Is There Such a Place as Purgatory?

This evening John Ankerberg will examine what Roman Catholicism teaches concerning their doctrine of purgatory. The Catholic church says purgatory is a place where Christians go at death, who are guilty of venial sins. Such Christians suffer in purgatory until fully purified. Not only are Christians purged of venial sins, but they must also pay any temporal punishment still due other sins. Catholicism states that a person does not remain and suffer in purgatory forever as one does who is in hell. Rather after a person’s soul is cleansed of imperfections, he then goes to heaven. Protestants strongly deny that the doctrine of purgatory is biblical. 

Protestants maintain that scripture says there is only a heaven and a hell but no purgatory. Protestants believe it is an affront to the grace of God to teach that he only forgives part of the penalty for sin and yet there still remains some penalty that the sinner needs to pay. If the sinner must pay for even the temporal punishment of his sins, then Jesus really didn’t pay at all at the cross. 

The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sins. (1 John 1:7) 

By one sacrifice, Jesus has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14)

If anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the father in our defense, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Tonight you will hear both sides answer the question: Is the doctrine of purgatory truly biblical?

Ankerberg: We’re talking about some of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church and I’m sure that you’ve heard about the doctrine of purgatory that is professed by the Roman Catholic church and that’s what we’re going to discuss tonight. First of all, let me get some official statements on the board here tonight from the Catholic church. The council of Trent said this (Canon 30) “If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification, the guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged either in this world or in purgatory before the gates of heaven can be opened, let them be anathema. The council of Florence stated this “The souls of those who depart this life with true repentance and in the love of God before they have rendered satisfaction for their trespasses and negligences by the worthy fruits of penance are purified after death with the punishments of purification.” Also, the Council of Trent said this “I firmly hold that there is a purgatory and that the souls detained there are helped by the prayers of the faithful. I affirm that the power of indulgences was left in the keeping of the church by Christ and that the use of indulgences is very beneficial to Christians.” Dr Martin, why is this repugnant to Protestants?

Martin: Primarily because in biblical theology in the New Testament, the doctrine of purgatory is unknown, it’s not mentioned, it was a later invention of Catholic theology. It wasn’t until Gregory I, some five centuries after the apostolic era, that you had a pronouncement of this in the Catholic church. It was actually a device for trying to answer the question: There are some people not bad enough to go to hell and not good enough to go to heaven, so how are we going to deal with it? We have to deal with it in a method of purging them of the temporal punishment of their sins so purgatory evolved as a result of this in the context of church history. Biblically speaking, the apostle Paul teaches us in 2 Corinthians 5:8 that if you are a true believer in Jesus Christ, to be absent from your body (which is death) is to be at home with the Lord, not purgatory. Christ is not in purgatory, Christ is in heaven at the right hand of God. So to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord for the believer. In Philippians 1:23-24, as he’s getting ready to die, the apostle Paul says “I’m torn between two things, to depart and be with Christ which is far better or to stay here which is more necessary for you.” He says “I’m going to stay here, which is more necessary for you” but he really longs to die because “for me to live is Christ and to die is profit.” “To go to be with the Lord.” There’s no suggestion of purgatory in apostolic theology, there’s no mention of the concept whatever. The only way you’re going to get it is to read into the passages and it took them 500 years to read it into the passages. So it’s a little difficult for Protestants to swallow what turned out to be the biggest money-making proposition in the history of Roman Catholic doctrine, namely to actually pay money for masses and sell indulgences and impute vicarious righteousness to people in a place that didn’t exist except in the thought processes of Roman Catholic theologians.

In the book Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott, it says in page 317 “The faithful on earth can by their good works performed in the state of grace render atonement for one another. As Christ the head in his expeditory sufferings took the place of the members, so also one member can take the place of another. The doctrine of indulgences is based on the possibility and reality of vicarious atonement.” The apostle Paul teaches this and he cites Colossians 1, 2 Corinthians 12 and 2 Timothy 4. What you’re essentially dealing with here is the imputation of the prayers of the saints, of the Virgin Mary and of the sacrifice of the mass, to the benefit of the souls suffering in purgatory. This I find extremely strange because when we were discussing justification by faith with Father Pacwa before, he was dead set against the imputation of the righteousness of God as a legal forensic act. Yet here in purgatory, he doesn’t object to it at all. 

Ankerberg: You’re a biblical scholar, you’re an Old Testament professor. The words of scripture mean something to you and yet you have your theologians admitting it’s not found in the scripture.

Pacwa: Do we know that there are a lot of other things that we believe, that I know you believe, that are not in the scripture. “Trinity”. That is not a word found there and that’s one of the reasons that the Jehovah Witnesses deny it. So we can’t deny something because the word is not in scripture. Otherwise you’d be using the same kind of reasoning process that the Jehovah Witnesses do and may we never do that. The doctrine of the trinity is not spelled out anywhere in scripture in the way that we see it in the councils or the creeds. But we know that the councils and the creeds, when they speak on the two natures of Christ, on the threeness of God, that they’re taking that from the sense of scripture, without having scriptures that explicitly spell it out. That same process went on by the same people in terms of the doctrine of purgatory. In terms of the scriptures, you’re right that we don’t have a text that explicitly mentions it but we have text that we have to deal with very seriously. I did see the connection between our understanding of purgatory and the Catholic understanding of justification that they do go hand in hand no doubt. 

Matthew 5:20-25 

20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 21 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 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. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.

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.” That means for other sins, the implication would be that you can do something about it in the next life as well as in this life. 

What does Jesus do after he dies? After he died, he descended into prison (Greek “phulake”). (1 Peter 3:19). That same word was mentioned as “prison” in Matthew 5:25. There he goes to preach to the souls who have died there so this prison in 1 Peter 3:19 seems to refer to a place where souls are.

When Jesus says to the good thief “This day you will be with me in paradise”, Jesus did not go up to heaven, Jesus went down to this prison. That’s what he calls “paradise”, he’s not into heaven at all. Even after he rises from the dead and Mary Magdalene clings to him, he says don’t cling to me now I have not yet ascended to my father. We see that his understanding of going up to heaven to open up the gates of heaven is only on the ascension day, when he goes to the right hand of the Father, and only then are the gates of heaven opened up and at that point does the good thief go there, not on the day he died. Where was the good thief before he went up into heaven? What we understand is purgatory and those who have those last pennies to be paid will also go there and deal with that, not as something that they merit on their own, but even in purgatory, it’s the grace of Christ that’s operative to purify them of the effects of their sins.

Martin: Father Pacwa is perfectly correct when he says that you don’t have to have the name of a specific doctrine for it to be there. Trinitarian theology is there in the text even though the name “trinity” doesn’t appear. The theocratic kingdom is there even though the word “theocracy” doesn’t appear. We know that isn’t really the issue. The issue that we’re dealing with is the actual text in their proper context and in the Matthew 5:20-25 passage which he quoted, Jesus is by no stretch in the imagination talking about the afterlife; he’s talking about how, as an illustration, people are going to conduct their affairs in this life. And he says because if you don’t settle your arguments quickly with people in this life, they’re going to throw you into prison and you’re not going to get out till you pay the last nickel, which meant quite obviously pay your debts and try and come to an agreement with your adversary as quickly as possible. To extrapolate that to a purgatory after death is a classic non-sequitur in logic. It doesn’t follow at all because the context isn’t even saying that. The context is talking about earth and not heaven. If you wish to base your doctrine of purgatory on a conglomerate of verses and then when you get finished say “this is all talking about the same place”, you’ve got to begin at the place where it specifically states the doctrine. This doesn’t state the doctrine at all.

Matthew 12:32 has a parallel to that in Mark 3:29. When you put the two accounts together, it makes a great deal of sense. It doesn’t come out with what Father Pacwa came out with, in fact what he specifically says there is “whoever shall blaspheme the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, not in this age nor the one to come but is guilty of eternal sin, which means that the sin against the spirit is a sin of eternal punishment and for which there is no forgiveness. There is another unforgivable sin also which is often not mentioned, which happens to be dying in willful unbelief of Jesus Christ, gospel and truth of the gospel. This also is everlasting sin but the real point in the passage in Matthew 12 and the cross-reference is not at all what he’s saying. Iit is in fact in context saying quite the opposite. It’s talking about an everlasting sin.

1 Peter 3:19 I can only rejoin to that great Roman Catholic scholar Dalton, who is cited in Edward Bloom’s book on the subject of the commentary on Peter as doing the most definitive work on this subject, and says that he has done the most excellent work in this area and Dalton, having drawn together all the fathers, everybody he could get his hands on on the subject of what 1 Peter says, comes out with the direct opposite of what you were saying, namely that this passage has been in dispute for a long time. Theologians have kicked it around for years. “descended into hell” or passing after death “hades” is a very open thing and he refers to it as a sphere of life – Christ went and preached in his resurrection as the redeemer to those who were not in purgatory, Dalton says, but he’s proclaiming to the fallen angels and those who have died in the past, that God’s word has come to pass, the prophecies have been fulfilled, Messiah is here and their damnation is sealed. Dalton’s work on the subject (not a Protestant work but Roman Catholic work) is a very clear position to refute what you’re talking about. In other words, purgatory itself doesn’t rest upon any series of verses which you can connect exegetically or hermeneutically. It really rests upon the teaching magisterium of the church – the church has the right to interpret scripture in Catholic theology. The church specifically states this is what this passage means to us therefore you are bound under obligation to the authority of the church to accept it. We’re testing by scripture and you are testing by the church’s authority. We’re challenging the church’s authority to make those kinds of interpretations because they violate the text and the context.

Ankerberg: One more thing that Father Pacwa brought up there and I think is absolutely right on target and that was that in studying about purgatory, the doctrine of justification that the Roman Catholics are presenting absolutely coincides with that. I think you are absolutely right. That’s why Luther and the reformers saw purgatory and prayers for the saints and merit and satisfaction all clearing up with the doctrine of justification. Can you explain that and then Father Pacwa, I think that’s the key that we want to talk about here.

Martin: In the doctrine of justification, a person is declared righteous by God on the basis of Christ’s merits, not our own. In the case of purgatory, which follows the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification being combined with sanctification in purgatory, you get the imputed merits of the saints, the prayers of the saints, the masses and so forth are vicariously imputed so that you are actually bearing their sins and the punishment by helping them for the temporal punishment. This ties in with the justification by works which is what the reformers argued about in Catholic theology. They just don’t have Christ declaring a righteous a fiat act of God where he does it. In effect, you are getting merits from other people and you are combining those merits, therefore you’re adding to faith works. Works are the outgrowth of saving faith, they are not any combination with saving faith for the purpose of the redemption of the soul, and that’s what purgatory really is. Father Pacwa, if I were to ask you “Do you believe that if you were to die tonight, you would immediately go to purgatory”, you would probably say “I think so but I don’t know.” When you get into Catholic theology, this is part of the problem – the lack of assurance that is given in the New Testament. “These things I write to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may KNOW that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13) I think that’s the point where we have a disagreement. You have to wait till after death to find out if you have escaped purgatory.