What Is Purgatory and Is it in the Bible

Upon dying, does the human soul really travel to a temporary place to purify itself? Can the soul “cleanse” itself before entering the fullness of Heaven? Whether you believe in purgatory or not, this historical doctrine regarding its existence is intriguing.

Purgatory is integral to the Roman Catholic faith, but what does the Bible say about it? And how can Protestant Christians lovingly engage with Catholics beyond just an intellectual understanding of the doctrine? Let’s explore this how this idea is understood today as well as what famous theologians like Augustine and Martin Luther thought about it.

Purgatory: What is it?

According to Dictionary.com, purgatory is “a condition or place in which the souls of those dying…are purified…from sins.” Essentially, purgatory is part of the Catholic doctrine of faith where a “final purification” occurs in order to “achieve the holiness necessary to enter…heaven,” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, CCC 1030-31).

The famous theologian Augustine – considered a founding father of Christianity – advocated  praying for the dead. He felt prayer removed the final traces of sin after a human passed away. According to Catholic Online, St. Augustine lead a life of drinking and sexual immorality. Could Augustine’s inner-guilt from his personal experiences with sin lead him to embrace the idea of purgatory? Perhaps so.

The Council of Trent

In 1545, in response to Martin Luther and his Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church established a commission to assess the deep levels of corruptions including the selling of indulgences and bribery. During this time, the Council of Trent reaffirmed the doctrine of purgatory.

The Gospel Coalition reported on 450th anniversary of the Council of Trent in their article, “9 Things You Should Know About the Council of Trent.”

“Under Catholic teaching, every sin must be purified either here on earth or after death in a state called purgatory…The council affirmed the doctrine of purgatory and damned anyone who claimed, ‘that after the grace of justification has been received the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out for any repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be paid,’” The Gospel Coalition reported.

Does Scripture Support Purgatory?

The very popular Pope John Paul II, with the support of the Italian Vatican, published a second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1997. It states, praying for the dead was necessary:

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. (CCC 1030).

Devout Catholics also look to the book of 1 Corinthians to support their beliefs about purgatory.

If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire,” (I Cor. 3:15).

Nick Rabiipour, reporter for Get Fed, believes purgatory is essential. “Many Christians die with attachments to sin that must be gotten rid of before they can be united with God in a perfect union of love through all eternity,” he wrote in his article, What Do Catholics Really Believe About Purgatory?

What Did Jesus Say About Purgatory?

Jesus mentioned nothing about the existence of purgatory. If anything, Jesus spoke more about the realities of hell than the doctrine of purgatory.

During his crucifixion, Jesus offered a profound answer to a dying thief.

Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise,’” Luke 23:42-43.

Jesus is Author and Finisher of our faith. Jesus’s words are true. If He said, “today,” than he meant it.

In Matthew 13:49, Jesus spoke of what would come at the end of the Church Age – that angels would separate an evil humanity from a righteous one. Matthew 13:50 goes on to tell us the wicked would be thrown into a fiery furnace where weeping and gnashing of teeth would occur. This scripture does not support the doctrine of purgatory.

The Refiner’s Fire Occurs Here on Earth

Malachi 3:3 states, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord.”

For contextual purposes, Bible readers must consider what is written in the prior verse, “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears?” Malachi 3:2.

Every waking day of a Christ-follower’s life is a day for Christ to spiritually refine us. Spiritual refinement is a lifelong process which occurs while we live and breathe on earth.

Challenging circumstances refine and purify us.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything,” James 1:2-4.

As the Holy Spirit prompts questions like these in your heart, think of them as refining trials, and “consider it pure joy.”

●       Could I have responded in a gentler manner?

●       Did I serve others without complaint?

●       Has bitterness caused me to harbor resentment towards others?

●       Am I judging the walk of a recent convert?

●       Do I show the love of Christ to others?

“Fires” will come to every believer because this life doesn’t absolve us of difficulties. Challenging circumstances refine and purify us.

How Should I Respond to Catholics?

Let’s review the scripture which Catholics use to support purgatory:

“If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved – even though only as one escaping through the flames,” 1 Corinthians 3:15.

It is critical to look at this scripture in context. Apostle Paul, using an analogy, wrote that believers are “builders” whose foundation is Christ:

Their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work,” 1 Corinthians 3:13-14.

Upon death, one does not work. If purgatory does exist, what kind of “work” is done? 

We are living testimonies.

While we are alive, we are living testimonies. We are God’s workmanship. Are we showing others the love of God? Are we living in such a manner that compels others to ask, “Why are you so happy? Why are you so positive?”   

It is Christ in us which will convince the lost. This is how we “build” the Kingdom of God.

It probably isn’t the best witness to yell or ridicule the beliefs of devout Catholics. Instead, let’s focus on four things that Protestants and Catholics have in common:

1. We believe that Christ died for the sins of humanity.

2. We believe that grace alone saves us.

3. We believe he rose again.

4. We believe that he will one day return to reclaim us. 

Apostle Paul encouraged the Body of Christ with these words, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” Ephesians 4:2-3.

Timothy Paul Jones on Purgatory:

Timothy Paul Jones, author and associate vice present at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, talks about purgatory in his Crosswalk.com video, “Does the Bible Support the Idea That Purgatory Exists?

“Really what we’re dealing with in the question of purgatory is: How does a Christian enter God’s presence – God’s holy presence – when there is still sin unconfessed in his or her life? That’s really what we’re asking.”

Jones discusses the theological idea from the perspective of Augustine in the 5th century, Martin Luther in the 16th century, and modern Roman Catholic thinking on the issue.   

“The same problem remains with purgatory. It’s requiring something other than – more than – the finished work of Jesus on the cross to make us right with God,” he said.