The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches this about purgatory: “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” (1030).
This seems so simple—its truth is almost self-evident to Catholics. However, to many Protestants, purgatory represents one of the most repugnant of all Catholic teachings: a medieval invention nowhere to be found in the Bible. This divide between Catholics and Protestants is probably why one of the most common questions we apologists get is, “How can I convince my Protestant loved one of the truth of purgatory?”
A Good Place to Start
Perhaps the best place to start is with the most overt reference to a purgatory, of sorts, in the Old Testament. We say a purgatory of sorts because purgatory is a teaching fully revealed in the New Testament and defined by the Catholic Church. The Old Testament people of God would not have called it purgatory, but they clearly believed that the sins of the dead could be atoned for by the living, as we will prove. This is a constitutive element of what Catholics call purgatory.
Second Maccabees 12:39-46 describes how Judas Maccabeus and members of his Jewish military forces collected the bodies of some fallen comrades who had been killed in battle. When they discovered these men were carrying “sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear” (v. 40), Judas and his companions discerned they had died as a punishment for sin. Therefore, Judas and his men “turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out . . . He also took up a collection . . . and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably . . . Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (42-43, 46).
Protestants usually raise two immediate objections to the use of this text. First, they dismiss any evidence presented therein because they do not accept Maccabees as divinely inspired text. And second, they will claim the men in Maccabees committed the sin of idolatry—a mortal sin, according to Catholic theology. The dead soldiers must be in hell, where there is no possibility of atonement. Thus, they say, Catholics must eliminate purgatory as a possible interpretation of this text.
The Catholic Response
Rejecting the inspiration and canonicity of 2 Maccabees does not negate its historical value. Maccabees aids us in knowing—purely from a historical perspective—that Jews believed in praying and making atonement for the dead shortly before the time of Christ. This is the faith in which Jesus and the apostles were raised. And it is in this context Jesus declares in the New Testament: “And 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” (Mt 12:32, emphasis added).
This declaration of our Lord implies at least some sins can be forgiven in the next life—a declaration to a people who already believed it. If Jesus wanted to condemn this commonly held teaching, he was not doing a very good job of it, according to Matthew’s Gospel.
The objection that the dead Maccabees were guilty of mortal sin presents a more complex problem. Catholic teaching holds that the punishment for unrepented mortal sin is, in fact, definitive self-exclusion in hell from communion with God and the blessed (see CCC 1033). But to conclude from this teaching that 2 Maccabees could not be referring to a type of purgatory is a non sequitur.
First of all, a careful reading of the text reveals the men’s sin to be carrying small amulets “or sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia” under their tunics as they were going into battle. This action more closely resembles a Christian baseball player believing in some kind of power in performing superstitious rituals before going to bat than it resembles the mortal sin of idolatry. Wearing amulets was, most likely, a venial sin for the Maccabees. But even if what they did constituted objectively grave matter, good Jews in ancient times—just like good Catholics today—believed they should always pray for the souls of those who have died “for thou [O Lord], thou only knowest the hearts of the children of men” (2 Chr 6:30). In other words, God alone knows the degree of culpability of these sinners. Moreover, some or all of them may have repented before they died. Both Jews and Catholic Christians always retain hope for the salvation of the deceased this side of heaven, so we always pray for those who have died.
In Matthew 5, Jesus is even more explicit about purgatory: “Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny” (Mt 5:25-26).
For Catholics like Tertullian, in De Anima (ca. A.D. 208), this teaching is parabolic. It uses the well-known example of “prison” and the necessary penitence it represents as a metaphor for purgatorial suffering that will be required for lesser transgressions, represented by the kodrantes or “penny” of verse 26. But for many Protestants, our Lord is here giving simple instructions to his followers concerning this life exclusively. The statement has nothing to do with purgatory.
That traditional Protestant interpretation is very weak when the verses are taken contextually. They are found in the midst of the famous Sermon on the Mount, where our Lord teaches about heaven (v. 20), hell (29-30), and both mortal (22) and venial sins (19), in a context that presents “the kingdom of heaven” as the ultimate goal (see 3-12). Our Lord goes on to say if you do not love your enemies, “what reward have you” (46)? And he makes very clear these “rewards” are not of this world. They are “rewards from your Father who is in heaven” (6:1) or “treasures in heaven” (6:19).
Further, as John points out in chapter 20, verse 31 of his Gospel, all Scripture is written “that believing, you may have [eternal] life in his name.” Scripture must always be viewed in the context of our full realization of the divine life in the world to come. Our present life is presented “as a vapor which appears for a little while, and afterwards shall vanish away” (Jas 4:14). It would seem odd to see the deeper and even otherworldly emphasis throughout the Sermon of the Mount, excepting these two verses.
Add to this the fact that the Greek word for prison, phulake, is the same word used by Peter (in 1 Peter 3:19) to describe the “holding place” into which Jesus descended after his death to liberate the detained spirits of Old Testament believers, and the Catholic position makes even more sense. Phulake is demonstrably used in the New Testament to refer to a temporary holding place and not exclusively in this life.
The Plainest Text
First Corinthians 3:11-15 may be the most straightforward text in all of Sacred Scripture when it comes to purgatory:
For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
No Christian we know of even attempts to deny this text speaks of the judgment of God where the works of the faithful will be tested after death. It says our works will go through “fire,” figuratively speaking. In Scripture, “fire” is used metaphorically in two ways: as a purifying agent (Mal 3:2-3, Mt 3:11, Mk 9:49) and as that which consumes (Mt 3:12, 2 Thess 1:7-8). So it is a fitting symbol here for God’s judgment. Some of the “works” represented are being burned up and some are being purified. These works survive or burn according to their essential “quality” (Gk. hopoiov, “of what sort”).
What is being referred to cannot be heaven because there are imperfections that need to be “burned up” (see Hb 1:13, Rv 21:27). It cannot be hell because souls are being saved. So what is it? Protestants call it “the Judgment,” and we Catholics agree. Catholics simply specify the part of the judgment of the saved where imperfections are purged as purgatory.
The Sum of Our Deeds
The Protestant will immediately focus on the fact that nowhere does the text explicitly mention “the cleansing of sin.” It describes only the testing of works. The passage emphasizes the rewards believers will receive for their service, not how their character is cleansed from sin. And the believers here watch their works go through the fire, while they escape it.
Here’s the Catholic response. First, what are sins, but bad or wicked works (see Mt 7:21-23, Jn 8:40, Gal 5:19-21)? If these works do not represent sins and imperfections, why would they need to be eliminated? Second, it is impossible for a work to be cleansed apart from the human being who performed it. We are, in a certain sense, what we do when it comes to our moral choices. There is no such thing as a work floating around somewhere detached from a human being that could be cleansed apart from that human being. The idea of works being separate from persons does not make sense.
Most importantly, however, this idea of works being burned up apart from the soul that performed the work contradicts the text. The text does say the works will be tested by fire, but “if the work survives . . . he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss.” And, “he will be saved, but only as through fire” (Gk. dia puros). The truth is: Both the works of the individual and the individual will go through the cleansing “fire” described by Paul so that “he” might finally be saved and enter into the joy of the Lord. Sounds an awful lot like purgatory, doesn’t it?