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What Does the Bible Say About Purgatory?
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What Does the Bible Say About Purgatory?

Purgatory is a controversial topic in Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of purgatory – that there exists a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are expiating their sins before going to heaven. However, the doctrine is rejected by Protestants, who hold that it has no biblical basis.

In this comprehensive blog post, we will examine what the Bible does and does not say about purgatory. As Evangelical and Charismatic Christians, we believe that Scripture alone is our infallible guide for doctrine and practice. Therefore, we will look at the key biblical passages used to defend purgatory, as well as other relevant scriptures, to determine if this doctrine is biblically warranted.

Introduction

The word “purgatory” comes from the Latin word purgatorium, meaning “a place of cleansing.” According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, purgatory is defined as:

“A place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.”

So in Catholic theology, purgatory is thought of as a place of purification for souls that are ultimately destined for heaven. The character or amount of punishment varies, based on the level of sins committed on earth. Time spent in purgatory cleanses the soul so that it may enter the perfection of heaven.

Catholic apologists point to various scriptures and traditions to defend the existence of purgatory. However, Protestants generally reject these arguments as unbiblical. As we examine key texts and doctrines, we’ll evaluate both perspectives.

Ultimately, we want to know – does Scripture teach that there is a place or state of cleansing called “purgatory” that souls must experience before entering heaven? Let’s dive in and see what the Bible really says.

Key Takeaways:

  • The Bible does not mention the word “purgatory,” nor does it clearly teach the concept.
  • Passages used to defend purgatory, like 1 Corinthians 3:15, are taken out of context.
  • Biblical salvation is a free gift of God by grace alone, not something we earn or pay for.
  • Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross fully atoned for all the sins of believers. No additional cleansing or punishment is required.
  • While not dogmatic on the afterlife, Protestants focus on salvation in Christ alone, by faith alone. The when, where and how of cleansing is left to God.
What does the bible say about purgatory?

Examining Key Biblical Passages Used to Defend Purgatory

Roman Catholic theology draws upon several main Scripture passages to build the doctrine of purgatory. Let’s look at the most important ones individually and in context.

1. 2 Maccabees 12:38-46

This passage from a Deuterocanonical book describes Judas Maccabeus and his men praying and offering sacrifices for their fallen comrades:

“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. 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. 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, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (2 Maccabees 12:43-45, ESV)

Catholics argue this demonstrates belief in purification after death. But there are several problems. First, 2 Maccabees is not considered inspired Scripture by Protestants (and modern Jews). It also does not explicitly mention a place of purgation. At best, this text shows some post-resurrection cleansing was believed necessary by some Jews – not solid proof of the elaborate Catholic doctrine.

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2. Matthew 5:25-26

“Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:25-26, ESV)

On its surface, this passage does not mention purgatory at all. The Catholic argument is that the prison represents purgatory, where we must pay for our sins down to the “last penny” before being released. But Protestants note several problems:

  1. This is most likely a reference to debt imprisonment, a real practice when Jesus spoke these words. He uses it as an illustration, not a literal teaching about the afterlife.
  2. If it does refer metaphorically to the afterlife, the agonizing punishment is more characteristic of hell than a cleansing purgatory.
  3. Saying Christ’s sacrifice was not enough to pay our sin debt conflicts with passages like Hebrews 10:10, which says “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

In summary, this passage – when studied in context – does not clearly support the doctrine of purgatory. At best, it’s inconclusive.

3. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15

This passage contains one of the most commonly cited “proofs” of purgatory:

“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15, ESV)

The phrase “but only as through fire” is thought to reveal the purging fires of purgatory. But once again, context is key:

  1. The passage uses “fire” metaphorically to refer to God’s judgment on our earthly works, not a literal place of punishment.
  2. The context is evaluating Christian leaders and their service, not individual salvation. Salvation is by grace alone, not works (Ephesians 2:8-9).
  3. The “fire” consumes inferior works done in the power of the flesh, not punishment for venial sins.
  4. Even those with bad works are still saved, because salvation rests on Christ’s work, not ours.

In summary, 1 Corinthians 3 refers to spiritual, not material, fire on the Day of Judgment. It does not support the concept of souls being purged of sin through suffering after death.

4. Matthew 12:32

“And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matthew 12:32, ESV)

This verse is used to argue there are some sins (like blasphemy of the Holy Spirit) that can be forgiven in the next age – implying purgatory. However, there are several good counters:

  1. The parallel passage in Mark 3:29 says those blaspheming the Spirit are “guilty of an eternal sin.”
  2. The “age to come” more likely refers to the eternal state, not a temporal place of cleansing.
  3. Jesus only contrasts this age and the next – with no mention of an intervening place of punishment and forgiveness.

Once again, the purgatory interpretation relies on reading preconceived theology into the text. Examined closely, the passage does not demand that meaning.

5. Luke 12:58-59

“As you go with your accuser before the magistrate, make an effort to settle with him on the way, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.” (Luke 12:58-59, ESV)

This parable encouraging reconciliation is very similar to Matthew 5:25-26 examined earlier. It does not explicitly mention purgatory or the afterlife at all. Some of the same objections apply:

  1. A reference to judicial punishment, not necessarily the next life.
  2. Paying the “last penny” conflicts with salvation by grace apart from works.
  3. “Never get out” sounds eternal, which does not fit with the temporary cleansing notion of purgatory.

Overall, another weak and inconclusive proof text for purgatory doctrine.

6. 1 Peter 3:18-20

“For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.” (1 Peter 3:18-20, ESV)

Here, Catholic apologists claim the “spirits in prison” refer to souls being purified in purgatory. But the passage says nothing explicit about such a place:

  1. The immediate context is Christ’s victory over sin and death by the resurrection.
  2. This obscure text more likely refers to fallen angels imprisoned for disobedience (see 2 Peter 2:4-10).
  3. At most, these “spirits” are being punished, not purified.

Once more, purgatory defenders make assumptions not warranted by the text itself. This does not advance their argument biblically.

7. Hebrews 12:14

“Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14, ESV)

This verse is argued to support purgatory as the means by which imperfect believers are sanctified before entering God’s presence in heaven. But Hebrews 12:14 is better understood as:

  1. An exhortation to pursue sanctification in this life through grace.
  2. A warning that unrepentant sinners will not inherit eternal life.
  3. Emphasizing the necessity of righteousness to enter heaven.

However, it does not hint at any intermediate place of purging between death and heaven. That idea must be read into the text.

8. Revelation 21:27

“But nothing unclean will ever enter [the heavenly city], nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:27, ESV)

Purgatory defenders claim this verse implies a “place of cleansing” for saved sinners before entering the perfection of heaven. However, Revelation 21-22 is filled with symbolic imagery of the eternal state. A more straightforward interpretation is:

  1. Heaven’s purity is emphasized to encourage holy living now.
  2. True believers are made clean by Jesus’ blood, not a purgation process (Revelation 1:5).
  3. Attention is focused on the glory of heaven and being in God’s presence.

In conclusion, this text may encourage purification from sin during our present lives but does not clearly mention a cleansing process in the intermediate state. Once again, purgatory must be read into the passage.

Evaluating Key Traditions & Arguments for Purgatory

Beyond specific biblical texts, Catholics also appeal to church tradition and theological reasoning to support purgatory. Let’s briefly examine these as well.

Prayers for the Dead

Praying and making offerings for the dead is an ancient practice that predates Christianity. Evidence exists in Jewish and pagan societies. But universal prayers to help all the dead, not just martyrs, emerged slowly in Christian tradition. By the 11th century, purgatory was being vividly described in sermons and art.

Protestants respond that antiquity alone does not make a doctrine correct or biblical. At best, prayers for the dead demonstrate some Christians held unclear views on the afterlife. It does not prove a theologically-defined purgatory centuries later.

Indulgences

To shorten time in purgatory, the medieval Catholic Church granted indulgences in return for pilgrimages, crusades, and eventually monetary donations. Reformers reacted strongly against the system’s abuses. Today the Church is more cautious in describing indulgences. But the system presupposes the existence of purgatory.

Protestants argue the entire concept of earning grace and paying for sins conflicts with salvation as a free gift from God. Indulgences provide financial incentive for the doctrine but do not rest on solid biblical grounds.

Penance & Expiation of Sins

Finally, purgatory is said to be necessary because most Christians die still burdened with minor sins that must be expiated before seeing God. Purgatory purges these sins through pain and suffering.

Here the classic Protestant rebuttal is that Christ’s sacrifice was fully sufficient to pay for all our sins – past, present and future. The Bible never mentions further expiation needed. Our redemption is complete, not partial.

In conclusion, these Catholic theological arguments rely on logically reasoning from principles not clearly stated in Scripture itself. That leaves them on shaky ground from a Protestant perspective.

Conclusion: Purgatory an Uncertain Doctrine

So does the Bible teach the existence of a place or state called “purgatory”? Based on our study, the answer must be no. Here are the key takeaways:

  • The word “purgatory” is absent from Scripture, and no detailed teaching about it exists. At most, there are obscure hints and ambiguities.
  • Biblical texts cited as evidence rely heavily on reading purgatory into verses rather than deriving the doctrine from clear statements.
  • Salvation by grace through faith in Christ conflicts with notions of earning grace or paying penalties to purge sin.
  • Jesus’ sacrifice fully atones for the believer’s sins – past, present and future. No further expiation or cleansing is mentioned.
  • As Evangelicals, we should derive our core doctrines from clear Scripture teaching. We may disagree charitably with those interpretations that rely on church tradition.

In conclusion, the existence of purgatory as traditionally defined by Roman Catholicism cannot be established definitively from the Bible. At most, Scripture leaves the mechanics of the intermediate state in mystery. Our hope is in Christ alone, by whose blood we have confidence to enter God’s presence after death. The when, where and how of cleansing is left to Him.

Our focus should remain proclaiming salvation by grace through faith, not speculating about the state of souls in the afterlife. Nevertheless, this doctrine still merits thoughtful discussion given its importance in Catholic theology. May we do so with humility, charity and open Bible study.

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Pastor duke taber
Pastor Duke Taber

Pastor Duke Taber

All articles have been written or reviewed by Pastor Duke Taber.
Pastor Duke Taber is an alumnus of Life Pacific University and Multnomah Biblical Seminary.
He has been in pastoral ministry since 1988.
Today he is the owner and managing editor of 3 successful Christian websites that support missionaries around the world.
He is currently starting a brand new church in Mesquite NV called Mesquite Worship Center, a Non-Denominational Spirit Filled Christian church in Mesquite Nevada.