image worship and invocation of the saints: "The Romish
Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of
Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly
invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to
the Word of God."33
The study of the biblical view of salvation led Protestant Reformers to
reject the whole doctrine of purgatory and to dismantle all the practices
associated with it. The result was, not only a religious reformation but also a
social and economic revolution.
Recent Attempts to Quench the
Fire of Purgatory
In recent times attempts have been made to quench the fires of purgatory, by
defining it as a state of being immersed in Christ's love rather than being
imprisoned in a place of purifying fire. For example, Pope John Paul II used his
Wednesday general audience in late July and early August 1999, to discuss topics
related to life after death. Repeating his theme in the two previous talks on
heaven and hell, at the August 4 general audience the Pope said that
"Purgatory does not indicate a place, but a condition of life. Those who,
after death, live in this state of purification are already immersed in the love
of Christ, which lifts them out of the residue of imperfection."34 He then encouraged Christians to pray and do good works on
behalf of those in purgatory.
Commenting on this model shift from a place of suffering to a state of
purification, Marcus Gee wrote in Globe and Mail, "Having tried to
take the puffy clouds out of heaven and the fire and brimstone out of hell, the
Pope is now attempting to demystify God's waiting room purgatory."35
This is an important model shift from the idea of purgatory as a debtor's prison
where imprisoned souls are to pay off the temporal punishment of their sins,
until they reach "a process of purification," to a more humane
purgatory where souls are "immersed in the love of Christ." But the
pope is still eager to retain the idea that souls in purgatory need our
"prayers and good works" to help them through the process. This is not
surprising since the contributions priests receive for memorial masses to be
offered to help souls transit through purgatory, still remain a major source of
income of the Catholic Church.
Purgatory is Still a Major Source of Income for the
I learned about the income generated by Purgatory in a most practical way from a conversation with Father Masi, a classmate at the Gregorian University in Rome. He was serving as the parish priest of the Church of San Leone Magno (St. Leo the Great). One day he asked me for a ride because his car was being repaired. While driving him home, I asked him: "How many members do you have in your parish?" He replied: "About 16,000." I followed up with two other questions: "What is the average attendance to your Sunday Masses and how much offering do you receive?" He replied: "The attendance ranges between 150 to 200 members and the offering is only between 2000 to 3000 lire, that is, between 2 to 3 dollars each Sunday."
Surprised by such a low attendance and offering, I asked him the final question:
"How do you survive?" He replied: "Mostly from the donations we
receive at the time of baptisms, weddings, and funerals. On those occasions,
Catholic make generous donations to the church. The largest donations come in
the form of properties given to the church by dying members, eager to pay for
memorial masses to be celebrated on their behalf or on behalf of their loved
ones. On the basis of the size of the donations, a priest commit himself
to offer a certain number of masses to shorten the stay of the donors in
The Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory has not Changed
In spite of recent attempts of Pope John Paul II to mitigate the fire of hell and purgatory by interpreting them as a condition of the soul, rather than fiery places of punishment, the fact remains that the traditional view of purgatory as the place where souls undergo the final purification by fire before being admitted to paradise, still remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church.
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church, largely based on the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, clearly affirms: "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 Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the
elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church
formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of
Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts
of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire. As for certain lesser
faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying
Catholic Defence of Purgatory
The Catholic Church appeals both to Scripture and Tradition to defend their
dogma of Purgatory. Four major texts are cited in support of purgatory, namely,
2 Maccabees 12:42-46, Matthew 12:42-46, Matthew 12:32, and 1 Corinthians 3:15.
None of these texts, as shown below, teach the purification of souls in
The New Catholic Encyclopedia openly acknowledges that "the doctrine
of purgatory is not explicitly stated in the Bible."37 Neither is it taught implicitly in Scripture, since
the Roman Catholic use of Scripture to support purgatory violate the contextual
meaning of each passage. A brief examination of these passages follows at this
2 Maccabees 12:42-46
The classic text used to defend purgatory, is found in the Book of Maccabees (2
Macc 12:42-46). This text is used to prove the alleged Jewish belief in the
existence of a state of purgation where souls are cleansed before entering
heaven. The context of the text is the story of Judas Maccabeus (died 161
BC) who led out the Jewish rebellion against the Syrian rulers because they
attempted to force the Jews to adopt Greek beliefs and lifestyle. He
successfully defeated the Syrian army and renewed religious life by rededicating
the temple; the feast of Hanukkah celebrates this event.
In the process of gathering the bodies of the Jewish soldiers who had fallen in
battle, amulet of idols, which the Law forbade them to wear, were found under
their shirt. Judas and his men concluded that the soldiers had died
because they had committed this sin of disobedience. The text continues
describing what happened next: "So they all blessed the ways of the Lord,
the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden and fell to
supplication, begging that the sin that had been committed should be wholly
"And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, after
having seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those
who had fallen. He also took a collection, amounting to two thousand silver
drachmas, each man contributing, and sent it to Jerusalem, to provide a sin
offering, acting very finely and properly in taking account of the resurrection.
For if he had not expected that those who had fallen would rise again, it would
have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead; or if it was through
reward destined for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious
thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be set
free from their sin" (2 Mac 12:42-46).
Catholic writers argue that this text shows that the Jewish people in
pre-Christian times believed "in a state of purgation after death and in
the ability to help the faithful departed by prayers of intercession on their
A Response to the Catholic Use of 2 Maccabees 12:42-46
Our response to the Catholic use of this text to prove purgatory, can be stated
by the following five major points.
First, 2 Maccabees is not part of the inspired canon of the Old Testament, but
of what are known as the Apocrypha books. These books were not accepted by the
Palestinian Jewish community who treated as canonical (inspired) only the
current 27 Old Testament books . In 90 A. D. the Council of Jamnia
formally excluded the Apocrypha from the canonical Hebrew Scripture, declaring
that the Tanakah was complete, that is, the entire revelation of
God to His people concerning His promise.
Second, the teaching of this passage about giving money to pray and offer
sacrifices for the dead, is in itself sufficient to prove the lack of
Divine inspiration in this book of the Maccabees. No other book of Holy
Scripture contains this doctrine, which is negated by the biblical view of
divine forgiveness. In fact, ask yourself, Why would God ask living believers to
pay money to relieve people in Purgatory? What good is earthly money to
God? In fact, to whom will the money go? Obviously, it goes to Church officials'
coffers. This whole teaching of paying of money to relieve the suffering of
loved ones in Purgatory just smacks of an ecclesiastical money scheme, rather
than of a divine provision of forgiveness.
Third, the Apocrypha were not accepted by Jesus and the apostles, who never
quoted them in the New Testament. They were rejected also by important early
Church Fathers, like Jerome, the great biblical scholar who translated the
official Roman Catholic Latin Bible, called Vulgate. Jerome distinguished
between the libri canonici and libri ecclesiastici, the latter
referring to the books of the Apocrypha, a term that was not yet in current use.
They were formally added to the Roman Catholic Bible by the Council of
Trent only after the Reformation (1546 A. D.), in a futile attempt to support
purgatory and prayers for the dead which Luther attacked. Yet, even the Council
of Trent inconsistently rejected some apocryphal books, such as (2  Esdras
7:105 ), because it speaks against praying for the dead (see chap. 9).
Fourth, it is important to note that 2 Maccabees 12:42-46 contradicts the
Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory, because Judas prayed for the fallen soldiers on
"account of the resurrection. For if he had not expected that those who had
fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for
the dead." The point to note in this text, is that prayers and
sacrifices were to be offered for the dead, not to alleviate or shorten their
sufferings in purgatory, but to gain more blessings for them on resurrection
Fifth, the text is unbiblical by teaching that prayer and sacrifice for the dead
can atone for their sins. By sending money to offer sacrifices for fallen
soldiers, Judas Maccabeus was not following the Old Testament Scriptures. Among
the many precepts of the Law of Moses, there was no sacrifice intended for the
dead. The text as it stands clearly contradicts the Catholic Doctrine of
Purgatory, because it speaks of God's dealing with sinners at the resurrection,
not in purgatory.
12:32: Forgiveness of Sin After Death?
The second passage used by Catholics to support the concept of forgiveness of
sin after death, is Matthew 12:32 which reads: "Anyone who speaks a word
against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the
Holy Spirit, will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to
Catholic theologians interpret this text to mean there are sins which are not forgiven in this life that may be forgiven after death in purgatory. Luwig Ott, a foremost Catholic apologist, argues that this text "leaves open the possibility that sins are forgiven not only in this world but in the world to come."39 On a similar vein John Hardon, S. J., states: "Here Christ recognizes that there exists a state beyond this world in which the penalty due for sins, which were pardoned as to guilt in the world, is forgiven."40
The same interpretation is found in the new Catholic Catechism of the
Catholic Church: "As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that,
before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth [Christ]
says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned
neither in this age nor in the age to come. >From this sentence we understand
that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age
A Response to the Catholic Use of Mathew 12:32
The Catholic use of this passage to support their belief in
the forgiveness of sins after death, is a slender thread on which to hang a
weighty doctrine. Three major considerations discredit the Catholic
interpretation of this text.
First, as stated by Norman Geisler and Ralph Mackenzie, "the text is not speaking about forgiveness in the next life after suffering for sins, but the fact that there will be no forgiveness for this sin in 'the world to come' (Matt. 12:32 , emphasis added) How can the denial that this sin will not ever be forgiven, even after death, be the basis for speculating that sins will be forgiven in the next life?"42
Jesus simply wanted to emphasize the gravity of the sin against the Holy Spirit which would never be forgiven, as the parallel passage in the Gospel of Mark records: "But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; he is guilty of an eternal sin" (Mark 3:29; NIV).43 To say that something can never happen either in this world or in the world to come, is a familiar way of saying that it can never be forgiven under any circumstances.
Second, purgatory involves the forgiveness only of venial (minor) sins,
but the sin against the Holy Spirit is not venial, but mortal because it is
unforgiveable. How can a statement about the unforgiveable mortal sin in
the next life, support the Catholic teaching that non-mortal sins will be
Third, more significant still is the fact that Christ is not speaking about
punishment, which Catholics argue will occur in purgatory, but about the
unforgiveable nature of the sin against the Holy Spirit. Christ's statement can
hardly be used to support the belief in a purgatory, where the debt must be paid
to the last 'penny,' either by the pains of torment or by the payment of living
relatives, or a combination of the two.
Fourth, even if Christ's statement did imply punishment, it would be for the unsaved, not for those who are ultimately saved, as is the case with those who go to purgatory. A statement about the punishment of the unsaved, cannot be legitimately used to defend the belief in the purgatorial punishment of the saved.
In the light of the above considerations, the Catholic use of Matthew 12:32 to
support their doctrine of purgatory, shows the lack of real biblical support for
1 Corinthians 3:11-15: Sin and its Punishment or Service and
A third text Catholics use to defend their doctrine of Purgatory is 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, which reads: "For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus. Now if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay stubble: Every man's work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in 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 burn, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire."
Catholics believe that in this verse Paul "affirms the reality of
purgatory." John Hardon, S. J, writes: "In his first letter to
the Corinthians, Paul says that 'the fire will assay the quality of everyone's
work,' and 'if his work bums he will lose his reward, but himself will be saved,
yet so as through fire' (1 Cor 3:13, 15). These words clearly imply some penal
suffering. Since he connects it so closely with the divine judgment, it can
hardly be limited to suffering in this world, but seems to include the idea of
purification through suffering after death, namely in purgatory."44
Similarly, Ludwig Ott notes that "The Latin Fathers take the passage
to mean a transient purification punishment in the other world."45
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church interprets "the fire"
mentioned in this text as the cleansing and purifying that the soul suffers in
purgatory to make expiation for sin46
A Response to the Catholic Interpretation of 1 Corinthians 3:11-15
It must be admitted that 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 is a difficult text to interpret, but the Catholic interpretation of this text ignores the following three important points.
First, in this text Paul is speaking about the testing of works on the
Day of Judgment and not about the suffering of souls in purgatory.
The Apostle says that "the fire will test each one's work," that is,
the works of every Christian will be tested and everyone will be rewarded
accordingly. Unworthy works will be burned up and the individual will lose the
reward though he himself will be saved. Simply stated, the question here is not
about sin and its punishment, but about the reward for service
rendered by those who are already saved.
Second, "the text says nothing about believers suffering the temporal
consequences for their sins in purgatory. They are not burned in the fire; only
their works are burned. Believers see their works burn but they escape
If the fire was referring to the purgatorial cleansing of sin, rather than to
the testing of works, why should those who had built with gold, silver, precious
stones suffer along with those who had built with unworthy wood, hay and straw?
Third, the "fire" mentioned in the text does not purge our soul from
sins, but "discloses" and "test" our "work." Verse
13 says clearly, "the work of each will come to light, for the Day will
disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the
quality of each one's work."48
Contrary to Catholic teachings, there is nothing in this passage about
purging from sin. The focus is on the rewards believers will receive for their
What Paul seems to saying here is that the work of some believers will stand the
test of the final judgement while that of others will disappear. The emphasis is
on the importance of producing works acceptable to God. We can work for
God for the wrong reasons and selfish motives.
The meaning of the last verse 15 is problematic. The NIV reads: "He himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames" (1 Cor 3:15). This may be a proverbial expression meaning "saved by narrow escape," or as we would say today "escaped by the skin of his teeth." Paul seems to be driving home this point. Thank God that you have been saved, but what are you going to do with this opportunity? Will you squander it, or will you serve the Lord wholeheartedly?
The above analysis of a few texts commonly used to prove the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, has shown that such doctrine lacks biblical support. The notion of a purgatorial process after death to remove the vestiges of sin, is foreign to Scriptural teachings. The Bible never presents personal sufferings or works as the expiation or satisfaction of our sins. It is not the flames of purgatory that cleanses penitent sinners from their sins, but "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7).
In reading Ludwig Ott's Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, regarded as a standard Catholic authority on dogma, it is interesting to note how many times he admits that the doctrine of Purgatory "is not explicitly revealed in Scripture" or that "express scriptural proofs are lacking."48 These phrases point to the fact that purgatory has no basis in Scripture. Not only the doctrine lacks biblical support, but it also openly contradict the biblical view of salvation.
BIBLICAL REASONS FOR REJECTING PURGATORY
are several biblical reasons for rejecting the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.
For the sake of brevity and clarity, we mention six major reasons.
1) The Doctrine of Purgatory is not Taught in the Bible
The first and most obvious reason for rejecting the Catholic doctrine of purgatory, is the fact that it is not taught in the Bible. We noted earlier that even its advocates admit that "is not explicitly revealed in Scripture." Having adopted the doctrine on extra-biblical grounds, especially on the teachings of some church fathers, Catholic theologians have sought to find here and there a passage which can be explained in accordance to their teachings. But there is no Bible text which speaks of purgatory.
There is no evidence that purgatory ever formed a part of the instructions of Christ or his Apostles. The reason is simple. In the Bible our eternal destiny is decided during our lifetime. There is no purging of our sins in a fiery purgatory after death, because when we die, our body and soul rest in the tomb until Resurrection morning.
2) Purgatory Contradicts Clear
A second reason for rejecting the doctrine of purgatory is the fact that it
contradicts some of its clearest and most important biblical teachings. If there
is one truth clearly taught in the Bible, it is the certainty of salvation for
believers who confess and forsake their sins, accept Christ as their personal
Savior, trust in Him and obeying His commandments.
This fundamental biblical teaching is denied by the doctrine of purgatory, which is based on the assumption that Christ meritorious atoning sacrifice is not sufficient for our salvation. Sinners must also make satisfaction for their own sins during the present life and, in most cases, after death in purgatory. This teaching is foreign to the Bible, which reassures us that "we are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forth as an expiation by his blood to be received by faith. . . . For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of law" (Rom 3:24-25, 28; RSV).
"Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.
But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly,
his faith is counted for righteousness" (Rom 4:4-5; KJV). There is nothing
more incompatible with the nature of the Gospel than the idea that believers
must "satisfy divine justice" for their sins both during their
lifetime and after death in purgatory. Yet this unbiblical belief lies at the
very foundation of the doctrine of purgatory. If the Catholic Church would
accept the full satisfaction for our sins provided by Christ's atoning
sacrifice, their doctrine of purgatory would collapse immediately.
3) Purgatory Denies the All sufficiency of the Cross
A third biblical reason for rejecting the doctrine of purgatory is its denial of
the all-sufficiency of Christ's atoning death. Hebrews declares
emphatically that Christ's suffering on the cross accomplished our salvation
once for ever and for all. "For by one single offering he has perfected for
all time those who are sanctified" (Heb. 10:14; RSV). This verse
demonstrates the completed, sufficient nature of the work of Christ.
"To affirm that we must suffer for our own sins is the ultimate insult to
Christ's atoning sacrifice! There is a purgatory, but it is not after our
death; it was in Christ's death. For 'when he had accomplished
purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on
high' (Heb. 1:3; emphasis added). 'Purification' or purging from our 'sins' was
'accomplished' (past tense) on the cross. Thank God that this is the only
purgatory we will ever have to suffer for our sins."49
4) The Doctrine of Purgatory is Based upon the Greek Dualistic View of Human Nature
A fourth biblical reason for rejecting the doctrine of purgatory is its
derivation from the Greek dualistic view of human nature. This view, as shown in
chapter 2, found its way into the Christian Church by the end of the second
century. According to the dualistic view, the body is the temporary
physical flesh-and-blood "shell" that houses the soul. The soul is the
nonmaterial, immortal component that leaves the body at death and lives on
consciously forever in heaven or hell or in purgatory for the Catholics.
The belief in the survival of the soul contributed to the development of the doctrine of Purgatory, a place where the souls of the dead are purified by suffering the temporal punishment of their sins before ascending to Paradise.
Our study of the use of the "soul, body, and spirit" in both the Old
and New Testaments (chapter 2), has shown that the Bible is consistent in
teaching the indissoluble unity of the human nature, where the body, soul, and
spirit represent different aspects of the same person, and not different
substances or entities functioning independently. This wholistic view of human
nature removes the basis for the belief in the survival of the soul in
purgatory, or hell, or paradise.
It is most unfortunate that the acceptance of the pagan belief in the
immortality of the soul, has conditioned the interpretation of Scripture and
given rise to a host of heresies such as purgatory, eternal torment in
hell, prayer for the dead, intercession of the saints, treasury of merits,
indulgences, and an etherial view of paradise. These heresies have obscured the
biblical view of salvation as a divine gift of grace, by promoting instead
salvation as a dispensation of the church.
The Doctrine of Purgatory Depends upon the Treasury of Merits
Administered by the Catholic Church
A fifth reason for rejecting the Catholic doctrine of purgatory is its dependency upon the treasury of meritorious works administered by the Pope and its representatives, the priests. According to Catholic theology, the church administers a treasury of merits, which is a kind of heavenly bank, where are deposited the merits obtained by Christ on the Cross and earned by the saints who did more good deeds than it was necessary for their salvation. Rather than loosing the extra merits, God deposits them in a bank known as "the treasury of merits." These merits can be dispensed by the church in the form of indulgences, especially to souls suffering in purgatory.
The treasury of merits is based on the belief that Christians may be more than
perfect by doing more than the law requires for their salvation. They can even
render satisfaction to God's justice so meritorious as to be more than
sufficient for the pardon of his own sins. These superfluous merits are like
money deposited in the bank of heaven, from which the church can draw by
granting partial or plenary (full) indulgences, especially to the souls
suffering in purgatory.
The extra good works of the saints are called works of supererogation,
that is, works done over and above the call of duty. The thought is that some
saints had a surplus of merit (more than they needed to get to Heaven). Rather
than losing these merits, God stored them in the treasury of merits, which the
church can draw to grant indulgences on behalf of souls in purgatory. An
indulgence is the remission of a temporal punishment for a sin whose guilt God
has already forgiven.
Pope Clement VI was the first to declare in the Jubilee Bull (A. D. 1343) the doctrine of the "Treasury of the Church." According to Ludwig Ott, a foremost Catholic apologist, the Bull speaks of "the merits (= atonements) of Mary, the Mother of God, and of all the chosen, from the greatest to the least of the just, [who] contribute to the increase of the treasury from which the Church draws in order to secure remission of temporal punishment."50
The fundamental reason for rejecting the belief in a treasury of merits
administered by the Catholic Church to grant indulgences, is the very concept of
merits. In the Bible salvation is not merited; it is obtained by grace through
faith. Paul explicitly says: said explicitly, "For by grace you have been
saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not
from works, so no one may boast" (Eph. 2:8-9). Likewise, in Romans 4:5 the
Apostle declares: "when one does not work, yet believes in the one who
justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness." It is
"not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his
mercy, he saved us" (Titus 3:5 , emphasis added). In Scripture merits and
grace are mutually exclusive
"The whole idea that one can buy an indulgence, the very reason that
prompted Luther's reaction against the abuses in the Church, is repugnant. The
inspired words of St. Peter himself will suffice: ". . . you were
ransomed from your futile conduct . . . not with perishable things like silver
or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished
lamb” ( 2 Pet 1:18-19 , emphasis added).51
6) The Doctrine of Purgatory Contradicts Other Catholic Doctrines
A sixth and final reason for rejecting purgatory is its inconsistency with the Catholic teaching that purgatory will be shut down at the Second Coming. Since all believers are supposed to suffer for the temporal consequences of their sins in purgatory before they can enter paradise, what will happen to the millions of believers who die or are alive when Jesus Returns? Will they receive a special dispensation that will admit them to heaven without first paying for the temporal punishment of their sins in purgatory?
If purgatory is not necessary for those who die or are alive when Jesus comes,
why should it be necessary for those who lived long before Christ's Return? Does
God have a double standard of justice, sending some through the fiery
purification of purgatory, while exempting others from this fiery experience?
These senseless contradictions can be resolved simply by recognizing that
Christ's atoning sacrifice covers both the temporal as well as eternal
consequences of our sins. Thus, there is no need for purgatory to pay for the
temporal consequences of anyone's sins. Christ paid it all.
Of course, this does not mean that we are exempted in this present life from the temporal consequences of our sins. God does allow us to go through the crucible fire of pain and trials to chasten and purify our character (cf. 2 Cor. 4:17 ; Gal. 6:7 ; Heb. 12:4-11 ). But our present sufferings do not stem from the need to placate the sense of justice of a vindictive God who wants us to pay to the last penny the debt of our sins. Christ's atoning sacrifice on the cross completely satisfied God's justice on behalf of the sins of the entire human race ( Rom. 3:21-26 ; 5:18-19 ; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 2:2).
The doctrine of purgatory and its accompanying teachings about the treasury of merits, indulgences, and prayers for the death, highlights the fundamental difference between the Catholic and the biblical view of salvation. In Catholic theology salvation is dispensed by the church, especially through the sacramental system. The church has the authority to grant partial or plenary (full) remission of the temporal punishiment of sin by selling memorial masses and indulgences. These can alleviate, shorten, and even eliminate the time spent in the purging fires of purgatory.
By contrast, in biblical teaching salvation is a divine gift of grace, not a
human achievement. Jesus died to pay the penalty for all of our sins (Rom
5:8). "He was wounded for our transgressions,he wasbruised for our
iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his
stripes we are healed" (Is 53:5).
Jesus suffered for our sins so that we could be delivered from suffering the
penalty of our sins. To say that we must also suffer for our sins to meet the
demands of divine justice, is to say that Jesus' suffering was insufficient. To
say that we must atone for our sins through the purging fire of purgatory,
is to deny the sufficiency of Christ's atoning sacrifice (1 John 2:2). Simply
stated, the Catholic doctrine of purgatory is contrary to everything the Bible
says about salvation.
We agree with Catholics on the necessity for "purgatory" or
"cleansing" of our sins, before we can enter into the glorious
presence of the Lord. But we disagree on how this cleansing is achieved.
Catholicism insists that after baptism believers must expiate their sins by
penance in this world, and by the purging fire in purgatory. But Scripture
teaches that only the blood of Christ cleanses our lives from sin.
The Bible recognizes the value of suffering and trials allowed by God to perfect
our character. Our heavenly Father disciplines us, His children, with
appropriate trying experiences so that we learn to despise sin, and grow into
Christian maturity. But, the Bible never presents our personal suffering or
works as the expiation or satisfaction for sin.
The reassuring message of Scripture is: "You were washed, you were
sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the
Spirit of our God" (1 Cor 6:11). It is not the purgatory's flames that
cleanse the sinner from evil, but "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son
cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7).
In the New Earth the Redeemed will never be heard boasting about how they
succeeded to enter heaven through penances and indulgences. Instead, they
joyfully sing: "Unto him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His
own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be
glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen" (Rev 1:5,6). Jesus Christ, and
nothing else, is our purification, our purgatory.
If you sense the need to experience complete forgiveness and cleansing, the time
and place is now in this present life, not after death in the purifying fires of
purgatory. If you have failed to live according to God's moral principles, do
not despair. We serve a merciful and compassionate God who is eager to forgive
us and cleanse us of the sins we confess to Him: "If we confess our sins,
he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all
unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).
Do I believe in purgatory? My answer is "Yes, I believe in God's
purgatory. But my purgatory is the Jesus Christ who forgives and cleanses us
from all our sins."