Purgatory


1. What is the Catholic doctrine on Purgatory?

The Catholic doctrine on Purgatory consists of three main parts:

(1) People who die, if they are going to heaven, will sometimes be purified first.
(2) This purification, which we call Purgatory, is spoken of in Scripture and in Tradition as a cleansing fire.
(3) We may pray for those who are in Purgatory.

The doctrine of Purgatory is supported by three main pillars: it is reasonable, it is Biblical, and believing in it is part of the Church's holy Tradition. As for reason, reason suggests that if you aren't quite fit for heaven, and you aren't quite unfit enough for hell, and those are the only two options, then a holy God like ours would rather purify you for heaven than cast you down to Hell. The Bible suggests that Purgatory is true by teaching of a cleansing fire that purifies us before we go to heaven: 1 Cor. 3:11-15, Malachi 3:2-3, and Zechariah 13:8-9 speak of it in precisely the same terms that Catholics do, and that's good enough to know it is from God.

2. Purgatory can't be true because a person goes straight to heaven when they die.

First, you would have a hard time proving from Scripture that everyone goes straight to heaven or hell when they die. Scripture says that all men are appointed to die once, and after this comes the Judgment. (Hebrews 9:27) Now that Judgment is by fire, and one of the qualities of fire is that it burns away impurities. For that reason alone Scripture suggests that there will be a Purgatory. But we have much more testimony from it than that, and it all proves that during Judgment, those who are accepted for heaven will need, in some cases, to be purified of anything that doesn't belong there. 

3. Jesus said to the thief on the Cross, "Today you will be with me in Paradise." No word about Purgatory.

Then that person didn't go to Purgatory. It proves nothing about whether Purgatory exists or not, it just proves that that person didn't go there -- and it really doesn't even prove that, since the person could have gone to Purgatory for the remainder of that day and still gotten out in time to be with Jesus in Paradise before the night was through. Remember that time works differently in eternity than it does here. If Jesus says He will be coming or going in an hour, well on His time that can seem like forever. One thing that is certainly true: a sinner like the thief on the Cross can be pardoned of anything that would otherwise keep him out of heaven, and thus skip Purgatory altogether. It is what we should all strive for, and if that is what Jesus was showing us by receiving the man into heaven very rapidly, then we all ought to hope for a similar grace.

4. Purgatory can't be true because Jesus already paid for your sins on the Cross.

Purgatory couldn't be true unless He had. In fact, part of the doctrine of Purgatory is that the only people who will go there are people who are already saved -- who have already had their sins paid for by Jesus. You may ask, "Well then why does Purgatory exist at all?" but part of the answer is that even with your sins paid for, your participation in that grace requires that you be purified of what leads you to sin. Disorders of the soul and weaknesses of the flesh are all part of the things that we struggle with here on earth but are not fit for entering into heaven. If Jesus has really paid the price for our sins, then those things must be dealt with before we get into heaven, and that requires a purification of just the kind Purgatory is all about. So your point backfires on this one: the death of Jesus is what makes a place like Purgatory possible, and is just one more reason to believe that it exists.

5. The Bible says the blood of Jesus purges us from sin; not Purgatory.

You just said the blood of Jesus purges us from sin, so you admit a purging. Now if we aren't completely purged in this life, but there is a purging, then your own theology is starting to anticipate some of the reasons why we believe in a Purgatory. God purges us by Jesus' blood, yes, and that's not incompatible with Purgatory. Rather, it suggests that there is a Purgatory in this life, and if it isn't complete in us here, it implies that there has to be a Purgatory in the next life to finish the job of making us ready for heaven.

6. You don't need purged of sin after death because God doesn't look at your sins, He looks at the atonement.

He does look at the atonement, and it's because of that that we can make it into heaven at all. But that doesn't mean our sins don't affect anything at all. Scripture says "Nothing unclean shall enter the New Jerusalem." Revelation 21:27. And if it means that, then it doesn't matter what God is looking at, His Word says a person who is unclean can't make it in so you've got to be made clean. That can happen in this life, or it can be partly done here while leaving us short of perfection, which is what happens to most of us. And in that state the Scripture still stands: until we are purified, we won't get into heaven, so there'd better be a Purgatory or we'll all be in trouble.


7. In the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, there was a great gulf between heaven and hell; not Purgatory.

That passage isn't incompatible with Purgatory. First, let's be careful in examining the terms it uses: the poor man rested in "Abraham's bosom." The rich man burned in a fiery place. Between these two, there was a great gulf, so that no one can pass between them. Now the fiery place you say is Hell; I say that is probably true. But it may also be Purgatory. Putting aside that possibility, to say that there is a great gulf between hell and heaven is not to say that there isn't a Purgatory besides. Between Mexico and Canada there is an enormous landmass, but no one would take that and say, "Aha, then there can't be a river besides it!" Of course there can. Purgatory can and does exist, and that belief is not incompatible with this passage, but the contrary idea is incompatible with the numerous passages that teach a Purgatory.

8. Where is Purgatory in the Bible?

1 Cor. 3:11-15 speaks of a fiery judgment at which the good will be tested, and if they have done any wrong, they will be burned, but still be saved and enter heaven -- through fire. What that amounts to is precisely the doctrine of purgatory. It doesn't use the word "purification," but that is what it describes: the bad being burned out of the good. And it is because of this passage that the Church's doctrine appears in the so many commentaries of the Church Fathers, for they often wrote about Purgatory when this passage was under discussion.

Malachi 3:2-3 speaks of the coming of Christ where He will appear to refine and purify His people in a furnace. And He will purify them until they are acceptable, which is just what the doctrine of Purgatory defines. The word "purify" in this passage is translated sometimes as "purge," which also shows the linguistic roots of the word Purgatory in Scripture.

Zechariah 13:8-9 says that God's people will be refined and purified when the Lord comes in Judgment, and that this purification will take place by fire. This verifies the second part of the Church's teaching on Purgatory: that Scripture speaks of a final purification by a cleansing fire.

2 Maccabees 12:43-45 shows the people of Israel praying for their dead brothers and sisters "that they might be released from their sin." This indicates that there is some type of prison in the afterlife for those in sin, from which they can be released or helped by our prayers. This verifies the third part of the Catholic teaching on Purgatory, that people in it can be helped by our prayers, and also some of the other parts of our teaching, because Scripture is already preparing a murky vision of Purgatory by anticipating that there is some kind of a prison for sinners from which release is desirable and possible through our help.

9. 1 Cor. 3:11-15 is only about having your bad works burned away on Judgment Day. It's not about Purgatory.

That's precisely what a description of Purgatory should look like: having your bad works burned away. If it takes place on Judgment Day, then Purgatory exists on Judgment Day. And if souls are going to heaven before that, and they are, then they are like us, and will need the same purification that most of us do. So 1 Cor. 3:11-15 teaches the existence of Purgatory by describing it on Judgment Day, and implies its necessity for all generations in precisely the way that the Catholic Church believes. 

10. 2 Maccabees 12:43-45 isn't even part of Scripture. It's part of the Apocrypha.

What Protestants call the Apocrypha is actually part of the Bible. 2 Maccabees is an example. It is a book long believed in and accepted by Christians, proclaimed as Scripture in the early Councils that defined the Canon, and attested to by the New Testament in passages that mention it as being part of the Bible. See "Canon of Scripture." And even if it wasn't, it still is evidence for our doctrine, because it is part of our history with the Jewish people, and if they believed in Purgatory and even had it as part of their religion, then we need to take that into account when deciding whether to believe it or not. The Church proclaims Purgatory and accepts this passage as evidence of it, and by examining it anyone can see why.