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The Blue Letter Bible

Don Stewart :: What Is Purgatory?

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Don Stewart
The biblical position is that all those who die will spend eternity in heaven or hell. Everyone is in a state of conscious existence after death. Death closes the period of probation that all of us have here on earth. What is done in this life will determine where we spend the next. After death, comes the judgment. The Bible says.

And just as it is appointed for humans to die once, and after that the judgment (Hebrews 9:27).

Although this is the biblical teaching, certain false views of the intermediate state have arisen. One of them is the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory.

Not Straight To Heaven

Roman Catholicism teaches that not every believer who dies goes immediately to heaven. Even if a person dies at peace with the church, if they are not perfect, they have to go through a time of purging. The only people who enter heaven immediately are some martyrs, and other highly favored individuals. Most people still need to be refined or purified before entering God's presence. Thus, they go to this place of purging called purgatory. All unbaptized adults, and those who have committed mortal sins after baptism, go immediately to hell.

Place Of Purging

Purgatory can be defined as a place, or state, where most of the souls of believers go after death. Although these people have been forgiven of their sins, they are still liable to experience some temporary punishment before their admittance to heaven. This is because nothing that is defiled can enter into God's presence. Because they must be properly freed from the blemish of some defects they had received after baptism, they have to work out their salvation in purgatory through suffering and a process of purification.

Background Of The Belief

Some early Christians taught that when the believer died they went to a place that was a little superior to earthly existence. In this place, they had to wait for the resurrection. While waiting they had to become prepared for heaven. This involved the purging of sin. Consequently many elaborate teachings arose that were connected with this place of waiting - purgatory.

The Need

The Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory supposes that some people die with smaller faults for which there was no true repentance. The temporal penalty of sin is, at times, not entirely paid for in this life. Since only perfect people may enter heaven, they need to be perfected of their sins. Roman Catholics have reached the conclusion that there must be a purgatory out of which people can be prayed, and released from these imperfections. Suffering for a shorter or longer time is based upon the degree of their guilt.

Nothing To Do With Salvation

The works done in purgatory have nothing to do with salvation. The process of purgatory is a negative one, a purification of those blemishes that remain after a person dies. Since death ends all opportunity for good works, the removal of defects can only occur by means of passive punishment, not good deeds on the part of that person. The sufferings in purgatory are both punitive and refining. They punish the believer for their sins as well as prepare them for heaven.

Venial And Mortal Sins

Roman Catholicism makes a distinction between venial and mortal sins. According to Roman Catholic theology, if a Catholic dies in the state of mortal sin, they forfeit their chance even for purgatory. Venial sins do not cause eternal damnation. Yet if a person dies with an unpaid debt for venial sins, then they must spend time in purgatory. There are, however, disagreements as to which sins are venial and which are mortal. There has been no list to separate the two.

Nature Of Punishment

In addition, there is no agreement as to the nature of punishment in purgatory. Some Roman Catholic writers teach that punishment is horrible, while others see no punishment whatsoever.

Can Shorten Time

There are a number of ways in which venial sins can be forgiven and the time in purgatory shortened.

1. Suffering by the person in purgatory

2. Gifts or services rendered by the church by the living

3. Prayers by priests

4. Masses provided by relatives

All of these are supposedly able to shorten the time and suffering in purgatory for that particular person.

End Of Purgatory

The suffering in purgatory is not endless. All suffering of believers will end at the last judgment.

Response To Purgatory

Purgatory does have an appeal to it. Human nature wants to feel like it has earned something. Therefore if we experience some type of suffering for our sins, this would make us feel better about going to heaven. This is in contrast to accepting God's free gift of salvation by grace. Although the idea of salvation by grace is a difficult concept for prideful humans to accept, it is the clear teaching of Scripture. We can do absolutely nothing to earn our way into heaven.

No Biblical Support

Although the Scripture speaks of fire as purification, it knows nothing of a purifying process between death and resurrection that the believer must encounter. The idea of a purgatory has no support from Scripture. Furthermore, it contradicts the clear teaching of the Bible.

1. Believers Happy And In God's Presence

When the Scripture is studied there are two essentials truths that contradict the idea of Purgatory - the righteous dead are immediately conscious in God's presence and they are joyful. These truths are plainly stated and should be decisive in any question as to the existence of such a place of suffering.

Believers In God's Presence

Scripture teaches that believers go immediately to the presence of the Lord upon death. Paul wrote.

For we know that if our earthly house, this tent is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed, we shall not be found naked. . . We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:1,2,8).

In another place he said.

For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better (Philippians 1:23).

Dead Immediately Happy

The Bible also speaks of the dead as being immediately happy. Lazarus was happy in the company of Abraham while the rich man was suffering in torment.

The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side (Luke 16:22,23)

Though the bodies of each were still in the grave, each of them had conscious existence after death. The existence was either one of conscious blessing or of torment. Lazarus, the believer, was comforted by Abraham. He was not on the outskirts of hell.

The Man On The Cross

Jesus told the man that died next to Him on the cross.

He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43).

How could the dead be immediately happy in paradise if they had to go through the fires of purgatory? The doctrine of purgatory offers no comfort to the believer who is facing death.

2. Church Has No Authority To Forgive

The church on earth does not have any authority to forgive sins, either by prayers, or the sacrifice of the Mass. Only God can forgive sin. The Lord said.

I, even, I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake; and I will not remember your sins (Isaiah 43:25).

The church may declare someone forgiven, if they have met the proper conditions that God sets down - repentance and faith. Jesus said.

And when He said this, He breathed out, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained' (John 20:22,23).

However, the church has no power, in and of themselves, to remove the consequences of sin, either in this world, or in the next. God is the only one who can forgive, and who has the power to judge. The doctrine of purgatory removes this from His hand.

3. Christ's Sacrifice Was Complete

Furthermore, the death of Christ on the cross was sufficient for our sins. Nothing else is needed. Jesus said.

I have brought You glory on earth by completing the work You gave Me to do (John 17:4).

When He died upon the cross Jesus acknowledged He finished His task.

When Jesus had received the wine, He said, "It is finished." Then He bowed His head and gave up His spirit (John 19:30).

One Sacrifice

The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross was sufficient to pay for our sins.

So Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation (Hebrews 9:28).

This is a past act, never again to be repeated. Purification of our sins has been paid in full. The Bible says.

And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:3).

Jesus paid it all, so we do not have to suffer. We cannot add to what he has done.

He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself (Hebrews 9:26).

It was a one-time event.

For by a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified (Hebrews 10:14).

4. Christ Cleanses Us From Sin

It is the blood of Christ that cleanses us from sin, not our own suffering.

But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. . . If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7,9)

Furthermore, if the doctrine of purgatory is true, then either the satisfaction offered by Christ was insufficient, or God the Father is exacting further punishment from believers even though the penalty for sin has already been paid. Both of these concepts are contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture.

5. Justified By Faith Alone

A man or woman is made right with God by faith alone. Good works do not enter into the process. Paul wrote.

Therefore we conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law (Romans 3:28).

It is a gift of God, not something we can earn.

For it is by grace you are saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8,9).

Paul declared that righteousness does not come from our own works.

He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).

6. No Condemnation

Because of what Christ had done on behalf of believers, there is no condemnation.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).

No condemnation means none. Not here or in some imaginary place like purgatory.


The Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory is as follows: after a believer dies there is a middle place where they go if they are not qualified to reach heaven. This is the case with most believers. Because they still have some sins that have not been paid for, they go to this place called purgatory where their sins are purged. Once the sins have been sufficiently purged, that person can enter heaven.

However there is absolutely no basis for such a belief as purgatory. This can be seen as follows.

1. Purgatory has no support whatsoever from Scripture. No such belief is taught or even hinted at.

2. There is no consensus of opinion as to the duration of the stay in purgatory, or the type of punishment one receives.

3. The idea of purgatory negates the promises of God that the believer can look forward to being in His joyous presence immediately upon death. Rather they have to look forward to a judgment by fire of undetermined length and character.

4. The idea of making a distinction between venial and mortal sins cannot be justified biblically.

5. The church, in and of itself, has no authority to forgive sin. Only God has the ability to forgive sin.

6. The Bible is clear that Christ has already purged our sins. This was a one time event that happened in the past. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary's cross was complete. There is nothing that we can add to it.

7. It is Christ who cleanses us from our sin, not our own suffering.

8. Being made right with God is something that happens by faith alone. Works do not enter into the picture.

9. There is no condemnation for those who have believed in Christ.

10. The final condition in the next life will be determined by this life. There is no middle place where souls wait.
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