Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Is There a Purgatory?

“Is there a Purgatory?” This question is an important one because it is such a sticking point between Roman Catholics and Evangelical Protestants. Protestants have long rejected the doctrine because they consider it to not only be unbiblical, but anti-biblical. In other words, it does not appear in the Bible and contradicts things that do appear there.

Catholics rarely debate this point. They know a well-developed doctrine of purgatory is an invention of the Middle Ages. Some earlier evidences are occasionally discussed, but they are vague, do not necessarily refer to purgatory, and are arguably holdovers from Greco-Roman religious practices of praying to and for ancestors.

Be that as it may, Catholics arguing for purgatory do not care. It does not matter if the doctrine is biblical, because it is traditional. In Catholic thought, church tradition as developed through papal and conciliar proclamations is as authoritative as Scripture (though they seek to avoid outright contradiction). Therefore, because the Church itself has declared there to be a purgatory, there is a purgatory whether the Bible says so or not.

Interestingly, an article by Gary A. Anderson attempts to change this. Anderson is a Catholic who argues that the doctrine of purgatory is, in fact, biblical. This is a commendable goal, since it tries to bridge a longstanding and serious gap between Protestants and Catholics. If purgatory could be shown to be scriptural, then there would be a possibility of Evangelicals coming to accept it and a point of contention could be done away with.

The goal is commendable, but the execution less so. To understand why, we need to begin by understanding what purgatory is. From there, we can consider the biblical passages Anderson uses to prove his position, and why they actually do no such thing. When that is done, we will move on to consider why Catholics consider purgatory so necessary. Then we will conclude with the closest parallel idea in Evangelical thought.


For those who may not know, purgatory is a realm of the afterlife. You have perhaps heard descriptions of nursing homes as “God’s waiting room?” Well, that more accurately describes purgatory. It is not hell, because hell is a place of eternal punishment reserved for those who choose not to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. It is not heaven either, because heaven is the realm of God where there is no suffering and pain, only joy. Purgatory is somewhere in between.

Purgatory is, essentially, a realm of punishment. Some might quibble, preferring “purgation,” but the point is basically the same. It is assumed that when Christians die, they have most often not completed the process of sanctification. To put it another way, they died with minor sins in their lives for which they had not properly corrected. In purgatory, they experience judgments on these sins.

However, the process is not eternal. It only goes on so long as is necessary to “purge” the inmate of the remaining stigma of sin. Once that is done, they enter heaven at last. A waiting room, then, describes it fairly well. It is a place where time is passed until God is ready to see you. And for whatever pain might be experienced, it is worthwhile for knowing there will eventually be a payoff in the end.

“Purgatory” in the Bible

The word “purgatory” appears nowhere in the Bible. Of course, neither does the word “trinity.” We use many terms, traditions, doctrines, and practices not explicitly listed in Scripture. For Protestants, however, the goal is to make sure they are backed by the Bible. Since the Bible is God’s word in a special sense, it ought to be the measure of our practice. If anything is out of keeping with it, then it should not be observed. Anderson understands this objection, and so he seeks to make an implicit case for purgatory such as Protestants might accept.

To do so, he looks at three passages (For whatever reason, he does not reference the passages. Perhaps it is an element of Catholic practice not to show where in the Bible stories can be found so readers can look at them themselves). They are the story of David from 2 Samuel 11-16, of Nebuchadnezzar from Daniel 4, and of Tabitha from Acts 9:36-43.


The story of David is certainly the best one for Anderson’s argument. In it, David commits adultery with Bathsheba and then has her husband, Uriah, murdered to cover it up. He is confronted for his crimes by the prophet Nathan, after which David repents and begs the Lord’s forgiveness. As a result, David is forgiven and his life is spared. However, his child with Bathsheba is not permitted to survive, and David nearly loses his kingdom to his son Absalom.

Anderson focuses on one aspect of this episode in particular. At 2 Samuel 16:5–14, David is fleeing from Absalom and his forces. Along the way, he is met by Shimei, a relative of the King Saul who had preceded David on the throne of Israel. Shimei used this as an opportunity to insult David and call his troubles with Absalom the judgment for his treatment of Saul and his family. David refuses to have Shimei punished, telling his soldiers to “Let him alone, and let him curse; for so the Lord has ordered him” (v. 11).

This is considered to be a remarkable moment of restraint, and it certainly is. However, not to the extent Anderson suggests. He says in the article,

David may take consolation in being forgiven, but he does not confuse forgiveness with the process of spiritual repair. The pain that he must endure is nothing other than the logical consequence of what he has done, and the biblical authors depict him as possessing the spiritual wisdom to see this punitive suffering as a providential path toward transformation, blows that reshape him into an image of one perfected in penitent submission to God’s will.

I do not mean to suggest Anderson is entirely wrong about this. There is something to be said for undergoing discipline patiently. But that is not exactly what David does here.

For one thing, we need to pay attention to the entire passage. David refuses to see Shimei punished in v. 11, but he had not finished speaking. In v. 12 he says, “It may be that the Lord will look on my affliction, and that the Lord will repay me with good for his cursing this day.” David does not see Shimei’s insults as being deserved. Quite the opposite. And his hope is that God will reward him for his patience. It is no different than David’s earlier patience in the face of his persecution by Saul (1 Samuel 24, 26).

Secondly, this is not the last time we hear of Shimei. In 1 Kings 2:8, 9, as David is passing his throne on to his son in preparation for death, he commands Solomon to execute Shimei for the curses he had lobbed years earlier. Considering that David had promised to spare Shimei (2 Samuel 19:18b–23), this hardly stands out as a high moment. David, in the end, is not as grateful for the opportunity at purgation as Anderson wants him to be.

This is not to say David was a monster, either. No, he was just a man, which is the point. He would not have been very hopeful if he believed he had to rely on himself for holiness.


In relying on the example of Nebuchadnezzar, Anderson leans on an even more tenuous connection to purgatory than in David’s case. In this story, Nebuchadnezzar has a nightmare that the prophet Daniel interprets as promising the king’s downfall. As a result of his pride, Nebuchadnezzar is struck with madness for seven years, and it only passes once he repents.

Anderson relies heavily on one verse in particular. In Daniel 4:27, the prophet tells the king, “Pay off the debt you owe for your sins through charity toward the poor.” Except, that isn’t what he says. Catholic scholars interpret it that way, but a better translation from the original Hebrew says, “Break off your sins by being righteous, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor.”

Notice the difference. Catholic tradition inserts language of paying debts where none exists. Daniel counseled repentance, but the incorrect reading turns it into an opportunity for Nebuchadnezzar to pay his way out of trouble.

And again, that is not all. That same verse, Daniel 4:27, closes with, “Perhaps there may be a lengthening of your prosperity.” Doesn’t exactly read like a promise, does it? Daniel was telling Nebuchadnezzar that this was coming. His incomparable egotism had gone so far that the God of the Universe was literally going to make him crawl in the dirt to show him just how small he really was. Daniel’s advice was not absolute, so much as it was a last gasp of little promise.

Finally, Anderson plays a trick with the ordering of the story. In his article, he makes it sound as if Daniel’s advice is what Nebuchadnezzar does in order to restore himself. The biblical account says nothing of the sort. Daniel told the king this immediately after interpreting the dream. Nebuchadnezzar did not do it, and was punished afterward (though still for his original pride). It is only when, as v. 34 says, “Nebuchadnezzar lifted [his] eyes to heaven” that he was restored to sanity and kingship. At his very lowest, with absolutely nothing to offer, he turned to God. Repentance was all that was required. The real work was done by the Lord.


The last biblical story to which Anderson directs us is that of Tabitha, or Dorcas. Acts 9:36 describes her as a Christian woman “full of good works and charitable deeds.” When she died, the other people in her church called on the apostle Peter to come to them. He was shown to her body, where he met a number of widows to whom Tabitha had given clothes that she had made. These widows even brought the clothing to show him. Peter, in a show of compassion and power in the Holy Spirit, called Tabitha back to life.

Is this story, as Anderson contends, another sign of the biblical validity of the doctrine of purgatory? I can see how he thinks that, from his perspective. In the Roman Catholic system of merits, it would make sense that Tabitha had done enough good works for the people she helped to have a petition granted on her behalf.

Perspective is the issue here, though. The Catholics see Tabitha’s return as being to her benefit. From the Evangelical view, though, it was to the benefit of her friends. She was allowed to live again not because her works had saved her, but because the poor still needed her. More than that, this miracle was a sign that led to the spreading of the Gospel (v. 42). It was not for Tabitha.

In fact, it reminds me of another portion of Scripture. In Philippians 1:21–24, Paul says,

“For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you.”

He is ready to go. It may sound strange, but this life is not the reward. Christ is. We stay here because we have work to do, things which may be rewarding for us but which are only truly needful for others. Tabitha, like Paul, would have known that. She had nothing to fear in death, but life was a blessing to those she loved.

No Purgatory in the Bible

Having reviewed every biblical account Anderson discusses, a few things become evident. First is the use of Old Testament examples. Of all the stories, only Tabitha’s is about a Christian. Even if Anderson’s interpretation were correct, it would not really tell us that much. The Old Testament system was one that relied on works. However, with the coming of Christ, the purposes of the Old Testament law were abrogated. Its principles still hold true, but not its practices, which were made obsolete by their perfect completion in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:10–14, 19–25).

 Secondly, Anderson has to read each passage incompletely and incorrectly in order for it to say what he wants it to say, anyway. David suffers to purify himself, Nebuchadnezzar pays his way out of trouble, and Tabitha is the one rewarded by her return to this world.

This is a common danger of reading the Bible (or really, anything else) known as “eisegesis.” It means to read something into the text, rather than taking it out of its plain, original reading. And it is bad enough each time Anderson does it. But it is at its worst in his attempting this project at all.

What is the real common denominator in each of these stories? It is that no dead people go to heaven after an intermediary period of discipline. In other words, there is no purgatory. No one goes there, or says a word about it. Anderson, along with most other Catholics, merely takes it for granted because the Roman Catholic Church says it exists. It is hopeful to see him wrangling with the Scripture to find its authority on the subject. Unfortunately, he sticks with his original assumptions instead of responding to the evidence (or lack thereof).

Each of these stories has the meaning its own context supplies. In David’s case, it is patience. In Nebuchadnezzar’s, repentance. And for Tabitha, it is about help for the poor and the spreading of the Gospel. There is no room for purgatory in them, and no room for it in the Bible at all.

It ultimately comes down to the major disagreement between Catholicism and Protestantism. The Catholic Church teaches that it is impossible to experience grace without making your own contribution. The Protestant teaching is that you cannot contribute to grace at all. That is what makes it grace. It is an unmerited gift.

What Christ did for us on the cross finishes what we can never do for ourselves. It is an incredible expression of pride to say Jesus’ death only gets us so far, and that we must make up the slack by good works. Of course, life is a process. Once we have God’s grace, we are called to live a holy life. But it is not so we can be saved. It is so we can be closer to Him, and reflect Him more clearly to those who need His light. And it is most certainly not so we can avoid the continuation of the process after death. There are simply no grounds for that.

The Desire for Purgatory

If there is actually no biblical basis for the doctrine of purgatory, and it in fact cuts against Scripture, then why was it developed and why is it so firmly believed? It is not a simple question to answer. Three factors come to mind.

The first, and most important, is what I have already alluded. The message of the Gospel is that Jesus takes our sins away. We do not do anything to deserve this, because we could not possibly hope to merit the covering of the blood of the Son of God. It is as simple as giving your life to Him by acknowledging you have been a rebel and accepting His forgiveness. Salvation is, on our part, easy.

To some, though, it is too easy. It is hard to accept that we do not have to work for it. We are suspicious of a free gift. Too often, people who get into this mindset will not allow themselves to accept Christ. They still try to earn Him, to live up to Him. Sadly, it just keeps them distant from Him, since they never can. Purgatory is an element of this. Catholics feel like they have to pay for their sins, even if it takes centuries. But that is only because they want to be in control, rather than surrendering to the mercy of God in Christ.

Secondly, purgatory is actually convenient. The Catholic Church creates an obligation mindset. It teaches people that they must live for God to be acceptable to Him, not to live for Him because He first accepts them through Christ. And obligations are burdensome. Purgatory allows them to alleviate that. They can live basically however they want in this life, as long as they avoid cardinal sins, thinking they will have a chance to make it all up in a place where that will be their sole focus.

This contrasts with the Protestant view, in which good works are supposed to flow from love rather than obligation. We live for God and others out of gratitude instead of fear. What we do here does matter, but because it glorifies the Lord who saves us and leads to blessings in heaven. It does not keep us from suffering later. In other words, our good works make life more full, rather than keeping it from emptying.

There is a final reason why some desire purgatory to be real, and it is the reason Anderson gives in the article. He says,

 The brilliance of the doctrine of Purgatory . . . lay in its institutional control over ineradicable folk beliefs and in its engagement with intimate, private feelings . . . . The notion of suffrages—masses, almsgiving, fasts, and prayers—gave mourners something constructive to do with their feelings of grief and confirmed those feelings of reciprocity that survived, at least for a limited time, the shock of death. [ellipses in original]

This is an incredible admission. People believe in purgatory because it allows them to have a connection to their lost loved ones. By thinking they can say prayers for them or pay in some other way to lessen their term there, their sense of bereavement is assuaged. Never mind that there is no biblical backing for the idea. It is a psychological comfort. When they really should be trying to focus on the fact that the dead are in paradise (as long as they accepted Christ), the living are hoping they were held back. It is incredibly selfish. Harsh, I know, but true.

The Ultimate Purgation

Still, as I said before, the worst fault of the doctrine of purgatory is its pernicious insistence that we be the ones to cleanse ourselves after death. But even so, it misses the point. There is really no need for purgatory at all. We have had the answer all the time, right under our noses, mentioned again and again in this article.

As both Catholics and Protestants know, sanctification is a process. It serves the purpose of separating us from our sins, sometimes through suffering. And it has an end. Death itself is the ultimate purgation. As Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.” It is a price even Christians pay. But it is the last step.

When Christians die, they are freed at last from all corruption (1 Corinthians 15:35–54). What sorts of purgatorial punishments could match the finality of the ending of life itself? There are none. The Bible says nothing about purgatory because it is not needed. We walk in this life, doing what we can through the power of the Spirit to draw near to Christ. And when the time comes, the last sanctifying act occurs when this life and its cares are put to an end. In death, we pass into life.

Purgatory is not only left without evidence in the Bible, then, but it actually stands opposed to the teachings of the Bible and the purposes of God. It inserts human agency where there is none. It also provides a false sense of security. If people think they can do what they want and then just make up for it after death, they are sorely mistaken. This life is the only chance they have to get it right. And the only way they can get it right is by relying on the matchless work of Jesus Christ. Only faith in the One who died for your sins and lives to give you unending life, can save you.

Finding the Truth

In the end, Anderson is right to seek rapprochement between Catholics and Protestants. However, that can only occur with a better understanding of and reliance on Scripture among Catholics. Purgatory is the perfect example of what we mean when it comes to other doctrines like the veneration of saints, Mariology, indulgences, papal authority, and any number of others you could care to name. It is not merely that they add to Scripture. It is that they add to it unnecessarily, even contradicting it.

The truth is available in Catholicism, but it is buried deep under piles of tradition, guilt, and works. This is my invitation to get out from under them and return to the simplicity of the word of God. You do not need anything more. In fact, the “more” can be quite harmful. If you know Christ as your Savior, you have everything. If you do not give your life to Him, but instead merely pay Him lip service and attempt to make yourself acceptable, then you have nothing. Figure it out now before it is too late. You will not have time to make it up later.

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