Let’s ask and answer three questions:
What is Purgatory?
Where did the notion of Purgatory originate?
How Scriptural is it?
First Question: What is Purgatory? The simplest answer is to say that it is a place/dimension/state of life beyond death where Christians who are ultimately bound for Heaven are purged of their unconfessed/unaddressed sins. Those who believe in Purgatory explain that we can’t and won’t enter a perfect paradise until we are fully purged/cleansed of our sins. A Vatican/Catholic website emphasizes how “every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected.”
This brings us to our second question: Where did the notion of purgatory originate? Prior to the Protestant Reformation both the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches embraced the idea that Christians who died went to a realm called “purgatory” to be “purged” of their sins so as to be ready for a perfect paradise called heaven. A Church Council meeting in Florence in 1429 defined purgatory as a kind of penal and purificatory place; penal in the sense of being punished for unconfessed sins and purificatory in the sense of being cleansed of those sins.
Since no one wanted to spend much time in such a place, the Church was able to raise money by offering people an early exit from purgatory. That fundraising enterprise which got way out of hand triggered the Protestant Reformation. While the Catholic Church stopped the “out-of-control” fundraising tactics associated with a fear of purgatory the Church has continued to encourage people to pray, give, and say mass for those Christians who have died in sin, seeking to shorten their time of purging. Meanwhile, most Protestants do not believe there is a biblical basis for purgatory.
How Scriptural is the concept of purgatory? One Catholic explanation for the belief in Purgatory refers to Matthew 5:48 where Jesus challenges us to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It is understood that being “perfected” involves being “purged” of our sins. There is also a reference to I Thessalonians where the Apostle Paul writes, “May He (God) make your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.” The implication is that we must be made “blameless” whether He comes here or we go there!
Two further references are II Corinthians 7:1 (“let us cleanse ourselves from every impurity of the flesh and spirit, completing our sanctification in the fear of God.”) and I John 3:3 (“And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself just as He is pure.”). In all these Scriptural passages the emphasis is on us purifying ourselves under the inspiration and empowerment of the Holy Spirit in this life, not being purified by God in an afterlife.
… the emphasis is on us purifying ourselves under the inspiration and empowerment of the Holy Spirit in this life …
I understand the Catholic Church’s position on Purgatory as an attempt to answer a troubling question: How can even a Christian be admitted into a perfect paradise without first being cleansed or purged of besetting sins? However, we can so easily get off track trying to answer such questions with speculation and imagination instead of revelation.
We must keep focused on how it is Christ and His sacrifice for us on the cross that is our atonement for past, present, and future sins. Harry Blamires warns: “If we are saved by faith alone, taking a course in a posthumous penitentiary or even a reformatory school looks like an unnecessary supplement to what was achieved by Christ on Calvary.”
Christ promised the repentant thief on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). He didn’t have to go to Purgatory. There are no clear references to a Purgatory in the Bible.
In conclusion I believe there is no Purgatory; however, I do believe we shall be purged of our sinful selfishness which begins the moment we are reborn and continues through this life and is finalized by God as He returns and/or as we enter His Kingdom. I do not believe we can say more than that without treading where angels may fear to tread!
Paul Baxter serves as associational missionary for Pine Mountain Baptist Association. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.