A major theological issue between Catholics and Protestants is purgatory. It’s a dogma that just doesn’t seem to make sense to Protestants. I mean, doesn’t the Bible only mention heaven and hell? What need would there be for purgatory? You can’t get forgiveness for your sins after dead! Remember, too, that the word purgatory can’t be found in Scripture!
There are many other objections to purgatory that a Protestant might make. We will try and cover all of them here. First, let us say that it is true that the word purgatory is not in Scripture. However, the term Holy Trinity isn’t in Scripture, either. Yet, Protestants accept that dogma without question! It doesn’t matter if the word used to describe a belief is found in Scripture, or not. What matters is that one can find the idea behind the belief. That can be found in Scripture.
The first bit of biblical evidence for purgatory that is usually given is the least convincing for Protestants. It comes from one of the deutero-canonical books (what Protestants call the apocrypha) called 2 Maccabees 12:38-46. For those not familiar, allow me to give a summary of what happened.
After fighting against their enemies, Judas Maccabeus and the Jews who fought with him went to the city of Adullam. There Judas’ forces had won a battle, and they needed to remove their dead from the field. Before the Maccabean forces had gone into battle, Judas had warned them against pagan practices. Such would only result in the failure of their army, and/or the individual’s punishment. Under the tunic of each of the dead in Adullam was found a pagan amulet. What happens next is interesting, since many Protestants believe that Catholics invented the belief in purgatory.
“Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.” (2 Mc. 12:42-6)
I don’t want to spend too much time on this text, because I know Protestants don’t accept the canonicity of 2 Maccabees. Yet, I would like to take a little closer look. Note that the soldiers were already dead. They had committed a serious sin against God, and Judas still offers a sacrifice and prayers for their souls. He could not have known if any of these men had the opportunity to repent of their sin before death. What he did know is that these men died fighting the pagan enemies of God. Judas wanted to make absolutely sure that, when these men’s bodies resurrected, they would be able to enjoy the glory of heaven! Why do this if there is no purgatory?
In Matthew 5 Jesus talks about anger. He says that, before approaching the altar, one must make sure that no one has anything serious against him. In other words, you must be reconciled. Jesus then warns, “Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” (Mt. 5:25-6)
At first glance this may not seem to be a reference to purgatory. Indeed, taken by itself, this passage might not be. Yet, we can not take one part of Scripture, and interpret it by itself. Scripture must be interpreted as a whole. The fact is, however, that the above-quoted passage does mention a judge, guard, and prison. Like all of Scripture this passage has a physical and spiritual reference. Let us view more Scripture proof first.
Matthew 12:32 tells us that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit can not be forgiven “in this age or in the age to come”. (verses 31-2) Sure, “this age or the age to come” can refer to the present, or the time when Jesus returns. However, it also means this life and the afterlife. The Catholic Church and Scripture are not trying to say that unforgiven sins are forgiven in the afterlife. What they’re trying to say is that the effects of forgiven sins can be removed in the afterlife. First, however, one must receive forgiveness for their sins.
Another bit of Scripture which supports the belief in purgatory is 1 Corinthians 3:11-5. This passage talks about people’s works being tested after death. Some people’s work is found to be solid, and they are permitted to heaven. Other people’s works are less solid. They are burned up “as through fire”. What is this but purgatory? That is the “test”. Certainly, we believe some people go straight to heaven after death. Hence, the fact that some people’s works don’t burn up. They pass the test without pain. Others, however, are not so fortunate.
2 Corinthians 7:1 makes the case for purgatory, as well. It says, “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.”
This, of course, is a reference to this life. Yet, where is there the exclusion of a dual reference? All Scripture verses have multiple levels of meaning. One level of meaning for 2 Corinthians 7:1 is a reference to this life. Another level, however, is a reference to the afterlife.
There are many other passages of Scripture from both Old and New Testaments we could examine in favor of purgatory. Yet, I also wish to demonstrate the common sense of purgatory, so let us look at only one more passage. This passage is Revelation 20:13-4.
“The sea gave up its dead; then Death and Hades gave up their dead. All the dead were judged according to their deeds. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the pool of fire. (This pool of fire is the second death.)”
While there is a lot of imagery here, John gives us some help to at least somewhat understand what he is talking about. He speaks here of five things. He speaks of Death, death (note the lowercase “d”), Hades, the sea, and a pool of fire. We know that when John speaks of death, he is speaking of physical death. We know this because John says, “All the dead were judged according to their deeds.”
We also know that the pool of fire is hell. This must be the case, since John refers to it as the “Second death”. Death and Hades are thrown into it. Yet, what is “the sea”, Death, and Hades a reference to?
The reference to the sea is not clear. What is clear is that Death and Hades are temporary places. We know this because both are destroyed in the “pool of fire”. The souls from both are released, and then Death and Hades are destroyed. This could be a reference to limbo and purgatory. I am confident Hades is a reference to purgatory.
Everyone thinks that Hades in the Bible refers to hell. That is not the case. The Latin term used to translate the Greek Hades is “infernus”. This doesn’t necessarily mean hell. “Infernus” in Latin means the same thing as the reference to “the bosom of Abraham” in Luke, or the reference to Sheol in Hebrew. “Infernus” is a reference simply to the “abode of the dead”. For hell, the Latin term “infernus damnatorus” is used. In revelation 20:13-4, Hades is translated simply as “infernus”. This is a reference to the “abode of the dead”. This could be limbo, but it could also be purgatory. Probably, both are meant.
Not only can one find many more Scripture references to purgatory, one can find that the Church Fathers interpreted these verses in the same way. Let us just look at a few of the earliest references. (All quotations are from William A. Jurgens, Faith of the Early Fathers, Vol. 1 (Liturgical Press:Collegeville, MN, 1970).)
The first quotation comes from Tertullian in his work called The Soul (c. A.D. 208/12). Tertullian says, “In short, if we understand that prison of which the Gospel speaks to be Hades, and if we interpret the last farthing to be the light offense which is to be expiated there before the resurrection, no one will doubt that the soul undergoes some punishments in Hades, without prejudice to the fullness of the resurrection, after which recompense will be made through the flesh also.” (no. 352, p. 145)
In his work, Catechetical Lectures (c. A.D. 315-86), St. Cyril of Jerusalem mentions praying for the dead. He then addresses an argument against this practice. St. Cyril says, “And I wish to persuade you by an illustration. For I know that there are many who are saying this: ‘If a soul departs this world with sins, what does it profit it to be remembered in prayer?’ Well, if a king were to banish certain persons who had offended him, and those interceding for them were to plait a crown and offer it to him on behalf of the ones who were being punished, would he not grant a remission of their penalties? In the same way we too offer prayers to Him for those who have fallen asleep, though they be sinners. We do not plait a crown, but offer up Christ who has been sacrificed for our sins; and we thereby propitiate the benevolent God for them as well as for ourselves.” (no. 853, p. 363; Cf. no. 852)
There are other Church Fathers we could quote, but this blog is already too long. The two quoted are enough for now. We see two very prominent Church Fathers advocating a belief in purgatory!
I would also point out that purgatory makes sense. We know from Scripture that nothing impure enters heaven. When we commit sin and have it forgiven, is our soul completely pure? Every action (good or bad) has consequences. If you steal something from another, you must have the sin forgiven. Yet, there is the matter of restitution. You were forgiven of your sin, but you still need to remove the consequences that resulted from your sin. You need to make restitution for the stolen object.
In other words, the “stain of guilt” is removed by forgiveness. This means that, eventually you may enter heaven. However, the fact remains that bad consequences resulted from your sin, and this must be corrected. The “stain of consequence” remains. If we die with this stain on our soul, we are not pure. We die with the grace of God, so we can’t go to hell. Yet, we can not yet go to heaven, because we are not pure. So what happens?
The answer is that we go to purgatory. Purgatory only works for sins already forgiven, but for which we have not made some recompense (restitution). We must go here to be purified before entering heaven. We can also go to purgatory for some unnatural attachment in life; for this, too, is sin.
If you die in the grace of God, but you still cared a little too much for money, other material goods, a spouse, children, etc.; then you die with a stain on your soul. Your love of God was not “perfected”, as it were, in life. Something or someone stood in between you and a proper love of God. You loved other people or things to the point where they may have interfered, at times, with your performance of God’s will.
Hopefully I have helped to clear up-even a little-the belief in purgatory. It’s a scriptural belief. There is evidence that the Church Fathers believed in it. Purgatory also makes sense. Let us remember to pray for these souls. What? You don’t believe living Christians can pray for the dead? You don’t believe dead souls can hear us? You don’t believe that souls, upon their death, immediately receive their judgement? Well, I think we just found the topic for our next blog. Until next time…
Peace in Christ,
David J. Pollard
American Catholic Solidarity