Is Purgatory True?

Is Purgatory True?  

A tradition pronounced dogma in 1438 A.D. by the Roman Catholic Church is the belief in Purgatory.[1] The General Council of Florence pronounced: “And, if they are truly penitent and die in God’s love before having satisfied by worthy fruits of penance for their sins of commission and omission, their souls are cleansed after death by purgatorial penalties.”[2] The Council of Trent called Purgatory “a debt of temporal punishment”[3] and the Catechism of the Catholic Church called it “a purifying fire” for “final purification.”[4] The problem with this doctrine is threefold: First, it is not found anywhere in Scripture. The Bible teaches that there are no second chances once you die; you either go to heaven or hell.[5] Second, it detracts from the finished work of Christ on the cross. Just prior to dying on the cross, Jesus said, “It is finished.”[6] Hebrews 10:14 says, “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are sanctified.” Romans 8:1 says, “Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus.” When we place our faith in Christ we are “perfected forever” and have no need to pay further penalties for our sin because Christ’s death was sufficient to cover all of our sin. 1 John 1:7 says the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin, not our own punishment. In the doctrine of Purgatory once again we see semi-Pelagianism where Jesus does some of the work and we do the rest for our purification. If the doctrine of Purgatory was not bad enough, the Catholic Church also sanctions indulgences where it is possible to give money to the Church to relieve the suffering of those in Purgatory; what this amounts to is that it is possible to buy salvation from God’s punishment of sin – a far cry from simply trusting in Jesus who paid the penalty for us with His blood. Luther questioned the practice of indulgences asking why the Pope doesn’t let everyone out of Purgatory if he has the power to.[7] Third the doctrine of Purgatory has been sadly abused by Popes and clergy throughout its history. Jacques Le Goff describes this abuse:


What an enhancement of the power of the living there was in this hold over the dead! Meanwhile, here below, the extension of communal ties into the other world enhanced the solidarity of families, religious organizations, and confraternities. And for the Church, what a marvelous instrument of power! The souls in Purgatory were considered to be members of the Church militant. Hence, the Church argued, it ought to have (partial) jurisdiction over them, even though God was nominally the sovereign judge in the other world. Purgatory brought to the Church not only new spiritual power but also, to put it bluntly, considerable profit, as we shall see. Much of this profit went to the mendicant orders, ardent propagandists of the new doctrine. And finally, the “infernal” system of indulgences found powerful support in the idea of Purgatory.[8]


This false doctrine robs people of assurance and sours the good news. According to the doctrine of Purgatory and Indulgences the good news is that if you place your faith in Jesus you will still have to suffer countless days in torment, unless you have a rich uncle that is kind enough to pay your way out of God’s punishment; this does not sound like good news to me.

So why does Roman Catholicism teach the doctrine of purgatory? The Catechism of the Catholic Church sites three verses that supposedly teach the doctrine of purgatory, but it leans heavily on late church councils to back up its belief. Let’s look at the three passages. First, 1 Corinthians 3:15 is mentioned: “If anyone’s work is burned up, it will be lost, but he will be saved; yet it will be like an escape through fire.” In the context, this passage is referring to the works of a believer being tested for rewards (11-15). If the works end up being good, the person will receive a reward, but if they don’t pass the test he or she will not get a reward (14-15). The work is what is being tested by fire, not the person. If the person is what is referred to as going through the fire, then this means everyone, including supposed saints, go through the fire, because verse 13 says, “each one’s work…will be revealed by fire.” Catholicism rejects the idea that saints will go to purgatory, so they have a serious problem in using this verse. The solution is simple when we look at the context. The passage doesn’t say the person goes through fire. It says the work is tested by fire. Fire is obviously being used as an analogy. We don’t have to think that our works will literally be put in fire, because works don’t literally “burn up” (15). In view of the context, this verse says nothing about purgatory and only refers to rewards – notice punishment is never mentioned.

The second verse referred to in the Catechism is 1 Peter 1:7: “So that the genuineness of your faith – more valuable than gold, which perishes though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Once again the context makes all the difference in the world. Cults are notorious for taking verses out of context to make them say something they don’t actually say. The Roman Catholic Church should know better. The verse just before this passage tells when the trial comes: “Though now for a short time you have had to struggle in various trials.” The trials take place in this life, not some imaginary purgatorial afterlife. Also in verse 7 the refined by fire only refers to gold that perishes, not us personally after we die. One must seriously read a lot into this verse to make it say something about purgatory. Unfortunately, this is what the Catholic Church must resort to, because the Bible doesn’t teach the doctrine of purgatory. If this doctrine is true, then it would make sense that God would be much clearer by actually teaching it in His word.

The last verse isn’t actually a verse in the Bible. 2 Maccabees 12:46 is in an apocryphal book that only the Catholics hold to as Scripture. The Roman Catholic position concerning the Apocrypha was not officially sanctioned until the Council of Trent in 1545-1563. The Roman Catholic Church simply does not have a case for adding books to the already closed canon of the Old Testament. The books in question can be helpful, but also have serious deficiencies which rule out any possibility of their being considered Scripture. 1 and 2 Maccabees, Tobit and Judith all have serious historical mistakes recorded as truth; if they are Scripture then we would have to surmise that God made a mistake. In 1 Maccabees 8:1-16 it records that Antiochus the Great gave up Media and India to the Romans, when in fact he kept Media and never even controlled India.[9] 1 Maccabees 9:27 states that the time of the prophets had ceased and never claims to be prophetic. In 2 Maccabees 2:23 and 15:37-38 the writer admits he is not writing Scripture stating, “all this, which has been set forth by Jason of Cyrene in five volumes, we shall attempt to condense into a single book…. This, then, is how matters turned out with Nicanor, and from that time the city has been in the possession of the Hebrews. So I will here end my story. If it is well told and to the point, that is what I myself desired; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that was the best I could do.”[10] When all of the facts are considered it becomes obvious that the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent in the late 16th century endorsed the Apocrypha as a reaction to the Protestant Reformation because they needed the Apocrypha to back up their belief in Purgatory, among other doctrines not taught in the Old or New Testament. Adding books to the Bible in the 1560’s, arguably as a reaction to the Protestants, when Jews, Jesus, early Christianity and Protestants would disagree, must be rejected by followers of Christ.

But what does 2 Maccabees 12:46 say? Actually the Catechism made a mistake and probably is referring to verse 45 since there is no verse 46; it says, “But since he was looking to the reward of splendor laid up for those who repose in godliness it was a holy and godly purpose. Thus he made atonement for the fallen, so as to set them free from their transgression.” In the context the passage is referring to the living making atonement for the dead. In verses 42-43 Judas prays for the dead to be forgiven and takes up an offering of 2000 silver drachmas to present as a sin offering for their forgiveness. This passage is an example of the living paying money to pay for the sins of the dead. But the passage goes beyond what the Roman Catholic Church teaches. In verse 40 we see what sin the dead soldiers committed that Judas is seeking to atone for. They wore “sacred tokens of the Jamnian idols…. So the reason these men died in battle became clear to everyone.” The sin of the soldiers being atoned for was idolatry, which the Roman Catholic Church considers a mortal sin. According to the Catholic Church purgatory is only for baptized believers who have committed venial sins; mortal sins send people to hell not purgatory. So we see that even this passage doesn’t teach the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory.

One last verse some use to prove purgatory, though the official Roman Catholic Catechism doesn’t refer to it, is Matthew 5:25: “Reach a settlement quickly with your adversary while you’re on the way with him, or your adversary will hand you over to the judge, the judge to the officer, and you will be thrown into prison.” There is a good reason that even the Catechism doesn’t use this verse to prove purgatory. It clearly is referring to this life, not after we have died. The context is if you remember someone has something against you, you are supposed to go and deal with it right away; otherwise, you could end up in jail. Notice it is “your adversary” that throws you into jail, not God.

Purgatory is a false doctrine that has been used to rob millions of people from the assurance they can have in Jesus. It is a dangerous doctrine, and therefore warrants a believer to leave any church that teaches it. We can agree to disagree agreeably on many doctrinal issues, but when the gospel is being tampered with, we must take a stand. Many understand purgatory as a place where you are punished for your sins, which indicates that the death of Jesus Christ was not enough. The truth is, if we repent of our sins and place our faith in Jesus Christ, surrendering to Him as Lord, we are saved from all of our sin. His death is sufficient. To take away from the glory of the cross by claiming our own works partially pay for our salvation is blasphemy. Jesus deserves all the glory!


[1] During the early Middle Ages the idea of purgatorial punishment developed for “slight sins;” with this a separation of venial and mortal sins was embraced. By the twelfth century the place called Purgatory was introduced and then systematized by the scholastic theologians. Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory (The University of Chicago Press, 1981), passim.

[2] Ibid., 1020.

[3] Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom, 2:117.

[4] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 269.

[5] Luke 13:22-30 (note in v.25 that even when they wanted to come in they were not allowed); 16:19-31 (note v.26 no one can cross the chasm and there are only two places, not three); 23:39-43 (note the thief on the cross immediately entered paradise even after a lifetime of wickedness and without baptism); Hebrews 9:27. Also the early church fathers denied any second chance, e.g. Second Clement 8:3.

[6] John 19:30.

[7] 95 Theses.

[8] Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, 12.

[9] Robert Reymond, The Reformation conflict with Rome, 26-27. Reymond also records, “Tobit 1:4-5 teaches that the division of the kingdom (under Jeroboam I in 931 B.C.) occurred when Tobit was a ‘young man.’ But Tobit is also said to be a young Israelite captive living in Nineveh under Shalmaneser in the late eighth century B.C. This would make him as a ‘young man’ almost two hundred years old at the time of the Assyrian Captivity and he lived into the reign of Esarhaddon (680-668 B.C.). But according to Tobit 14:11 he died when he was one hundred and fifty-eight years old (according to the Latin text, he died at one hundred and two).” Ibid.

[10] New Revised Standard Version Bible.