On the Remission of Sins After Death
Gospel passages on sins against the Holy Spirit point toward the reality of Purgatory
Matthew 12:32 is often a go-to passage for Catholics when it comes to purgatory. The text reads: “Whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”
Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote that, from this passage “we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come” (Dial. 4, 39). The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses this quote as support for its definition of purgatory as an after-death “final purification of the elect” (1031). Since purgatory involves the forgiveness of unrepented venial sins (along with the purification of any remnants of past forgiven venial or mortal sins—e.g., unhealthy attachments to created goods, unpaid debt of temporal punishment), some conclude that Jesus affirms the existence of purgatory.
But some Christians don’t think this passage supports purgatory. They argue that Jesus’ use of the phrase “either in this age or in the age to come” was simply a matter of emphasis—an exaggerated expression used to convey the idea that the sin against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven.
For support, they appeal to Mark’s parallel passage: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29; emphasis added).
How can we respond?
The first thing we can say is that Mark’s version doesn’t preclude the reading of Matthew’s account in support of Purgatory. For if Jesus excludes forgiveness of the sin against the Holy Spirit in the only two states of existence where forgiveness can occur—in this life and in the intermediate state between death and the final judgment—then it would follow that the one who sins against the Holy Spirit “never has forgiveness.” The eternality of this sin would be because it can neither be forgiven in this life nor in the next. On this reading, Mark simply emphasizes the eternal nature of the sin without specifying the reason why. Matthew, on the other hand, provides a ground for why the sin can never be forgiven. Thus, Mark’s version doesn’t require that we reject purgatory based on Matthew 12:32.
“Okay,” our interlocutor might reply. “Maybe Mark 3:29 doesn’t prove that Jesus intended his phrase ‘this age or the age to come’ to be an exaggerated expression. But since that’s all we got to work with, doesn’t it seem reasonable to read Matthew 12:32 in light of Mark 3:29?”
No, it doesn’t, because Mark 3:29 is not the only relevant information that we have.
We know that Matthew’s Jewish audience already believed that some sins could be forgiven in the afterlife (cf. 2 Macc. 12:46). Given this knowledge, it doesn’t make sense that Matthew would include the saying “no forgiveness either in this age or in the age to come” if all he meant was that this sin is never forgiven. To do so without clarification seems only to reinforce the Jewish belief about sins being forgiven in the afterlife.
Since Matthew doesn’t give any sort of clarification, and he includes the saying knowing what his Jewish audience believed about sins being forgiven in the afterlife, it’s reasonable to conclude that the “age to come” in Matthew 12:32 is not merely a restatement of what Mark says in Mark 3:29 (that the sin against the Holy Spirit is never forgiven) but an extra tidbit for his Jewish audience about the afterlife.
Further, Jesus uses “the age to come” elsewhere in the gospels, and not merely for emphasis—it clearly refers to a distinct state of existence beyond this one: the afterlife.
Consider, for example, Mark 10:29-30 (see also Luke 18:30), where Jesus says those who leave house, brother, sister, mother, father, and land for his sake will receive a hundredfold return “in this time . . . and in the age to come eternal life.”
Jesus’ reference to “the age to come” is not merely a rhetorical flourish. Rather, Jesus speaks of “this time” and “the age to come” as two distinct states of existence (this life and the next), both of which consist of people receiving rewards for giving up everything for him.
Similarly, in Luke 20:34-35 Jesus speaks of “this age” as referring to this life, when men are given in marriage, and “that age” as the afterlife, when men are not given in marriage. Jesus clearly intends this distinction to be taken literally, conveying a truth about the age to come—namely, there is no marriage.
A critic might respond that an appeal to the above passages (Mark 10:30 and Luke 20:35) fails because the Greek word for “age to come” in Matthew 12:32, mellō, is not used in those passages. Rather, “the age to come” in Mark 10:30 translates the Greek phrase aiōni erchomenō and “that age” in Luke 20:35 translates aiōnos ekeinou.
This is true. But given that “this age” (Greek, toutō aiōni) in Matthew 12:32 is juxtaposed with mellonti (“the age to come”), which means “to occur at a point of time in the future which is subsequent to another event and closely related to it—to be about to,” we can conclude that Jesus has the same idea in mind as when he speaks of aiōni erchomenō in Mark 10:30 and aiōnos ekeinou in Luke 20:35. This is why the English translation of Matthew 12:32 translates the Greek as “the age to come” even though the Greek word for “age,” aiōn, is not used.
Therefore, it’s fair to read Matthew 12:32 in light of Mark 10:30 and Luke 20:35, where Jesus speaks of “the age to come” or “that age” as a reference to the afterlife. And since Jesus’ implication in Matthew 12:32 is that some sins can be forgiven in “the age to come,” or the afterlife, we have at least one aspect of purgatory confirmed by Jesus—after-death purification of unrepented venial sins.
This reading of “the age to come” as a reference to the afterlife is further supported by the fact that mellō is used elsewhere in Scripture to refer to the afterlife. See, for example, Ephesians 1:21, 1 Timothy 4:8, and Hebrews 2:5, 6:5, and 13:14.
In this debate, no one disagrees with the scriptural passage that one who sins against the Holy Spirit “never has forgiveness.” But this is so because for Jesus it’s a sin that cannot be forgiven in either state of existence where sins can be forgiven—in this life (“this age”) or in the intermediate state between death and the final judgment (“the age to come”). Mark’s reference to the “eternal” nature of the sin against the Holy Spirit, therefore, doesn’t prevent the use of Matthew 12:32 in support of the Church’s doctrine of purgatory.