Purgatory: Does it exist?

Straight Talk

The Question:

Does purgatory exist?

– Cynthia from the U.S.

The Answer
Part 1: What is purgatory?
Part 2: Biblical response
Part 3: What does purgatory solve?

What is purgatory? (Part 1)

Purgatory is one of the biggest bones of contention between the Roman Catholic Church and the rest of Christendom. It is rejected soundly by all Protestants and Evangelicals.

Just to make sure we are all on the same page, I’ll start off with an explanation of what purgatory is. Since this is a doctrine held almost exclusively by the Catholic Church, I will look to their own definition. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that purgatory is; “a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.”

What does that mean more simply? According to the Catholic Church, a Christian must “make up” for or pay for their sins. This can be done on earth but if the fullness of God’s justice is not satisfied by the time they die, they enter purgatory and suffer until full payment is made. Then, they may enter heaven.

Purgatory is said to mirror hell in kind of punishment and intensity with the exception that it is temporary whereas hell is eternal. Therefore it is a pretty nasty place. Belief in purgatory is why Catholics often pray for the dead. It is believed that prayers on behalf of those in purgatory (and Mass celebrated specifically for them) can hasten their release. The general consensus is that almost everyone goes to purgatory before going to heaven because almost no one has finished paying for all their sins by the time they die.

Does the Catholic Church have any biblical back up for this belief? Not directly. They feel it is inferred by God in cases where God forgave a sin yet allowed human punishment to play out. One such example cited in my research is David’s adultery with Bathsheba. God forgave David but still allowed their child to die as punishment for their sin.

Okay, that is their take on sin and punishment after death. Tomorrow let’s look to the other side.

Next: What does the Bible say about how God’s justice is satisfied?

Biblical Response (Part 2)

It would seem to me that whether purgatory exists hinges on the answer to this question: was the blood of Jesus Christ sufficient to satisfy God’s demand for justice? If it was, then purgatory is not necessary – if not, then purgatory would be a merciful way to give people a second chance after death.

When Jesus hung on the cross, just before he died, he said; “It is finished.” (John 19:30) What did he mean? He was fulfilling what had been spoken through Isaiah the prophet about the role of the coming Messiah. “But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Calling his work finished, Christ was saying that he had fully satisfied the wrath of God against our sin – any of us who would accept his gift and receive salvation. There is nothing more to do for it; his blood was better than the sacrifices of the high priests, better than the blood of bulls and goats — better because of who he is: fully God and fully man; sinless – yet taking on the sin of the whole world.

To believe that there is any way we can contribute to the payment of our sins is folly in my estimation. They were never able to do so in the Old Testament covenant; that is why it was necessary for God to become man. It was the only way to make full payment for sin and the punishment it carries. Is it not an affront to Christ to say that we must somehow “help” him make up for our sins; that his blood wasn’t quite good enough?

What of the Catholic view that “God does not always remit the whole punishment due to sin together with the guilt”? (ref. Catholic Encyclopedia) That is not correct. When we repent; “So far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:12)

Yes, in the natural order of things here on earth, we may experience consequences for sin even if we have repented. There is a reaping and sowing principle during our lifetime but it does not carry past the grave regarding our sins. The thief on the cross never had time to “pay” for any of the sins of his lifetime yet Jesus told him; “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) No stint in purgatory first!

Next: What is at the root of believing in purgatory?

What does purgatory solve? (Part 3)

The purgatory question is part of a bigger issue which heavily divides Catholic Christians from their Protestant and Evangelical brethren. The debate centers around faith versus works and the part that each plays in our salvation. If you lean on “works” for salvation, purgatory fits right in. Yes, Jesus died for our sins but we must also “work” at our salvation. The Catholic mindset places emphasis on man’s works. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12)

Faith, on the other hand, holds that salvation is a free gift and there is nothing that can be done to earn it. Paul says in Romans 3:28; “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” He goes on to explain; “Much more than, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.” (Romans 5:9)

If you believe in purgatory, you are not justified and saved from God’s wrath entirely by the blood of Jesus but by adding your own suffering in a hell-like place called purgatory. Therefore you play a part in saving yourself.

It is clear that for many, grace is very hard to swallow. In some minds it just does not compute and they believe people contribute to their own righteousness. No, purgatory does not exist as I see it and according to what the Bible teaches. Purgatory is a human invention which helps some to make sense of God’s justice.

Instead we need to think like God. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9) God’s plan of salvation is the perfect plan and it is the only one that works. He planned it before the foundation of the world and he executed it through the sacrifice of his son, Jesus Christ.

Nothing can add to it. Nothing needs to.


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