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Purgatory in All but Name

One of the most frustrating experiences a Catholic can have in explaining his faith to Evangelical and Fundamentalist Protestants is that they so often believe and accept the most mysterious and difficult Christian doctrines, such as the Trinity and the vicarious atonement, without a murmur and then balk at doctrines which even by their own standards should pose no difficulty at all. Purgatory is a prime example.

Protestants deny the existence of purgatory because they say that the only cleansing needed for salvation is the cleansing in the precious Blood of Jesus, poured out on the Cross for sinners. Catholics agree. The holy souls in purgatory are not experiencing a different or additional cleansing, but only the final effects of the one cleansing in the blood of Christ, since nothing unclean shall enter heaven (Rev. 21:27). Those who are being purified beyond death are not the unbelieving and the impenitent, who will go to hell; the souls in purgatory are those who have already been justified by grace and are at peace with God at their life’s end.

Protestants protest against purgatory, yet they have no objection to the idea that for their sins God sometimes allows Christians to endure both temporal judgments and deprivation of spiritual consolations. For example, the Presbyterian Westminster Confession (1646) says that true Christian believers may, through the temptation of Satan and of the world, the prevalence of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and for a time continue therein: whereby they incur God’s displeasure, and grieve his holy Spirit; come to be deprived of some measure of their graces and comforts; have their hearts hardened, and their consciences wounded; hurt and scandalize others, and bring temporal judgments upon themselves (from John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches: A Reader in Christian Doctrine in the Bible to the Present (Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1973), p. 212). The Baptist Abstract of Principles (1859) says in a similar vein that believers may “fall, through neglect and temptation, into sin, whereby they grieve the Spirit, impair their graces and comforts, bring reproach on the Church, and temporal judgments on themselves . . . ” (Leith, p. 342).

If a justified believer can suffer these consequences of sin, then why can’t the same believer experience analogous temporal judgments beyond death, if there remain in him “wood, hay, and straw” (1 Cor. 3:121) still to be consumed? In fact, Protestants should have fewer objections to purgatory than to other Catholic doctrines: In purgatory, there is no increase of “merit” even as the fruition of Christ’s grace in us—no good works of any kind. That is why Catholic theologians have coined the term “satispassion” to describe what happens there. The holy souls, in their present state, are assured of their salvation in Christ and eternally secure in this knowledge. Though they suffer, they are sustained by the love of God and helped by the prayers of the faithful. And if there is a purgatory, then there can be no more objection to these prayers than to any other intercessory prayer Christians might offer in the name of Jesus.

Many Fundamentalist Protestants interpret the Bible in accordance with the so-called “Dispensationalism” popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible (though never heard of before the alleged private revelation given to Margaret MacDonald in 1830 in Scotland) Dispensationalists go beyond even the classic Lutherans and Calvinists in their insistence on the “eternal security” of the believer, often insisting that even utterly fruitless and dead faith (cf. James 2) is saving faith! For this they are condemned by Calvinists for fostering a lawless or antinomian mentality. The dispensationalists counter this charge by affirming that, though no believers will be damned, some will be more highly rewarded for their good works and service than others; and fruitless or “carnal” believers will, in the Day of Judgment, even feel a temporary deprivation of the fullness of joy and glory. Charles Stanley, a prominent dispensationalist and the pastor of Atlanta’s First Baptist Church, writes in his book Eternal Security:

“Now, imagine standing before God and seeing all you have lived for reduced to ashes. How do you think you would respond? Picture yourself watching saint after saint rewarded for faithfulness and service to the King—and all the time knowing that you had just as many opportunities but did nothing about them. We cannot conceive of the agony and frustration we would feel if we were to undergo such an ordeal; the realization that our unfaithfulness had cost us eternally would be devastating. And so it will be for many believers. Just as those who are found faithful will rejoice, so those who suffer loss will weep. As some are celebrated for their faithfulness, others will gnash their teeth in frustration over their own shortsightedness and greed. We do not know how long this time of rejoicing and sorrow will last. Those whose works are burned will not weep and gnash their teeth for eternity. At some point we know God will comfort those who have suffered loss (see Rev. 21:4) . . . On the other side of the coin, we can rest assured that none of our good deeds will go unnoticed, either.”

As Reformed theologian Michael Horton points out, this opinion—quite common among dispensational Fundamentalists—has “merely managed to move purgatory geographically. No longer is it a place outside of heaven and hell, but it is within the Kingdom of God itself… This has much more in common with medieval dogma than with evangelical Christianity.”

We Catholics fully agree. In fact, strict Calvinists would probably find the understanding of purgatory in the writings of John Henry Newman or St. Catherine of Genoa less objectionable than this quotation from Charles Stanley. It is worth recalling that C. S. Lewis, who is rightly held in high regard by both Catholics and Protestants, believed in purgatory and prayers for the dead; he expressed his views on the subject in his book I.etters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer: “Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?

“On the traditional Protestant view, all the dead are damned or saved. If they are damned, prayer for them is useless. If they are saved, it is equally useless. God has already done all for them. What more should we ask? But don’t we believe that God has already done and is already doing all that He can for the living? What more should we ask? Yet we are told to ask.

“‘Yes,’ it will be answered, ‘but the living are still on the road. Further trials, developments, possibilities of error, await them. But the saved have been made perfect. They have finished the course. To pray for them presupposes that progress and difficulty are still possible. In fact, you are bringing in something like purgatory.’

“Well, I suppose I am . . . I believe in purgatory. . .

“Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’—‘Even so, sir.’”

If the Westminster Confession can uphold temporal judgments for the justified believer, and if dispensationalists can accept the idea that the elect may experience such temporary deprivation of joy even beyond this life, and if such a Christian apologist as C. S. Lewis could believe in purgatory, and prayers for the dead, Without any of them being accused of denying the saving efficacy of the Cross of Jesus, then what possible objection can there be to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory?

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