What Is Purgatory?

Purgatory is the belief that there will be a state of cleansing after death to purify the saints of their temporal punishments due to sin. The Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott describes it as the place where, “The temporal punishments for sins are atoned for in the purifying fire by the so-called suffering of atonement (satispassio), that is, by the willing bearing of the expiatory punishments imposed by God” (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 485). In Catholic theology, while Christ has borne the punishment for our sins so that the saints do not go to hell as long as they die in a state of grace, they still need to make atonement by suffering for the temporal punishments due to sin. If there is any temporal punishment still left on us at death, purgatory is necessary before the saints can enter heaven. I believe the Catholic doctrine of purgatory is an evolution of the purgatorial understanding of hell promoted by universalists such as Origen where hell was viewed as a state of purgatory sinners could eventually leave and this heretical belief existed before the Western doctrine of purgatory developed. The Council of Trent anathematizes everyone who denies the existence of purgatory:

“If anyone says that after the grace of justification has been received the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out for any repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be paid, either in this world or in the other, in purgatory, before access can be opened to the kingdom of heaven, let him be anathema” (Session 6, Canon 30).

In contrast to this unbiblical and unhistorical belief, the Bible teaches that Christians will be instantly glorified at the second coming of Christ or at death (Matt 13:43; Luke 23:43; 1 Cor 15:51-52; 2 Cor 5:6-8; Phil 1:23; 1 Thess 4:17; 1 John 3:2). Since the saints on earth are glorified when Christ comes and do not go to purgatory after his coming, they do not need to go to purgatory after death either. If purgatory is true, then death would not be something to look forward to, but something to be feared. Since the suffering of purgatory is worse than this life, it would not be a better thing to depart from this life. Those who die in Christ rest from their labors. As Revelation 14:13 says, “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!’” But they would have no rest if they went to purgatory after death where they continue to suffer and increase in sanctification as they had in life. The doctrine of purgatory was unknown among the earliest Christians as the second century Christian sermon of 2 Clement teaches that there is no more opportunity for repentance or confession of sin after death (8:3). The garments of the saints in heaven are whiter than snow because they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, not singed in the fires of purgatory (Rev 7:14).

The most common text in the Bible used to support purgatory is 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. Since these people are saved “only as through fire,” it is argued that they must undergo a fiery testing or punishment before being allowed entrance into heaven. But to be saved “as through fire” is a metaphor to represent being barely saved. The subordinating conjunction “as” shows that Paul is using the language of simile. The fire of this passage is not applied to the person, but to his work which is burned up resulting in the loss of eternal rewards. It is not a refining fire, but a consuming fire which destroys works which were not done in and for Christ. His work may be burned up, but he is still saved, though just barely. The picture Paul is painting is similar to that of a man who just barely makes it out alive of a burning building before it collapses.

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