Does Purgatory Exist?

HomeReligion, Atheism, and Odd TheologyDoes Purgatory Exist?

Because of the massive influence of Catholicism on the general theology of the world, a lot of people believe in something called purgatory. Before we can talk about whether purgatory exists, we need to first understand what it is, and where the idea came from.

What is purgatory?

Catholics aren’t the only ones who believe in something like purgatory. In Catholic doctrine, purgatory is either a place or a state of being in which a person who has died in good standing with God will be punished for their own unforgiven sins.

A little more detail will help. Catholics practice confession, by which a person is said to have their sins forgiven by a priest. After confessing their sins, a priest will often prescribe penance for forgiveness… that is, some restitution or effort that will compensate for sin. If someone dies with unforgiven (unconfessed) sin, or if they die before their penance is complete, they are said to go to purgatory to complete their penance. In purgatory, they will suffer for their sins for a time, and then be allowed to enter Heaven.

The basic idea behind the doctrine of purgatory is sound: that God requires payment for sin. We see this in the sacrifices of the Old Testament, by which Israel’s sins were covered. We also see this in the final sacrifice of Jesus, who died on the cross in payment for the sins of all humanity. The problem with the doctrine of purgatory is that it’s both non-biblical and unbiblical.

Where does the doctrine of purgatory come from?

Purgatory isn’t found in the Bible. It’s based primarily on a passage in 2 Maccabees 2:46: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.” Maccabees may be considered part of the Bible by Catholics, but neither the ancient Jews nor the early church considered them inspired Scripture.

You may notice that this passage doesn’t actually talk about purgatory directly, but about praying for the dead. The doctrine of purgatory was laid out in detail, officially, in 1431 at the Council of Florence. The official Catholic position is that the temporal penalty due to sin is at times not wholly paid in this life.

Jesus’ sacrifice vs purgatory

The doctrine of purgatory says that people suffer to pay for for their own sins. The Bible tells an entirely different story.

The sacrifices of the Old Testament were temporary, and had to be repeated again and again to repeatedly cover sin. They did not accomplish the forgiveness of sins. Jesus was called the Lamb of God because His death on the cross was the last sacrifice that the world would ever need. His death accomplished the forgiveness of sins by paying the penalty for all sin.

Here’s the unbiblical implication: if sinners need to pay for their own sins in purgatory, then Jesus’ death is insufficient. According to this doctrine, to gain forgiveness – and go to Heaven – one must add their own suffering to Jesus’ suffering. This is entirely unbiblical.

Catholics will usually respond that Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient… that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That’s 1 John 1:9, and it’s true. The problem with using this verse in that way is that it’s too limiting. In Catholicism, our sin debt is only applied to our account when we confess our sins (to a priest, of course).

This is contradicted by a number of passages in the New Testament, including 2 Peter 2:1.

But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them – bringing swift destruction on themselves.

Do you see? Jesus’ death paid the debt for even false teachers. That doesn’t mean that false teachers will go to Heaven, of course… but it does mean that false teachers won’t be suffering in purgatory or in Hell to pay for their own sins. Jesus paid for their sins. We also see this in 2 Corinthians 5:14.

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.

The penalty for sin is death, and Jesus died in everyone’s place. Nobody will die to pay an additional penalty because, in Christ, everyone has already died for sins. His one death took the place of our billions of individual deaths.

Because this is so, the doctrine of purgatory contradicts what we read in the New Testament. It is unbiblical, and should not be taught… or believed.


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