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.
The doctrine of Purgatory is tough for most Protestants 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.”
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.
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!
 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.