Thursday, May 8, 2008

Faith Questions: Is Purgatory Real?

FAITH QUESTIONS: Is Purgatory real?

Purgatory is not real, and is a unfortunate invention that is not based on any biblical teaching.

Defining Purgatory: The word purgatory comes from the Latin word purgo, meaning “I cleanse”. The Roman Catholic Church maintains that purgatory is real and is a place where Christians are 'purged' or 'cleansed' of our sins so we can then enter heaven. According to this teaching, the length of suffering in purgatory is determined by the person’s degree of sinfulness. The time of suffering can be shortened by living Christians through the prayers, offerings, and masses offered to God for their souls. Catholics base the teaching of purgatory on church tradition and on the apocryphal work called 2 Maccabees (12:43-45, 46). The Council of Trent declared all who denied this doctrine to be anathema (that is, ‘accursed/unsaved’).

Three Reason Why Purgatory is Unbiblical:

First, it is not supported by any biblical teaching. The only hint of purgatory is found in a non-biblical work (2 Maccabees). It is not found anywhere in the Bible. However, Catholics do not base this doctrine on the Bible, but rather on tradition (which they view to be equally authoritative). However, only the Word of God is our authoritative guide in life and doctrine. Scripture actually contradicts the concept of purgatory. For example, the Apostle Paul tells us that believers who die are “absent from the body and present with the Lord” (2 Cor 5:8).

Second, it seriously misjudges the severity of sin. At the root of the doctrine of purgatory is the idea that we must be ‘purged’ of our sins. However, Scripture sees sin as something that is infinitely insulting to an infinite God. There is no such thing as a little sin that needs only a little punishment. If we commit only one sin against God, we would still deserve eternity in hell. Because of this, Christ came and paid our penalty.

Third, it distorts the Gospel. Scripture tells us that Christ paid the penalty for our sins. 1 Peter 3:18 states that “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” It is not our ‘punishment’ in purgatory that gets us into heaven, but Christ’s punishment on our behalf. The Catholic conception of salvation states that we must ‘assist’ Christ in the process of saving us. Though they maintain Christ is necessary for salvation, they say we must also do our part. But this is a clear violation of the Gospel, which presents salvation as a gift from God which we did not earn, assist in, or work for. Salvation is by Christ alone, through faith alone, and in grace alone.

When we (as believers) are brought before the throne of God, He will not see our own righteousness—it’s not there anyway. But, He will see the righteousness of Christ—which is our only hope of salvation. At its root, the concept of purgatory denies Christ’ ability to truly save us. It tempts us to futilely try to work for our own salvation, instead of trusting in Christ’s glorious work on our behalf.

Purgatory is not real. Rather, it is a false doctrine that distorts the glorious message of the Gospel.

Questions about faith, scripture, theology, or daily Christian living can be submitted via Email. "Faith Questions" is a feature in the monthly newsletter of Indian River Baptist Church. This blog republishes those Questions, along with others not selected for print publication.


  1. So,
    from what I can gather,
    you are against it?

    I bought that book on the Holy Spirit 1 Cor 12-14 exposition by Carson. I need you to read it and explain what he is saying. I don't know if he is for it that against it other than by looking at the guy, I'm saying he is "again it."

  2. (Marcus Dods, Robert Alexander Watson, Frederic William Farrar, An Exposition on the Bible: a series of expositions covering all the books of the Old and New Testament, Volume 6 [Hartford, Conn.: S.S. Scranton Co., 1903, p. 464)

    Dods (or whoever wrote this particular section) goes on to say there are different kinds of prayer for the dead, and that the passage doesn’t necessarily sanction all of them, but his essential point is in agreement with the way I have argued this. He says (p. 465):

    This passage may be quoted as reasonable evidence that the death of a person does not extinguish our right or duty to pray for him . . . but this passage proves no more than that some kinds of intercession for the dead are allowable . . .

    I think in asking ourselves whether this is an example of an apostle praying for the dead, we can better evaluate whether there is a biblical foundation on which the doctrine of purgatory is real. Without this question as a foundation, the whole doctrine may be abandoned entirely, but with it answered in the affirmative we would have to ask ourselves what further conclusions this may lead to.

    Sorry about the length of the post. Thank you for your timing in reading it, and I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it. God bless, Pastor Gelatt!

  3. Marcus Dods (1834-1909: Free Church of Scotland) provides several reasons of plausibility that this was indeed a prayer for a dead man:

    Certainly the balance of probability is decidedly in favour of the view that Onesiphorus was already dead when Paul wrote these words. There is not only the fact that he here speaks of “the house of Onesiphorus” in connection with the present, and of Onesiphorus himself only in connection with the past: there is also the still more marked fact that in the final salutations, while greetings are sent to Prisca and Aquila, and from Eubulus, Pudens, Linus, and Claudia, yet it is once more “the house of Onesiphorus” and not Onesiphorus himself who is saluted. This language is thoroughly intelligible, if Onesiphorus was no longer alive, but had a wife and children who were still living at Ephesus, but it is not easy to explain this reference in two places to the household of Onesiphorus, if he himself was still alive. In all the other cases the individual and not the household is mentioned. . . .

    There is also the character of the Apostle’s prayer. Why does he confine his desires respecting the requital of Onesiphorus’ kindness to the day of judgment? Why does he not also pray that he may be requited in this life? . . . This again is thoroughly intelligible, if Onesiphorus is already dead. It is much less intelligible if he is still alive. It seems, therefore, to be scarcely too much to say that there is no serious reason for questioning the now widely accepted view that at the time when St. Paul wrote these words Onesiphorus was among the departed.

    With regard to the second point there seems to be equal absence of serious reasons for doubting that the words in question constitute a prayer. . . . we have a prayer that the Judge at the last day will remember those good deeds of Onesiphorus, which the Apostle has been unable to repay, and will place them to his account. Paul cannot requite them, but he prays that God will do so by showing mercy upon him at the last day.

  4. Hello, Pastor Galett!

    I think one area of the post that I would call to question would be to take one step back from the concept of purgatory and to ask if it is biblical to pray for the dead. Before beginning to discuss whether or not purgatory is biblical, one would have to ask if praying for the dead is biblical. As far as I know, nearly all denominations of the Protestant branch of Christianity don't feel it neccessary or biblical to do so.

    Two related passages from which it can be strongly suggested is 2 Tim. 1:16-18 and 2 Tim 4:19.

    2 Timothy 1:16-18 (RSV) May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiph'orus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, [17] but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me -- [18] may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day -- and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.


    2 Timothy 4:19 Greet Prisca and Aq'uila, and the household of Onesiph'orus.

    The question that I have to ask here is "Is Onesiphorus dead or alive?"

    In the comments section of the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible the author notes "some commentators ifer that Onesiphorus died before 2 Timothy was written, since (1) Paul does not indicate that Onesiphorus is with him any longer; (2) he prays that the Lord will grant him mercy at the final Judgement (1:18); and (3) he asks Timothy to greet the household of Onesiphorus, but not Onesiphorus himself (4:19). If, in fact, Onesiphorus had died before Paul wrote this letter, then the apostle's prayer in 1:18 would be an early example of the Christian practice of praying for the dead."

  5. Anonymous, Even if we were to take that interpretation, it couldn't lead to the doctrine of purgatory (which still denies that Christ is a full covering for our sins). At most, it would be a prayer that the departed soul finds shalom (peace) with God.

    Think about it this way...are we really to believe that the majority of God's plan for salvation and sanctification is built upon a place/process that is nowhere mentioned in Scripture, and which is explicitly denied in several passages? For example, 1 Peter 2:24 says, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (cf 2 Cor 5:21). Either he took all our sins & we've been healed, or he did not take all our sins and we still must atone to some degree. The first is the Gospel, the second denies the Gospel.

    Isn't purgatory simply the reintroduction of works-righteous postmortem? It seems as humans we can never totally free ourselves of that false-religion.

  6. Anonymous, I agree it is most likely that 2 Tim 1:16-18 is implying that Onesiphorus is dead. But notice who Paul is praying for: the HOUSEHOLD of Onesiphorus (e.g. the surviving family members). Paul does state his wish/hope/confidence that "the Lord grant to him to find mercy on that day", which most likely is reference to that future day when Christ renews all things.

    This is in line with rabbinic prayers regarding the dead, which essentially were expressions of hope that the departed soul would be the beneficiaries of God's mercy or shalom. FYI, I've never been at a funeral service where this wasn't done in some way ("Lord, into your hands we commit this woman's spirit"...:may she find peace and eternal joy in your presence"..."have mercy on this man, o Lord", etc). Does this then imply that all Protestant pastors believe in purgatory? Certainly not. How, then, can it imply it when Paul does it?

  7. Pastor, allow me to address some specific points you make.

    "At most, it would be a prayer that the departed soul finds shalom (peace) with God."

    I think you said this regarding verse 18 "may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day" The verse seems pretty clear that Paul is asking God to have "mercy" on his deceased friend during the Judgement (i.e. that Day) which is in the future. Taken together, Paul is presupposing a temporal state in which Onesiphorus has died and is not in Heaven, otherwise it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to ask God to have mercy on someone who is already in Heaven. It also seems like the statement at a funeral such as "have mercy on this man, o Lord" wouldn't be consistent with assuming that a person's judgement takes place at the moment of their death. If that person has been purified or if they are judged to be in Hell for eternity at the moment of their death, that prayer/wish/hope would be without value in a soul's judgement because it is already done. And from that statement you asked "Does this then imply that all Protestant pastors believe in purgatory?", and I would have to say that either they imply/presuppose a temporal state between one's death and judgement, or their words contradict what they believe about this. Notice that I am not using the word "purgatory" here. I'm only questioning if it is biblical to pray for mercy from the Lord on even the deceased's judgement.

  8. But Paul is not referring to the judgement that occurs immediately after death, but rather "THAT DAY", referring to the coming eschaton.