What about Purgatory?

Purgatory is a Roman Catholic doctrine, and many Protestants say things about purgatory that are out of line with what Catholics believe, so let me cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1030 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.

1031 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 fire. He who is truth 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 to come.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.

Notice that purgatory is (1) for saints only, and that means it is not about a “second chance” or a postmortem opportunity to hear and respond positively to the gospel, and (2) is a purgation of sins so that the Christian will be completely holy and pure and fit for the presence of God.

What do you think? Purgatory or not? Why do we need this doctrine? Does it threaten the gospel?

Is the doctrine justifiable for Christian theology? This depends on how you do theology. If you argue on the basis of the Bible, which Tony Thiselton does in Life after Death, there is no solid biblical ground. If you do theology by aligning with a church tradition, which is the case with the Roman Catholic tradition, then it is justifiable.

Thiselton sketches views well — from Aquinas to the Reformers to Moltmann — and he shows that Aquinas saw it as assisting the atoning work of Christ and supplementing the satisfaction which was not yet completed (129-130), while many Prots think this diminishes the sufficiency of the work of Christ (and I agree). 1 Cor 3:11-15 isn’t helpful here.

At work here are two factors: (1) that holiness is a gift, ready-made and complete, at the resurrection and (2) that eternity and time create issues for how purgatory is understood. [Thiselton has a lengthy, and interesting, discussion of eternity but he doesn’t make clear — almost like he forgot to tie it back — how his view of time and eternity,which is one of multi-dimensions, impacts one’s view of purgatory.

Here is a huge counter to typical thinking: “It is a profound mistake to equate holiness with good moral character, even if it includes this” (132). Thiselton works with O.R. Jones on seeing holiness as God and our encounter with God that is transformative. It becomes dispositional: we become people who want to behave in a way that fits with the divine presence.

So he argues that there is nothing prima facie wrong with thinking that at the resurrection the saints will be totally transformed so that we always freely choose to be holy and contemplate God. Thiselton’s view of heaven is a bit too ethereal and needs to be tied more to the new heavens and new earth.

The big thing for him here is that this occurs within God’s sense of time and of post-resurrection time and not our time, and this ties to purgatory, but it is unclear to me just how. Time, then, is comprehended in theology in four ways: as timelessness (Paul Helm), as everlastingness (Duns Scotus), as simultaneous possession of the illimitable life (Boethius) and, then, fourth, as multi-dimensional (David Wilkinson). God is both eternal and temporal, time is part of eternity, etc. God’s time transcends our time.

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  • Stuart B

    If I remember rightly Jerry L. Walls argues for Purgatory, not so much by appealing to tradition, but by affirming the importance of sanctification (philosophically and biblically). He would admit this is a logical inference from scripture rather than straight exegesis.
    I don’t necessarily agree, but I do think it is a doctrine that Evangelicals tend to deride without giving much consideration.

  • RJS

    I find the 1 Cor. 3 passage quite interesting and challenging. Purification through a fire that destroys what we’ve built if it is not truly of Christ is painful idea. I don’t really think purgatory is the right construct from it, although I could be wrong.

    But 1 Cor. 3 is something we should take quite seriously.

  • Susan N.

    I have run across the mention of purifying fire lately in several places in the Bible from Exodus to Hebrews. What I “infer” from it from my untrained (lack of credentialed biblical scholarship) position, is that fire is not a damning, punishing divine act, but maybe, just maybe, it is a process (metaphorical or literal, in this life or in preparation for the new) that we must go through?

    Purgatory…wilderness/desert places and spaces in our lives…who knows if this is to be taken literally, or only symbolic of our faith journey?

    I don’t think as a doctrine “purgatory” threatens [to undermine] the gospel. The RCC has in its history exploited the doctrine of purgatory, imho, in extracting payment from loved ones to cover the priest’s prayers for their dearly departed’s forgiveness and release from purgatory. That just seems wrong (corrupt) in itself. I reject that notion.

    Most of what we posit about what happens when we die can only be speculation, can’t it? The Bible is not entirely straightforward on the matter, is it? Then there are books that didn’t make it into the canon, such as Maccabees.

    If ever, *ever* there were a time and a reason to utter, “Just trust God,” I think this is an *appropriate* area of faith to say it. God is faithful, God is good, Christ confirms our hope that whatever it is like, we’re securely loved by God.

    I think that C.S. Lewis must have wrestled with “afterlife” issues, judging by content of ‘The Great Divorce.’ Who can say for sure, till we get there ourselves?

  • Jon H

    Doesn’t the 1 Cor 3 passage make more sense in the historical setting of the testing of God’s people in the first century/centuries. That which is built which cannot be burned will survive that test – compared perhaps in the following verses with the physical temple in Jerusalem that wouldn’t.

    I tend to see the idea process of sanctification through testing in this life, not post-mortem. Scot’s commentary on James, which I’m teaching through, makes this pretty clear. Resurrection will bring, a far greater sense of God in us, as the image of God fully restored.

  • Rick in IL

    I found it instructive that purgatory is viewed as a “purification” rather than a “place” to which one is sent for an unspecified period of time. 1 John 3:2-3 suggest that this purification occurs in an instant, in seeing Him (Christ) as He is. I have often commented on my love for the last stanza of “Away in a Manger” and the line “Fit us for heaven…” – we are unfit at present, no matter how far we have come in the process of sanctification. I understand the instant mentioned in 1 John 3:2-3 as the final completion of this prayer, the final “purging” from which purgatory derives its name.

  • Another backdoor to Purgatory for many modern evangelicals can be Lewis’ “Great Divorce”. Thought not a perfect picture of the Catholic conception of purgatory, it wonderfully illuminates its role as the purifying antechamber to heaven. (Lewis was a firm believer (and fan) of purgatory.)

    Contrary to most evangelical conceptions, purgatory is not some “alternate Hell”, nor a place where you get a “second chance”. Simply put, purgatory is a pit stop toward heaven. It cleanses us from all the remnants of sin so that we can survive in the utter purity of God’s presence.

  • T

    Good thoughts. One thing we should keep in mind is that we all embrace that God uses suffering to refine in this life. Further, the Cor. passage also indicts our typical “painless” view of the afterlife for the believer: “If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” The believer whose work does not survive will “suffer” loss, and he will be saved, not as one being saved *from* the flames, but *through* them. So this passage does argue in favor of the idea that the believer who has built (and presumably still has some attachment to) things apart from Christ will suffer.

    It seems to me that evangelicals in my circles have always taught or implied that the believer won’t suffer at all in the after-life, which seems tied to our very high view of justification, and comparatively lower view of sanctification. It’s worth saying again that the scriptures say that even Jesus “learned obedience” and was “perfected” by the things he suffered. This is important because I think we want to keep so high a view of justification that we can see no purpose of suffering for the one that is totally justified or declared holy, as if all suffering is about punishment. Yet, here is Jesus, not having a mere imputed holiness, but a holiness by his very nature, being perfected and learning obedience through suffering. So, even the most justified one can have benefit from suffering that has nothing to do with deserving it. Does this not touch the core of evangelical thinking here?

    In a nutshell, I think evangelicals have not been especially careful with the scriptures on this issue, and we, in our zeal to defend and elevate our justification and the heaven it makes available to us, have downplayed the significance of sanctifying suffering, in this life and the next.

    I don’t know that I buy the whole of “purgatory” teaching, but I have to say that the evangelical teaching I grew up with (for both judgment and the return of Christ) only gets less trustworthy the more I learn.

  • D. Foster

    I am not Catholic, and I see no indications of Purgatory in Scripture. Though I’ve recently come to believe in the possibility of something like Purgatory.

    When I recently became aware of my long-held assumption that believers are miraculously perfected into sinless creatures at the Resurrection, I realized that this seems to entail either one of two implications:

    1. If God can miraculously transform our sinful state into a sinless one at either death or the Resurrection, then he could so here in the present. And doesn’t that mean that God could and would save everyone? Doesn’t the the popular Evangelical view of “miraculously made clean after death” seem to imply that our salvation is ultimately up to God’s sovereignty? Something like extreme Calvinism?


    2. This view skews the ontology of our sinful nature by reducing Sin to a physical state from which we are released at death (Neo-Platonism). It challenges the biblical idea that sin is our very nature, and not something we merely “take off” at death (although I acknowledge Paul uses this language *metaphorically*) anymore than I “take off” a physical deformity.

    Our Sin is not like a virus that needs to be eradicated. We ARE a particular type of volitional creature that needs to transformed into something else. Our wrestling through sin toward redemption in Christ in the present is participatory on our part and God’s, not something that passively, automatically happens to us. I think the idea that sin just disappears at or after death implies something like Gnosticism in that it conceives of us having a fundamentally “good” nature that is merely *released* from the “bad” after death rather than conceiving of our whole nature being transformed. It makes more sense to me that Redemption–a process in which we are already participating in the present–will continue after death and reach its culmination at the Resurrection.



  • Fred

    We die partly unrepentant, and with hearts in need of cleansing. Polkinghorne believes, “In the brighter light of the new creation we shall begin to see ourselves as we really are and as we are seen by God, and we shall have to come to terms with that painful reality. This is how I understand the serious matter of the judgement to come… We shall come to see how often we have preferred darkness to light.” The consequences won’t be eternal punishment, but a purifying process, unfolding toward ultimate salvation.

    Food for thought. Excerpted from Quantum Leap.

  • I was struck recently by Hebrews 12:14, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” I think that obviously refers to a plan for life in this age. But the concept of “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” jumped out at me. Holiness isn’t optional for those who would enjoy the beatific vision. I take that holiness in this context is not simply a declared status but a settled character.

    On the basis of the prologue to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s “The Life of Moses,” I think there will be sanctification after death. St. Gregory speaks of a limitless growth into the infinite perfection which is the goodness of God. Maybe this should be label “progressive glorification” rather than sanctification, but it is still growth in virtue.

    So, I get to some idea of Purgatory since I fully expect my growth into the limitless goodness of God to begin with some remedial sanctification that was left undone through my own fault.

    However, the idea of Purgatory (or remedial sanctification after death) must not cause complacency.

    In the Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard writes, “I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it. But ‘standing it’ may prove to be a more difficult matter than those who take their view of heaven from popular movies or popular preaching may think. The fires in heaven may be hotter than those in the other place.” He continues, “There is a widespread notion that just passing through death transforms human character. Discipleship is not needed. Just believe enough to ‘make it.’ But I have never been able to find any basis in scriptural tradition or psychological reality to think this might be so. What if death only forever fixes us as the kind of person we are at death? What would one do in heaven with a debauched character or a hate-filled heart? Surely something must be done now.”

    Indeed, something must be done. Happy Lent!

  • Purgatory is real, but on this side of death.

  • Jon G

    The reason I’m not on board with the ‘Purgatory as means of sanctification’ route is because I view Christ, mainly, through the lens of ‘temple’. And to me, one of the essential characteristics of ‘temple’ is that what is inside is holy and the unholy (unclean, sinful, etc.) is kept outside. When the holy and unholy come together either the holy gets tarnished or the unholy gets consumed (destroyed).

    But now that we, by being “in Christ”, are joined to his holiness we don’t need purgatorial (if that’s a word!) sanctification. We are already able to enter into community with a holy God. We’ve been granted access to the Holy of Holies.

    Just my 2 cents…

  • Jon G

    To follow up my last comment because I just read T’s (#7)…I’m not saying I don’t believe in progressive sanctification or that we don’t need it, just that we don’t need it to enter into God’s presence. Being “in Christ” gives us that access.

    Sorry if I was unclear.

  • PaulE

    I don’t believe in Purgatory; however, 1030 and 1031 are maybe not too many steps from my theology. For the most part I think Christians suffer in this life in order to share in the glory of the Christ (Romans 8:17). The genuineness of our faith is proven by our perseverance through suffering (Job, 1 Peter 1:6-7, James 1:2-12), which is similar to how I understand glory. And certainly there are passages like Job 33:19-28 (maybe?), 1 Cor. 11:32, or Hebrews 12:4-13, where God’s purpose in suffering seems to be to deliverance, but even this is a little different from Purgatory, since in these cases the dangers of destruction seem real still. But it’s close.

    In 1032, though, I find I start to not have categories to relate. If Christians can, through their own actions, help the dead be sanctified, I’m not sure why Jesus’ own work didn’t just accomplish that. (One hitch to this is Col. 1:24, which I do find confusing.) If it’s about atonement – as the reference to Job’s making atonement for the sins of his children – this practice seems to be fulfilled, as is shown in Hebrews 9, with Christ’s sacrifice at the culmination of the age in order that there might be a once for all sacrifice.

  • Bill McReynolds

    Lesslie Newbigin re: “God’s sense of time”:

    “It seems to me that we have one important clue to the real meaning of eternity in the biblical idea of the Sabbath, God’s rest when all His works are done. Time is the form of God’s working and eternity the form of His rest. Both are equally real. Neither is merely our illusion.”

    “Insofar as we are in real communion with (God), we share in Him, with His anticipation, the Sabbath rest which remains for the people of God, and we share at the same time His suffering in the present age.”

    “The Household of God,” pages 136 and 137.

  • Dana Ames

    We are always in God’s presence: In him we live and move and have our being. I think this means everyone at every moment, not just those “in Christ”. So we don’t need purification simply to be in his presence. God is not far off.

    But we are not yet in the fullness of his presence, which is fire and light, by which all the truth about who I am is exposed – not for punishing, but to help me want to keep turning toward God as a volitional creature seeking to be one who loves like God loves. So, though I do not believe in Purgatory as a “place”, my understanding of Orthodox teaching is that the Fullness of the Presence will itself be the vehicle that will help me keep wanting to be united with God. That will partly be accomplished by me finally seeing the “total picture” of the reality of life not united with God, and that is and will be painful. Morality and doing moral actions isn’t the ultimate point.

    Interestingly, I found Brian McLaren’s description of “hell” in “The Last Word and the Word after That” to be the thing that led me to Orthodox theology on this…

    Also, from what I’ve read of the 4th century fathers, the consensus is that after we die, we don’t sin, because the corruptible body, through which we act out our fear of death in and by sinning, is no more. Yet, even after we receive our new bodies we will still remain volitional creatures. I’m with Gregory of Nyssa.

    We just don’t know a lot about postmortem life, and I think that’s for a reason.


  • Tom

    Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle” is also a great allegory about purgatory. But unlike ‘Great Divorce’ it is more about an individual, an artist named Niggle and his journey from life to death to purgatory to heaven.

  • Thank you, Scot, for this post. It addresses a longstanding conundrum of mine as I think about our will being brought into conformity with God’s will (i.e., to share in the Divine nature). My understanding of I John 3:1-3 tells me that when we face Jesus we will be in complete conformity with His will because only by sharing completely in the Divine nature can we see Christ without distortion. This passage also tells us that getting there requires the process of purification. So I’ve been very tempted to adopt the Catholic concept of Purgatory; although I agree with PaulE (14) that 1032 is questionable. Note that perfect conformity to God’s will (sharing in the Divine nature) doesn’t mean we have attained absolute beingness because only God is absolute being; to me, eternal life is growing asymptotically toward absolute being but, of course, never attaining it; our eternal life in the kingdom of God, which begins here and now, will always be dynamic and a learning process, but when we share perfectly in the Divine nature, the process will become unfettered by the Sin nature. Can you dig it?

  • As a recovering fundie evangelical, I might say “The Bible did not say it. I don’t believe it. That settles it. Period.” But as I wrote, I am recovering…