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Purgatory in Jesus’ Teaching

Our Lord’s words lend credence to a belief in a place in the afterlife where sins can be forgiven—and it can’t be heaven

Matthew 12:32 is often a go-to passage for Catholics when it comes to purgatory: “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.”

Traditionally, the unpardonable sin refers to final impenitence, when an individual refuses God’s mercy until death (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1864). But rest assured that as long as someone turns away from sin and his repentance is honest, God will forgive him. “There is no offense, however serious, that the Church cannot forgive” (CCC 982).

Setting aside the question of what the unforgivable sin is, Catholics who appeal to this passage highlight Jesus’ implication: there are some sins that can be forgiven in the age to come—that is, the afterlife.

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). There would be no need for Jesus to exclude the sin against the Holy Spirit from being forgiven in the age to come unless it were possible that some sins could be forgiven in that age.

Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong explains the argument this way:

Mentioning “the age to come” assumes the premise that such things can happen in the afterlife, after death. Otherwise, why mention it? We don’t include in our observations what we regard as a falsehood or impossible. No one would say, for example, “A circle is round and also is square.” The first thing is obviously true, and the second is categorically impossible. If Jesus thought (as do Protestants) that forgiveness (or purgatory) after death was a categorical impossibility, then I submit he would never have mentioned even its theoretical potentiality. He simply wouldn’t bring it up at all. He doesn’t teach falsehood, being God and omniscient (ncregister.com/blog/darmstrong/does-matthew-1232-suggest-or-disprove-purgatory).

So, since Jesus does mention the “theoretical potentiality” of sins being forgiven in the next life, we can conclude it’s possible for sins to be forgiven there. That possibility will become actual if a saved soul departs from the body with the guilt of unrepented venial sins, since nothing defiled can enter heaven (cf. Rev. 21:27).

So what do we have? We have a state of existence after death wherein it’s possible for a soul to be forgiven of its sins. And in light of the Old Testament tradition (cf. Ps. 66:10-12; Isa. 4:4, 6:6-7) and Paul’s writings (cf.1 Cor. 3:11-15), when someone is forgiven of his sins, it’s described as being purged or purified.

This state can’t be heaven, since there are no sins in heaven. It can’t be hell, since no souls in hell can have their sins forgiven and be saved. What is it? Many Catholics say it’s purgatory (CCC 1030).

But some Christians don’t think this passage supports purgatory. They offer a number of counterarguments. So let’s consider some of them and see if they have any persuasive force.

Protestant counter: Mark interprets Jesus’ words to mean “never” forgiven.

Some Christians argue that Jesus’ use of the phrase “either in this age or in the age to come” is simply meant to convey the idea that the sin against the Holy Spirit can never be forgiven. Christians who make this claim (Ron Rhodes and James White, for example) appeal to Mark’s parallel passage for support: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29, emphasis added).

What can we say in response?

First, Mark’s version doesn’t preclude reading Matthew’s account as supporting purgatory. 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 final judgment—then it would follow that the one who sins against the Holy Spirit “never has forgiveness.”

On this reading, Mark simply emphasizes the eternal nature of the sin without the more detailed explanation found in Matthew. And it’s reasonable that Matthew would add this extra tidbit because it was part of Jewish belief that some sins could be forgiven in the afterlife (2 Macc. 12:46). Jews would be the ones likely to ask, “If this sin can’t be forgiven in this life, what about the next?” Matthew anticipates and answers such a question by adding “nor in the age to come.”

So, there is no debate that someone who sins against the Holy Spirit “never has forgiveness.” 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 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.

Protestant counter: The “age to come” refers to the Last Day or the Final judgment.

Another counter some Protestants make is to interpret Jesus’ words “nor the age to come” to mean simply that the sin against the Holy Spirit won’t be forgiven even at the final judgment. From this they conclude that Jesus intends only to drive home the point that the sin against the Holy Spirit is never forgiven, not that sins can be forgiven at that time.

Among those who make this counter (see James White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, 192), it’s common to appeal to John Calvin for support. In response to a purgatorial reading of Matthew 12:32, John Calvin writes:

When the Lord willed to cut off all hope of pardon for such shameful wickedness, he did not consider it enough to say that it would never be forgiven; but in order to emphasize it even more, he used a division by which he embraced the judgment that the conscience of every man experiences in this life and the final judgment that will be given openly at the resurrection. It is as if he [Jesus] said: “Beware of malicious rebellion as of present ruin. For he who would purposely try to extinguish the proffered light of the Spirit will attain pardon neither in this life, which is given to sinners for their conversion, nor in the last day, on which the lambs will be separated from the goats by the angels of God and the kingdom of heaven will be cleansed of all offenses” (Institutes III:5:7).

Let’s grant for argument’s sake that this is what Jesus meant. The purgatory problem doesn’t go away, because the implication concerning the forgiveness of sins would remain: sins can be forgiven at that time.

There’s no reason to think there won’t be any souls in the afterlife at the time of the final judgment that would have the guilt of venial sins and need such guilt forgiven before entrance into the beatific vision. If that’s true, then Jesus’ teaching about the possibility of some sins being forgiven in the “age to come” would apply to those venial sins that souls in the afterlife have at the time of the final judgment. That would still be a reference to the possibility of some sins being forgiven in the afterlife and thus a reference to purgatory.

So the purgatory problem would simply be shifted to a different time horizon, from a postmortem intermediate state before the final judgment to the postmortem state of existence at the final judgment.

A second thing we can say is that if our above response is true, and our interlocutor acknowledges that souls are particularly judged at death and that it’s possible for them to enter into the beatific vision before the final judgment, then it’s easy to see how Jesus’ teaching would apply to souls at their particular judgments as well. If the guilt of venial sin on a soul must be discharged before entrance into the beatific vision for those souls having such guilt at the final judgment, it follows that the guilt of venial sin must be discharged before entrance into the beatific vision for those souls having such guilt at their particular judgments immediately following death.

Even if we suppose Jesus intends to say the unpardonable sin can’t be forgiven even at the final judgment, we can infer the possibility that sins can be forgiven in the afterlife at the time of the final judgment (still a purgatorial postmortem state of existence) and even before the final judgment. A Catholic would still be justified to use this passage for support of at least one essential aspect of the doctrine of purgatory.

Protestant counter: The Catholic interpretation involves bad logic.

Other Christians have a problem with the logic entailed in the Catholic interpretation of Matthew 12:33. They argue that the Catholic position posits an affirmation based on a negation: affirming that sins will be forgiven in the next life because Jesus says the sin against the Holy Spirit can’t be or will never be forgiven in the next life.

As sixteenth-century theologian Peter Martyr argued, this would be like saying King Philip is not king of the Venetians, therefore someone else is king of the Venetians. This clearly is fallacious reasoning, because the Venetian throne may be vacant for a time when Philip is not king of the Venetians.

Protestant apologists Norman Geis-ler and Ralph McKenzie pose a similar challenge: “How can the denial that this sin will ever be forgiven, even after death, be the basis for speculating that sins will be forgiven in the next life?” They seem to be saying that you can’t go from “this X is not forgiven” to “some Xs are forgiven.”

It’s true that you can’t reason from “this X is not forgiven in the next life” to “some Xs are forgiven in the next life.” But it is reasonable to go from “this X is not forgiven in the next life” to it’s possible that “some Xs are forgiven in the next life,” and that’s all the Catholic interpretation implies.

This logic is no different from saying that since the sin against the Holy Spirit can’t be forgiven in this life, it’s reasonable to conclude that some sins can be forgiven in this life—that’s to say, it’s possible. Whether other sins in this life are in fact forgiven is a separate issue: in order for this to be true, the sinner must in fact repent. But that it’s possible for him to be forgiven of sins in this life is clear.

Consider again the example from Peter Martyr, and let’s put ourselves in his time period. We might not be able to say at a particular time in the sixteenth century, “Someone is king of the Venetians” based on the fact “King Philip is not king of the Venetians.” But it is reasonable to say, “It’s possible for someone to be king of the Venetians.”

In other words, given that there is a throne of the Venetians that isn’t occupied by King Philip, it’s possible for someone to sit upon it as king. If it weren’t possible for anyone to be king, then it would be unintelligible to speak of King Philip not being king of the Venetians.

Coming back to Matthew 12:32, it’s true we can’t conclude “Some sins are forgiven in the age to come” based on Jesus’ statement “The sin against the Holy Spirit is not forgiven in the age to come,” because it’s hypothetically possible, although not practically possible, that every soul could die without the need to have sins forgiven in the next life.

But it at least implies that it’s possible for sins to be forgiven in the next life on condition that there is a next life— which there is—and a soul dies with sins that need to be forgiven.

Protestant counter: There’s no mention of temporal punishment due for sin.

The final counter we’ll consider tries to disprove the Catholic interpretation by reducing it to a sort of absurdity.

Some point out that Matthew 12:32 doesn’t say anything about punishment, which the Catholic Church teaches is an essential aspect of purgatory. So it would seem that a Catholic couldn’t use this passage for biblical support. As Geisler and MacKenzie argue, “How can a passage not speaking about punishment for the saved after death be used as a basis for belief in purgatory, which affirms postmortem punishment for the saved?” (Roman Catholics and Evangelicals, 335).

One problem with this objection is that it identifies the absence of only one aspect of purgatory, temporal punishment and ignores the fact that this passage supports another aspect: the remission of the guilt of venial sins.

Second, although postmortem temporal punishment is not explicit in this text, it can be inferred. Consider, for example, that the debt of temporal punishment is an effect of sin like the guilt of sin itself. If one effect of sin can be taken care of after death (the guilt of venial sin), there’s no reason to suppose that the other can’t (the remaining debt of temporal punishment incurred by venial and mortal sin). If we were to say only the guilt of venial sin can be forgiven in this postmortem state of existence, we would be making an arbitrary selection between these two effects of sin.

Furthermore, “forgiveness” of sin doesn’t necessarily entail only the removal of the guilt of sin but could entail the discharge of the punishments due for sin as well. For example, where Luke’s version of the Our Father records Jesus commanding us to petition the Father to “forgive us our sins” (Luke 11:4), Matthew’s version records Jesus commanding us to request that the Father forgive us our “debts” (Matt. 6:12).

If Matthew records Jesus’ teaching that sins can be forgiven in the next life, and sins and the debts of sin are closely linked in Matthew’s Gospel, then it’s not unreasonable to think the possibility of sins being forgiven in the next life would also involve the possibility that temporal debt of punishment due for forgiven sins could be discharged there as well. So, although the text doesn’t mention the debt of temporal punishment, we can argue it’s there by way of implication and thus still use it to provide biblical support for the doctrine of purgatory.

Contrary to what many Protestants think, the Catholic Church didn’t make up the doctrine of purgatory.

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 12:32 forms a crucial part of the scriptural justification for the doctrine of purgatory. With such a foundation, the Catholic Church can say with Paul “Not I but the Lord says” (1 Cor. 7:10) and stand in good conscience knowing that it has been faithful to the great commission to teach all that the Lord has commanded (Matt. 28:20).

Sidebar 1: What Jesus Means by the ‘Age to Come’

There are good reasons to think the “age” (or “world” as the Douay-Rheims Bible translates it) Jesus refers to is the afterlife. One is that Jesus uses “the age to come” elsewhere in the Gospels in a similar way.

Consider, for example, Mark 10:29-30 (see also Luke 18:30), where Jesus says that 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 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.

Elsewhere, in Luke 20:34-35, Jesus speaks of “this age” as referring to this life, when men marry, and “that age” as the afterlife, when men do not marry. Jesus clearly intends this distinction to be taken literally, conveying a truth about the age to come—namely, there is no marriage. And Jesus can’t be referring merely to an age in the future at the end of time because souls in the afterlife right now do not marry.

A second clue that the “age to come” likely refers to the afterlife is that just a few verses later (v. 36), Jesus speaks of the “day of judgment.” And he speaks of it in connection with his previous warning about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit: “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (vv. 36-37).

Hebrews 9:27 tells us that judgment takes place after death. If Jesus intends for us to understand the “age to come” in light of the day of judgment, which he does, and our judgment happens after death, then Jesus intends for us to understand the “age to come” as reference to the afterlife.

Sidebar 2: Sins Can’t Be Forgiven in Heaven

As a counter to a Catholic’s use of Mark 10:29-30 and Luke 20:34-35 (see sidebar p. 36) to maintain that the “age to come” refers to the afterlife, someone might say, “I’ll grant that the phrase ‘age to come’ in the above passages refers to the afterlife. But that causes a problem for a Catholic, because both passages refer to heaven. If we follow the Catholic line of reasoning for interpreting Matthew 12:32, a Catholic would have to say sins can be forgiven in heaven, which is absurd.”

It’s true that Jesus refers to heaven in the above passages where he speaks of the “age to come.” But it’s not the phrase “age to come” that makes it a reference to heaven. “Age to come” is used to distinguish the next life from this one. What makes the phrase a reference to heaven is what Jesus says about that state of existence in the afterlife.

In Matthew 12:32, it’s what Jesus implies about the “age to come” that tells us he’s not talking about the heavenly existence of the afterlife. Rather, he’s talking about a state of existence in the afterlife where it’s possible sins are forgiven, which, of course, can’t be heaven. Therefore, to say Jesus is referring to heaven in this passage would beg the question against the Catholic, since the implication that some sins can be forgiven in the afterlife negates the possibility of it being heaven.

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