Is Purgatory a Biblical Doctrine?

I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church for 18 years. During those years my spiritual life consisted primarily in my relationship with the Church. I was planning on spending time in purgatory after my death to pay the temporal punishment for my venial sins before eventually making it to Heaven. After realizing from Scripture that salvation comes through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ (John 1:12-13), my faith was placed in the death of Jesus Christ as the full payment for my sin. No amount of suffering on my part can add to the complete forgiveness I now have in the truth of the Gospel(Romans 5:1).   The Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory is not only absent from Scripture, but also contradicts Scripture.

The doctrine of Purgatory was first formulated by pope Gregory the Great (AD 590-604) and was confirmed as a dogma of faith at the Council of Florence in AD 1439. Although the Eastern Orthodox Church does not teach purgatory, Roman Catholics believe purgatory to be the state or condition after death where sinners receive temporal punishment for venial sins committed after baptism. “Purgatory (Lat., ‘purgare’, to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is 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 transgression” (Catholic Encyclopedia). Mortal sins are serious violations of God’s law (drunkenness, adultery, murder) while venial sins are less serious violations of God’s law (impatience, ordinary anger, slightly drunk). Mortal sins drive sanctifying grace out of the soul and therefore must be confessed to a priest in order to obtain absolution. Venial sins, which do displease God, only injure fellowship with Him.  The Catholic practice of suffrages, offering prayers and sacrifices for the dead, can shorten the time of suffering in purgatory for these venial sins. Also, the Pope can grant indulgences to alleviate, shorten, or terminate time in purgatory. Canon Law 992 says, “An indulgence is the remission in the sight of God of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has already been forgiven. A member of Christ’s faithful who fulfills certain specific conditions may gain an indulgence and the help of the Church which, as ministers of redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints.”

The Roman Catholic Church uses I Corinthians 3 which speaks of the judgment of Christians at the Judgment Seat of Christ as a proof text for purgatory. In this passage a Christian’s works are  judged according to motive. The good works, gold, silver, and precious stones, are those performed for the glory of God; and the bad works, wood, hay, and stubble, are those done out of selfish motivation. Christians will be rewarded for a life lived to the glory of God and will suffer loss of reward for living for self-glorification. “The fire will try every man’s work of what sort it is.” Paul in Romans 2:7 teaches that God considers those works done out of a passion for eternity as worthy of reward. So the Judgment Seat of Christ understood in its context in 1 Corinthians 3 and 2 Corinthians 5:10 has nothing to do with temporal punishment for venial sins. The future judgment of the Christian’s works is not to pay for sin but to purge impure motives.

Another passage used by Catholics to support Purgatory is found in Colossians 1:24. They claim Paul teaches the temporal suffering in Purgatory is suggested in the phrase, “that which fills up that which is behind (lacking) of the afflictions of Christ.” Did Paul mean the suffering of Christ on the cross does not pay for all our sin? The phrase “afflictions of Christ” is never used in Scripture to express His sufferings on the cross. The suffering of Christ was both unique and complete. Since Christ’s personal suffering for sin was completed on the cross (Hebrews 9:25-26; 1 Peter 3:18), Paul is teaching that the persecution of the Church (body of Christ) today is a continuation of the persecution of Christ. As the hatred of the Head, Christ, is vented upon His body, the Church,His body shares in the fellowship of His sufferings (Philippians 3:10). The union between Christ and His Church is a strong one. “But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy” (1 Peter 4:13).

Since no amount of suffering on the part of Christians could add to the completed work of Christ on the cross, how could a priest know when enough had been done to release a sinner from his suffering? Paul teaches that as our sins were placed upon Christ so His righteousness was placed upon the redeemed sinner (2 Corinthians 5:21).   God now looks at the Christian as having never sinned, because he is clothed in the righteousness of His Son. The writer of the Book of Hebrews can say, “For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.” God’s justice has been fully satisfied by the once for all sacrifice of Jesus Christ. “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. And their sins and iniquities will I remember no more” (Hebrew 10:14,17).

This absence of purgatory should not lead the Christian to assume God overlooks sin.   Transgression of the law is sin and God takes sin seriously. The example of Nathan rebuking a justified man, David, demonstrates this accountability (2 Samuel 12). Repentance is necessary for the guilt to be removed and fellowship restored, but our standing before God remains unchanged because the sacrifice of Christ paid the penalty in full. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

May we rest in the blessed comfort expressed in the beautiful words of Horatio G. Spafford’s hymn, It Is Well With My Soul.

My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!

My sin, not in part but the whole,

Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

Roger Eaves

Roger Eaves

A former Roman Catholic, he has taught Bible at Bob Jones University for 39 years. He has taken mission trips teaching and preaching in Cambodia, Cameroon and Grenada. Presently he is teaching courses in Christian Doctrines and Modern Cults.

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