This article discusses the Roman Catholic Church's dogma of purgatory. It explains the main lines as well as the basis for this dogma before showing how it lacks biblical support and is unchristian in character.

Source: The Outlook, 1994. 5 pages.

The Intermediate State: Purgatory

Students of the Protestant Ref­ormation are acquainted with the story of Johann Tetzel, the German monk and seller of indul­gences who provoked Luther's ire and decision to affix his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. They may even recall the infamous slogan by which Tetzel advertised his indulgences: "The moment the money tinkles in the collection box, a soul flies out of purgatory."

Though it is not my interest here to trace the career of Tetzel or his prac­tice of selling indulgences, I cite this incident to illustrate the importance of the doctrine of purgatory in the clas­sic Roman Catholic understanding of the intermediate state. However crass and exaggerated Tetzel's practice may have been, even by the standard of medieval Roman Catholic teaching, he represented well the conviction that the souls of those who die in a state of grace, ordinarily must endure a pe­riod of punishment and purification in purgatory before entering heaven and enjoying the vision of God. At the Council of Trent, called by the Roman Catholic Church to answer the Protestant Reformation, this doc­trine of purgatory was defined as a "dogma" of the church: "There is a purgatory, and souls there detained are helped by the prayers of the faith­ful, and especially by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar" (Session XXV). Those who opposed this dogma were anathematized by the same Council, and all bishops were commanded "diligently to endeavor that the whole­some doctrine concerning purgatory ... be believed, held, taught, and everywhere preached by Christ's faith­ful" (Session XXV).

Before moving on to the subject of general eschatology, the biblical teaching con­cerning the future return of Christ and its accompaniments, it remains to take one last look at this subject, particu­larly this Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Because this doctrine rep­resents a peculiar view of the inter­mediate state, albeit one which de­parts from the standard of biblical teaching, it merits our attention be­fore we turn to the great event on the horizon of biblical expectation, the coming again of Jesus Christ.

The Dogma of Purgatory🔗

It is important to realize, when treat­ing the doctrine of purgatory, that it is a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. This is not a doctrine or teaching that may or may not be believed by the faithful; it is a doctrine, based upon tradition and biblical teach­ing, that has been infallibly defined and proposed to the faithful as an essential truth. One cannot be a faithful member of the Roman Catholic Church, and certainly not a faithful member of the ordained clergy, and yet deny this teaching. This teaching belongs to the dogmatic tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. It was first officially defined by the Council of Trent in the period of the Refor­mation and has been reaffirmed ever since.

What, then, are the contours of this dogma? What exactly does the Ro­man Catholic Church's dogma regard­ing purgatory teach?

This dogma teaches that the major­ity of believers who die in a state of grace go to purgatory, a place of an­guish and suffering. Though some believers, the "saints," who have lived righteous lives and fully satisfied for the temporal penalties of their sins go directly to heaven, most believers must spend a period of time in purga­tory, during which they suffer pun­ishment for their sins and endure a period of cleansing or purification to fit them for heaven. It is interesting to observe that, whereas formerly the emphasis in Catholic writings fell upon suffering punishment for sin's penalties in purgatory, more recently the emphasis has fallen upon purga­tory as a place of cleansing or purification.

The importance of purgatory in tra­ditional Roman Catholic teaching rests upon a particular understanding of the role of good works in meriting, the reward of eternal life. Some bap­tized members of the church who fall into mortal sin and thereby from a state of grace, because they have not been restored through the sacrament of penance before death, go immedi­ately to hell. Most believers, however, with the exception of the saints who go immediately to heaven, fail to make full or plenary satisfaction in this life for the temporal penalty of their sins.1 Purgatory is the place where whatever remaining satisfaction for venial sins committed in this life may be paid. Even though all good works and satisfactions are themselves produced by the cooperation of the believer with God's grace, these good works and satisfactions are the neces­sary prerequisites for entrance into eternal life. Purgatory, in this respect, represents eloquently the Roman Catholic insistence upon meritorious good works as basic to salvation.

The length of the believer's stay in purgatory, as well as the severity of the punishment suffered, varies. Some endure a longer and more severe suf­fering than others. The length and severity of the believer's stay in pur­gatory depends, as we just noted, on the kind of life the believer lived before death. But it also depends, to some extent, upon the kind of assistance granted believers in purgatory by their friends on earth. Prayers offered on their behalf, indulgences purchased in their name, and masses spoken for them (for which payment is often made),2  all contribute to lessening the severity and duration of the believer's suffer­ing in purgatory. Hence, Tetzel sold indulgences in the early sixteenth cen­tury, provoking the ire of Luther and the Reformers. He was justifiably promising the friends of departed be­lievers that these indulgences would lessen their stay in purgatory. Though he may have been guilty of a crassly commercial presentation of this prac­tice, even exaggerating the benefits that would accrue to those on whose behalf the indulgence was purchased, he was nonetheless acting consistently with a teaching that remains an es­sential part of Catholic dogma to this day.

It should also be added that the pope plays a key role in the adminis­tration of purgatory and the determi­nation of the severity and length of the believer's suffering the temporal penalty of sin. It is the pope's pre­rogative to grant indulgences which not only lighten the severity of the punishment but also terminate it alto­gether.

These are the main lines of the tra­ditional Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory.3  There are considerable debates within Catholicism over such matters as the location of purgatory, the nature and quality of the pains suffered, the duration of the purifying process and the method by which the work of the living benefits those in purgatory. But none of these has been given a dogmatic answer. The essen­tial elements of Catholic teaching are the insistence that most believers need, subsequent to death, to undergo a further period of making satisfac­tion for the temporal penalty of sin and cleansing before they enjoy the blessed vision of God, and that the duration and severity of this satisfaction are lessened by the assistance of the living who do good works on their behalf.4

The Basis for This Dogma🔗

If these are the main lines of the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory, the question that cannot be bypassed is: On what is it based? What consti­tutes the ground underneath this dogma that permits the Roman Catholic Church to teach and impose it upon the faithful?

Before evaluating the Scriptural evi­dence cited in support of this dogma, it is interesting to note that there is a history to its development. In the sec­ond century, Justin and Tertullian, two of the church fathers, taught that the dead are waiting in the grave for the consummation. Only in the third century do we find Origen teaching the idea of a particular purification for individuals prior to their ultimate salvation. Origen, however, devel­oped this teaching, which became a kind of germ for the development of a full-fledged doctrine of purgatory, as part of his teaching of the univer­sal salvation of all men (called "apocatastasis")! It was not until the thirteenth century, at the Second Council of Lyons (1274), and the fif­teenth century, at the Council of Flo­rence (1439), that the full form of Ro­man Catholic teaching concerning purgatory took shape. At these Coun­cils, purgatory is clearly understood to be a place of penal and expiatory suffering immediately after death and before entrance into God's presence.

I briefly cite this history because it illustrates one aspect of the weakness of the basis for the dogma of purga­tory. In the famous saying of Vincent of Lerins, a fifth century theologian, the dogma of the church is defined as that "which is believed everywhere, always, and by all." This saying has served historically as a kind a "rule of thumb" to determine what belongs to the official dogma or teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The prob­lem is that this rule of thumb is much too stringent to permit purgatory to qualify as a dogma of the church. It simply cannot be shown that the church has everywhere and always and by all believed this to be an es­sential teaching.

But what of the Scriptural evidence for this dogma? Here three passages have traditionally been cited in sup­port of this teaching: II Maccabees 12:43-45; Matthew 12:32; and 1 Cor­inthians 3:12-15. Other passages have been cited as well (e.g.: Isaiah 4:4; Micah 7:8; Zechariah 9:11; Malachi 3:2, 3; Matthew 5:22, 25, 26; Revelation 21:27), but these three are the only ones that approxi­mate a proof for this dogma.

  • The first of these passages, II Maccabees 12:43-45, is found in one of the apocryphal books of the Old Testament and is not recognized as canonical or authoritative by the Re­formed churches. The two books of Maccabees treat the Jewish struggle for religious and political freedom against the Seleucid kings, and are full of apparent exaggerations and moralisms. II Maccabees 12:43-45 describes a certain valiant Judas who makes provision for offerings to be taken and an "expiatory sacrifice" to be made on behalf of "the dead, so that they might be released from their sin."5   Though this passage seems to lend some support for the idea of ac­tions performed on behalf of the dead which release them from punishment, it does not come close to proving the dogma of purgatory. For example, the dead on whose behalf sacrifice and prayer are offered include soldiers who have committed the mortal sin of idolatry, a sin which cannot be atoned for in purgatory or by others who act on behalf of the person who dies in such mortal sin. Thus, even this apoc­ryphal text does not support the dogma of purgatory since it speaks of satisfaction made in purgatory for mortal sin.
  • The second of these passages, Mat­thew 12:32, speaks of the sin against the Holy Spirit: "And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come." Though this text clearly means only to teach that such sin will never be forgiven, it is taken by Roman Catho­lic exegetes to imply that some sins may be forgiven, not only in this age, but also in the age to come. However, even were this a plausible read­ing of the text (which it is not), it would still not answer to the need. For, since the "age to come" clearly refers to the age subsequent to Christ's return, this refers to a period that fol­lows purgatory and therefore cannot coin­cide with it. Purgatory will have ceased to exist, according to Catholic teach­ing, after the return of Christ and the establishment of the "age to come."
  • The third of these passages, 1 Cor­inthians 3:12-15, describes a fire of judgment which will reveal and test the works of the righteous. In verses 13-15, we read: "Each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. If any man's work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire." Roman Catholic exegesis of this text argues that this is a description of a literal fire through which "the souls" of the departed will be cleansed. This fiery cleansing coincides with the state of purgatory.

Here again, a close examination of the text proves the error of this exege­sis. This passage describes, not the cleansing of the souls of the departed, but the revealing and testing of the works of believers. Furthermore, this passage speaks of the believer being saved "as through" fire, not "through" fire in the sense of a literal punish­ment. Lastly, this passage describes what will occur on "the day," that is, on the day of judgment when purga­tory will be a thing of the past. There is really nothing, then, that lends itself in this passage to the kind of interpre­tation traditionally found among Ro­man Catholic defenders of the dogma of purgatory.

Not only do these most important passages fail to prove the dogma of purgatory, but also the passages cited in addition to them give no support whatever to this dogma. A reading of these passages could only support the dogma of purgatory, were that dogma already pre­sumed and brought to the reading of them.

There is, accordingly, no adequate basis for the dogma of purgatory, whether in the tradition of the church or in the text of Scrip­ture.

The Un-Christian Character of This Dogma🔗

It is not only the lack of biblical support for this dogma, however, that is so disturbing. It is also the substan­tially un-Christian character of this teach­ing that must be recognized. There are significant aspects of the gospel of salvation through the perfect work of Jesus Christ, our Mediator, that are imperiled by this teaching.

  • First, this dogma shifts the emphasis in our understanding of salvation from God to man. The focus of the dogma of purgatory falls upon the believer's activity, cooperating with God's grace to be sure, in performing satisfactions to remit the temporal penalty of sin. Not only must such satisfactions be made in this life — through the sacra­ment of penance and other good works — but they also extend into the intermediate state in purgatory. Fur­thermore, those only who escape pur­gatory are said to be "the saints," believers who are said to have done "works of supererogation," that is, works that surpass what is required and accrue to the benefit of others! Likewise, living believers can perform a diversity of good works on behalf of their beneficiaries in purgatory which "merit" a shortening of their stay in purgatory or the severity of their pun­ishment. All of this smacks of a view of salvation in which the sovereign grace of God is diminished and the meritorious acts of believers are ex­alted. But this plainly contradicts the Scripture's teaching that sinful man is incapable of doing any saving good (compare Romans 3:21-27; 7:14-25; 8:3) and that God alone is able to save His people to the uttermost (compare Psalm 32:1-2; Romans 7:24,25; Ephesians 2:8­10; Titus 3:4-7; 1 Peter 1:19).
  • Second, the dogma of purgatory, in keeping with this shifting of empha­sis from the work of God to the work of man, steals from the glory and perfec­tion of the work of our Savior. To echo the language of John Calvin, we should do away with all talk of any "miserable satisfactions" performed by us, even if only done to satisfy the temporal penalty of our sins. Such satisfactions, including the unbloody sacrifices of the mass, are rendered altogether superfluous by the all-suf­ficient sacrifice and work of atone­ment Christ has accomplished on be­half of His own (compare Hebrews 9:12, 26; 10:14). As the Scripture teaches, "The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7; compare Hebrews 5:9; Revelation 1:5). The inevitable and unhappy fruit of the dogma of purgatory is that it undermines the gospel of the triumph of God's grace in Christ. Rather than rejoicing in God's grace and mercy, richly lavished upon us in Christ Jesus, the believer is taught to fix his eye upon his own and others' works on his behalf.
  • Third, the interest of the dogma of purgatory, to stress the need for purifica­tion and cleansing so as to fit the believer for God's presence, cannot be met by the kind of human satisfactions and good works which this dogma en­courages. The believer's cleansing oc­curs through free justification and in­ward sanctification by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:13). Salvation by grace alone does not militate against the need for cleansing and purification; it only ascribes this cleansing and purification to the pow­erful working of the Holy Spirit, who alone is able to cleanse the believer through and through. Christ is given to His people for righteousness and sanctification (1 Corinthians 1:30). This means that the purification of the be­liever comes, not through purgatory or works of satisfaction, but through the work of the Spirit who writes the law of God upon the heart (Hebrews 10:16).
  • Fourth, there is in the Roman Catho­lic dogma of purgatory the frightening specter of a church whose authority ex­ceeds the boundaries of what is lawful. The authority of the church in the administration of the gospel is always a ministering authority, an administration of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. The church has no authority to bind the consciences of believers beyond the Word of God, or to impose satis­factions, upon pain of punishment, not required in that Word. Nor does the church (or pope) have the author­ity to release believers from purgatory. There is no escaping the fact that the dogma of purgatory grants to the church an unbiblical and cruel tyranny over believers, a tyranny that is at odds with the gospel overtures of grace and mercy. It is impossible to square this dogma with an overture like that found in Isaiah 55:1: "Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost."

More could be said about any one of these problems with the dogma of purgatory. But this should be enough to illustrate how it robs the believer of that comfort which is rightfully his in Jesus Christ. It also conflicts with the blessed hope of an immediate and intensified communion with the Lord upon death in the intermediate state. Against this dogma, it is enough to confess as believers that our only com­fort in life and in death is that we belong to our faithful Savior, who has fully satisfied for all our sins! The preach­ing of this gospel comfort in our Lord Jesus Christ must overshadow and displace the unbiblical dogma of pur­gatory.


  1. ^ It is essential to note that, in traditional Catholic teaching, the priest is authorized to remit in Christ's name the eternal penalty for sin in the sacrament of penance. Nevertheless, the priest thereupon stipulates "sat­isfactions" that must still be made for the temporal penalty of sin. Purgatory satisfies this temporal judgment and its unmet obligations, not the eternal judgment against sin. 
  2. ^ The Council of Trent for this reason also emphasized the legitimacy of masses of­fered on behalf of the dead, or masses of­fered though none of the living faithful are present to receive the body and blood of the Lord. The whole conception of the mass as an unbloody sacrifice, a propitiatory rite that merits grace, is closely joined to this understanding of purgatory.
  3. ^ To complete this summary of the Roman Catholic teaching regarding the interme­diate state and purgatory, it is necessary to mention the traditional understand­ing of what are termed the Limbus patrum ("the place of the fathers") and the Limbus infantum ("the place of infants"). The first of these, the Limbus patrum, is the place reserved for the souls of Old Testament saints as they awaited the coming of Christ and His "descent into hell," at which time He an­nounced to them His victory and secured their release into paradise. The second of these, the Limbus infantum, is the place reserved for infants who die still in the guilt and corruption of original sin, without opportunity having been given them through baptism to come to salvation. This Limbus infantum is not an intermediate state, but a permanent depart­ment of hell, a place of lesser punishment, to which such infants are consigned. Though the teaching regarding the Limbus patrum is a settled part of Catholic teaching, there continues to be considerable debate regard­ing the status and nature of the Limbus infantum.
  4. ^ The Greek Orthodox church has a doctrine of purgatory, though it does not comprise an essential element of the dogma of the church. This doctrine explicitly rejects the medieval Catholic teaching that the believer suffers a "material" fire in purgatory. However, it is taught that the prayers of the living and the oblation of the bloodless sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ in the sacra­ment do aid the dead in their attainment of a blessed resurrection.
  5. ^ The New Jerusalem Bible translates this passage as follows: "For had he [Judas] not expected the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead, whereas if he had in view the splendid recompense reserved for those who make a pious end, the thought was holy and devout. Hence, he had this expiatory sacrifice offered for the dead, so that they might be released from sin."

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