OBJECTOR: A friend of mine told me that Catholics don’t believe in purgatory anymore. I found that hard to believe because the Catholic Church is so slow in changing things, but he is a Catholic and I figured he should know. Is this true?
CATHOLIC: Sadly, your Catholic friend is going more on hearsay than on solid knowledge. The Catholic Church has not given up its belief in purgatory because purgatory is a dogma of the faith, or what we may call a de fide doctrine.
OBJECTOR: I thought so. But that presents a big problem for me. The Catholic Church claims to follow the teachings of the Bible, but I can find no mention of it in Scripture.
CATHOLIC: Before I show you some biblical references, tell me what you understand by the Catholic teaching on purgatory, because I often find that it is misunderstood.
OBJECTOR: Purgatory is like a second chance for people who have not been good disciples of Jesus in this world. If they didn’t follow him, they can work off their sins in purgatory and go to heaven. I see purgatory as another instance of the Catholic dependence on good works as a means of salvation. Purgatory is not heaven or hell but an in-between state in which people are punished for their wrongs in this life that were not forgiven.
CATHOLIC: Your understanding is not what the Catholic Church teaches. It may surprise you to know that the Church makes very few binding statements about what purgatory is. The sections in the Catechism of the Catholic Church are very short. The most important statement is: "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" (CCC 1030). So, you see, purgatory is not a second chance after this life. It is only for those who "die in God’s grace and friendship."
OBJECTOR: What does it mean to "die in God’s grace and friendship"? Romans 10:9 says that if you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be saved. It doesn’t say anything about undergoing a purification after death. All the holiness we need to enter heaven is in Christ. If we trust him, we will be saved.
CATHOLIC: The language of dying in God’s grace is another way of saying that when we die we must have faith in Christ, as Romans 10:9 says. But Paul did not intend his words in this text to be taken as the complete story. We have to interpret one text in the Bible in the light of the whole Bible.
OBJECTOR: I agree, but there is not one word about purgatory in the Bible.
CATHOLIC: Look at 1 Corinthians 3:14–15: "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." You see, the Latinate word purgatory means a purgation or burning by fire. Paul in these verses refers to a purgation process whereby a man is saved even though his works are burned away. This is precisely what the Catholic Church teaches. A person at death who still has personal faults is prevented from entering into heaven because he is not completely purified. He must go through a period of purgation in order to be made clean, for nothing unclean will enter heaven (cf. Rev. 21:27).
OBJECTOR: You said we need to interpret verses of the Bible in context, but you left out verse 13: "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." You see it speaks about "the Day." That means the Day of Judgment, not some intermediate state of purgatory.
CATHOLIC: Of course we don’t really know what day Paul is talking about, so it would be arbitrary to limit it to the final Day of Judgment. I take it that we both believe in a personal judgment after death and a general judgment at the end of history.
OBJECTOR: Yes, but it makes much more sense to me to read this as referring to the general judgment. It speaks about a day that brings one’s work to light, not about a process of purification. Even if this text could refer to the personal judgment, it doesn’t show that the Catholic notion of purgatory is true.
CATHOLIC: Assuming that the text could refer to the personal judgment, what do you see in the idea of purgatory that’s not found in this passage?
OBJECTOR: Well, the most obvious difference is that it doesn’t mention anything like praying for the dead, which is a major part of the Church’s teaching on purgatory.
CATHOLIC: I agree that these verses don’t mention prayers for the dead, but other passages in the Bible do. The most obvious is 2 Maccabees 12:40–45. When Judas prays and has sacrifices offered for soldiers who died in battle, he is commended for acting "very well and honorably."
OBJECTOR: The book of 2 Maccabees isn’t inspired, so you can’t say that this shows scriptural support for purgatory.
CATHOLIC: We’ll have to discuss the inspiration of Maccabees some other time, but at least this passage shows that even before Christ the Jewish people recognized the need for purification from sins after death and believed that the prayers and sacrifices of those still living could aid in this purification. The Catholic Church didn’t make up this idea.
OBJECTOR: Well, even if the Catholic Church didn’t make it up, that doesn’t mean it’s true. We are under the New Covenant, so many of the precepts of the Old Law, such as dietary laws, no longer apply. This need for purification after death could be one of those things.
CATHOLIC: I agree that we cannot say that everything present in Judaism before Christ is something that applies to our state after Christ. Even so, the indication in Maccabees of purification after death is not a precept but a belief, and so it is not in the same category as dietary laws. Furthermore, the New Testament shows a continuity with this idea. For example, Matthew 12:32 says that some people who sin "will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come." This suggests that there are some sins that will be forgiven in the age to come. If there is no purification after death, then this passage doesn’t make much sense.
OBJECTOR: Jesus wasn’t speaking about the distinction between this life and the next; rather, he was making a distinction between the age under the Old Covenant and the age under the New Covenant.
CATHOLIC: That interpretation doesn’t make sense, though, because it doesn’t fit with the context of the verse. Right before this, Jesus had been casting out demons, and he announced that the kingdom of God had come. He’s saying that the kingdom of God is already present; it would make little sense for him to then refer to the dominion of the kingdom as an "age to come."
OBJECTOR: Even so, this could just mean that at the moment of our death, we are purified and forgiven. The testing in 1 Corinthians 3:14–15 could be instantaneous. I don’t see any evidence in the Bible that souls actually exist after death in a state of existence that is neither heaven nor hell.
CATHOLIC: The Church doesn’t exclude the possibility that purgatory could be an instantaneous purification, but there are indications in the Bible that souls do exist in some state that is neither heaven nor hell. Look at 1 Peter 3:19–20. These verses show Jesus preaching to "to the spirits in prison." The "prison" cannot be heaven, because the people there do not need to have the Gospel preached to them. It cannot be hell, because the souls in hell cannot repent. It must be something else. As you can see, there is nothing unbiblical about the claim that those who have died might not immediately go to heaven or to hell.
OBJECTOR: Even if the passages you cite do refer to some state other than heaven or hell, this doesn’t automatically imply purgatory, because the "spirits in prison" died before Christ’s sacrifice opened the way to heaven. The condition in 1 Peter is not necessarily the same as purgatory.
CATHOLIC: It is certainly possible that the state mentioned here, often called "the limbo of the fathers," is a state other than that of purgatory, but at least we’ve established that there is nothing contrary to Scripture in asserting that those who have died can be in a temporary state other than heaven or hell.
OBJECTOR: Well, I can understand why people who died before Christ might have been in a state other than heaven or hell, but the idea of purgatory seems inconsistent with the love of God. If God really loves us, why would he want us to go to purgatory and suffer for our sins?
CATHOLIC: On the contrary, the idea of purgatory, when properly understood, is entirely consistent with the love of God. God wants us to be perfect (cf. Matt. 5:48). If we are not perfected by the time we die, we will be perfected in purgatory. He loves us too much to allow us to be less than what he created us to be. Purgatory is not about an angry God inflicting punishment upon his creatures. It is about a loving Father who "disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness" (Heb. 12:10).