What Does the Bible Say About Purgatory?

What Does the Bible Say About Purgatory

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):

“So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge … beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas … was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness … Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin. (RSV)”2 Maccabees 12:41-45

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.

“The Lord will wash away the filth of the women of Zion; he will cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire.”Isaiah 4:4
“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder… For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation … their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light… the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved…”1 Corinthians 3:10-15

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.

“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,”Hebrews 9:27

In conjunction with the preceding passages, the Hebrews passage shows that the Day of judgment follows immediately after death.

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court … or … you may be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.”Matthew 5:25-26

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.

“… anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”Matthew 12:32

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.

“While this passage does depict prayer for the dead, it presents two problems for non-Catholic Christians. First, being a passage from an apocryphal book, 2 Maccabees is not recognized as canon by most Jews and non-Catholic Christians, largely because its teachings are not consistent with the Mosaic Judaism of the Old Testament. And offering prayer for the dead is one example of a practice that does not appear in the Hebrew Bible.”2 Maccabees 12

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.

“When we view each of these texts in their larger context, we understand them quite differently than described above. The first half of Isaiah is contemporary to its audience, pronouncing a judgment against Judah at the present time.”Isaiah 4:4 and 1 Corinthians 3

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.

“As fun as it is to read Jesus’ instructions on restitution as a symbol, the context of the passage reveals that Jesus is offering instruction for civil life and interpersonal relationships. Specifically, He is instructing his hearers to amend their wrongs willingly instead of waiting for a court to compel them to do so.”Matthew 5
“Jesus’ allusion to ‘this age and the age to come’ seems to point to two separate phases of life, but in actuality, he is using a first-century idiom similar to the English ‘forever and ever.’ It is simply a stronger way of saying ‘forever.’ Mark and Luke, (who wrote primarily to non-Jewish audiences) do not include this Jewish idiom in their accounts of this teaching (Mark 2:39, Luke 12:10)..”Matthew 12

A Few More Verses

“… The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side…”Luke 16:22

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.

“For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed … but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.”1 Peter 1:18-19

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.

“… he [Jesus] does not need to offer sacrifices day after day … He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.”Hebrews 7:27

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.

“… Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him.”Romans 5:9

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,

“I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”Galatians 2:21

Jac F

Jac is a church leader, lay preacher, and writer from Bucks County, Pennsylvania. His articles and devotionals appear on multiple Christian blogs and Bible apps. His first book, an Advent devotional, is scheduled to be released in September 2022.

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