Purgatory: Why some likely find it difficult

This post stems from a comment discussion I had on an American Evangelical blog about Purgatory. Since I thought my response turned out well I decided to edit and expand it for a stand-alone blog post.

Enjoy!

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The doctrine of Purgatory is tough for most Protestants[1] to accept. I imagine it is partly due to the conflicts of the 16th Century that created Protestantism in the first place. If Purgatory exists, then the Catholic doctrines of penance and indulgences start becoming more clear and reasonable (though of course not abuses of it that may have happened in the 16th Century).

Another reason why many reject Purgatory is that “it is not in the Bible” and therefore not part of Christianity. Well, this is too simplistic a way of looking at the issue. 1) The Bible never tells to find everything in the Bible. 2) Purgatory does have a biblical basis. 3) It depends on which books belong in the Bible. Following the earliest Christians, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, accept more books as Scripture than Protestants do. Since 2 Maccabees has a section about praying for the dead, Purgatory, or something between death and everlasting life, is fairly explicitly assumed.

Possibly the main reason Protestants reject Purgatory is because it is tied directly to the doctrine of salvation. Since Protestants in general have a skewed version of salvation, it makes sense that they reject Purgatory as contradictory to that view. (For an example of Luther’s skewed ideas of salvation, see this book review.)

A humourous example is the image below.  When one has an idea of salvation like that, Purgatory makes no sense.  Why would I need a final purgation if Jesus has already forgiven my sins?  “Jesus is my buddy.  We’re cool.  We have an understanding.”

Its cool Jesus died for my sins

So a proper and more  biblical understanding of salvation is necessary.  Once that is in place, Purgatory starts making a lot more sense.

But first, I’ll begin with some comments on the Scripture passages typically offered by Protestants to refute Purgatory. However, none of these passages preclude it.

Bible verses wrongly used to refute Purgatory

Hebrews 9:27 “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment…”

How does this exclude Purgatory? It does not say judgment comes “immediately” after death. It simply says judgment comes after death. There could still be a purgation in between, as is likely seen in 1 Cor. 3:13-15 where people will enter heaven as though through fire.

Luke 23:43 “And [Jesus] said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”

It’s a little more complicated than that, since we know Christ didn’t go directly to heaven after He died (I Peter 3:18-19). What is paradise here? There’s more going on here under the surface. Also, “today” should not be taken too literalistic-ally, as if time exists in the afterlife or Jesus is saying “In this 24-hour period….” Applying this passage to refuting Purgatory seems hasty. There is no obvious refutation here. (Besides, if you’re on a cross next to Jesus and Jesus says something like that to you, consider yourself the exception. As a Catholic I believe many people bypass Purgatory and go straight to heaven.)

Phil. 1:21-23 “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.”

This is probably the most overly—and wrongly—used passage to refute Purgatory. It just does not say what many try to force it to say.

Look closely at the passage. Paul simply says he would rather depart the body and be with Christ. That doesn’t mean there is no “middle” stage. When I interned in Washington D.C. I hated it and wanted to be away from D.C. and back home in New Mexico. That desire didn’t remove the travel and distance in between.

I hope that helps explain a little bit of my position on those particular verses.

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Salvation:

Biblically, salvation seems broken down into a three-fold process; past-, present-, and future-tense. It is also why the Catholic doctrine of salvation makes more sense to me than the Protestant one. We were saved, we are being saved, and we have the future hope to be saved.

Paul used the analogy of running a race. In a race there is 1) a starting line, 2) the race itself, and 3) the finish line. During the course of the race (#2 and the majority of our lives as Christians) we can drop out or do something that will disqualify us from finishing. Catholics call this mortal sin or losing one’s state of grace. If one dies in that state, the soul is in mortal peril. This middle state is where we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12); it’s the state of learning to act out our obedience to God’s moral law.

Obtaining state #1 does not guarantee obtaining state #3. State #1 just means we get started; there is an entire life to live and persevere in the faith. Salvation is a life-long journey, not a one-time event.

That’s why Paul, living in state #2, says things like the following:

Phil. 3:11-14 “…if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Paul does not consider himself as having guaranteed salvation yet and hopes to attain the resurrection of the dead “if possible.”)

Galatians 5:21 “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things [the sins he listed] shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (This is a warning to Christians to be vigilant and not lose their state of grace.)

1 Cor. 9:27 “I pommel my body to subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (Even Paul could lose his state of grace here on earth and be disqualified from entering heaven.)

The book of James seems to be talking mainly about state #2 and therefore can say in 2:24 that we are “justified by works and not by faith alone.” We are working out our salvation. We must live the life and run the race and persevere.

This is also why it was only at the end of his life (state #3) that Paul could say, “For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim. 4:7). Paul could not say his salvation was guaranteed while he was still running the race because he may be disqualified.

It seems many people equate the starting line with the finish line, and hence Purgatory makes little sense. But I do not believe this, nor do I believe it’s biblical.

Therefore, given a more biblical view of salvation, Purgatory makes more sense. We were saved (state #1) and made pure. But we now have an entire life to live and we still sin (and we all know we do). Since no sin can enter heaven (Rev. 21:27) there must be a final stage of purgation between death and new life. It may be instantaneous or it may be a long time (whatever “time” even means in the afterlife).

Regardless, the biblical logic almost demands Purgatory. We sin; sin cannot enter into heaven; therefore a purgation of remaining sin must exist—somewhere, somehow.

A final note:

Even before I converted to Catholicism, I was a devotee of C.S. Lewis. His belief in Purgatory is beautiful. In fact, he says we even ought to ask for it.

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break 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 cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’—‘Even so, sir.’ (Letters to Malcolm, chapter 20)

Even if God gave us the choice, I agree with Lewis that we ought to choose Purgatory first. Purgatory is the mudroom of heaven, where we are cleaned from our battlefield grime and made ready for the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. I do not want to attend my wedding in dirty clothes.

So thank God for Purgatory!

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[1] It’s nearly impossible to talk about “Protestants” in general because there are so many various flavors of them, thanks to sola scriptura.  So my comments about “Protestants” will be very generalized and not necessarily applied to everyone.

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33 thoughts on “Purgatory: Why some likely find it difficult

  1. I think you’d be interested in my take on Christ teaching Purgatory in the Sermon on the Mount:
    https://jessicahof.blog/2017/06/28/purgatory-a-lesson-taught-by-christ/

    Also, in regards to works of Mercy and Charity, a book written by Gary A. Anderson, professor at Norte Dame titled “Charity” articulates the position that even when taken out of the canon of scripture, one cannot eliminate the historical reality of books such as Maccabees and Ben Sirach from Judaism as taught in 2nd temple Judaism that would have been also engrained into early Christianity.

    • Hi Philip! Thanks for stopping by and sharing. Yes, very good thoughts. It’s tough for us moderns to get into the heads of 1st Century Jews and the early Christians. Things are made tougher by people who believe they can simply pick up the Bible and read it and learn what Christianity is; as if the Bible is our handbook for Christianity. (As a kid in Sunday school, I specifically remember a teacher calling it that.)

      During my conversion, one of the questions that occurred to me was, “Jesus started this Christian thing 2,000 years ago in the Middle East. Isn’t it too convenient that what I believe about Christianity fits nicely into my 21st century American ideals? Maybe I’m missing something.”

      • Indeed, I read a good book that just came out a few months ago on St. Paul written by the Anglican NT Wright. Wright makes a fantastic case that St. Paul didn’t have a “conversion” on the road to Damascus as we view “conversion.” Paul being a raised as an orthodox Jew who persecuted this new sect had to come to reason that Christ was the Jewish messiah that come to fulfill the old covenant. In this context, we need to view Christianity within its distinct Jewish lens, which, of course, brings to life the books of Maccabees and Ben Sirach within their historical context.

    • The need for God to establish scripture & the authority that God has given it as His mouthpiece is proven thru these discussions. These are the reasons the Roman Catholic Church is no longer recognized as the church of God because it countinues to want to speak outside of established scripture. The church is only meant to be followers of the head, Jesus, based on the perfect truth of Jesus given to us thru the established truth of scripture & the Holy Spirit that guides are direction of life. Purgatory flies in the face of the perfect work of Jesus on the cross for our sins ( past, present, & future ).
      I agree that most lives lived, as I see it, by those that claim Christianity do not reflect a life surrendered to these truths. All the more proves the lack of the truth of scripture in most lives today. The truth of God thru scripture brings conviction & a repentant surrender to Jesus as Lord. Once leadership is surrendered to Jesus, a life can truly be lead by Him. He leads us by a desire to know Him more fully & completely in this world, never being satisfied until we are fully in His presence in the next life ( Heaven ). None of these points I have shared are my own thoughts, but are truths found in scripture.

      • Speak in what way outside of scripture? As, the blog piece that I posted references Mt. 5, are you claiming that it’s outside of “established” scripture?

        My next question is who “established” this scripture? Christ himself didn’t ascend to heaven and say, “Make sure to read my book!l All of the early documentation of early Christians appear from Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, etc. People who knew the Apostles didn’t live by an “established” scripture, so this idea there was an “established” scripture that somehow was left flies in the face of the historic reality. In fact, in the letters of St. Paul, Paul uses a word that is translated in NIV as “teaching,” which in the same translation in the Gospels when the same word is used in reference to the Pharisees the word is rendered “Tradition.” Whereas, the RSV always renders the word “Tradition.” In accord to the deposit of faith. Furthermore, after what “establish” for approx. 1500 years of scripture, anything that was conflicted with anachronistic interpretations of reformation theology was eliminated from this Novus Sola Scriptura.

        Again, one can hold these views only in accord with faith alone but I would encourage anyone to actually look at the historical evidence of the Church Fathers, The Didache, and look at the original translations of “established” scripture to see what it says.

        • The authority of man was established by God thru miracles.
          Even Jesus’s authority in the world was shown to man thru the power of God’s hand.
          Jesus told the leadership of the church in His day ( no perfection in that ) to look @ the works that God the Father was doing to give testimony of Him.
          God used miracles to establish scripture we have today.
          God thru historical discoveries, fullfilled prophecy, & thru testimony (the fruit in the lives of those that live for Him) continues to give proof that the Holy Bible is the perfect truth given to us by which all things are weighed & measured. The church is comprised of people who are unified by the perfection of His word. Leadership within the church is granted by the people to those who know God’s word & express the truth of His word thru the life they live for God ( scripture calls this fruit )
          None of these ideas are my own. All that I have shared comes from the truth of scripture.

          • That’s the problem because they are your own ideas. If I’m to only hold to scripture alone, than according to the laws of non-contradiction, I cannot even listen to you now.

            So, instead of giving me your bias synthesis of scripture then saying it is scripture, point to be in scripture where it teaches Sola Scriptura—case closed.

            • All points given can be referenced in scripture.
              I hope I have not angered you. Not my objective in any way.
              Just enjoy discussing the truth of God.
              I appreciate all who make God there priority.
              We have to worship Him in spirit & in truth.

              • Why would I be angry? Silly comment. So, please, point to the book, chapter, and verse that the scripture tells us that Sola Scriptura is the only method to obtain Christian doctrine.

                • The only way we know anything of God is thru revelation.
                  The revealed truth of God to man.
                  The entirety of scripture is the revealed will of God to men proven by God’s hand thru miracles that could only be the work of God.

                  • Your equivocating and this comment doesn’t answer the question. Where does it teach in scripture that Sola Scriptura? Any Properly catechized Catholic and Orthodox would agree that “the entirety of scripture” is divine revelation. However, where they would disagree, as well as some Anglicans, is that revelation can be revealed through Apostolic teaching and succession, etc. So, you’re position is to falsify that claim, by asserting scripture alone. Okay, so where does scripture teach that scripture is the only place where we can know doctrine—book, chapter, and verse?

          • So you’ve self-refuted your position. Because it’s my personal interpretation of my conscience of the authority scripture alone by what authority do you dismiss my scriptural claim? If you point to other passages, you’ve claimed the authority are you the Word of God?

              • Well you’ve asserted that I can only know Christian doctrine through Scripture Alone. So, we have to prove first that scripture actually teaches it. In fact, it has to literally say it, or then it becomes an interpretation of text. Then, if needed, I can examine your question or it becomes a red herring based on your initial claim.

                  • SamBam, are you implying that doctrine not found in Scripture is not worthy of belief? If so it would then follow that the doctrine of “Scripture Alone” would not be worthy of belief… because Scripture doesn’t literally say Scripture alone.
                    -Ben

                    • Hi Ben.
                      That’s exactly what I’m saying.
                      The Bible gives us the truth.
                      The Question is “Does the Bible tell us to go outside of scripture?”

                    • SamBam,
                      So just to clarify, we’re both in agreement that Scripture contains no rule requiring that doctrines be stated specifically in Scripture, right? Therefore it would be accurate to call a doctrine of “Scripture Alone” a tradition of men. I prefer traditions that come from more than just men, like the tradition of a belief in purgatory, which Scripture helps support.

                      To answer your question, I would say yes, the Bible points to sources of authority outside of Scripture. But before we really dive into that, it might be good to figure out what books are considered part of the inspired canon of Scripture and how we know. You say “The Bible gives us the truth.” Who decided what writings are contained in the Bible and why? By what authority? Do you think the Bible came down from heaven on a rainbow? 🙂
                      Try not to take too much for granted. Question your presuppositions a little bit my friend. My position is basically that the same Church that Christ Himself founded and confirmed the 73 books of Scripture as inspired by God also passed down the tradition of purgatory which is supported by Scripture.

                      -Ben

                    • The authority of man was established by God thru miracles.
                      Even Jesus’s authority in the world was shown to man thru the power of God’s hand.
                      Jesus told the leadership of the church in His day ( no perfection in that ) to look @ the works that God the Father was doing to give testimony of Him.
                      God used miracles to establish scripture we have today.
                      God thru historical discoveries, fullfilled prophecy, & thru testimony (the fruit in the lives of those that live for Him) continues to give proof that the Holy Bible is the perfect truth given to us by which all things are weighed & measured. The church is comprised of people who are unified by the perfection of His word. Leadership within the church is granted by the people to those who know God’s word & express the truth of His word thru the life they live for God ( scripture calls this fruit )
                      None of these ideas are my own. All that I have shared comes from the truth of scripture.

    • Look below on this website.
      All I see is the worship of man & no worship of God.
      The world encourages me to read everything but the word of God.
      Even the Christian culture says to read books about the Bible rather than the Bible itself.
      I’ll stick to the commandments of God & not the traditions of men.

  2. We’re not talking about everything, only the truth of God.
    All things are theory until proven true.
    Theories are proven w/ evidence or testimony. The value of testimony is based on the one giving it.
    I hope we agree w/ the perfection of scripture thru evidence & testimony.
    These things outside of scripture are those that need proving. That would be your burden brother.

    • SamBam,

      If I’m understanding you correctly, your position is that the truth of God can only be certain if it comes from Scripture, right? But… if this standard you use is not specified in Scripture itself, then it fails it’s own test.

      If your position is not specified in Scripture, then your position comes from outside Scripture, and cannot be known as God’s truth. It’s your opinion. Theory.

      Unless you’ve got a chapter and verse to back you up, you have a position that refutes itself, right?

      -Ben

  3. Scripture is scripture because it’s proven truth.
    God thru creation established natural law. God set the bounds w/ which we live in. We are aware of natural law based on our experience of it. Proving a truth is based within natural law.
    It is one of the ways that creation cries out there is a God.

    • SamBam,

      I wholeheartedly acknowledge natural law. But I’d like for us to stay on topic. Are you claiming that God’s truth can only be known for sure through Scripture? If so, what’s your chapter/verse criteria establishing the rule?
      Or, if not, why not admit the possibility of purgatory, based on the Scriptural evidence and tradition passed down to us by the same authoritative Church through which God gave us the Bible?

      -Ben

        • SamBam,

          Perhaps I’m confused. I had gotten the impression from your earlier comments that you had a problem with the Catholic Church using sources other than Scripture alone to determine God’s truth.
          But considering your reliance upon natural law, which the Catholic Church gladly acknowledges along with Scripture and Sacred Tradition, perhaps we are not as different in our beliefs as it appeared initially.

          -Ben

  4. We started way back @ the beginning talking about purgatory & I asked you to show me how it is a proven truth, based on proven truth, & with God’s imprimatur, not the church’s to establish it.

    • SamBam,

      You seem to be changing your story. This whole conversation started because you needed to be shown purgatory in scripture because, in your words, “The church is only meant to be followers of the head, Jesus, based on the perfect truth of Jesus given to us thru the established truth of scripture & the Holy Spirit that guides are direction of life.” That was the whole back-and-forth between you and Philip; then you and Ben; both of whom asked you to show in scripture the doctrine that all doctrine must be found in scripture.

      For example, you asked, “Why believe it [purgatory] if it [the Bible] doesn’t literally say it?”

      Ben asked directly, “are you implying that doctrine not found in Scripture is not worthy of belief?” to which you responded “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

      But if the doctrine of purgatory must be proven from scripture, then the doctrine that “all-doctrine-must-be-proved-from-scripture” must also be proved from scripture. And that is the very thing you have yet to answer no matter how many different ways it is asked of you.

      It may be worth your time (and ours) if you took some time and thoughtfully formulated exactly what you are trying to say.

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