My mother was a cultural Catholic for many years, and although she was quick to identify herself with Catholicism, she had a limited knowledge of the Church’s teaching. Worse yet, she wasn’t yet a robust Bible reader. When I eventually became a Christian, I found myself examining several claims of Catholicism to see if they were true. Catholics believe in purgatory, “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 transgressions.” The notion of purgatory assumes many of us die with unforgiven sins that need to be purged from our account; some of us are not good enough to go to heaven, but not bad enough to go to hell. Purgatory, therefore, is a temporary, intermediate place (or state of being) where good deeds and works can be performed in order to purge our impurity prior to our final destiny with God. Although millions of Catholics believe purgatory to be a reality, the idea needs to be tested in light of the Scripture. Is purgatory something we, as Bible believing Christians, should accept as true?
The evidence from the New Testament simply does not support the existence of purgatory. In fact, the Biblical doctrine of Salvation eliminates the need for purgatory:
Our Salvation Isn’t Based On Our Good Works
According to the Biblical doctrine of Salvation, forgiveness is not based on the good works of the believer. For this reason, deeds or works performed for those in purgatory are both unnecessary and ineffectual:
Romans 3:21-24, 27-28
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus… Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith. For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.
Our Salvation Is Based On Jesus’ Work on the Cross
According to the Biblical doctrine of Salvation, Jesus’ work on the cross (His blood) purifies us from all sin. For this reason, there isn’t a lingering sin problem requiring the existence of a place like purgatory:
…we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.
…the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
…he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
…because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.
Our Salvation Has, Therefore, Already Been Guaranteed
According to the Biblical doctrine of Salvation, Jesus has already purified and purged believers of sin based on our faith in Him. For this reason, there is no need for a place like Purgatory where additional purging must be performed:
1 Corinthians 6:11
But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high
The Biblical doctrine of Salvation clearly eliminates the need for purgatory. In addition to this, the Biblical doctrine of Heaven eliminates the possibility of purgatory:
Our Reunion Is “Wrathless”
According to the Biblical doctrine of Heaven, believers will not be subjected to the continuing wrath of God; they have been justified in spite of their sinfulness. For this reason, we do not believe God’s wrath or condemnation needs to be addressed in a place like purgatory:
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!
“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life”.
Our Reunion is Immediate
According to the Biblical doctrine of Heaven, believers are united with God in Heaven the moment they die. For this reason, the existence of purgatory is simply inconsistent with the nature of Heaven as it is described in the Bible:
2 Corinthians 5:6-8
Therefore we are always confident and know that as long as we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. We live by faith, not by sight. We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The Bible tells us with certainty we cannot earn our salvation with good works because Jesus’ death on the cross paid for all our sin. Jesus purged us from our impurity, and He doesn’t need any additional help from us. When we are united with God, we will not suffer God’s wrath if we have accepted the free gift of Salvation through Christ; we will join God the moment we die, and the finishing work of Jesus will be more than sufficient to guarantee our place at the table.
For more information about the reliability of the New Testament gospels and the case for Christianity, please read Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. This book teaches readers ten principles of cold-case investigations and applies these strategies to investigate the claims of the gospel authors. The book is accompanied by an eight-session Cold-Case Christianity DVD Set (and Participant’s Guide) to help individuals or small groups examine the evidence and make the case.
J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured Cold-Case Detective, Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, author of Cold-Case Christianity, God’s Crime Scene, and Forensic Faith, and creator of the Case Makers Academy for kids.
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