By James M. Rochford

For more resources on this subject, see our earlier article “Catholicism.”

Purgatory is a Roman Catholic doctrine of a place of purging before heaven that exists for believers. Purgatory comes from the Latin purgatorio (meaning “cleansing” or “purifying”). The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

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. 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.[1]

Catholic apologists Kreeft and Tacelli write,

Purgatory exists, the place for those who are not good enough for heaven and not bad enough for hell—that is, for those whose ‘fundamental option’ in the heart of their souls was to believe God and love God and thus be destined for heaven but whose souls are burdened and grimed with sinful habits, desires and inclinations.[2]

It does not mean that Jesus did not complete our redemption on the Cross. It means that we did not complete our acceptance of that perfect and finished work during our lives.[3]

Living Catholics can pray for dead family and friends who are still in purgatory. The Catholic Catechism states:

Our prayer for them is capable not only of helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective.[4]

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.[5]

In the communion of saints, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things.” In this wonderful exchange, the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin.[6]

Roman Catholic theologians differ on the nature of purgatory. Roman Catholic expert James McCarthy writes, “Roman Catholic theologians are not in agreement as to the nature of suffering in purgatory. Some teach that the pain of purgatory is chiefly a sense of loss in being separated from God. Others, following Thomas Aquinas, teach that souls in purgatory suffer intense and excruciating physical pain from fire.”[7] Likewise, Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong writes, “The Catholic Church has not defined whether Purgatory is a place or a process, or whether it contains real fire. The sufferings correspond to the degree of sin present for each individual.”[8]

Scriptures that Support Purgatory

Roman Catholics appeal to these passages below to support the doctrine of purgatory:

Matthew 12:32

1 Corinthians 3:12-15

A Biblical Response

A number of biblical observations are in order regarding the doctrine of purgatory:

First, the doctrine of purgatory depreciates the finished work of Christ. Jesus purchased our salvation “once for all” (Heb. 9:12; 10:10; 1 Pet. 3:18). Jesus said that he had “accomplished the work which [God] have given [Him] to do” (Jn. 17:4). After he had paid for human sin, Jesus himself said, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30). The author of Hebrews writes, “He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God… For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Heb. 10:12, 14). Paul writes, “In Him you have been made complete” (Col. 2:10). If believers need to work off their own sin in purgatory, then this devalues the finished work of Christ. How could anything in purgatory be greater than the work of Christ on the Cross?

Second, the doctrine of purgatory contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture. The author of Hebrews writes, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Moreover, Jesus tells the parable of the rich man in Hades and Lazarus in heaven. According to Jesus, we are “either-or.” There is no “in between” place between heaven and hell. Jesus could even promise the sinful thief on the Cross, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Lk. 23:43). Paul believed that he would go directly into the presence of God at death—not purgatory. He writes, “To be absent from the body [is] to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8; 2 Tim. 4:6-7). Catholic apologists claim that it is possible for God to reveal this to certain individuals—but not every believer. However, Paul writes that this doesn’t merely apply to him, but “also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Tim. 4:8).

Third, the doctrine of purgatory is not based in biblical teaching. Even the New Catholic Encyclopedia frankly acknowledges that “the doctrine of purgatory is not explicitly stated in the Bible.”[9] Oswald Sanders writes, “Is heaven mentioned in Scripture? Many times. And hell? Many times. And purgatory? Not once. Nor was the idea introduced until the second century. And it was not decreed as an article of faith of the Roman Catholic Church until 1439 at the Council of Florence.”[10]

Instead of being a biblical teaching, the doctrine of purgatory is primarily based on the apocryphal book 2 Maccabees 12:42–46, which records Jews praying for their fallen dead (“Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin” 2 Mac. 12:46). However, 2 Maccabees never claims to be Scripture; in fact, 1 Maccabees 9:27 denies its own inspiration (“Thus there was great distress in Israel, such as had not been since the time that prophets ceased to appear among them.”). Moreover, Jesus (and the NT writers) never cite from these books, as inspired Scripture. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church didn’t recognize 2 Maccabees as Scripture until the 16th century, when Martin Luther spoke out strongly against purgatory (see “The Apocrypha”).

In conclusion, we should make a rather simple observation about purgatory. The early Christians went around preaching the “gospel” or “good news” about Christ’s death for our sins. However, what is “good news” about paying off your own sins in purgatory for hundreds or thousands of years? We find this to stretch our credulity.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1030-1031.

[2] Kreeft, Peter, and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009. 450.

[3] Kreeft, Peter, and Ronald K. Tacelli. Handbook of Catholic Apologetics: Reasoned Answers to Questions of Faith. San Francisco: Ignatius, 2009. 451.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 958.

[5] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1032.

[6] Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 1475.

[7] McCarthy, James G. The Gospel According to Rome. Eugene, Or.: Harvest House, 1995. 93.

[8] Armstrong, Dave. A Biblical Defense of Catholicism. Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute, 2003. 120.

[9] New Catholic Encyclopedia, 11:1034. They base this doctrine primarily on 2 Maccabees 12:42–46 (a non-canonical book). However, Roman Catholic scholars see vague allusions to purgatory in Matthew 5:26; 12:32; 1 Corinthians 3:12-15.

[10] Sanders, J. Oswald. Heaven: Better by Far. Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House, 1994. 49.