A Little Look at the Doctrine of Purgatory

I have often come across comments from non-Catholic theologians saying that the doctrine of purgatory is not biblical – but is this actually the case?

Some people seem to see it as a second chance or a back door into heaven.  This can’t be the case as there are only two categories of people; the saved and the damned.  As Jesus is the “way” (John 14:6) and the “door” (John 10:7 & 9), only thieves and robbers try to get in by any other way.

It is often described in terms which recall the mediaeval imagery of suffering as described in Dante’s “Divine Comedy” of three volumes; Inferno, Purgatory, Paradise.  A more modern view might see it as a “Wash and Brush-up” on the way to heaven which may be trivialising it somewhat.  Can we get beyond this imagery into a clearer view of what purgatory is?


Firstly – What does the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) say?

CCC1030 – All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

CCC1031 – The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.  The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent.  The tradition of the Church by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire (1 Cor 3:10-15, 1 Peter 1:7):

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire.  He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor the age to come (Matt 12:31).  From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.  St Gregory the Great

So Purgatory is not a second chance or a back door, it is not a substitute for being saved.  Those who have accepted Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour in this life are saved and members of the Church Militant.  On entering the next life they remain saved whether in Purgatory, the Church Suffering, or Heaven, the Church Triumphant.

CCC954 – The three states of the Church.  “When the Lord comes in glory, and all his angels with him, death will be no more and all things will be subject to him.  But at this present time some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth.  Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is'”.

All of us, however, in varying degrees and in different ways share in the same charity towards God and our neighbours, and we all sing the one hymn of glory to our God.  All, indeed, who are of Christ and who have his Spirit form one Church and in Christ cleave together.  (Lumen Gentium 49)


CCC1032 (carrying on from CCC1031 above) – This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:46).  From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.  The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them.  If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice (Job 1:5), why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation?  Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.  St John Chrysostom


Note – The scriptures used in the last part CCC1032,   are 2 Macc 12:46 and Job 1:5.  The quote from Maccabees is from one of the seven deutero-canonical (second canon) books of the Catholic bible.  These books are regarded as Scripture by the Catholic church to this day and they have some very important things in them.  They were removed from the Canon by the protestant reformers at the reformation when they were consigned to the Apocrypha (hidden) writings and not considered by them as Scripture.  The removal of 1 & 2 Maccabees leaves a period of 500 years of silence at the end of the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).  The quote from Job is interesting as in its context Job is not regarded as foolish or misguided in what he is doing and nowhere else does it suggest that that might be the case.


A Consideration of the Scriptural Case for Purgatory

Often when something is not explicitly stated in Scripture I will look for a hint or a flavour to see if something is in keeping with the spirit of Scripture.   Initially I thought the Doctrine of Purgatory was one of those things.  On further examination, including the scriptures cited above, I believe there to be a much stronger biblical case for the Doctrine of Purgatory.

A book I was reading recently has a very good chapter on Purgatory.   The book is “Fatima, The Signs and Secrets” by Marianna Bartold, 2014, publisher KIC (Keeping it Catholic) Lapeer, MI,  ISBN 978-0-9862203-0-2,  Chapter 32. Purgatory – The Doctrine of God’s Mercy and Justice.

Chapter 32 cites the following Scriptures;

Matthew 5:48  “You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  I would also add from the beatitudes; Matthew 5:8 “Blessed are the pure in heart: they shall see God.

Matthew 19: 26 “…with God all things are possible.”

2 Maccabees 12:46  “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they be loosed from their sins.”  Full passage 12: 38-46, worth a read.

Zechariah 13:9  “I will refine them as silver is refined, and I will try them as gold is tried.”

Also look at Malachi 2:2-3 which is eschatological in nature, “Who will be able to resist the day of his coming?  Who will remain standing when he appears?  For he is like the refiner’s fire and Fuller’s alkali.  He will take his seat as refiner and purifier, he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and then they will make the offering to the Lord as it should be made.”

When is the silver and gold ready?  When, after heating, the dross sinks to the bottom and the metal is revealed all shiny like a mirror.  When God can see his face in us, we’re done.  A very good description of Purgatory as a purifying fire.

Matthew 5:26  “I tell you solemnly, you will not get out till you paid the last penny.”

But you will get out.

Matthew 12:32  “…but let anyone speak against the Holy Spirit and he will not be forgiven either in this world or the next.”

Applying some reverse logic or reverse thinking here means that there are things that can be forgiven in the next world.

1 Corinthians 3:11-15 – For the foundation, nobody can lay any other than the one which has already been laid, that is Jesus Christ.  On this foundation you can build in gold, silver and jewels, or in wood, grass and straw, but whatever the material the work of each builder is going to be clearly revealed when the day comes.  That day will begin with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work.  If his structure stands up to it, he will get his wages, if it is burnt down, he will be the loser, and though he is saved himself, it will be as one who has gone through fire.

The passage is essentially eschatological, end times, whether this is collectively at the second coming of Christ or individually if death comes to us before that event.  We will pass through a purifying fire and what is not of God will be burnt up and what is of God will remain.  This is where we look to Jesus Christ as the “author and finisher of our faith”, our model and our pattern.  We want to build with materials which will withstand the fire, not wood, grass or straw.

Revelation 19:7-8 – …“Alleluia!  The reign of  the Lord our God Almighty has begun; let us be glad and joyful and give praise to God, because this is the time for the marriage of the Lamb.  His bride is ready, and she has been able to dress herself in dazzling white linen, because her linen is made of the good deeds of the saints.”

This would seem to be something we can enter into now, doing good deeds.  The problem is that if we try to do this of ourselves, we will be too selective about the things we choose to do.  Don’t worry God has this covered.

Ephesians 2:10 – For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

We can enter into this being guided by the Spirit in such a way as we won’t even be aware that we are doing it.  Matthew 25: 31-46 – vs 37 “When did we do these things?” – My paraphrase and summary.

I also wonder if this clothing, the righteous deeds of the saints, is something we both contribute to and have a share in.  Just a thought.

One of the best descriptions of Purgatory I ever heard was from a visiting Baptist Preacher at the Bethel Mission, Plymouth in the 1970s.  He didn’t mention Purgatory but to my Catholic ears that’s what it sounded like.  He talked about an ongoing soul life with ongoing salvation and sanctification.  He chose the Scripture of the Wedding Feast in Matthew 22:1-14.  If I summarise, a king is preparing a wedding feast for his son.  Those who are invited make excuses not to come so the king sends out his servants to invite other people to the wedding.  These are all then enjoying the feast clad in wedding  garments.  The king notices there is one man not wearing a wedding garment.  when questioned he makes no answer and is then bound and thrown out.   The preacher said that the man had stood out because his clothes were ragged and burnt on passing through the fire of purification, taking the wedding feast in an eschatological sense.  That sounded like Purgatory to me.  If I take this a bit further, the wedding guests have been invited at the last minute and haven’t had time to obtain wedding garments.  The king has provided wedding garments which are hanging up in the changing room waiting for them, the changing room is Purgatory and the garments are the righteous deeds of the saints.  The man without a wedding garment has treated this provision with contempt and left his wedding garment on the peg.  His own “clothes” were unable to withstand the fire of purification and were burnt up.  He had tried to get in by some other way and had failed.  Of course one has to be careful not to push parables too far as the fit is never perfect.  I like the picture of God’s provision of salvation which is complete and there for us to enter into.

Scripture often talks about salvation using all three tenses, past (2 Timothy 1:9), present (1 Corinthians 1:18) and future (Romans 5:9-10).  That is to say I have been saved, I am being saved and I will be saved.



Where have we got to now – re. purgatory?

Purgatory is not a second chance or a back door into heaven.

It is not the destination but a process.  The destination is heaven.

Purgatory is described as a purifying fire removing all the dross and leaving the precious metal.  It removes all those things in us which are not of God, leaving those things which are.

Purgatory can be likened to a changing room where a fine wedding garment is awaiting us.

We don’t have to wait for Purgatory for purification.  It can start now through the sacraments.  Reconciliation to restore our relationship with God.  The Eucharist to feed us with the “Bread of Life” the body and the blood, soul and divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ giving us new life.  The Holy Spirit given to us at Baptism and Confirmation (we might describe this as a fresh anointing or release of the Holy Spirit in our lives) when we are commissioned for evangelism.  We can renew our commitment each day, take up our cross and follow Him, allowing Him to work within us by a conscious act of surrender to the will of God.  We can remember than when we succeed it is by His grace, when we fail we have recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation, so that we don’t become at all puffed up when we succeed or feel crushed when we fail.

We can contribute to the wedding garment – the righteous deeds of the saints, deeds which God has prepared in advance for us to do.

Purgatory is not a cop-out from being all of the things we are meant to be in Christ.  “Never mind, there’s always Purgatory”, should not be a default position.  As I read a while back, “Aim for heaven and miss and there is Purgatory, but aim for Purgatory and miss – then what.”

Neither should heaven be a destination for the Saints and Purgatory for us lesser mortals, for we are all called to be saints (small s) that is followers of Christ here and now on earth in the Church militant.  I repeat heaven is the destination, not Purgatory for that is a process even if it occurs in a place, the Church suffering, it is not the destination which is the Church triumphant.

Purgatory as a simple wash and brush-up doesn’t convey the thoroughness of the purification.  I can remember a car wash where the car was pulled through on a chain, it was cleaned outside, soaped, scrubbed, dried, waxed, buffed and then a whole army of men jumped in and cleaned the inside.  It was thoroughly cleaned.  If I was that car I would feel I had been put through the wringer, but the end result was more than worth it.

There is strong Scriptural evidence for the Doctrine of Purgatory, more evidence than just hints and flavours.


Why is this necessary?

Because even when we have confessed our sin and been forgiven, we may have previously enjoyed the sin.  This is called an attachment and it needs to be removed so that we can fully enjoy heaven and not spoil it.  We shouldn’t get too hung up about how long it takes, just remain confident that it will be done.  It makes me think of a line from “Away in a Manger” which says “and fit us for heaven to live with thee there”.


“A bride without spot or wrinkle”

Ephesians 5: 25-27  …Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

I would have to admit that even though Jesus has taken my sin and given me his righteousness, and is continuing to work in my life, I am still aware of having some spots and wrinkles.  Purgatory, this passing through a fire of purification, is therefore an assurance that all these spots and wrinkles will have been dealt with and removed before I take the place promised to me, through Jesus Christ, in heaven.

Philippians 1:6  “And so I am sure that God, who began this good work in you, will carry it on until it is finished on the Day of Christ Jesus.” 

So there you are, Claude’s armchair take on Purgatory.