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The Biblical Reality of Purgatory

The Catholic Church teaches that "purgatory" is the final purification of our souls as we enter heaven. It is the process of applying the saving merits of Jesus' death and resurrection to the soul of a Christian who has died with non-deadly sins (see 1 John 5:16-17 and 1 Cor 6:9-10) on his soul. After this process of spiritual cleansing (or "sanctification" or "purging"), the Christian's soul is prepared for total union with our all-holy God in heaven.

It does not occur in any special region in the afterlife. Just as we do not know how time works in the afterlife (meaning that purgatory may take no time) we also do not know how space works in the afterlife, especially for unembodied souls (meaning purgatory may not take place in any special location). This final purification may even take place in the immediate presence of God (to the extent that God's presence may be described in spatial terms).

Consider these Scriptural passages that point to the reality of and the need for a "purgatory":

  • For a soul to enter heaven, the New Testament teaches that it must be totally spiritually cleansed and holy (both internally and externally):
    • "...nothing unclean will enter [heaven]..." (Rev 21:27)
    • "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God" (Matt 5:8)
    • "Strive ... for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb 12:14)
    • "...be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48)
  • The Bible teaches about two different kinds of sin. In 1 John 5:16-17 we read:

    "If anyone sees his brother sinning, if the sin is not deadly, he should pray to God and he will give him life. This is only for those whose sin is not deadly. There is such a thing as deadly sin, about which I do not say that you should pray. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly."

  • So it is plain that there are two distinct types of sin: deadly (the Catholic Church calls "mortal") and not deadly (the Catholic Church calls "venial"). A deadly (mortal) sin does just what its name says. If not repented from, it "kills" a person's chances of entering into heaven because the sinner has freely chosen (by his own actions) to turn his back on God. A non-deadly (venial) sin does not "kill" a person's chances of salvation. It still represents a rejection of God's Will to a lesser degree.
  • In Matthew, Jesus speaks about the deadly (mortal) sin of sinning against the Holy Spirit: "And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or the age to come" (Matt 12:32). Why would Jesus even bother to mention the possibility of forgiveness in the age to come if it were not possible for some less serious non-deadly (venial) sin? It appears that a Christian's conversion to Jesus does not cease at the death of his body.
  • Paul says to the Corinthians: "For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in his body, whether good or evil" (2 Cor 5:10). What about a sincere God-oriented Christian who died but was not yet at the point of forgiving someone. According to Rev 21:27 and Heb 12:14 that person would not yet be ready to enter immediately into heaven. Would he then go to hell? The Catholic Church and the early Christians would say "No" but recognizes that this person would not yet be spiritually ready to enter heaven.
  • After a person dies, his soul goes to one of three places:
  1. heaven (if it is completely sinless and totally God-oriented)
  2. hell (if it is full of serious mortal sin and totally self-oriented)
  3. temporary place of cleansing (purgatory) if the soul is basically God-oriented but still has some traces of venial sinfulness still left on the soul. The soul can benefit from the prayers of the living on earth (2 Macc 12:38-46).
  • St. Paul tells the Christians at Corinth:

"According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on [the foundation of Christ] with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one's work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire" (1 Cor 3:10-15).

  • Patrick Madrid writes about 1 Cor 3:10-15:

"This passage, more than any other in Scripture with the exception of 2 Maccabees 12, shows clearly the essential elements of the doctrine of purgatory. Notice several key aspects of St. Paul's teaching here.

First, this process of disclosure takes place after death, at the moment the man stands before God and is judged for his life's contents -- 'It is appointed unto a man once to die, and then the judgement' (Heb 9:27).

Second, this judgement involves a purification that purges away all the dross that clings to his soul, what St. Paul describes as 'wood, hay, and straw.' These materials are burned away in this judgement. Conversely, that man's good works -- 'gold, silver, and precious stones' -- are refined and retained.

Third, this process of purification hurts; it involves suffering: 'If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss.' This means that this process described here is temporary, since the man in question is destined for heaven: 'He himself will be saved, but only as passing through fire.' This also indicates that this process of purification, 'as through fire,' takes place before that man enters heaven.

All this points to the fact that God, in His mercy, has prepared a way for those who die in the state of grace (see Rom 11:22) and friendship with Him to have the imperfections and temporal punishments due to sin purged away by the fire of His love before they enter into heavenly glory."

  • In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks about the necessary purification required of His followers: "Everyone will be salted with fire" (Mark 9:49). In the Psalms, we read "O Lord, our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God, though you punished their offenses" (Psalm 99:8). This passage is consistent with the doctrine of purgatory, because Jesus promises salvation to the faithful but requires them to let go of their personal unholiness before they see Him face-to-face.

  • There are two judgements: Our individual judgement, which occurs at the moment of each person's death (Heb 9:27) and the General Judgement, when Jesus comes again in glory at the end of the world and judges all people (Matt 25:31-46). Between these events, there is a period of time in which souls have the opportunity to be purified of their sinfulness so they can enter into heaven totally cleansed (Rev 21:27).

  • Every soul that enters purgatory will get to heaven one day. After the last soul goes from purgatory to heaven, it will no longer exist because there will be no purpose for it. Only heaven and hell will exist for eternity (Matt 26:46).

All sin is totally forgiven and removed through the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Purgatory is simply the way this salvation actually "happens" to individual people If a person dies with sin, this sin must be removed, forgiven, and purged before the person sees God face-to-face. Why? Because of God's holiness. He is the opposite of sin. Thus, no sin can enter heaven (Rev 21:27).

Purgatory has nothing to do with salvation. It is a temporary phase of purification that only the saved can go through. Purgatory deals with the temporal effects due to sin, not the eternal penalties merited by sin. Only Jesus (through his death and resurrection) is capable of forgiving the eternal penalty due to sin.

However, just because a sin is forgiven does not mean that it has no effects. Christ's death on the cross did not eliminate the temporal ("time") effects of sin. For example, there were two central consequences of the Original Sin (Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-19): sickness and death. When Christ died on the cross, He redeemed us from the eternal penalty of that sin (as well as our personal sins), but He did not eliminate the temporal effects of that sin: sickness and death. The temporal effects of sin extend beyond sickness and death (1 Cor 11:27-32 tells us that certain sins have lethal side effects). They include spiritual impurities and weaknesses that cling to the soul.

Many Protestants believe in the doctrine of purgatory. One who was very explicit about it was C.S. Lewis. In his Letters to Malcom, he wrote:

"I believe in Purgatory. . . . Our souls demand Purgatory, don't they? Would it not beak the heart if God said to us, 'It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy'? Should we not reply, "With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I'd rather be cleansed first.' "It may hurt, you know'--"Even so, sir.'"

"I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don't think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much."

James Akin sums it up very well:

"Purgatory is the name that Catholics give to the final purification which occurs at the end of life. Because we still sin in this life, but will not be sinning when we are in glory, between death and glorification must come purification. This is something even Protestants admit. Purgatory is thus the final rush of our sanctification. It is our transition into glory. All through the Christian life God is purifying our hearts, giving us greater holiness, but this sanctifying process is not complete (or anything like complete) until the end of life. Thus what God did not choose to give us in this life, he chooses to give us once we are dead.

"The only additional points on which the Catholic Church insists concerning the final purification are that, like sanctification in this life, it can involve pain or discomfort, and that, as when someone is being sanctified in this life, we can pray for someone being sanctified in purgatory. The Church does not teach that purgatory occurs in a special region of the afterlife or even that it takes place over time, for we have little idea how time works in the afterlife, and purgatory may be instantaneous from our point of view."


Purgatory: A Brief Explanation - a straight-forward explanation of purgatory

Purgatory: ". . . Saved, But Only As Through Fire" - a lengthy explanation