Questions about Purgatory

Dear Reader,

This is starting to become a series on the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church. One just seems to lead to another. So far I have talked about: the papacy, sacred tradition, the magisterium, and indulgences. As I mentioned in the most recent of these, the idea of indulgences is intimately bound up with the doctrine of purgatory.

What is Purgatory?

Let’s begin by looking at what Purgatory is. The name comes from the verb “to purge.” Purgatory is a where, after death, saved people are purged of their sins and made holy and therefore able to enter God’s Presence.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about Purgatory:

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.

(The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030-1032)

I think the key points to note here are that Purgatory is for God’s people; it is not Hell. It is, to Catholic thinking, necessary for most people (but not all!) because sinful people cannot enter the Presence of the Holy God. Therefore after death, even believers must undergo a further purifying before entering God’s Presence for eternity.

Here again we touch on an idea I discussed in that earlier post on indulgences — that there are different effects of sin. In Catholicism, sin has eternal and temporal effects. It is the temporal effects which cling to the person, keep him from being perfect, and need to be removed before one can enter Heaven. While I find these “temporal punishments” ill-defined to the extent that I am not sure that Catholics even know what they mean by the term (again, see that previous post; I don’t want to rehash it all here), I think we Protestants can at least agree with our Catholic friends on two points: none of us are perfect so long as we live on this earth and imperfect people cannot stand before a perfect God. Where we differ is in how (and where and when) this last purification happens.

Scriptural Support for Purgatory

The main verse upon which the concept of Purgatory rests in found in the Apocrypha, those books which are in the Catholic Old Testament but not the Protestant one. As such one is already at somewhat of a disadvantage when it comes to convincing Protestants that Purgatory exists.

2 Maccabees 12:39-46

39 On the next day, as had now become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kindred in the sepulchres of their ancestors. 40 Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen. 41 So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; 42 and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. 43 He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. 44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.” [2 Maccabees 12:39-45; New Revised Standard Catholic Version (NRSCV)]

This passage from the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees is the primary scriptural support for the doctrine of Purgatory.  It is hard to deny what happens — that Judas Maccabee offers atonement for the sin of those who have died and prays for them.  Of course, most Protestants do not regard this book as canonical and will reject it out of hand, but I would like to take a moment and look at what it does (and doesn’t) say.

If you are familiar with your New Testament, you may be aware that one of the main points of dispute between the Pharisees and Sadducees in Jesus’ day was whether there is a resurrection of the dead. This book, 2 Maccabees, was most likely written in the last 1st century BC, some 150 years before Jesus’ ministry.  Its language suggests that one of the main purposes of including this incident is to show that Judas believed in the resurrection of the dead. If he had not, his actions would have been pointless. In terms of the polemical value of this passage, this seems to be the main point — to argue for life after death. What one can do to help those who have died, if anything, is rather another point. My impression is that while this text is arguing on behalf of resurrection, it is assuming that if there is a resurrection that something can be done for the dead by the living. In other words, its main point is to say there is a resurrection, not to say that prayer or atonement for the dead are effective.

Judas does two things for the deceased: he collects an offering and he prays. The offering is of money which is then sent to Jerusalem presumably to pay for an animal sacrifice to be offered on their behalf.  Was Judas’ offering effective? Did it remove the dead men’s sin? We must remember here that we are still in the time before Christ, the time of the temple sacrifices. Animal sacrifices are how God’s people at that time were commanded to deal with sin. Nonetheless, we know from the book of Hebrews, that these offerings were to point to Christ, the one true sacrifice on our behalf. They did not themselves accomplish forgiveness:

“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach. Otherwise, would they not have ceased being offered, since the worshipers, cleansed once for all, would no longer have any consciousness of sin? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:1-4; NRSCV — I am using this Catholic version in all quotes unless otherwise noted.)

Thus Judas Maccabee’s offering did not obtain forgiveness for his fallen comrades because it, like all Old Testament sacrifices, could not. He made it in the hope of gaining atonement for them, just as all sacrifices were offered in the hope of atonement, but, as Hebrews says, “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.”

There is an issue of timing here. To my knowledge, there is no provision in the Old Testament for offering sacrifices of atonement for a person after they have died. (This omission in itself is perhaps one of the best arguments against Purgatory.) In any case, this is somewhat of a moot point in the case of the sacrifices since none of them actually obtained forgiveness anyway.

But Judas also prays for the men so we must ask: Was Judas too late? Could his prayers help the dead? My own feeling on this is that it is part of a much larger issue about time and the nature of God. While as a good Protestant, I don’t feel that there is any way to change a person’s fate after they have passed, I would also say that God, who created time, stands outside it. There are many times when I pray for things that are in reality fait accomplis. For instance, I might pray that a friend’s surgery went well even after I know that the event itself is done. From a human perspective, bound by time, there is no way my prayers after the fact can change what has already happened. But God stands outside of time. He sees it all: past, present and future. So He can take into account my belated prayers. Is it wrong of me to pray this way? I can’t really think so. So I suppose it is not very Protestant of me, but the mere fact of praying for the dead does not bother me too much in this light.

The last thing I’d like to note in this passage is what it says about the actual state of the deceased. Where are they and what are they up to? The text most frequently calls them “those who had fallen” and says that they “would rise again.” It also speaks us “those who fall asleep in godliness.” This language, speaking of death as sleep, is common in the Old Testament where the usual formula in speaking of death is to say that so-and-so “slept with his fathers.” I don’t think 2 Maccabees adds much on the issue of where the dead are and what they are doing after death which is actually my point. There is nothing new here in terms of the circumstances of the dead after death which is not in the Old Testament, and there is no indication that they are alert in any way or are, as the dead are supposed to in Purgatory, working off their debts in any way. Truth be known, I am not at all sure what the dead in Purgatory are supposed to be doing and this is a major issue I would like to return to. But before I do that, let’s look briefly at the other passages which have been offered in defense of Purgatory.

Revelation 21:27

22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. 25 Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. 26 People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. 27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:22-27)

I’m including this passage from Revelation since it has been used in the defense of Purgatory. The import of it for this issue seems to be that no one unclean can enter heaven. Catholics take this to mean that there must be a time and place for purification then before we sinful people can enter God’s Presence.

Isaiah 4:4 and I Corinthians 3:11-15

On that day the branch of the Lord shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel. Whoever is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.” (Isaiah 4:2-4)

10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.” (I Corinthians 3:1-15)

If Revelation implies that there must be a purification, then Isaiah and I Corinthians tell us something about the nature of that purification. Isaiah speaks of cleansing by “a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning” and I Corinthians also speaks of judgment and fire. It is important to note, however, that it is not the person but his work which is tried by fire in I Corinthians. The person is tried “as through fire” but it seems clear from the preceding verses that the fire tests the work, not the individual. Furthermore, while Purgatory is said to be a place of purification and Isaiah certainly speaks of cleansing, it is not at all clear that the fire mentioned in I Corinthians is the purifying sort. It tests and it burns up but it is not said to purify.

If we begin by accepting the existence of Purgatory, then we might take these verses to tell us something about the nature of Purgatory. If we do not start with a belief in Purgatory, however, then I do not think we would derive it from these passages. That there is a judgment we can see and that fire, either real or metaphorical, is involved. But there is no sense of a place in which one passes time or of an extended tenure anywhere. The burning sounds to me rather like a relatively brief process and one which would occur at the Last Judgment.

Matthew 5:24-26 and Luke 12:59

23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:23-26)

57 “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? 58 Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. 59 I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”” (Luke 12:57-59)

Matthew and Luke both tell of Jesus’ instructions regarding disputes. He cautions his followers not to make an offering if they know that anyone could lay a charge against them. Rather they are to make peace first lest they be thrown in a prison from which they will not get out until they have “paid the very last penny.”

The tying of this passage to judgment after death and the “prison” to Purgatory is not quite as much of a stretch as it might seem. Both passages, from Matthew and Luke, come in the midst of a string of sayings some of which seem to refer to the end times. In Matthew the connection is most pronounced. Jesus says in the preceding verses:

21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)

While there is mention of hell, there is also mention of the council which I would assume refers to an earthly court. The two seem rather oddly combined here. Or perhaps there is some heavenly judgment council in view? But this is not a common picture; I know of no where else in the Bible where such a council is spoken of in the context of final judgment.

If we are meant to be thinking of earthly judgment, then the prison is also an earthly one. If we are meant to be thinking of heavenly judgment, then how do we make peace with our accusers on the way?

For the sake of argument, let us assume that the scenario is the after-death one. If one has not made peace, we are told, then he will be thrown into prison and will not escape until the full penalty is paid.  Is this prison Purgatory, as the Catholics claim, such that one can pay the price and ultimately be freed? Or could the prison be Hell itself and the price unpayable? I’m biased, but the latter sounds more plausible to me given the overall context of the Matthew passage.

Matthew 12:32

31 Therefore I tell you, people will be forgiven for every sin and blasphemy, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 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 in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:31-32)

This passage, with its reference to a particular sin which will not be forgiven “in this age or the age to come,” is taken to imply that there are other sins which could be forgiven. This would jibe well with the Catholic view of Purgatory as a place in which one can work off venial (small) sins but not mortal (serious, fatal) ones. Of course it need not mean this at all (for one alternative explanation, see “Is there any biblical basis for Purgatory?” by Don Stewart at

What is Purgatory like and what do the dead do there?

If we assume for a minute that all the above passages which the Catholic Church uses to defend the doctrine of Purgatory do indeed describe that place, what can we conclude about it and its inhabitants? Looking at the Scriptural evidence, we find that 2 Maccabees speaks of the dead men as asleep, though this may not be meant literally as it is common biblical language for death. Isaiah and I Corinthians speak of fire and Isaiah in particular of cleansing by fire. Matthew 5 and Luke 12 speak of a prison from which one is not released until one’s debt is paid. And lastly, Matthew 12 tells us that there is at least one sin for which forgiveness after death is not possible.

If we return to the Catechism of the Catholic Church which I quoted above, we find few specifics. Purgatory, we are told, involves purifying fire and it is possible for those on earth to pray for, obtain indulgences for and offer penance for the dead in Purgatory. Beyond this, little description is given.

The truth is even after so many centuries, even millennia, there seems to be little knowledge of or consensus on what Purgatory is like. There is a general tendency to preserve its fiery aspect to some degree, but there is also a competing tendency to make it seem less harsh. There is also some question as to whether Purgatory can be located in space or time. A survey of some Catholic sources shows the range of beliefs:

The older view is certainly a more painful view of Purgatory and tends to take the fires literally:

“St. Thomas Aquinas said the worst pain we feel on earth is not as painful as the least pain in purgatory. Aquinas explains, ‘It is the same fire that torments the reprobate in hell, and the just in purgatory. The least pain in purgatory,’ he says, ‘surpasses the greatest suffering in this life. ‘ Nothing but the eternal duration makes the fire of hell more terrible than that of purgatory.'” (“Purgatory: What can I expect there?” from

The current and previous popes have both attempted to make Purgatory sound more bearable and less, well, torturous. Pope John Paul II in his August 4, 1999, “General Audience” , after explaining the need for purification, tells us that:

“Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected. Purification must be complete, and indeed this is precisely what is meant by the Church’s teaching on purgatory. The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection (cf. Ecumenical Council of Florence, Decretum pro Graecis: DS 1304; Ecumenical Council of Trent, Decretum de iustificatione: DS 1580; Decretum de purgatorio: DS 1820).”

After dealing with the more doctrinal issues, John Paul II adds a person address, telling us that:

“But before we enter into God’s Kingdom every trace of sin within us must be eliminated, every imperfection in our soul must be corrected. This is exactly what takes place in Purgatory. Those who live in this state of purification after death are not separated from God but are immersed in the love of Christ.”

There are two key points to take from this document: Purgatory is not a place and those in it are not separated from God but “immersed in the love of Christ.” It sounds from this like rather not a bad state to be in.

In 2011, the current pope, Benedict XVI said, citing the visions of St. Catherine of Genoa (a 15th century figure but not typical for her age in her benign take on Purgatory), that “the ‘torments’ of purgatory” are not external “but rather called it an ‘interior fire’ that purifies and inflames our hearts with God’s love” (“Purgatory inflames hearts with God’s love, Pope says,” from This pope has also emphasized that Purgatory is a blessing to God’s people in that it allows them to be purified and enter His presence.

Lest we think Purgatory has become no big deal, however, other (less official) sources make quite clear that Purgatory is still not a pleasant experience. Catholic Herald says that in Purgatory “Like Hell, there is the pain of loss and the pain of sense: however, the severity of these pains between Hell and Purgatory is vastly different. The pain of loss for those in Purgatory is the temporary deprivation of the Beatific Vision. . . . the souls in Purgatory long for this vision [of God]. That longing and deprivation is what torments their soul” (“Straight Answers: What is Purgatory Like?” from The pain, in this case, is that of being separated from God.

Others still try to incorporate the fiery imagery. The fires of Purgatory are likened to that which refines metals (quite biblical image) and even to radiation treatments for cancer which burn away the bad cells (a decidedly more modern analogy).

St. Peter Catholic has its own, even more benign, view of the fiery aspect of Purgatory:

One theory that I am personally attracted to is that perhaps Purgatory is actually the experience of the Beatific Vision before our souls are perfectly able to accept God’s love. The effect is like walking outside into the brilliance of a sunny day, especially in winter when the sun reflects off the snow (this happened to me just today). Until our eyes adjust, the light hurts our eyes and causes us pain. Once our eyes adjust, we are able to appreciate the beauty of the sunny day and we are hesitant to go back into the relative darkness of the house. In the same way, God’s glory burns into our imperfect soul and causes suffering because we are not perfectly oriented to receive God’s love. Once our imperfections are burned away, then we are able to enjoy the glory of God’s love.” (“Does the church still teach about Purgatory?” from

As the quote from Pope John Paul II showed above, Purgatory need not be thought of as a place. It has come to be viewed as timeless as St. Peter Catholic explains:

“Purgatory used to be seen as a waiting room or a jail cell where the soul pays reparation for the “temporal punishment for sin” by “doing time. In fact, some devotionals used to assign a specific number of years in Purgatory for each sin, and a certain number of years that could be taken off of our sentence in Purgatory for an act of indulgence. I do not know much about this practice, and if anyone knows more about it I would really appreciate if you could explain it more clearly by leaving a comment for this post. The vision of Purgatory as a waiting room or a jail cell has somewhat fallen out of favor among post-Vatican II theologians. One reason is the awareness that Purgatory is experienced before the resurrection of our bodies. Without a body, a soul does not experience time in the same way we do now.” (“Does the church still teach about Purgatory?” from

This timelessness is in sharp contrast to older depictions which clearly spoke of Purgatory in terms of time. We can see this in the old lists of indulgences which were said to get take specific lengths of time off of the tenure of the dead there.

So what, then can we conclude about the modern view of Purgatory?  Still Catholic provides a concise summary saying, “purgatory is no party” (“Purgatory: What can I expect there?” from While there is no consensus on the details, it goes on to say that while Purgatory is meant as a blessing one should “expect some sort of pain” and that “by most accounts, it is brutal.”

There is no definitive interpretation on whether it is a place:

“Purgatory only refers to the state of being purged of our sinfulness. Whether or not there is a physical place where this occurs, we will not know until we arrive. Since it is difficult for us earthlings to envision supernatural things, some of us may tend to envision purgatory as a place, which is fine, as long we realize that the Church has not yet defined whether or not it involves a place.”(“Purgatory: What can I expect there?” from

While some argue for its timelessness, or at least that time would make no sense to the dead in Purgatory, it seems hard to speak of it without referring to time:

“We do not know. Some theologians would say it could last anywhere from a second to many centuries, depending on the depth and number of sins, the intensity of one’s attachments to earthly things, and the amount of penance one had done on Earth..”(“Purgatory: What can I expect there?” from

The Theological Argument for Purgatory

My own feeling is that in many ways modern Catholics would like to distance themselves from the old depictions of Purgatory, particularly its more brutal, fiery aspects. Yet at the same time, they are not willing to give up the concept altogether (as for instance, Limbo has been abandoned), because there is a very great perceived need for such a place.  To Protestants, this is mystifying. We do not see the need, because we do not have the same view of sin and salvation. And that is really what it all comes down to. As I said in my post on indulgences (once more, you can read it here), Catholics and Protestants just view sin and salvation differently. I plan to get into this more in depth on a future post on original sin. For now, let me just attempt to explain the Catholic view as it relates to Purgatory.  Andres Ortiz sums up the Catholic position well on About Catholics:

“If purgatory didn’t exist, the man would go to hell for his small sin. God’s mercy is so great and our God is a just God that it seems unfathomable that he would condemn a justified man to hell for a small, yet unrepented sin. The man’s soul is dirty. His actions have defiled his soul, but not the point where he has cut himself off from God. Only mortal sins cut off a person from God’s grace. So, the man, having been justified by the Lord, is destined for heaven, yet his soul is defiled by his sin (Matthew 12:36, 15:18). His soul is in need of cleansing because nothing defiled can enter heaven. This is the purpose of purgatory. Out of mercy and love God sends the man through purgatory on his way to heaven so that his soul can be purified to be able to join God in heaven.” (Adres Ortiz, “Where is Purgatory in the Bible?” from

To try to sum up a complicated theological doctrine briefly, in Catholic thought though we may be destined for salvation there is still a way in which our sins cling to us and make us unfit for God’s Presence. Purgatory is a mercy in that it provides a way in which we may be cleansed of those sins and still enter Heaven. If there were no Purgatory, anyone who died with any unconfessed sin, no matter how small, would go to Hell.

I realize there is a lot in this conception for my Protestant brethren to disagree with and, again, I do plan to get into all that soon, but for now I just want us to appreciate how necessary Purgatory seems to our Catholic friends. While I personally don’t think the Scriptural evidence for it is strong and I am bothered by the fact that the conception of it is still so little fixed after so much time, I don’t think it is a doctrine we can argue against until we get to what is behind it, namely our very different views of sin itself.





One response to this post.

  1. […] I want to talk about how the Roman Catholic Church views sin. In my posts on indulgences and Purgatory, I concluded by saying that these doctrines, which seem so bizarre to Protestants, are based upon a […]


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