Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback
Background Image

Is Purgatory Biblical?

Audio only:

Is purgatory biblical, or is it just a Catholic man-made tradition? In this video, Joe presents four different arguments showing the existence of purgatory IS biblical, and responds to four of the most common criticisms of the doctrine of purgatory.

Speaker 1:

You are listening to Shameless Popery with Joe Heschmeyer, a production of Catholic Answers.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Welcome back to Shameless Popery. I’m Joe Heschmeyer. So I’m going to actually interrupt the five-week series I’m doing on answering atheism, because it’s that time of year when people have a lot of questions about purgatory. I’m recording this a little before Halloween. It’s going to come out on All Souls’ Day, which is also Day of the Dead, and because of the season, a lot of people have questions about what Catholics believe about purgatory and why.

Oh, and by the way, October 31st is also Reformation Day, commemorating in October 31st, 1517, when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses, which had to do a lot with purgatory. Ironically, if you go back and read the Ninety-five Theses, Luther believes in purgatory and actually condemns with an anathema only one group, those who would deny purgatory. So it’s kind of fascinating, the kind of forefather of Protestantism damns those who believe what most Protestants believe, namely that there’s no purgatory. That could be a subject of another video. I want to look at something a little simpler, “Is purgatory biblical or is this just something the Catholic Church made up?”

I’m going to look at four biblical arguments for purgatory, and then I’m going to look at four arguments against purgatory. The four arguments I’m going to look for, in terms of being for purgatory, first, nothing in pure enters heaven, second, the concept of praying for the dead and that being a biblical practice, third, saved as through fire, and fourth, what we might call purgatory’s first fruits. Then, I’m going to turn to look at four arguments against purgatory, the thief on the cross, this line often accredited to St. Paul, that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. Third, the objection, “Didn’t Christ do it all? Hasn’t He purified us? Why would we need something like purgatory?,” and fourth, the fact that the Bible could be clearer on the subject.

So before I dive into the arguments before, I want to give just a brief word on the question, “What is purgatory?,” because for many of you watching this, you may be a little vague on, “What do we even mean? When Catholics say purgatory, are we saying some people go to heaven, some go to hell, and some go to like a third place?” Well, no, not really. The catechism of the Catholic Church explains that all who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified are indeed assured of their eternal salvation. So this is the first thing to make clear.

Purgatory is not some second chance where you are going to go to hell, but then you get a mulligan, get to like try again. No. Purgatory is only for those who are saved. It’s only for those who are going to heaven, but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. So these are people who are saved, but imperfectly purified.

We’ll explain kind of what that means as we go, but it’s people who are saved, but still are living in sin or attached to sin in some way. Not in such a way that they’re totally cut off from God, but in such a way that they cannot say they’re without sin. Then, the next paragraph of the catechism explains, “The church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect.” So notice again, only the elect go to purgatory, does not mean everyone who’s saved goes to purgatory, it means everyone who’s in purgatory is saved, and notably, they’re saved by Jesus Christ. They’re not saved by their own effort.

So I’m hoping that’s clear because that is going to respond to some of the misunderstandings and criticisms I’ve seen of purgatory, which imagine, it either as a do-over or a place for us to save ourselves rather than being saved by Christ. That’s total misconceptions in both cases. So with that said, let’s look at four arguments for purgatory, first, that nothing in pure enters heaven. This is the simplest argument, and let’s just go right there. In my view, it’s the strongest.

The first thing to establish is that we said, and that should be immediately obvious if you have any self-awareness at all, but in 1 John, we’re told if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. Whether you are elect or not, you still sin. “The just man falls seven times,” Proverbs says. So that’s a problem. Why is that a problem?

Well, besides the obvious reasons, that sin is an offense against God, we’re also told in the book of Revelation 21:27, that, “Nothing unclean shall enter heaven.” So nothing impure, nothing unclean is in heaven, and yet, we, despite belief in Christ, still sin. Now, I’m going to give what I’m calling the Akin-Fradd argument, and the reason is I got it from Matt Fradd, who got it from Jimmy Akin, and I don’t actually know if the wording is originally Jimmy’s or Matt’s, so Akin-Fradd. That’s what I’m going with. And it’s just a way of putting this argument really simply. The first premise, there will be neither sin, nor attachment to sin in heaven, right?

Like you’re not going to be lusting, or stealing, or murdering, or doing anything like that in heaven. You’re not even going to be wanting to do those things. Premise two, we, at least most of us, are still sitting and are attached to sin at the end of this life. We have not been perfectly purified in this life, because if we had been, we wouldn’t still sin, and yet, we find ourselves still sinning. Thus, we get to the conclusion, therefore, there must be a period between death and heavenly glory in which the saved are cleansed of sin and their attachment to sin, right?

Like if you’re dirty, and you have to be clean to go into heaven, some cleansing, some purification, some purgation has to happen. Now, I’ve seen some Protestant answers to this argument, where they say, “Well, it’ll happen in the twinkling of an eye.” Okay, fine. Maybe you believe in a very fast purgatory, maybe you believe in a really painless purgatory, but you still believe in some kind of purgatory. There has to be some kind of purification that has to happen after death for the person to go into heaven, and then we’re no longer arguing about purgatory, we’re arguing about just the nature and the details about purgatory, but we both agree some kind of purgative process after death has to exist.

Now, you’ll find some Protestants who say, “No, it’s not really sin if you are elect,” basically just denying that they still sin because they’re saved. John says that’s self-deception. I don’t think I can do better than that, and I think that’s a pretty minority view, even among Protestants. So I would start here. The question is not, “Can you go to heaven unclean?”

The question is, “How do you get clean if you die imperfectly purified?” Purgatory is, I think, a pretty clear answer to that question. Now, the details of purgatory are still unclear, because look, the details of the nature of time in the afterlife were still unclear. I mentioned this in another video, but we want to put our concept of time onto the saints in heaven, and I think that’s a mistake, and so maybe purgatory is extremely fast from our perspective or extremely slow from our perspective, and our perspective is just going to be different than God’s perspective and different than the perspective of the saints who are going through purgatory and the saints in heaven, because we process time through our bodies, and the saints in purgatory and in heaven, with the exception of Mary, who’s assumed bodily into heaven. The saints don’t have bodies, so their experience of time is going to be radically different than our own.

So I think a lot of the debates about whether purgatory is fast or slow risk missing the point by applying a kind of a human standard of time to the question. Either way, once we’re debating whether purgatory is fast or slow, we’re no longer debating, “Does purgatory exist?,” and that’s all I’m trying to show here, purgatory of some kind necessarily exists if anyone is going to be saved other than the, perhaps very few people who are totally sin-free and detached from all sin by the time they die. The second argument, that praying for the dead establishes the existence of purgatory, and praying for the dead is biblical. So let’s address this in two parts. First, why would praying for the dead establish the existence of purgatory?

St. Thomas Aquinas and the Summa, this is actually the very last question in the Summa, he points out that there’s no need to pray for the dead who are in heaven, and there’s no use praying for the dead who are in hell, right? The saints in heaven don’t need your help, and the souls in hell can’t use your help. So if someone has died and gone to hell, it’s too late. Remember, purgatory is not a do-over for those who’ve rejected Jesus Christ, and the saints in heaven don’t need any special assistance because they’re experiencing unfathomable, infinite glory. So if we’re praying for the dead necessarily, we’re believing in some kind of third category of those who are imperfectly purified, who can actually benefit from our prayers.

Hopefully that’s really clear. I think experientially, most people know this, Protestants typically do not pray for the dead because they don’t believe in anything like purgatory. Catholics and Orthodox, as we’re going to see, traditional Jews, also pray for the dead because we do believe in some kind of purgative state. We all, three groups, have different ideas of maybe what that looks like, but again, the details aren’t what I’m worried about here, just the existence of purgatory. So where do we see the biblical evidence for praying for the dead?

Well, there’s one argument that I thought was bad for a while until I dove a little deeper on it, and that St. Paul, talking about Onesiphorus, and he speaks about him as if he’s praying for him, having died. So in 2 Timothy 4:19, he says, “Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus.” So he’s not greeting Onesiphorus, he’s greeting his family. Now, that, by itself, is pretty weak, and for a while, I thought, “That was all the argument was,” like, “Okay. Well, he’s greeting the household of the guy.”

He’s like, “No, no, no. Go back to 2 Timothy 1,” and you realize this is actually a pretty convincing argument. He speaks of the guy in past tense. He says, “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus.” Again, he’s praying for the Lord’s mercy for the guy’s family, “For he often refreshed me. He was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome, he searched for me eagerly and found me.”

Then, he says, “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day.” Then, he says, “And you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.” So notice, in the middle of describing the past deeds that this guy did, he has a prayer that he’ll find mercy from God on Judgment Day. That’s the day of which Paul speaks. We’re going to get back to the day and its importance in Paul’s kind of depiction of our purification and all this, but there’s always this relationship between our purification and Judgment Day, that we are being purified so that we can stand perfectly pure for Judgment Day.

And here, he is praying for this man for that, and it looks like he’s … This would be a very strange passage to write about someone living. That’s all I would say. Could you hypothetically? Sure, but I’d be hard-pressed to find any more where Paul, or really, anybody else, talks in this way about someone who’s walking the earth.

So that’s New Testament. In the Old Testament, there’s a much clearer passage that unfortunately, isn’t in many Protestant bibles. Before I get into it, I just want to say a word on this. 2 Maccabees, to deny it. You would have to say both that it’s not canonical, it’s not divinely inspired, and that what it’s teaching is actually wrong, and that’s a really uphill battle.

It’s one thing to say you don’t think it belongs in the Bible, it’s another thing to say you think it doesn’t belong in the Bible and it’s not inspired by God. It’s the third thing to say you don’t think it belongs in the Bible, it’s not inspired by God, and it’s teaching false doctrine, and that’s going to be a really hard position to hold in light of a wealth of biblical and early Christian evidence. We’ll get into all that, but first, what does 2 Maccabees have to say? So to set the stage, Judas Maccabeus and his men are fighting for the freedom of Israel, and in chapter 12, beginning in verse 39, there’s a description of the aftermath of a battle, and Judas and his men, they find a number of their fellow comrades have died in battle, and in each case, they have these amulets, these sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear, and so we’re told it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. So these are men who are in this very strange spiritual state, where on the one hand, they believe in God and are fighting for the freedom of Israel, on the other hand, they’ve fallen into superstition and are wearing these superstitious, idolatrous kind of medals while, I want to make very clear, they’re fighting against the Greeks for making them compromise their Judaism.

So they’re in this strange position, maybe like many of us, where on the one hand, we are fervently pro-God, but on the other hand, we have these strange compromises with evil. That’s the situation these men find themselves in. And so what happens? So Judas and the men bless the ways of the Lord, who reveals the things that are hidden, and then they start praying for them, beseeching that the sin, which had been committed, might be wholly blotted out, right? They don’t know.

“Are these guys going to go to hell? Are they going to go to heaven?” Who knows? Let’s pray for them. Let’s pray for the purgation of their sin, that it’ll be wholly blotted out. That’s what they’re praying for explicitly in chapter 12, verse 41.

Then, Judas Maccabeus tells the people to keep themselves free from sin because they just, lesson learned, and then he takes up a collection to make a sin offering. And so, so far, we just have, “Okay. Well, here’s what the leader did,” and you can say, “Well, sure, plenty of leaders of Israel did imperfect things to say the least,” but the text goes on to say, “In doing this, he acted very well and honorably,” taking account of the resurrection, for if he were not expecting that those would fallen would rise again, it would’ve been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead, right? Like if there isn’t a Judgment Day, if there isn’t a final resurrection, if this isn’t all going to come to something, then you’re wasting your time praying for the dead. But in verse 45, “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, that they might be delivered from their sin.”

So that’s about as clear as you’re going to get. He prayed for the dead, here’s why he prayed for the dead, here’s what he’s doing spiritually for those who’ve already died, to help them with their purgation, their purification. So then, the question is just, “Well, can we trust 2 Maccabees?” And here, I would just point out a couple things. First, the New Testament trust 2 Maccabees.

Here’s what I mean. In Hebrews 11, there is this list, kind of Hall of Fame of saints, those who lived by faith and received divine approval, so Hebrews 1 to 2 kind of lays out what the whole chapter is about. Jump down towards almost the very end, verse 35, says, “Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life.” Now, in the proceeding 34 verses, far as I can tell, every example is from the Bible, and then you get to verse 35, and if you’re a Protestant, you might be saying, “I don’t know what this passage is talking about.”

Well, as scholars point out, that’s because it seems to allude to a couple of passages in 2 Maccabees, and that we can track the language. So there’s a debate about actually which of two different passages in 2 Maccabees is most directly in view between scholars, but the idea that 2 Maccabees is what’s behind Hebrews 11, is pretty widely held, and Hebrews 11 is not alone. In John 10, St. John says, “It was the Feast of the Dedication in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple.” So Jesus is in the temple for the Feast of Dedication, a wintertime Jewish feast.

What feast is that? Well, that’s the feast of Hanukkah. And strikingly, if you read like the Jewish Talmud, it describes this as like a festival of lights and all of this. The idea of it being the Feast of the Dedication of the temple is pretty explicitly from 1 and 2 Maccabees, and that’s the only Old Testament passages that speak of Hanukkah because the older books were written before the feast was established, because the dedication is a dedication by the Maccabeans after they retake the temple from the Greeks. So Jesus is seemingly celebrating this, and that seems like pretty good authentication of what 2 Maccabees is talking about.

So remember, if you’re going to deny 2 Maccabees, it’s not enough to say, “2 Maccabees isn’t canon.” The question here is not, “Is 2 Maccabees in the Bible or not?” The question here is a much easier one, “Is 2 Maccabees telling the truth or not?” And it seems like we can point to John, Jesus in Hebrews 11, in support of the fact that 2 Maccabees was treated as authoritative, as true at least, and seemingly, in Hebrews 11, treated as scripture, based on the way every other passage was something from scripture. We also know the early Christians regularly referred to the books of Maccabees, and I mean very early Christians.

So origin is a good example, and De Principiis, he says, “That, we may believe in the authority of holy Scripture that such is the case, hear how in the book of Maccabees …” So he’s explicitly citing to these books, in this case, 2 Maccabees, as holy Scripture. You’ll sometimes hear people say, “Oh, the early Christians used the books, but they didn’t consider them Scripture.” Well, first, even if that were true, that would still be enough. Like if they thought they were reliable, and these books are teaching something about how it’s good to pray for the dead, okay, great, that’s very good authority, but it’s also not true.

The early Christians quoted these books a lot because they believed them to be Scripture, and they regularly said as much. So you’ve got, I think, a fair case, the 2 Maccabees is true, and if 2 Maccabees is true, then certainly praying for the dead and purgatory. Very good. You can also approach this from a Jewish perspective, because there are a number of Jewish prayers for the dead, though, Judas Maccabeus was neither the first, nor the last pious Jew to pray for the dead. Ellen Levine talks about this, in what’s called the Mourner’s Kaddish, in her essay, Jewish Views and Customs on Death.

So the Mourner’s Kaddish, when someone dies, you pray for them, and the custom, if it’s your parent who dies, is to pray for them for their soul for 11 months, and the reason, she explains, is that it was thought that at least a year of purification was needed for the particularly wicked, and so if you pray for them for 12 months or more, then that suggests that you think your parents really need prayers to get out of this purification. Now, again, we don’t have to debate the details, exactly what this purification looks like, or how long, or anything like that. The simple fact is the Mourner’s Kaddish is proof of a Jewish belief in purgatory, even if it’s not usually called purgatory by Jewish believers. And that’s just one example. There’s also a prayer called the El Maleh Rahamim, which just means God full of compassion and apologies, if I’m butchering the pronunciation there.

Ronald Eisenberg in My Jewish Learning talks about this, how this is one of the prayers for the departed that’s recited with a chant at funeral services, as well as when you visit the graves of the dead, particularly dead relatives, and he explains what it is. It’s a plea that the soul of the departed be granted proper rest, since the mere fact that a soul is in Gan Eden, paradise, does not guarantee it, complete contentment. Now, that’s going to be really important, that paradise was not viewed in the Jewish mind as synonymous with perfect happiness with God in heaven, and so even the soul in paradise might be still in need for prayers for proper rest. You’ll see why that’s relevant when we get to the good thief, because there’s often a conflation between paradise and heaven. So that’s the second kind of Jewish source.

The third one is from the Jewish encyclopedia. Rabbi Kaufmann Kohler, he gives a pretty lengthy kind of explanation for the history of the Jewish belief in purgatory, and he says it’s clearly expressed in some rabbinical passages, as in the teaching of the Shammaites, that’s the followers of the House of Shammai, which he quotes one of them, “In the last Judgment Day, there shall be three classes of souls, the righteous shall at once be written down for the life everlasting, the wicked, for Gehenna,” and then this third category, those who, it says, “Whose virtues and sins counterbalance one another shall go down to Gehenna and float up and down until they rise purified.” So again, the image of this, where they’re kind of in a hell-like state for a while, we can quibble, but there’s clearly a belief in a purification fiery state. And the text goes on to say, “For of them, it is written,” and then there’s a reference to Zechariah 13. Now, I want to actually explore Zechariah 13, so we’ll pause on that one, and then the second passage that’s given is 1 Samuel 2:6, that He, the Lord, bringeth down to Sheol and bringeth up again.

So this notion of like a purification of something hell-like, that’s only temporary for this class of people who are not the eternally damned, they’re finding this based on Scripture. This is going to be really important for people claiming the Catholic Church just made this up, because it’s one thing to say, “Oh, they indoctrinated all the Catholics,” but are you going to say that they indoctrinated the Talmud, they indoctrinated all the rabbis, they indoctrinated the House of Shammai, they indoctrinated Judas Maccabeus before the Catholic Church even existed? How does this work exactly? But yeah, let’s turn to Zechariah 13, because it’s an interesting passage, and I’d never really seen this one used in discussions on purgatory. But in Zechariah 13:8, the Lord promises that in the whole land, two-thirds shall be cut off and perish, and one-third shall be left alive.

Now, that’s ominous. And then of that saved third, verse 9 says, “And I’ll put this third into the fire and refine them as one refined silver. Test them as gold is tested. They’ll call them My name and I’ll answer them. I will say, ‘They’re My people,’ and they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.'”

Now, this is a really important passage to take seriously, because this is a spiritual principle that we want to be very clear on, that it is not the case, that suffering is uniquely the province of the wicked or the damned, right? This is a misconception, when in the gospel of John, when the disciples see the man born blind, and then there’s this question, “Well, was it because of his sin or his parents’ sin?” It’s like neither. It’s for the glory of God. Likewise, in Hebrews, there’s a discussion about how if you are a son, then you’ll expect to be disciplined, that there is a category of suffering, discipline, that actually only applies to those who are saved.

It only applies to those who are in right relationship with God. So that’s a very important thing to get straight, because it means that purgatory is not a rejection of Christ-saving action. Purgatory is only the result of Christ-saving action, right? Only because this third, in Zechariah 13, are saved can they undergo these fires. It’s not the fires of damnation.

It is clearly a group that is saved. Now, whether that passage refers to purgatory or not, it’s at least striking that you’ve got a group of rabbis who are saying that it does. So, I think that’s really fascinating. That leads in, really naturally, to the third argument for purgatory, this notion of those who are saved as through fire, because think about the background here of Zechariah 13. Now, look at what St. Paul has to say in 1 Corinthians 3.

He says, “He’s like a master builder. He lays a foundation, and another builds on it, but there’s no other foundation you can lay other than that of Jesus Christ.” So we’re only talking here about Christians. That’s an important thing to get straight in 1 Corinthians 3. And how do you build on the foundation of Jesus Christ?

Well, you might do it in good way, with gold and silver and precious stones, or you might do it in a shoddy way, with wood and hay and stubble, and Paul says, “Each man’s work will become manifest for the Day will disclose it.” Again, what does the Day refer to? Judgment Day, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. Read this with its Jewish background, right? Among the saved, there’s this purifying fire.

And so he says, “If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.” Now, that’s not just a reward of salvation, because this whole group is saved. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he, himself will be saved, but only as through fire. So there’s some category of Christians who have the foundation of Jesus Christ, who are not going to hell, who are in fact saved, who will still, after death, before Judgment Day, suffer loss. They will suffer in some way, and they’ll be saved, but only as through fire.

So there’s a third, I think, solid argument for purgatory. Paul doesn’t go into great detail about exactly what this will look like, but the notion of purifying fire seems fairly clear. The fourth argument, I want to kind of draw this notion of the son being disciplined from Hebrews out, and talk about what we might call purgatory’s first fruits. I want to actually consider an argument against purgatory here, made by the Anglican N.T. Wright. Now, I love N.T. Wright, and a lot of things on purgatory, I think he’s just wrong.

He has a book called For All the Saints, and he says, in fact, Paul makes it clear here and elsewhere, 1 Corinthians 3 here, that, “It’s a present life that is meant to function as a purgatory. The sufferings of the present time, not of some postmortem state, are the valley we have to pass through in order to reach the glorious future.” Now, there’s no need to make this an either or. As Christians, we would say like, “Yes, the present life should be purgatorial,” meaning, you should be ever-more purified from your attachment to sin as you grow in sanctity. But some people are going to die before that process is complete.

And so for them, well, they’re either not going to go to heaven because they’re not totally pure, or that purification process that has already begun in this life has to continue after they’ve died. Wright says, “The present life is bad enough from time to time, goodness knows, that imagining gloom and doom after death as well.” It’s a little bit of a caricature. First of all, the present life is bad enough for some people, but there are other Christians who, even though they believe in Christ, even though they are saved, still live in such a way that they’ve harmed other people and never made those debts right. So either you have just an everlasting injustice, or there’s some kind of healing, some kind of remedy, that justice demands, in some way.

Now, there are ways of taking that, that would be mistaken, but it’s at least too simplistic to say the present life is bad enough from time to time, because for some people, it certainly, they are experiencing a purgation here on earth, and others seemingly are not. And then, Wright says, the thing I think is the most interesting, that he thinks he knows why Dante’s middle volume, Purgatory, is the one people most easily relate to, because he says, “The myth of purgatory is an allegory, a projection from the present on to the future.” This is why purgatory appeals to the imagination. It is our story. It is where we are now.

If we are Christians, if we believe in the risen Jesus is Lord, if we are baptized members of His Body, then we are passing right now through the sufferings, which form the gateway to life. Now, there’s a lot there that we can agree with as Catholic Christians. In fact, Saint Augustine makes the better version of Wright’s argument in City of God centuries earlier, but he just doesn’t make it an either or. He says, “Temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment,” that is right before Judgment Day. And he says, “But of those who suffer temporary punishments after death, all are not doomed to those everlasting punishments, which are to follow that judgment.”

For some, as you’ve already said, what is not remitted in this world is remitted in the next. That is they’re not punished with the eternal punishment of the world to come. So that’s an important kind of concept to get straight, that yes, Wright is absolutely right, that for this life, we should be going through purgatory now. Saint Augustine is just pointing out, “Well, some people don’t, and they do it later, and some people experience both.” That actually, whether you have thought about it or not, undermines almost every Protestant argument against purgatory.

You can’t say, for instance, purgatory is evil because it denies the purification Christ wins for us on the cross, and then say in the same breath, and also, we undergo purgatory in this life. Well, if purgatory in this life is consistent with Christ dying for us on the cross, purgatory after this life, before we enter heaven, is also consistent with Christ dying for us on the cross. I hope that’s clear, that the fact that we experience some purgatorial process in this life, and this seems abundantly clear from the New Testament, as well as just from Christian living, that should be good grounds to realize that there’s not a strong objection to purgatory. Purgatory does seem consistent with all of the biblical evidence, and that’s certainly how the early Christians understood it. Now, with that said, let’s turn from the biblical arguments for purgatory to the biblical arguments against purgatory, because there are several you can expect to hear if you say you believe in purgatory.

The first one is the good thief on the cross. And the good thief on the cross, I think, is one of the most misused kind of passages in Scripture, but this is one that I fell for as a kid. I believe I was homesick from church one day, and because I couldn’t go to a church, I watched a Protestant TV worship service, and the preacher was preaching against purgatory, and he looked to this passage, and he looked to Luke 23, in which the good thief says to Jesus, “Jesus, remember me when you come in Your kingly power.” And Jesus says to him, “Truly, I say to you, ‘Today, you’ll be with Me in paradise.'” And the preacher was like, “Aha, there’s no purgatory because he says today, the thief’s going to be with Him in paradise.”

And as a kid, I was maybe 12, I thought, “Oh, that’s pretty good. It seems like the Catholic belief in purgatory is unfounded.” Well, later, I realized that the preacher was making two really big assumptions that I was also making as a kid. First, that today meant the same thing to Jesus, that it would mean here on earth, that today is Good Friday, that on Good Friday, the thief is going to be with Jesus in paradise, and the second assumption is that paradise means heaven, that the thief and Jesus are going up to heaven on Good Friday. Well, what blew apart that was discovering John 20:17, in which Jesus on Easter Sunday says to Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold me for I have not yet ascended to the Father.”

Boom. It was like, “Oh, okay. I guess Jesus and the good thief didn’t go directly from the cross to heaven.” And in fact, this verse isn’t alone. St. Paul says in Ephesians 4 that when you talk about Christ ascending, what does it mean?

But that He had also descended into the lower parts of the earth. In other words, not just the descent in Jesus coming down from heaven to become Man, but there’s a further descent after Good Friday, or on Good Friday, in which He goes down. And you might be saying, “What in the world is Jesus doing, going down?” Some Protestants believe, usually of the Calvinist variety, that He’s going down to hell to suffer punishment in some way. That’s not what Scripture says.

1 Peter 3 says, “He goes to preach to the spirits in prison.” So that’s what Jesus is doing after He dies for sins once for all. He goes and preaches this message of liberation to those who are prison. Now, that already blows apart, the idea that Jesus and the good thief have gone to heaven, but there are a few other passages that are relevant as well. Remember that idea that today, for us means the same thing as today for God. Well, it doesn’t.

2 Peter 3 is really clear that, “With the Lord, one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years arise one day.” Remember, I said this earlier, when we talk about purgatory, the constant temptation is to impose our categories of time upon these spiritual realities, and that’s a mistake. The other mistake is assuming that the word, paradise automatically necessarily means heaven. Theophilus, in his letter to Autolycus, this is actually the letter in 181, the first time we see the word, Trinity used, he describes … So he’s quoting from the Greek version of Genesis, and it says …

So the word paradise means garden or like a walled garden, and he says, “The Lord God planted paradise in Eden,” and that’s what the Greek version of Genesis says, that Eden is the first reference to paradise. And so he says the place, paradise, was made in respect of beauty, intermediate between earth and heaven. So paradise was understood to be this place of blessedness, this place of beauty, this place that is superior to earth, but was still in theory to heaven. Now, to be clear, I’m not saying paradise always necessarily means that. You can use paradise to refer to heaven, but paradise doesn’t automatically mean that.

So the state of the righteous … So remember, Jesus dies on the cross, and He goes and preaches this message of liberation to those spirits who are in prison. Well, they’re not in hell, because these are the people He’s bringing with Him to heaven, but Jesus opens the gates of heaven. And so it’s important that we get that right. So it is accurate, I think, to describe where Jesus and the good thief go, even on Good Friday as paradise as long as you don’t think they mean heaven, as long as you understand they mean the place of the righteous dead, sometimes called the Bosom of Abraham, based on the gospel of Luke, that place sometimes called the Limbo of the fathers, this place of waiting, it’s like a walled garden, a place of comfort that is superior to earth, but isn’t equal to heaven.

So all of that’s to say, however you understand the passage, you just can’t use the good thief to debunk the existence of purgatory. One last point on the good thief, it would be fine from a Catholic perspective if the good thief immediately went to heaven, because usually, the argument is, “Look, the good thief, he just believes, and even though he lived this life of crime and sin, he believes, he says he believes, and therefore, he goes to heaven. Shouldn’t he have gone to purgatory?” I don’t think the answer to that is yes. Remember, as Saint Augustine says, “You can have your purgatory on this earth.”

This is a Man who is suffering an excruciating death of torture on the cross for His sins, crying out in faith amidst the suffering, and what’s more, giving comfort and defending Jesus publicly on Good Friday. He did more than most of us will ever hope to do in a very short span of time. So if you were to tell me that was His purgation, that was His suffering, I’d say, “Yeah, that makes sense. That’s fine.” None of that disproves purgatory.

The Catholic belief in purgatory is not every single sin goes to purgatory. So if you found someone who didn’t go to purgatory, that would not debunk the existence of purgatory, just like not everyone’s been to Cincinnati. That doesn’t mean Cincinnati doesn’t exist. No offense to people from Cincinnati, it’s just the first city that came to mind. I don’t know how purgatorial Cincinnati is.

So that’s the first objection. The good thief just doesn’t prove, first, because he doesn’t seem to have gone to heaven with Jesus on Good Friday, but second, because even if he did, that would not disprove the existence of purgatory. The second objection, this line accredited to St. Paul, that to be absent from the body is be present with the Lord. And the answer here is this is a misquotation. It’s a misquotation of the King James version, of 2 Corinthians 5:8, in which St. Paul says, “We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”

But notice, he’s saying, “It’d be great to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.” He does not say, “Everyone who is absent from the body is present with the Lord.” The problem here is partly that we’re using King James’ English, and a lot of people using this get tripped up, to use the RSV-CE. You can use any number of modern English translations. It might be clearer where the logical error is.

That one says we are of good courage and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. But again, if you say, “I would rather have Italian food than Mexican food tonight,” I don’t know why you’d say that, but if you did, that does not mean that everyone who’s not having Italian food is having Mexican food, or vice versa. It just means you’d prefer A to B. That’s all. That’s all you’re saying.

You’re not saying everyone who’s not in A is in B, or everyone not in B is in A. You’re not saying that at all. So to say, “I would rather be in heaven than on earth,” which who wouldn’t agree with that, doesn’t prove that heaven and earth are the only two possibilities, because of course they aren’t. It’s possible to be absent from the body and in hell. So it’s outrageous.

It is totally obviously wrong, to use 2 Corinthians 5, to say the only two states are here in the body or in heaven. What’s going on here is partly that people are getting tripped over King James English, I think, and partly, they’re taking verse 8 completely out of context. If you read the context in 2 Corinthians 5, it starts with St. Paul, talking about how if the earthly tent we live in, meaning our earthly, unglorified body is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands eternal in the heavens. That is our glorified body. Here, indeed, we groan and long to put on our heavenly dwelling, so that by putting it on, we may not be found naked.

So as we’re in our unglorified body with all these weaknesses, we look forward to that day where we’ll have our glorified body. That’s specifically what 2 Corinthians 5 is talking about. And then, he says, “We know, while we’re at home in the body, we’re away from the Lord.” Right? If you are still in your unglorified body here on earth, you are necessarily not in heaven.

If you’re having Italian food, you’re not having Mexican food, whatever, right? He then says, “We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” So when he says that, does that mean the body in heaven are the only two possibilities? Of course it doesn’t, because again, you’ve got hell, and you have the existence we have in heaven before we get our glorified body, because in the very next two verses, St. Paul makes clear when we’re going to get the glorified body. He says, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that each one may receive good or evil according to what he has done in the body.”

Now, notice, he’s not saying, “Everyone not in the body automatically goes to heaven, automatically gets good things.” When he talks about receiving evil at this time of judgment, he means one of two things, when we appear before the judgment seat of Christ. Either, like 1 Corinthians 3, he’s talking about the saved receiving some kind of loss, this purgation before their final judgment or, or and/or, he means those who lose everything and go to hell, but whichever of those he means, he clearly is not saying, “Everyone who is not in their earthly body is fully experiencing heavenly glory in their heavenly body.” No. It’s clearly not what he’s saying.

So that passage just doesn’t mean what people say it means, and they’re usually misquoting it when they quote it. Likewise, with Philippians 1:21-23, St. Paul says, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” If it is to be life in the Flesh, that means fruitful labor for me, yet, which I shall choose, I cannot tell. I’m hard-pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ for that is far better.

But notice, he still doesn’t say the only two possibilities are earthly life or heavenly glory, because there’s obviously the third category of hell, which both Catholics and Protestants typically believe it. So Paul’s not intending to deny hell, he’s saying he would rather be in heaven than on earth. That is a pretty uncontroversial kind of claim and doesn’t prove those are the only two possible places for a soul to be. That’s the second objection. The third one, “Didn’t Christ do it all?”

And here, I want to turn to the argument made by Mike Gendron, when he’s asked why he doesn’t believe in purgatory, and apologies in advance for the weird music.

Speaker 4:

Why is purgatory a completely false idea?

Mike Gendron:

Because it denies the sufficiency of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is created by the Roman Catholic religion as an intermediate place, where people who die in God’s grace, but who have committed venial sins will go there and have their sins purged away so that they can be prepared for heaven, but it goes against the Bible because in 1 John 1:7, it says, “The blood of Jesus Christ purifies us from all sin.” Not most sins, not many sins, not some sins, the blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin. And then we also see in Hebrews 1:3, when Jesus obtained purification for our sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Father in heaven. When the High Priest sits down, the work is done.

Joe Heschmeyer:

Okay, so that’s the argument. And the first thing to notice is that the argument doesn’t make a lot of sense. And I mean that because of the thing I said earlier with the N.T. Wright thing. There’s a purification that goes on in your life as a Christian. Now, however you understand that process, whether it’s just the moment you get saved, or whether it’s the ongoing work of sanctification, this purgatorial process, this process of purification continues long after 33 A.D., or whatever year Jesus dies on the cross.

So to say, “Oh, the work is completed, it’s finished, and therefore, there’s no need to purify me of my sin,” is outrageously wrong. In fact, I would even argue it’s satanic, and I’d argue that on the basis of scripture, because this idea of trying to get the glory without the cross is at the heart of the satanic deception. We know this in several ways. One way we know it is Matthew 16. So remember, St. Peter gets Jesus as the Christ right, and he gets lauded, he gets called the rock.

There’s all this stuff, it’s really great, and then in verse 21, from that time, Jesus began to show His disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day, be raised. And Peter, riding high off of his glory, took him aside and began to rebuke him saying, “God forbid, Lord, this shall never happen to You.” Jesus turns and says to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a hindrance to Me, for you’re not on the side of God but of men.” As men, we want the glory without the cross.

St. Peter wants that for Jesus, and thinks he’s doing Him a favor by trying to tell him, “Hey, You don’t need to worry about that. You can get the glory without the cross.” This is an ongoing problem that we see over and over again in the life of disciples. After Peter, James, and John go up, and they see the transfiguration of Jesus, they’re coming down, Jesus charges them to tell, “No one what they’d seen until the Son of Man should have risen from the dead,” and the three of them start quietly trying to figure out what this rising from the dead thing meant. They just saw Jesus in glory, and then He immediately starts talking about dying and rising from the dead, but they don’t want to ask Him about it.

They don’t want to hear that bad news, so instead, they ask Him, “Well, why do the scribes say that first, Elijah must come?,” but Jesus wants him to talk about it. So He says, “Yeah, Elijah does come to first, restore all things,” and then He asks them, “And how is it written of the Son of Man, that He should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?” Like He won’t let them take the glory without the cross, won’t let them do it. And even on Easter Sundays, He’s walking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. He asks, “Well, is it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into His glory?”

So Jesus doesn’t get Easter without Good Friday, and He won’t let us run away from that fact, because we want to skip past that. We want to have a bear cross to proclaim the empty tomb and not be faced with the horrors of a crucifix. We want to have the glory without the cross, but that’s not what we’re called to, and it’s not just Jesus’ cross, it’s also our cross. Jesus did not die on the cross to be our substitute so we didn’t have to have a cross. Jesus dies on the cross so we can take up our cross and follow Him, and this is abundantly clear from Scripture.

Romans 8, we’ll start there. St. Paul is saying that we didn’t receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we receive the spirit of sonship. What does it mean to have the spirit of sonship? Well, he tells us in the next verses that it means we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. And I want to stop the passage there, but Paul won’t let me.

He says, “Provided, we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him.” That is Good Friday and Easter Sunday are not just meant for Jesus, Good Friday and Easter Sunday are also meant for you. You need to go through suffering. You need to be purified and make it to heavenly Easter glory. In Timothy, St. Paul says in 2 Timothy 2, “Take your share of suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus,” just says it outright.

Anyone telling you, “Hey, you don’t need all this suffering and purification,” is selling you a demonic lie. This is the lie of Satan, that God forbid, Lord, is not coming from God, and St. Paul backs us up with several easy examples, “No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him.” You got a higher calling. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules, so you got to live in a certain way. It is the hardworking farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops.

So St. Paul is making this point that doesn’t sound at all like the Christianity preached by Mike Gendron, but I’d say it’s not just Paul here, it’s also Jesus. Jesus, in Matthew 16, and the passage I already alluded to, verse 24 says, “If any man would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” Right? This is how He responds to Peter wanting to have the glory without the cross, that it’s not just that Peter wants Jesus to have the glory without the cross, Peter wants Peter to have the glory without the cross, and Jesus says, “Not only do I need the cross for the salvation of the world, but we need the cross as well to be disciples of Jesus.” Now, Mike Gendron is free to believe, and Protestants are free to believe, this is somehow repugnant to the completed work of Christ, but this is Scripture.

Colossians 1, St. Paul says in verse 24, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh, I complete what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of His Body, that is the Church.” What is lacking isn’t something Jesus failed to do. What is lacking is this, the Body of Christ. Ephesians 1, the whole Christ is Christ ahead with the Church’s body. Jesus has gone through all of that suffering.

We have been called into it, and we need to do our part. This is not anything that He did wrong as the High Priest. But look, with the High Priestly sacrifice, the priest had a certain role he played, but the people for whom the priest was offering had a certain role they played as well. So for instance, in some of the food offerings, the priest would sacrifice or offer it up, and then he and the people might eat of it, or the people’s sacrifice might be to bring their best stuff, their first fruits, their first liens, their unspotted, unblemished lamb, and so they’re offering something, which then the priest offers.

So the priest has a certain role, but so does the layman. And so saying Christ is our High Priest does not mean we have nothing to sacrifice. It doesn’t mean that at all if you understand the way a sacrificial system kind of works. And so all of that’s to say we’re not promised immunity from suffering, we’re promised instead, that if we are sons, we’ll be disciplined. So all of that’s to say now, there’s different angles you can go, with sacrifice, suffering, and the like, but you can’t just say, “Christ did it all, so I’ve got nothing to do.”

That’s not it at all. And so if purgatory is repugnant to your theological system, it might be because your theological system hasn’t taken seriously the need for the cross on our way to heavenly glory, that Romans 8 says, “We’ll only share in the glory of Christ provided we suffer with Him.” Finally, 2 Corinthians 1:5 says, “As we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering.” So through Christ, we share abundantly in comfort too. There’s this connection.

You share in the comfort of Christ. You share even more than that, in the glory of Christ. You share in that Easter glory if you share in the Good Friday as well. There’s no escaping it. And so this notion of our need to be purified, it’s all right there.

Then, the last thing I’d say in response to this is the mistake is imagining that for some reason, when I’m purified here on earth, Jesus is doing it, but if I’m purified in purgatory, I’m doing. It’s still Jesus doing it. I freely cooperate with it, but He, by His grace and by His sovereign power is the one purifying me. I’m the recipient of that purification, whether here on earth or in purgatory. So it’s a mistake to imagine that in purgatory, we’re somehow earning our way to heaven.

Now, whether your purgation is here or hereafter, Jesus is the Purifier, you are the one being the purified. That’s one of the weaker arguments I will leave you with. Maybe the strongest argument, which is the argument from Silence Scripture could be clearer on it. Hey, I agree. Scripture could be clearer on a lot of things, if you read the Old Testament and say, “What does hell look like? What is paradise, even?”

You’ve got all these references to Gehenna, to Sheol, to paradise. What does all this look like? The New Testament is often less clear than I’d like it, the Old Testament even more so. And so, yeah, the argument from Silence is just a reflection of a simple fact. Many times, we expect the Bible to read like a theology textbook, that it’s just going to say propositionally, “Believe this, believe that, believe the other thing,” and it usually doesn’t read like that.

It has stories, it has narratives, it has genealogies, it has all these things that are making points that often take a lot of reflection, or you’ll get these little passing glimpses, like in a parable, to something about the state of the afterlife. So, yes. Could it be clearer? Absolutely. I don’t even disagree with this one, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

It’d be a mistake to say anything about the spiritual life or about the afterlife, that isn’t really clearly spelled out in Scripture isn’t real, because even something like what heavenly glory looks like, there’s a lot of confusion among that amongst Christians, what hell looks like. All of that’s to say, when you actually go back and drill down and say, “How often does Scripture directly explain this stuff?,” it’s a lot less common than you might imagine, but that’s not an argument against Scripture, just as an argument that what we expect the Bible to be is very different from what the Bible actually is. So hopefully you see none of those four arguments are strong arguments against purgatory. If I’ve missed anything, please, in the comments, I believe in you commenters, feel free to point out some additional arguments I haven’t made, or anything I might’ve missed. There’s actually much more that could be said in favor of purgatory, but I wanted to give kind of a simple case, because I think it really comes down to that very first one.

Right now, you are not as pure as you need to be, to be in the presence of God. And if you think you are, you really are not as pure as you need to be, to be in the presence of God, and because of that, you need to be purified either now, or if you’re not done yet, you need to be purified before you go into heaven all the way. For Shameless Popery, I’m Joe Heschmeyer. God bless you, and a Happy All Souls’ Day, if you’re celebrating that today, and may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Next week, we’ll resume the last two arguments against atheism.

Speaker 1:

Thank you for listening to Shameless Popery, a production of the Catholic Answers Podcast Network. Find more great shows by visiting, or search Catholic Answers wherever you listen to podcasts.

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!