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Purgatory or Christ?

Question: I am aware that there is no reference in the Bible to the existence or nature of purgatory. However, Purgatory has been inferred by the Catholic Church from a number of passages in the Bible. I believe that by His death on the cross, Jesus gave me the opportunity to make amends for my sin in this life, and after death in purgatory.

Answer: The Catholic Church teaches that "Purgatory is the state in which those suffer for a time who die guilty of venial sins, or without having satisfied for the punishment due to their sins...in it the souls are purged or purified from all their stains" (Baltimore Catechism).

The purpose of purgatory is the expiation of sin, or the discharge of the debt of temporal punishment (Trent, Session 6, Canon 30). The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about "those who are expiating their sins in purgatory" (paragraph 1475). To "expiate" means to make reparation for an offence or injury. This expiation is achieved through suffering of the soul. Unless completed on earth, "expiation must be made in the next life through fire and torments or purifying punishments." And again, those "who had not made satisfaction with adequate penance of their sins and omissions are cleaned after death with punishments designed to purge away their debt" (Vatican II, Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences).

Catholic Evidence for Purgatory

Roman Catholics admit that the doctrine of purgatory is not explicitly taught in the Bible. For example, the Roman Catholic theologian Richard McBrien concedes that: "There is, for all practical purposes, no biblical basis for the doctrine of purgatory. This is not to say that there is no basis at all for the doctrine, but only that there is no clear biblical basis for it." Nonetheless, appeal is made to several biblical verses which are said to support this doctrine. The most important passages are: 2 Maccabees 12:38-46; Matthew 12:32; 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 and Revelation 21:27. Let's take a look at them.

2 Maccabees 12:38-46. The book of Maccabees is apocryphal and is not part of the inspired Scriptures. St Jerome says that "the Church reads Judith, Tobit, and the books of Maccabees, but does not admit them among the canonical Scriptures." He says further that they are read "for the edification of the people, not to give authority to the doctrines of the Church." Even so, Maccabees does not prove purgatory. After a certain battle, it was discovered that the dead Jewish soldiers had idols hidden under their clothes. The Jewish general, Judas Maccabeus, sent money to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices for them. In doing this, Judas was not following the Scriptures because among the many precepts of the Law of Moses, there was no sacrifice intended for the dead. In all the Scriptures there is no example of Jews or Christians offering sacrifices or praying for the departed. Moreover, this passage proves too much for the Catholic for these soldiers were guilty of idolatry, a mortal sin, and therefore they were damned to eternal, rather than temporal, punishment in Hell.

1 Corinthians 3:11-15. The apostle Paul writes: "Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one's work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one's work, of what sort it is." The Catechism interprets "the fire" as cleansing and purifying, i.e., the soul suffers to make expiation for sin (Catechism, paragraph 1031). However, Paul is speaking about the testing of works and says nothing about the suffering of souls. He is simply teaching that in the Day of Judgment, the works of every Christian will be tested ("the fire will test each one's work") and everyone will be rewarded accordingly. Unworthy works will be burned up and the individual will lose the reward though he himself will be saved. If fire is referring to purgatorial pains, rather than the testing of works, why should those who had built with gold, silver, precious stones suffer along with those who had built with unworthy wood, hay and straw (since the fire test each one's work)? A Catholic Bible commentary remarks on verse 15, "There is no reference to purgatory." [Murphy O'Connor, J. "The First Letter to the Corinthians," The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, ed. Raymond E. Brown, Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Roland E. Murphy (Bangalore: Theological Publications in India, 2000), p 802]

Matthew 12:32. Jesus said that "anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man, it will be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit; it will not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come." From this, Catholics argue that some sins will be forgiven in the age to come. This implication in not necessarily true and it goes beyond what Jesus meant. Jesus simply wanted to emphasize the gravity of the sin and that it would never be forgiven, as the parallel passage in the Gospel of Mark records: "but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" (Mark 3:29).

Revelation 21:27. "But there shall by no means enter into it (the heavenly Jerusalem) anything that defiles..." Since the Bible here clearly teaches that impure persons will not enter heaven, it is argued that there is a place of cleansing for those who die with minor sins. However, it can be observed that this verse does not offer any hope of cleansing for those who are unclean at death, nor does it teach that sins are cleansed by personal suffering.

The Biblical Teaching on Purgatory

We agree with Catholics on the necessity for "purgatory" or "cleansing" for we are all defiled by sin; we all need to be thoroughly cleansed before we can enter into the heavenly Jerusalem in the majestic presence of the Lord.

We disagree however on how this cleansing is achieved. Catholicism insists that after baptism the individual must expiate his sins by penance in this world, and by the pains of purgatory in the next. We believe that the Scripture teaches that only the blood of Christ cleanses the soul from sin.

We recognize the value of suffering and trials given to us by Divine providence. Our heavenly Father also disciplines us, His children, with appropriate chastisement so that we learn to despise sin, and to become mature in our character, in patience, hope and righteousness. Nonetheless, the Bible never presents personal suffering or works as the expiation or satisfaction for sin.

Scripture sets the believer's heart to rest. "You were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11). It's not purgatory's flames that cleanse the sinner from evil. The Word of God teaches that "the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). The blood of Christ is thoroughly effective and purifies from all defilement. His blood really and actually cleanses "from all sin."

Nobody will ever be heard boasting that he succeeded to enter heaven because of his penances and sufferings. Heaven will be populated by those who trust completely in the Son of God. This is the song that they joyfully sing: "To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen" (Revelation 1:5,6). This is the Christians' confession about their Lord Jesus Christ: "When He had by Himself purged our sins, [He] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Hebrews 1:3).

Jesus Christ, and nothing else, is our purification, our purgatory.

Perhaps up till now you have hoped to go to a place of suffering to undergo cleansing. Such a place does not exist. The opportunity to experience purification and complete forgiveness is during this present lifetime. You have challenged God's lordship over you by your disobedience; but He is truly merciful and compassionate. He really forgives: He cancels the debt of all those who turn to Him by faith. Look to Jesus the Deliverer, whose death on Calvary is a full and adequate payment for the sins of His people. His blood was not shed in vain; it actually purifies the soul from all defilement.

Do you believe in purgatory? I hope you will affirm, "Yes, I believe in God's purgatory. My purgatory is the Lord Jesus Christ!"

Dr Joseph Mizzi