I have recently been discussing Catholic doctrine with a neighbor. Contrary to official Catholic teaching, my neighbor appears to believe that salvation is by grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone. I say appears because my neighbor still believes in purgatory.
As part of our discussion, my neighbor sent me an article authored by Tim Staples of Catholic Answers. His article, I was told, gives scriptural references to support the teaching of purgatory. After reading the article, I decided to respond with a refutation of purgatory. Since so many Christians have Catholic family and/or friends, I thought this refutation of the false doctrine of purgatory might be helpful.
First, as he does in his article, we need to see what the Catholic church officially, and “infallibly”, teaches about purgatory. (I say infallibly because the Catholic church teaches that anything the pope and magisterium teach regarding faith and morals is infallible. Since this teaching comes from their catechism, it is infallible according to the Catholic church and must be believed by the Catholic faithful.) From the Catholic catechism:
III. The Final Purification, or Purgatory
1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.
1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: "Therefore Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.
Now, to make sure I don’t misinterpret what is meant above, here is how the author interprets this:
“This seems so simple. It’s common sense. Scripture is very clear when it says, "But nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]" (Rev. 21:27). Hab. 1:13 says, "You [God]... are of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look on wrong..." How many of us will be perfectly sanctified at the time of our deaths? I dare say most of us will be in need of further purification in order to enter the gates of heaven after we die, if, please God, we die in a state of grace.”
So, to summarize, according to the Catholic church, all who are not without sin at death must go to purgatory in order to become clean, that is, without sin, in order to enter heaven. That is the purpose of the “purifying fire”, from which they get the name purgatory.
Before addressing each argument he makes to support purgatory, let’s look at what Scripture says about the above official, “infallible” Catholic teaching. First and foremost, purgatory denies the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. (Interestingly, the author mentions this in the article but then never gives any support as to why purgatory does not deny this sufficiency.) Purgatory teaches that when we die we still have sin that has not been forgiven, thus it must be “purged”. However, Scripture teaches just the opposite. In each passage, it is my emphasis added.
Hebrews 7: “23 The former priests, on the one hand, existed in greater numbers because they were prevented by death from continuing, 24 but Jesus, on the other hand, because He continues forever, holds His priesthood permanently. 25 Therefore He is able also to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was fitting for us to have such a high priest, holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners and exalted above the heavens; 27 who does not need daily, like those high priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the sins of the people, because this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. 28 For the Law appoints men as high priests who are weak, but the word of the oath, which came after the Law, appoints a Son, made perfect forever.”
Hebrews 9: “11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; 12 and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.”
Hebrews 10: “11 Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; 12 but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. 14 For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying, 16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, And on their mind I will write them,” He then says, 17 “And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.” 18 Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.”
1 Peter 3: “18 For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.”
Romans 6: “10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
John 13: “9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” 10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” 11 For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.””
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was a one time event, and through His sacrifice, He paid for the sins of His children once for all. If he paid this only once, and if it provided redemption for believers, then by definition, He paid for all of our sins, past, present and future. By His blood, Jesus has obtained for us eternal redemption. By faith in Him, we immediately have this eternal life, and we are clean, just as God’s holy word says. Indeed, God has said He will remember our sins no more; if He no longer remembers our sins, how is it we must be “purified” from them? The author also quotes Habakkuk, which says nothing unclean can enter heaven. Yet, Jesus tells us that if we are His, we are already clean (John 13:10). In addition, the author says almost no one will be perfectly sanctified at the time of our death. Hebrews 10:13, however, says, “For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified," meaning all believers are perfectly sanctified.
Purgatory says the sins we die with must be paid for by the “purifying fire” of purgatory. Scripture, however, says that Christ’s death on the cross paid for our past, present and future sins. Likewise, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer, so God sees us as He sees His Son, perfectly righteous. This is why we are perfected, and it is why God will remember our sins no more, since they have been punished on the cross. As the Scriptures above demonstrate, God’s word proves purgatory to be a false teaching. Even worse, it blasphemes the gospel of Christ by teaching that His sacrifice and imputed righteousness was not sufficient. Purgatory is part and parcel of the false gospel of Catholicism
Let’s now consider the arguments the author makes for purgatory.
Argument 1 for Purgatory
He first turns to II Maccabees 12:39-46, which says:
“39 On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his companions went to gather up the bodies of the fallen and bury them with their kindred in their ancestral tombs. 40 But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. 41They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden. 42 Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully 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 because of the sin of those who had fallen. 43 He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; 44 for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. 46 Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.”
IIMaccabees was never part of the Hebrew Scriptures, and is considered an “apocryphal” book, meaning it was never part of Holy Scripture. The original OT canon was Jewish, and contained the twenty two books (the same thirty nine in today’s Protestant Bible; some were combined as one). This canon was known as the Palestinian canon. When the Hebrew OT was translated into Greek (the Septuagint) in Alexandria, Egypt, included in the canon were fifteen books known as the Apocrypha. These were likely included due to the tradition of many churches viewing these books as “useful”, but not canonical (indeed, not all of these books were accepted by the Council of Trent, an “infallible” Catholic council). There are many good reasons why Christians reject the apocryphal books as being included in the OT canon. These include history and evidence from some of the books themselves. Specifically:
- No apocryphal books were written by a prophet. All of the OT Scriptures were written by prophets, while none of the apocryphal books were; therefore, the apocryphal books are not canonical. Scripture attests to this view in that the OT is referred to as the Scriptures of the prophets.
- The apocryphal books were not accepted by the Jews as part of the OT. If these books were part of the canonical OT, then surely Jesus would have criticized the Jews for excluding them from Scripture, yet He never does.
- Jesus and the apostles never quote from the apocryphal books. The OT testifies of Christ, and He gives testimony to the validity of the OT by quoting from many of its books. The apostles, likewise, quote from the OT. Yet they never quote from any of the apocryphal books.
- Many Jewish scholars and early church fathers rejected the apocryphal books as canonical. Jewish writers such as Philo and Josephus, and the rabbis at the Council of Jamnia all rejected the apocryphal books as canonical. Most of the early church also rejected them, including Origen, Athanasius, Hilary, Cyril, Epiphanius, Ruffinus, and Jerome. Interestingly, cardinal Cajetan, the man the Catholic church sent to debate Luther, also rejected these books as canonical.
- Some apocryphal books contain many historical and geographical inaccuracies. The Bible does not contain such inaccuracies. These errors prove the books that contain them are non-canonical.
- Some apocryphal books contradict Scripture.
- The apocryphal books were never accepted as canonical by the church until the Council of Trent. Roughly 1,500 years after these books were written, the Catholic church decided to “officially” recognize the apocrypha as Scripture. These books were not accepted as canonical Scripture by either the Jews or the early Christian church.
- No apocryphal book makes the claim that it is the word of God. While most OT books do claim to be God’s word, none of the apocrypha claim this status.
Furthermore, there are several problems in the Maccabees text itself. First, the passage acknowledges that the men were killed by God for idolatry (v. 40). Thus, they died in their idolatry, and Scripture says this of idolaters: “9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6) In addition, Scripture makes clear that there is no “second chance” once a person dies. Hebrews 9:27 says, “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.”
The passage goes on to say that the Jews took up a collection for an “expiatory sacrifice” for the idolaters. Yet, Scripture says, “No man can by any means redeem his brother Or give to God a ransom for him—8 For the redemption of his soul is costly.” (Psalm 49) Furthermore, Hebrews 10:4 says, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” This contradicts v. 46 in the Maccabees passage. Finally, the passage contradicts itself. Verse 45 says there is a reward for those who have gone to rest in “godliness”. Yet, v. 40 says they died as idolaters, meaning they died in ungodliness.
As if acknowledging that II Maccabees is not God’s word, the author says this: “Rejecting the inspiration and canonicity of II Maccabees does not negate its historical value. Maccabees aids us in knowing, purely from an historical perspective at the very least, the Jews believed in praying and making atonement for the dead shortly before the advent of Christ. This is the faith in which Jesus and the apostles were raised.” (emphasis in original) So, here the author is making two absurd assumptions. First, he assumes that what the Jews believed and practiced at the time of Christ was correct. Second, he implies that Jesus and the apostles agreed with such practices since this is the faith in which they were raised.
To show just how absurd his reasoning is, let’s extend his logic to other practices of the Jews and see if Jesus approved. First, the Jews practiced what they called “Corban”. We find this in Mark 7: “9 He was also saying to them, “You are experts at setting aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition. 10 For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, is to be put to death’; 11 but you say, ‘If a man says to his father or his mother, whatever I have that would help you is Corban (that is to say, given to God),’ 12 you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or his mother; 13 thus invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you have handed down; and you do many things such as that.”” Clearly, Jesus did not approve of everything the Jews practiced, especially those that contradicted the word of God. Since we have seen that what these Jews did in Maccabees also contradicted God’s word, it would be impossible that Jesus would have approved or believed in such things.
As demonstrated above, it’s obvious why II Maccabees was not included in Scripture. The text contradicts God’s word as well as itself. Therefore, this passage cannot be used to support purgatory.
Argument 2 for Purgatory
Next, the author turns to Matthew 12: “31 “Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven. 32 Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age or in the age to come.” (emphasis added) The argument here is that Jesus implies that sins can be forgiven in the age to come, that is, after death. Thus, he says this supports the view of purgatory.
From a purely logical perspective, this passage can mean at least two things. First, it could mean what this author suggests, that people can be forgiven after death. Second, it could mean that Jesus is simply emphasizing that blasphemy against the Spirit will never be forgiven, using the “age to come” for emphasis.
How do we know which one? If we find Scripture that does not support the author’s view, we have to reject it, and indeed we do. As mentioned above, Hebrews 9:27 says, “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” If judgment comes after death, then it is logically not possible that a person could be forgiven after death.
Furthermore, this passage does not support purgatory based on the very logic of Catholic teaching. According to the Catholic church, purgatory does not “forgive” sins, of which Matthew 12 speaks. Rather, in their own words, purgatory “purifies” “lesser faults”. Their own teaching says nothing about sins being forgiven in purgatory; instead, the person must atone for these sins via the purifying fire of purgatory. If they were forgiven, there would be no need to atone for anything. Thus, Catholicism’s own teaching refutes purgatory.
Therefore, this argument does not support purgatory.
Argument 3 for Purgatory
The author next cites Matthew 5 as evidence for purgatory: “25 Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent.” He goes on to state that the word for prison is the Greek word phulake, which he says is used in 1 Peter 3 as a temporary holding place, which he says gives further support for his argument. What he does not say is that phulake is also used for the word “prison” throughout the New Testament, so there’s nothing special about how it’s used in 1 Peter 3.
So, is Jesus referring to purgatory here? As demonstrated above, Christ has paid for all of our sins, once for all, and God will remember our sins no more. Therefore, this can’t mean purgatory. In this passage, Christ is simply emphasizing that a sinner will never be let out of prison since he cannot pay for his sins because he lacks the ability to pay, namely, the sinlessness of Christ. What Jesus is saying, then, is that those who are guilty (everyone) should settle his sin before he gets to the judge. The only way to settle our sin is by believing in Jesus. The judge here is God, who will punish with an eternal death in hell all who have not settled their sins by faith in Christ, a punishment from which there is no “repayment.
John Calvin wrote about this passage (you have to love his sarcasm):
“But it is highly ridiculous in the Papists, to construct their purgatory out of a continued allegory on this passage. Nothing is more evident than that the subject of Christ's discourse is the cultivation of friendship among men. They have no shame, or conscientious scruple, to pervert his words, and to torture them into a widely different meaning, provided they can impose on the unlearned. But as they do not deserve a lengthened refutation, I shall only point out, in a single word, their shameful ignorance. The adversary is supposed by them to be the devil. But Christ enjoins those who believe on him to be agreed with the adversary. Therefore, in order that the Papists may find their purgatory here, they must first become the friends and brethren of devils. A farthing is well known to be the fourth part of a penny: but here, as is evident from Luke, it denotes a mite, or any small piece of money. Now, if we were disposed to caviling [irritating or annoying objection], we might here obtain another exposure of the absurdity of the Papists. For, if he who has once entered Purgatory will never leave it, till he has paid the last farthing, it follows, that the suffrages (as they call them) of the living for the dead are of no avail. For Christ makes no allowance, that others may free a debtor by satisfying for him, but expressly demands from each person the payment of what he owes. Now, if Moses and other satisfactions are useless, however warm the fire of Purgatory may be, yet the kitchens of priests and monks, for the sake of which they are so anxious to maintain it, will be cool enough.”
Therefore, this argument does not support purgatory.
Argument 4 for Purgatory
Finally, in his last argument, the author brings up the classic Catholic passage in support of purgatory, 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:
“10 According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”
It’s useful here to go back to the “infallible” definition of purgatory. It says, “As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire.” In the passage above, v. 14 says a person will receive a reward. The fire here is solely to reveal each person’s works. Yet, purgatory is supposed to be for those who need their sins (“certain lesser faults”) purified by fire. How is it they receive a reward? Indeed, the definition of purgatory makes no mention of receiving a reward, as it is not even about rewards.
This passage, however, is speaking solely about the rewards to which a Christian can look forward in heaven. In fact, this is even mentioned in the verses immediately preceding this passage: “8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.” Thus, it’s clear that Paul is speaking solely about rewards in the verses that follow.
The quality of our works will be tested as though by fire. Those works done with the right motivation for the glory of God, and in the power of the Spirit will survive, just as gold, silver and precious stones would survive a fire. For these works, we receive a reward. Our works done out of a selfish motivation and not for God’s glory will not survive the testing fire. As a result, we will suffer loss in that we will receive no reward. Importantly, notice the text says we will be saved even if we have no works worthy of a reward. Clearly, then, this passage says nothing about purifying our sins.
A related passage is in 1 Peter 1: “6 In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7 so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Notice that God gives us trials in order to demonstrate the proof of our faith. This will produce works that, when tested by fire, will survive, so much so that when our Lord comes He will give us praise for these works.
The fire in this passage reveals the quality of the believers’ works; some are burned up, while others pass the test for a reward. The fire of purgatory is to purify a person’s sins; if this passage supported purgatory, it would speak of a fire that purifies the gold, wood, hay, etc. Therefore, this argument does not support purgatory.
The doctrine of purgatory begs the question: if God intended for us to believe in purgatory, why would He cloak this teaching in such veiled verses as this author suggests? Why would He not simply explain it as the Catholic church has in the catechism above? The obvious answer is that purgatory is a false doctrine.
As part of the Catholic gospel, purgatory is anything but good news. Scripture says the gospel is good news because Christ has paid for every sin we have committed or will commit, and because we are declared righteous in God’s eyes because He has credited Jesus’ righteousness to us. I hope you can share this good news with your Catholic family and friends, and explain to them why purgatory is a false gospel. Just as He has done for us, may He lead them out of darkness and into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).