A member of the EPS Facebook group recently shared a post by a Roman Catholic priest which sought to explain and defend his church’s teaching on Purgatory. The post and the request for comments prompted me to take a fresh look at the issue, and as I did so, I was reminded once again of the vast gulf that separates Biblical Protestantism from Roman Catholicism. The former is a religion of hope and certainty, the latter a religion of fear and uncertainty. The idea of Purgatory illustrates this very clearly.
For Roman Catholics, salvation is a journey along a road with no definite destination. It begins at baptism, which removes all previous guilt so that if a child dies immediately after baptism it would go straight to heaven. From baptism right throughout life, the journey involves a mixture of faith, infused grace through the sacraments and good works. At death, Rome teaches that we meet God and experience a “particular judgement” when God decides our final destiny. To pass this judgement, we must have died in a state of grace, in which case salvation is assured. Before entering heaven, however, we might need to make amends for wrongs still to be atoned for. Some might not need to go through this process, but most, including senior figures in the church, will.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) states, “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” (Paras 1030, 1031).
James McCarthy says, “Roman Catholic theologians are not in agreement as to the nature of suffering in purgatory. Some teach that the pain of purgatory is chiefly a sense of loss in being separated from God. Others, following Thomas Aquinas, teach that souls in purgatory suffer intense and excruciating physical pain from fire”.
Lengths of stay in Purgatory can vary greatly, ranging, it seems, from a short time to thousands of years. Roman Catholics who are still living can help by saying prayers, giving alms and doing good works. The Church holds that the most effective means of help is through the Mass. When such Masses take place, a gift of money could form part of the arrangement.
Another way of assisting is to acquire special credits called “indulgences” which help to cancel temporal punishment, thus accelerating departure from Purgatory. CCC para 1479 states, “Since the faithful departed now being purified are also members of the same communion of saints, one way we can help them is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted”. Readers will perhaps immediately think of the infamous medieval German peddler, John Tetzel, whose sale of indulgences was one of the sparks that lit the Reformation, His jingle was, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”
While the Church of Rome has built the concept of Purgatory largely based on tradition (note how the CCC states that the church has named it Purgatory) she seeks to give it some Biblical justification. Let us briefly examine this.
The passage most frequently quoted is 2 Maccabees 12:38-45, which is in the Apocrypha and thus rejected by Protestants as not part of the canon of Scripture at all. It reads, “So Judas gathered his host, and came into the city of Odollam, And when the seventh day came, they purified themselves, as the custom was, and kept the sabbath in the same place. And upon the day following, as the use had been, Judas and his company came to take up the bodies of them that were slain, and to bury them with their kinsmen in their fathers’ graves. Now under the coats of every one that was slain they found things consecrated to the idols of the Jamnites, which is forbidden the Jews by the law. Then every man saw that this was the cause wherefore they were slain. All men therefore praising the Lord, the righteous Judge, who had opened the things that were hid, betook themselves unto prayer, and besought him that the sin committed might wholly be put out of remembrance. Besides, that noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forsomuch as they saw before their eyes the things that came to pass for the sins of those that were slain. And when he had made a gathering throughout the company to the sum of two thousand drachmas of silver, he sent it to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering, doing therein very well and honestly, in that he was mindful of the resurrection: For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should have risen again, it had been superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. And also in that he perceived that there was great favour laid up for those that died godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin”.
Loraine Boettner says of this passage, “But these verses really do not teach the doctrine at all. Nowhere in this passage is there any mention of fire in which souls are tormented. All that is mentioned is prayers for the dead, from which the Roman Catholic theologians infer, first, that such prayers are proper, and secondly, that such prayers can be effective for the salvation of the dead. Furthermore, from the Roman Catholic viewpoint, these verses prove too much, for they teach the possible salvation of soldiers who had died in mortal sin, that of idolatry. And that contradicts Roman Catholic doctrine, which is that those dying in mortal sin go straight to hell and are permanently lost. They do not go to purgatory where they can be aided by the prayers of people still on earth. Surely one who had never heard of purgatory would not learn about it from this passage. The word purgatory is not found here. This, again, is a precarious passage on which to build such an important doctrine”.
So, while we can reject this passage, we must now examine the Scripture passages used by Rome to justify her teaching on Purgatory. Malachi 3:3 says, “And he shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness”. But this is set primarily in the context of the first coming of Christ and reminds us that Christ alone can take away our sin.
It is claimed that Jesus referred to Purgatory in Matthew 5:26, “Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing”. But this verse is part of the discourse where Jesus is exhorting his people to be at peace with each other and to avoid unnecessary and unseemly legal action. To seek to make it refer to Purgatory is to stretch its plain meaning to breaking point.
Another verse is Matthew 12:32, “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”. Rome focuses on the last phrase and thus argues that if there is one sin that cannot be forgiven in the ages to come, then perhaps there are sins which could be forgiven in the ages to come, in Purgatory. Albert Barnes says of this verse, “It cannot be inferred from this that any sins will be forgiven in hell. The Saviour meant simply to say that there were no possible circumstances in which the offender could obtain forgiveness. He certainly did not say that any sin unpardoned here would be pardoned hereafter”. Again, Rome turns plain meaning on its head.
Another key passage which Rome uses in an effort to prove Purgatory is 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 – “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”. However, Paul is not describing the sufferings of Purgatory, but the works of believers, including church leaders, who build on the foundation of Christ with either good works or bad works. This is a solemn warning to us. While in Christ our souls are safe for eternity, we will be judged based on how we have lived for Him. This is not to be confused in any way with some sort purgatorial scenario.
Norman Porter, former director of EPS, once told of a conversation that occurred during a visit to a Roman Catholic monastery. He says, “I asked the priest, ‘Sir, when you die, where do you hope to go?’ He replied, ‘I hope that when I die I shall go at least to the lowest place in purgatory’. That was his hope. I said, ‘Tell me, when the Pope dies where will he go?” He said, “He will be just as I am. He hopes that he will go to purgatory’. I said, ‘The so-called Vicar of Christ, the man who has claimed for himself the right to represent Christ in earth, is going to purgatory?’ He said, ‘Yes’. I then said, ‘Sir, when do you get out of purgatory? When will you be in heaven?’ He answered, ‘I don’t know’. So not even the Roman priests know when a soul escapes from this mysterious place. What a message for a perishing world!”
Not only is there no biblical support for the doctrine of Purgatory, its message of fear and uncertainty sits in sharp contrast with the Biblical message of justification by faith alone in Christ alone, which brings such peace and certainty. Christians have been declared righteous, not because of any works they have done, but purely on the imputed righteousness of Christ.
The Shorter Catechism sets out the Biblical position – “The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory, and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection” (SC37).
While Rome is unable to produce one convincing text to prove Purgatory, there are many texts which confirm the accuracy of the Shorter Catechism statement. For example, in Luke 23:43, Jesus said to the thief on the cross, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise”. In Philippians 1:23, Paul said, “For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” and in Romans 5:9, “Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him”. 1 John 1:7 says, “the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin”.
If we die in Christ, we will face no wrath. We can say with the hymnwriter,
Jehovah lifted up His rod,
O Christ, it fell on Thee!
Thou wast sore stricken of Thy God;
There’s not one stroke for me.
Oh! dear reader, Christ is the complete and only Saviour. Simply trust Him today and know with absolute certainty that, at death, you will be with Him forever.
What rejoicing in His presence,
When are banished grief and pain;
When the crooked ways are straightened,
And the dark things shall be plain.
Face to face! O blissful moment!
Face to face—to see and know;
Face to face with my Redeemer,
Jesus Christ who loves me so.