purgatory and the Bible

©2018 michael martin | mike@truthquest.org

1. what is purgatory?

Purgatory, as held by Roman Catholic belief, is a sort of holding place for the dead who are not guilty of “mortal sin,” which dooms them to hell, but who are also not quite pure enough to enter Heaven. The Roman Catholic belief calls for prayers for those who have died, and historically, for indulgences, or cash payments to the church, to help deceased family members reach Heaven.

a. where this belief originates

The Roman Catholic doctrine concerning purgatory is derived from 2 Maccabees chapter 12. In this chapter, the book’s hero, Judas Maccabeus, is leading battles in response to mistreatment of Jews. In this passage, Judas wants to honor the men who had been killed in one of these battles. The dean men were found to have idolatrous jewelry hidden under their clothes and believed it was for this reason that God had allowed them to be killed.

But Judas, being a believer in the resurrection of the dead, also wanted to offer prayers and a sin offering for these dead men. It was Judas’ belief that this monetary offering, along with his prayers, would help these dead men to receive their reward in Heaven. Read below:

2 maccabees 12:38-45

38 Then Judas assembled his army and went to the city of Adullam. As the seventh day was coming on, they purified themselves according to the custom, and kept the sabbath there.

39 On the next day, as had now become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kindred in the sepulchres of their ancestors. 40 Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen. 41 So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; 42 and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. 43 He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. 44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in Godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.

This passage, taken from a Jewish book which is considered Scripture by the Roman Catholic Church (but is not included in the canon of Scripture for the protestant church) is the entire basis for the belief in Purgatory.

b. does 2 maccabees support it?

The first thing you might notice is that, even if you were to take 2 Maccabees as Holy Scripture, there is very little in this passage to support the idea of Purgatory. Judas prayed for the dead and made a cash offering. That is the extent of the support that 2 Maccabees offers for belief in Purgatory. In other words, even 2 Maccabees doesn’t really support this doctrine.

Yet, the Roman Catholic Church has made it a point of doctrine, even to the point of infamously collecting money from the families of deceased persons so they can “buy” their loved one’s way to Heaven. In other words, the Catholic Church would make a profit from this practice. This may not be universally practiced today, but it is nevertheless part of the teaching about Purgatory.

2. does the Bible support it?

Clearly, the answer is no. The doctrine of Purgatory is at odds with Biblical doctrine on several points. Let’s look at a few of them.

a. the afterlife is binary

We see in Scripture several instances of the afterlife holding only two possibilities, not three. Consider these Scriptures:

luke 16:19-31

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

In this parable, told by Jesus, we see a story from the place of the dead. Within that, we see Hades and we see Abraham’s side; a paradise. Between the two is a great chasm that no one can cross. There is no third location, no holding place, and no moving from one location to the other.

matthew 25:31-46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

This parable, also told by Jesus, presents only two possibilities for judgment. From Jesus’ own mouth, there is no third option.

b. once sacrifice for all

1 peter 3:18

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

Clearly, it is the sacrifice of Jesus, the Lamb of God, which takes away our sin. Consider this question: If it were possible for us to pray or pay our way to Heaven via Purgatory, why would God have made the agonizing choice to let His One and Only Son die for our sins?

If that were a solution, why do we have four Gospels in the Bible, detailing the life, death and resurrection of Christ? Shouldn’t we rather have four books to tell us which sins are too big for Purgatory and how to pray our relatives out of Purgatory and how much it costs to get them out?

Consider this passage as well:

hebrews 10:11-18

Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. 12 But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. 14 For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

15 The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says:

16 “This is the covenant I will make with them

after that time, says the Lord.

I will put my laws in their hearts,

and I will write them on their minds.”

17 Then he adds:

“Their sins and lawless acts

I will remember no more.”

18 And where these have been forgiven, sacrifice for sin is no longer necessary.

Look at verse 14 again. By one sacrifice He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

Isn’t Purgatory all about additional works and sacrifices? It is as if to say that the work of Jesus wasn’t quite enough to get us to Heaven, so we have to fill in for the inadequacy of what Jesus did.

To believe in Purgatory and to practice prayer for the dead or indulgences is not only misguided, but also diminishes the amazing sacrifice of Jesus. In this way, it approaches blasphemy.

c. by grace alone

ephesians 2:4-9

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.

In this passage, we see that we are saved only, and exclusively, by the grace of God, through faith which God has given us. This passage makes it clear that our salvation is not earned, but given as an undeserved gift.

d. the real origin of purgatory

With so little basis in 2 Maccabees, and with no basis in Scripture, how did Purgatory become part of Roman Catholic doctrine? The answer is that it comes from Roman Catechism, where the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church are truly laid out.

Consider these words about purgatory from a 2016 article By Gretchen Filz of the Catholic Company website:

“While not a popular belief today, this is the infallible doctrine of the Catholic Church which you can read about in part one, section two, chapter three of the Catechism.”

Infallible doctrine? Maybe the Roman Catholic Church thinks so, but it is not supported by the infallible Word of God in any way.

e. conclusion

While Roman Catholicism may be among the world’s most widely practiced religions, the doctrine of Purgatory does not stand up under Scriptural scrutiny. With all love to our Roman Catholic neighbors, the doctrine of purgatory, as well as other Roman Catholic doctrines, are not supported by Scripture and turn Jesus into a smaller and insufficient Savior as opposed to what God’s Word shows Him to be.

Sadly, if we fail to recognize who Jesus truly is and understand that His grace is truly enough to save us from our sins, we may well fail to truly know Jesus at all. And while good works by the followers of Christ are important acts of love, they are the result of our salvation in Christ Jesus, not the cause of it.

To conclude, we will cite the words of Jesus when He answered Paul’s request to remove his thorn in the flesh:

2 corinthians 12:9

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.