Is Purgatory For Real?

by J. R. Cuevas

I distinctly remember a phrase that my eighth grade teacher at Christ the King Elementary School would oh so frequently employ when frustrated with our classroom conduct. At the apex of her rant-filled monologue, she would exclaim: “…and I wouldn’t give two ice cubes in purgatory if you…”

In case you hadn’t picked it up, I grew up in a primarily Roman Catholic background. Both of my parents were Catholic. The majority of my extended family were practicing Roman Catholics. From preschool all the way till my freshman year in high school, I attended Catholic schools for all but two of those years. I grew up being taught the doctrine of purgatory, and accepted it as true as a young child. It wasn’t until I was in first grade that my brother—a sixth grader at the time—heard the gospel of Christ, received it, and was born-again.

Upon his conversion, and against my parents’ wishes, he began to converse with me regarding the erred teachings of the Catholic church. Whether it was regarding praying to Mary or the doctrine of purgatory, he never used logic or reason to disprove those teachings with which we were raised; he would simply say, “It’s against what the Bible teaches.” He may have been a fifth grader, but even at that age my brother instilled in me the importance of discerning false teaching by testing all teaching against both the explicit and implicit teaching of Scripture. When it comes to matters of theology, it’s true if the Bible teaches it…and it’s false if the Bible doesn’t teach it. It is from this conviction that I came to realize that the doctrine of purgatory is a false doctrine.

Before explaining my thesis, it would be helpful to first define the doctrine of purgatory. According to Roman Catholic theology, purgatory is an intermediate state after physical death in which some of those who were destined for heaven must first undergo purification to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The teaching of purgatory claims that it is a place in which a person who is otherwise set to inherit eternal life must be temporarily punished for the so-called venial (or non-mortal) sins that they have committed for which they have yet to be cleansed. Analogously, purgatory is a temporal prison sentence as opposed to the death penalty of hell.

A young lady, a devout Catholic who was attempting to convert me, once told me that if a person was a believer in Christ and was driving a car after having mouthed a verbal expletive and then got into a car accident and immediately died before having the chance to confess his sins, he would have to spend time in purgatory to cleanse himself from that sin in purgatory before going to heaven. While this lady was nice and sincere, she was wrong. 

She was wrong, because the doctrine of purgatory is an unbiblical doctrine that is both absent from biblical revelation and antithetical to biblical theology. The goal of this article is to expound on this very thesis. 

First, the doctrine of purgatory is false doctrine because it is absent from biblical revelation. My brother was right when he first told me that purgatory does not exist because “the Bible never mentions it.” The Catholic church would argue that it is in the Bible, and that the Bible implicitly teaches that purgatory exists because it instructs us to “pray for the dead.”

However, this instruction to “pray for the dead” is found in 2 Maccabees 12:42-44. The problem with this is that 2 Maccabees is a part of the apocrypha, the extra-biblical books that the Catholic church claims to be a part of the Bible that are in fact not a part of the canon of Scripture. The sixty-six books of the Bible—any of the thirty-nine of the Old Testament or twenty-seven of the New Testament—never mention anything about purgatory or give any instruction about praying for the dead. One can’t formulate a theological doctrine about something that is absent from the Bible. That is a non-negotiable principle of systematic theology. That’s why all of the systematic theology books on your desk are filled with Scriptural references (at least, they should be). 

But just because a place is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible does not necessarily imply its non-existence. After all, the Bible not once mentions the geographical places of Las Vegas or Honolulu, and yet both places exist (I know so, because I lived in both). This leads to the second point. Not only is the doctrine of purgatory absent from biblical revelation, but it is antithetical to Biblical theology. In other words, one can’t believe what the Bible says about a number of different areas and adhere to the doctrine of purgatory at the same time. 

First, the doctrine of purgatory is antithetical to the biblical teaching on the afterlife. Christ taught of two gates—the broad and the narrow, representing heaven and hell—and not three (Matthew 7:13-14). Christ taught of eternal judgment and eternal life, and not a temporary after-life (Matthew 25:46). In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31), Christ never mentions anything about purgatory or a temporary location to cleanse one’s sins. Hence, He warns that unless one repents, one will perish (Luke 13:3-5). 

Second, the doctrine of purgatory is antithetical to the biblical teaching on sin, regarding both the nature and punishment of sin. The Roman Catholic church categorizes sin as either mortal or venial, and teaches that purgatory is a place in which one will have a chance to cleanse himself from those venial sins. Scripture, however, teaches that the wages of any sin is death (Romans 6:23), and that transgressing any part of the Law makes one a transgressor of the whole (James 2:10-11). In other words, exhibiting sinful favoritism toward people in church is just as punishable by eternal death as murdering someone. To say that certain sins can be dealt with in purgatory rather than hell is to teach that not all sin has the wage of death, which is clearly unbiblical. 

Third, the doctrine of purgatory is antithetical to the biblical teaching of the once-and-for-all substitutionary atonement of Christ on behalf of those He would save. When Christ died for the sins of those who would believe in Him, He atoned for all of the sins of all of His people (1 John 2:2ff). His death was a once-for-all death (Hebrews 7:27, 10:10) that serves as an eternal sacrifice. In other words, when Christ died on the cross, He fully atoned for all of the past, present, and future sins that His people would and will commit. This is why Christ does not have to come down from heaven ever year and experience an annual crucifixion for His people. The entire work of atonement has been completed.

Fourth, the doctrine of purgatory is antithetical to the biblical teaching on justification by faith alone apart from works. A man is justified before God not when he himself atones for his sins personally, but when he places his faith in Christ alone (Romans 3:28; Galatians 2:16). A man does not justify himself before God by enduring punishment for his sins, but rather by placing faith in the one who endured such punishment. To say that a man destined for heaven must first spend a temporal amount of time in purgatory and endure punishment in order to cleanse himself from his sins denies both that justification is by faith alone and that it is instantaneous upon conversion. 

Randy Alcorn once said that this world is the closest to heaven an unbeliever will ever know and the closest to hell God’s children will ever know. He is right. All of us are sinners, and our time on earth is the only time we will ever have to respond rightly to the reality of our sin. Believing that purgatory is a false doctrine is more than an exercise of theological scholarship; it is the call to urgency, to urgently respond today. For once we pass from this life to the next, where we are is where we’ll be for eternity.