What happens after we die? This is a question that has been around for as long as death has existed. As Christians, we understand the afterlife as consisting of heaven (where God’s faithful are rewarded with comfort and rest) and hell (where the unrepentant are punished for eternity).
And maybe you’re familiar with a third destination called purgatory. We often understand purgatory as a temporary stop on the way to either heaven or hell. But the official teaching is more particular.
What is Purgatory According to the Bible?
The name purgatory is not found in the Old or New Testaments. Rather, the Catholic Catechism describes purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified.”
So in summary, purgatory is:
- A temporary measure for those who are destined for heaven
- Not a ‘second chance’ for people to avoid hell
- A place where souls are purified of their lesser (venial) sins
Biblical Basis of Purgatory
The doctrine of purgatory wasn’t codified in Catholic teaching until the Second Council of Lyon in 1274. But the doctrine draws heavily on earlier teachings, particularly the fifth-century commentaries of Saint Augustine.
Where is Purgatory Mentioned in the Bible?
Even though the name purgatory and the process of purification are not explicitly described in the Bible, several verses appear to support specific aspects of purgatorial doctrine (all citations are from the NIV unless otherwise noted):
The apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees, though rejected by Protestants, remains a part of the Catholic canon (as well as that of some Eastern traditions).
And though this passage does not expressly depict the place or process of post-death purification, it implies that such a process occurs by depicting atonement made by the living on behalf of the godly dead for the deliverance from sin as the reason for such atonement to be made.
Throughout scripture, the imagery of fire is used to describe judgment (consider Sodom and Gomorrah), and purification (such as gold refined in a crucible). Both of these passages indicate a judgment of the righteous which is distinct from the judgment of unbelievers.
Citing Saint Augustine’s City of God, Catholics read these passages as a cleansing that follows death. The 1 Corinthians passage, in particular, refers to a specific event (capitalizing ‘Day’) whereby the fire of judgment will destroy impure works while sparing the worker. Similarly, in Isaiah, the fire of cleansing burns away filth and bloodstains, while preserving the city and its inhabitants.
In conjunction with the preceding passages, the Hebrews passage shows that the Day of judgment follows immediately after death.
Catholic apologists cite this passage as Jesus teaching symbolically about purgatory by describing a prison where an individual had to make restitution. Apologists further infer that by describing payment in pennies, rather than a larger coin, Jesus was addressing absolution of minor offenses.
This verse has been cited by Saint Augustine in support of forgiveness after death, appealing to Jesus’ distinction between forgiveness in this age (life) or in the age to come (the next life).
Viewed as a whole, this cross-section of verses from the Old and New Testaments (plus the writings in-between) appear to make a compelling case for purgatory. But are there verses that might refute this position?
Are there Bible Verses Against Purgatory?
But before we examine verses that might refute purgatory, let’s take a moment to revisit the above passages through a different interpretive lens.
Second, it is necessary to remember that even authoritative scripture contains both description (of things that happened) and prescription (of commands or instructions) and that the presence of a descriptive text should not be assumed to be prescriptive.
And an expanded reading of 1 Corinthians 3 reveals that Paul is addressing the work of church leaders and not believers as a whole. Further, the fire is applied to each person’s work, but not to the workers themselves, so that the church may be pure.
A Few More Verses
In the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus reveals that upon dying, Lazarus went immediately to Abraham’s bosom (Heaven), where he was given comfort and rest.
Alluding to the Old Testament process of atonement, Peter describes Jesus as an unblemished lamb. Under Levitical law, only an unblemished lamb could be sacrificed for the atonement of sins. And Jesus, being imperishable, eternal, and divine, completes our atonement.
The writer of Hebrews affirms this point, stating plainly that Jesus’ sacrifice was final and complete, leaving us no need to make repeated atonement for our sins.
Just as Jesus’ sacrifice is complete, so too is our justification (right standing before God) made complete in Jesus. There is no further wrath for us to receive ourselves.
Do Christians Believe in Purgatory?
Outside of the Catholic tradition, Christians generally reject the doctrine of Purgatory, and the secondary atonement that it represents. Instead, non-Catholic Christians affirm that God’s grace in Jesus completes our absolution.
Some Christians would even suggest that the doctrine of purgatory insults and trivializes the cross. For as Paul writes to the Galatians,