A friend asked recently whether there is biblical evidence for the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. This is the idea that between heaven and hell there is a third place some people find themselves after death. Purgatory is said to be a place for purification. The soul suffers there, but not endlessly. Her sufferings burn away that person’s moral corruption until she is ready to enter heaven. Purgatory has never been part of standard Protestant teaching, but some have always found it an attractive alternative to the usual stark, black-and-white picture of life after death. C. S. Lewis gave the doctrine a measure of respectability among some Protestants, especially with his vivid imagining of Purgatory in The Great Divorce. So what scriptural grounding does the idea have?
Purgatory in the Apocrypha?
It’s common in some circles to hear that Roman Catholics affirm the doctrine of Purgatory because they accept the “apocryphal” or “duetero-canonical” books of the Old Testament. Actually, the idea has broader roots than that in the teaching of early Christian leaders. But the Apocrypha does provide the easiest scriptural support if one accepts it.
The Old Testament Apocrypha are books that were widely accepted by Jews at time when Christianity was born, but that were later rejected by the Jewish community when they formalized the final boundaries of their biblical canon. (The “New Testament Apocrypha” or “Apocryphal Gospels” are a different kettle of fish!) Although Protestants today often treat these “extra” Old Testament books as dangerous and avoid them, both the early Church and the Protestant reformers encouraged people to read the Old Testament Apocrypha because of its “edifying” content. These books may not be canon for Protestants, but they contain much that is true and they help us to understand the Jewish thought world of Jesus and the New Testament writers.
So what about purgatory in the Apocrypha? There is indirect evidence in 2 Maccabees 12:46, which encourages praying for the dead “that they may be loosed from sins.” That makes it clear that some Jews around the time of Jesus thought God might forgive people after their death. But it doesn’t say anything about those people being in a different place before they are forgiven. It also doesn’t say anything about the kind of painful purification process that is part of traditional purgatory. Still, the language of being “loosed” may imply that these people are suffering punishment for their sins until the receive forgiveness. Notice, too, that the Jewish writer of 2 Maccabees is encouraging the practice of praying for these souls, suggesting that the prayers of the living can affect God’s decision to forgive them.
Forgiveness after Death in the New Testament?
We don’t find anything this clear in the New Testament, though it’s also not quite true that there is no support for purgatory at all. We find a few hints that can be taken to support aspects of purgatory. There are, for example, possible allusions to someone being forgiven after death. This may be implied by the Corinthians’ practice of “baptism for the dead,” a practice that Paul seems to accept as valid. At least he doesn’t actively oppose it. When Jesus talks about the consequences of slandering the Holy Spirit, he talks about people not being forgiven “either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt 12:32). This may assume that some people are forgiven in the age to come, i.e. after their death. But again the idea is neither explicit nor clear. Some people would also point here to 1 Peter 3:20 where we’re told that when Jesus died on the cross “he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.” Some people would argue that Jesus is here just declaring to the spirits that they are condemned, or declaring to them that the Kingdom of God has dawned. I think, though, it’s likely that the “preaching” Jesus does in 1 Peter 3:20 gives those “spirits” from the time of the flood an opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. That is, after all, the main function of preaching throughout the NT. Whether Peter thought a similar opportunity would be given to later generations is another matter. But we have to acknowledge that there are hints in the NT about the possibility of forgiveness after death.
We have to remember, though, that the dominant picture in the New Testament is one in which human beings have to make their decision for or against Christ in this lifetime. Those who show up to the wedding feast without the proper robes are thrown out (Matt 22:1-14). The maidens who don’t have their lamps ready when the bridegroom comes miss out on the wedding (Matt 25:1-13). When the rich man wants Lazarus to cross from heaven and relieve his sufferings in Hades, Lazarus explains that it is impossible. It seems to be too late for the rich man. Only his living relatives still have time to avoid his fate (Luke 16:19-31). So an opportunity for forgiveness after death isn’t a prominent part of the picture painted in the NT.
Still, we have to remember that most of the descriptions of judgement and the afterlife are heavily metaphorical. Some of the strongest passages implying no hope after death for the wicked appear in parables, where it’s even less certain how realistically to treat the details. So on balance I would say the New Testament encourages us to treat this life as our one chance to embrace God’s gift of rescue, but that it doesn’t rule out the possibility that God might have mercy on some after they die.
A Place between Heaven and Hell?
There is little positive scriptural evidence for a distinct place where dead souls are purified. Neither Jewish writings (like the Apocrypha) nor the NT mention a third destination after death between heaven and hell. On the other hand, there is a general vagueness about where people’s souls go immediately after they die. The book of Revelation envisions the souls of the righteous being held temporarily under the altar in the heavenly temple, waiting to be given new bodies at the resurrection (Rev 6:9). This lines up with some other Jewish writings which describe an “intermediate state,” a temporary stop-over for the soul before the final judgement. The problem is that most NT writers aren’t clear about whether they’re describing an intermediate state like this or describing the soul’s final destination. When Jesus talks in John about a place for disciples in “my father’s house,” is this an intermediate state or where they will stay (John 14:2)? I think it’s the former, but John doesn’t make it clear. What about the “paradise” Jesus promises to the repentant thief on the cross (Luke 23:43)?
If it’s often unclear whether the NT is talking about an intermediate state for the faithful, it’s equally unclear whether some texts describe an intermediate state for the unrepentant. When the rich man asks Lazarus for help he is in “Hades” (Luke 16:23). Is that a temporary stop for the wicked or equivalent to Hell, Gehenna? Is the “outer darkness” that Jesus says awaits sinners an intermediate state or a final destination (Matt 8:12; 22:13; 25:30)?
This uncertainty highlights how the NT writers (and Jesus himself) weren’t really interested in explaining the details of the afterlife. They were content to leave it vague and focus on the main point: the need for human beings to respond to Jesus with repentance and faith. It was enough for people to know that their choices now would determine their fate after death, and that their fate could be either wonderful or horrifying. But this means that there could be things like purgatory that do exist but that don’t show up in the NT. In other words, because of the NT writers’ focus, silence about a place of purification doesn’t necessarily mean it couldn’t exist.
Suffering for Purification?
What about the idea of sufferings that purify the soul in purgatory, removing our sinful impulses and restoring us to proper human goodness? We’re not talking now about paying the full “penalty” for my sins by suffering. We’re talking about suffering with a positive, future-oriented purpose, suffering that prepares a soul for heaven.
The NT certainly teaches that suffering in life can have a therapeutic effect. God does not necessarily bring pain in order to purify us, but when suffering comes there is the potential for us to be changed for the better (Romans 5:2-5). On the other hand, there’s little NT support for the idea of suffering after death having a therapeutic effect. It is always depicted as punishment, as something to be avoided at all cost. This is precisely what Christ’s death frees us from. The usual proof-text for such a post-mortem purification is 1 Corinthians 3:13-15. Here Paul is using the metaphor of construction to talk about ethics. Each person’s life is their contribution to the “structure” of the church community, and they can choose to add something strong and beautiful or something that weakens the whole building. He does on to explain:
the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
Is Paul talking here about suffering that purifies the person from their destructive tendencies? That doesn’t seem to be his main point. It’s not the person who is “burned up,” but the “work.” The loss suffered seems to be primarily a loss to such people’s honour; they reach the Kingdom of God, but they cannot claim to have added anything of value to its expression in this age. So I don’t actually see much evidence for therapeutic suffering here.
One possible hint might come in the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:23-35). The story ends with the hypocritical servant being handed over “to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt” (18:34). The servant’s pain seems to be taken in place of his money. And Jesus concludes “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (18:35). The torture of the servant is an analogy for the fate awaiting disciples who hold grudges against their neighbours. Now, it is notoriously difficult to tell how precise the analogy us supposed to be in a parable. But Jesus could easily have had the man end up in prison for life or simply being executed. It is possible, then, that Jesus meant us to understand that unforgiving disciples would also experience suffering (after death?) that would “repay” the debt of their sin. The problem here is that the suffering is not presented as a purification. Rather, it seems more like “repaying” one’s debt. So even this passage is, at best, a confusing hint pointing in the general direction of something like purgatory.
Praying for the Dead?
What about prayers for the dead? The NT may leave room for God to forgive people after their punishment has begun after death. New Testament teaching on the afterlife is also vague enough to allow the possibility of an “in between” place that is neither heaven nor hell, and there is at least one possible hint that punishment after death could at times be temporary. If we follow all of these hints and envision something like purgatory, does the NT give reason to think that the prayers of our living friends and family could help us after we’re dead? Here again the New Testament is almost completely silent. In general, the NT writers assume that each individual is responsible for their own response to God.
Notice, though, that in his words from the cross Jesus cries “Father forgive them…” (Luke 22:34). There does seem to be a reason to pray that God will forgive someone. One might argue that Jesus’ prayer is a special case, that he is a unique mediator between us and God. But in general the Gospels depict Jesus’ prayer as a model for the disciples’ prayer. How does praying for someone to be forgiven mesh with the idea of individual responsibility and free will? That’s another question that the NT writers aren’t concerned with answering. But Jesus’ prayer suggests that if some people may be forgiven after their death, there may also be reason to pray for them.
Through most of this article I’ve been couching everything in a lot of “maybes” and “mights.” So where does this all leave us? Does the NT offer any support for the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory? Yes and no. The NT does not offer clear teaching about anything like purgatory. The main paradigm it encourages us to adopt is one in which our decisive moment to respond is right now. Later, after we’re dead, it will be too late. So I think we would want to be careful that speculation about purgatory doesn’t obscure this main NT picture. Now is the time to repent and believe.
At the same time, there are hints in the NT that leave open the possibility of something like purgatory. We do find possible hints that
- some might be forgiven even after their death;
- there may be a temporary, intermediate state after death that is neither heaven nor hell;
- suffering after death might have a therapeutic effect, removing a person’s sinful impulses;
- praying for someone might have an impact on God’s decision to forgive them
I want to emphasize that these are only hints. Most of the passages concerned can be read as saying something else entirely. But these possible hints are, I think, why an emphatic Protestant like C. S. Lewis could entertain the possibility of purgatory. It is not the main teaching of the NT. But neither can we rule it out on the basis of the NT. Of course, we can find many NT proof-texts that seem to rule it out. But scripture is not a set of univocal propositions mapped out with formal logic. There are many cases in which we have to balance apparently contradictory statements, recognizing that both are metaphorical, that both present part of the truth. So it remains possible, I think, to affirm the NT as one’s touchstone and guide in theology and at the same time to believe in something like purgatory.
What difference does the whole question of purgatory make anyhow? Well, it makes a big difference if we don’t keep the possibility of purgatory in perspective. There are times and places when Roman Catholicism has in practice taught that most people will find themselves in purgatory when they die. This, I think, is letting a bit player upstage the star of the show. The primary message of the NT is not “Repent and believe so that you can spend centuries suffering in purgatory.” The primary NT message is “In Christ God has forgiven your sin and opened the door to his Kingdom.” There is little in the NT to suggest that believers in Christ need to dread the next step after death. Our hope is that, like the thief in Luke 23, we will find ourselves in “paradise” because of God’s free gift.
At the same time, the possibility of forgiveness and purification after death may be helpful when we’re trying to make sense of some theological problems. What about people who never confess Christ, but who demonstrate deep humility and an attitude that resembles Christian faith? Will a just God simply reject them? The possibility of purgatory might be one resource we can bring to play in tackling that question. This is the kind of context in which Lewis often used the idea of purgatory. It is not the primary NT message, and we should never allow it to become the Church’s primary message. But the idea serves as a reminder that the NT is not as clear or tidy as our systematic theology, and that some of what we find when we die may just surprise us.