I chatted with a friend today who has a lot of Catholic influences in his life. He and I have had some great discourses about all kinds of topics, and the topic of purgatory came up today. In response to some of his questions and some of the passages he sent along that seem to indicate purgatory is a real place, I wanted to take some time to deal with the topic today.
What is Purgatory?
According to the Roman Catholic Church, purgatory is known as the "final purification of the elect". To quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it states that "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." (See more at the Vatican's site) Basically, it's a place where you get cleaned up before you finally are able to be with God for eternity.
Does it exist?
Many would simply say that if purgatory can't be in the Bible, then it must not be. Well, most of those people would not reject the trinity, which is also not directly referenced in Scripture. However, the trinity has much scriptural support (see CARM for details), and purgatory does not. So we can see that just because it isn't mentioned isn't enough to close the argument, we need to determine if the concept is taught in Scripture.
A fundamental problem
In Article 98 of The Roman Catechism, it states that ""...those who die in venial sin, and those who have not done sufficient penance for sin forgiven, are sent to Purgatory."
Why is this a fundamental problem? Anytime I see it suggested that someone might not have been "good enough" to achieve something, I always ask, "How good is good enough?" Indeed, the catechism would seem to state that if you hadn't achieved a good enough "ranking" when it comes to doing good things and staying away from bad things, you wind up in purgatory. How good is good enough? The words of Jesus simply haunt us here.
"Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)
Jesus said this after He had concluded His "you have heard it said" portion of the Sermon on the Mount. In that portion of His sermon, He laid everyone out with their sin bare and naked before God. If you have hated your brother, you have murdered, If you have lusted after a woman, you have committed adultery. If you think you are doing ok by loving your brother, you're not even remotely close to the standard until you have truly loved your enemy.
PERSONAL NOTE: If this is required of me, I am thoroughly without hope. I am so far from Heaven's Gates and my Father's House that eternities in purgatory could never save me. I have hated deeply and lusted more than I would ever hope anyone would know. This is my response to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. "Somebody, please save me!"
This is where the fundamental problem with purgatory comes in. The doctrine of purgatory responds to my plea in the following manner: "Save yourself!" Be better, work harder, do more penance, and then maybe, you won't have to spend so much time in another place doing more of the same.
What Does the Bible teach?
1st - Each and every person is someone who has sinned against God. In Romans 3, Paul sets up the case that we are all alike under sin, no matter how much sin we do in any given day or any given lifetime. If we are born from Adam, we are sinners.
For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
“Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.” “The venom of asps is under their lips.”
“Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.”
“Their feet are swift to shed blood; 16 in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.”
“There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
2nd - We cannot do anything to save ourselves. There is no law, no penance, no "hard work" that I can do to save myself. If that was the case, Paul never would have followed up the above passage with this:
"Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin."
"By works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight." There is nothing I can do to make myself presentable to God. Nothing!!
3rd - Jesus' death on the cross is the ONLY payment for my sin that will make me presentable to God and able to enter Heaven. In the words of Dr. Corduan, Jesus' death was not only necessary, it was also sufficient. How do we know this? Well, we know that it was necessary by our condemnation by Christ in the Sermon on the Mount and by Paul in his famous treatise on our sin in Romans. How do we know it was sufficient? Let's look at some passages.
Christ is sufficient - In Colossians 2, Paul's desire for the church at Laodicea is that they would "reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments." Wow. Quite a statement.
OK, but is His death on the cross all we need to be made perfect? Hebrews 10:14 - "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified." Yes.
In Colossians 2:13,14, Paul puts it bluntly and starkly. He calls us dead in our sins, and only made alive by God, and that our sins were nailed to the cross, and our debt was cancelled. "And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross."
God's answer to my plea, "Somebody save me!" is "Here is my son, He is sufficient."
Why would purgatory be necessary if Christ's death is sufficient? It wouldn't. Obviously, there are verses that are quoted to try and make the case for a purgatory, and we will deal with some of them here.
"Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life."
One needs to be careful taking single verses out of any passage, but Revelation is especially dangerous when it comes to quoting it out of context. It is talking about the last days, and this verse talks about only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life. John 3:15 and 16, John 6:47, and countless other passages tell us how it is we are able to achieve eternal life: by believing in Christ and His sacrifice for us. Matthew 22, the parable of the wedding feast, shows us what we must be clothed with, the righteousness of God. Our works cannot do this, see the examples above. This verse says that evildoers will not make it into the kingdom. Why? Because their name is not written in the Lamb's Book of Life. "Nothing impure" will ever enter Heaven. Agreed. That's the problem. How are we made pure? Jesus Christ. Again, see points above.
1 Peter 3:18-20 and 4:6
"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water."
"For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does."
I'll let Geisler deal with this, since he does such a great job.
The Bible is clear that there is no second chance after death (cf. Heb. 9:27). The Book of Revelation records the Great White Throne Judgment in which those who are not found in the book of life are sent to the lake of fire (Rev. 20:11–15). Luke informs us that, once a person dies, he goes either to heaven (Abraham’s bosom) or to hell and that there is a great gulf fixed “so that those who want to pass” from one to the other cannot (Luke 16:26). The whole urgency of responding to God in this life before we die gives further support to the fact that there is no hope beyond the grave (cf. John 3:36; 5:24).
There are other ways to understand this passage, without involving a second-chance at salvation after death. Some claim that it is not clear that the phrase “spirits in prison” even refers to human beings, arguing that nowhere else is such a phrase used of human beings in hell. They claim these spirits are fallen angels, since the “Sons of God” (fallen angels, see Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7) were “disobedient … in the days of Noah” (1 Peter 3:20; cf. Gen. 6:1–4). Peter may be referring to this in 2 Peter 2:4, where he mentions the angels sinning immediately before he refers to the Flood (v. 5). In response, it is argued that angels cannot marry (Matt. 22:30), and they certainly could not intermarry with human beings, since angels, being spirits, have no reproductive organs.
Another interpretation is that this refers to Christ’s announcement to departed spirits of the triumph of His resurrection, declaring to them the victory He had achieved by His death and resurrection, as pointed out in the previous verse (see 1 Peter 3:18). Some suggest that Jesus offered no hope of salvation to these “spirits in prison.” They point to the fact that the text does not say Christ evangelized them, but simply that He proclaimed the victory of His resurrection to them. They insist that there is nothing stated in this passage about preaching the Gospel to people in hell. In response to this view, others note that in the very next chapter Peter, apparently extending this subject, does say “the Gospel was preached also to those who are dead” (see comments on 1 Peter 4:6). This view fits the context here, is in accord with the teaching of other verses (cf. Eph. 4:8; Col. 2:15), and avoids the major problems of the other view.
In response it should be noted, first, that there is no hope held out anywhere in Scripture for salvation after death. Death is final, and there are only two destinies—heaven and hell, between which there is a great gulf that no one can pass over (see comments on 1 Peter 3:19). So, whatever preaching to the “dead” may mean, it does not imply that one can be saved after he dies.
Second, this is an unclear passage, subject to many interpretations, and no doctrine should be based on an ambiguous passage like this. The difficult texts should be interpreted in the light of the clear ones and not the reverse.
Third, there are other possible interpretations of this passage that do not conflict with the teaching of the rest of Scripture. (1) For example, it is possible that it refers to those who are now dead who heard the Gospel while they were alive. In favor of this is cited the fact that the Gospel “was preached” (in the past) to those who “are dead” (now, in the present). (2) Or, some believe this might not be a reference to human beings, but to the “spirits in prison” (angels) of 1 Peter 3:19 (cf. 2 Peter 2:4 and Gen. 6:2). (3) Still others claim that, although the dead suffer the destruction of their flesh (1 Peter 4:6), yet they still live with God by virtue of what Christ did through the Gospel (namely, His death and resurrection). This victorious message was announced by Christ Himself to the spirit world after His resurrection (cf. 1 Peter 3:18). Norm Geisler, When Critics Ask
Often, the apocryphal books are also called upon to make the case for purgatory. Some basic problems exist with the apocryphal books:
- No author of an apocryphal book ever claimed to be a prophet.
- No author of an apocryphal book was confirmed by any miraculous works of God.
- No author of an apocryphal book is ever quoted by any of the prophets in Scripture.
- Even the Jews acknowledged that the prophetic gifts had ceased by the time the earliest was written (400 BC). If the Jews didn't accept them, why would we?
See CARM for more details...
In summary, we have a massive problem with sin. Purgatory just isn't enough to deal with it. Only Christ can pay my sin-debt. Support for purgatory in Scripture is virtually non-existent, and the passages that are called upon are not even nearly enough to develop any substantial doctrine from whatsoever.