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Roman Catholic doctrine: What is Purgatory?

Souls in purgatory. Though not seen in this image, the upper half of the painting shows those in heaven. This includes Mary and Roman Catholic priests.
By Ludovico Carracci, 1610/Wikipedia/Public Domain

The Roman Catholic Church has several beliefs that differ from Protestant doctrine. One of them is purgatory.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines purgatory this way:

In the belief of Roman Catholics and others, a place of purgation in which the souls of those dying penitent are purified from venial sins, or undergo the temporal punishment which, after the guilt of mortal sin has been remitted, still remains to be endured by the sinner.

Catholics believes purgatory is a place where the souls of Christians will go after death in order to pay the penalty for their ‘venial’ sins. Though the punishment can include fire (though some Catholic theologians disagree), it is looked upon more as a purifying process than a punishment, which is what hell involves.

Nevertheless, it is a place where people will receive punishment for their sins, and once that punishment has been paid, they will be allowed to enter heaven.

The idea of purgatory, which comes from the Latin word purgatorium and means to cleanse, was officially incorporated into Roman Catholic doctrine at the Second Council of Lyon in 1274.

Out of this spun several associated doctrines that were implemented to reduce a person’s painful time in purgatory. This includes prayer for the dead and the payment of indulgences.

As we noticed in the definition, purgatory is punishment for ‘venial’ sins. The Catholic Church has two types of sins, mortal and venial. They believe mortal sins or serious sins are what separates us from God and that Jesus’ death covers those sins.

However, Jesus’ death did not cover the venial sins, lesser sins, that don’t separate us from God, but do injure our relationship with God. This would include sins of the heart such as lust and hatred.

One is able to do penance for venial sins through the Catholic confessional and subsequent good works. But if a person hadn’t done this or done enough penance for their venial sins, that individual will end up in purgatory.

So is there a Biblical basis for purgatory? No there is not.

It is fundamentally a denial of Christ’s work on the cross. Essentially, it is based on the belief that Jesus did not die for all man’s sins.

And when reformer, Martin Luther, started the protestant movement in 1517, one of the main catalysts was the sale of indulgences taking place in his parish to raise money for renovations at St Peter’s cathedral.

Purgatory became a great fundraising tool for the Catholic Church, as one could buy indulgences to pay for your own or others’ venial sins and lessen, or depending on the size of the donation, completely eliminate your time in purgatory.

Luther said that the Bible is man’s final authority and that we are completely justified by faith, not by works or purgatory (Romans 3:28).

As Martin Luther attacked the sale of indulgences as unBiblical, which at their core were based on the belief in purgatory, the Roman Catholic Church was forced to respond.

It did by officially incorporating the Apocrypha into its Bible at the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s, where there were passages that supported the church’s non-Biblical doctrines.

The Apocrypha involved a series of books dating to the Old Testament period which the Jews never included as part of the Old Testament canon because they were never considered scripture.

But they became scripture for the Roman Catholic Church.

In 2 Maccabees 12:38-45, there seems to be a reference to praying for the dead.

After a battle, the Jewish soldiers were collecting their dead, and they were horrified to find that these dead soldiers had amulets under their clothing dedicated to the god/idol Jamnia forbidden under the law.

And Judas called on his soldiers to pray for these fallen soldiers:

39 On the next day, as had now become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kindred in the sepulchres of their ancestors. 40Then under the tunic of each one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was the reason these men had fallen.
42and they turned to supplication, praying that the sin that had been committed might be wholly blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. 43He 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 honourably, taking account of the resurrection. 44For 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. 45But 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, so that they might be delivered from their sin.
(2 Maccabees 12:39-45)

Based on these prayers for the dead, Catholic theologians argued there must be an intermediary place where these soldiers were being held to justify these prayers.

The Jews rejected 2 Maccabees as scripture and there is no other passage in the Old Testament that even hints at this practise.

Nevertheless, this became the foundation of the Roman Catholic Church’s belief in purgatory and prayers for the dead.

Catholic theologians also use 1 Corinthians 3:15, which reads “If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames,” as evidence of purgatory.

However, in its full context (1 Corinthians 3:12-15), it talks about man’s works being judged. It is works that will go through the fire, not the person himself, which is what purgatory involves.

The good works, gold and silver, will survive, while their works of straw and wood will be consumed. The person will escape through the fire, not be purified by it.

In other words, their salvation is guaranteed by Christ’s death on the cross. All their sins have been atoned for. It is a man’s works, which are being judged.

The Bible is clear, that faith in Christ’s death on the cross, not works, is the basis of our salvation:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV)

More in this series:

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