From the Pastor's Study
From the Pastor’s Study
Feb 15, 2023
A few weeks ago in the high school catechism class, one of the students asked me about purgatory. What is it? What happens there? I gave a brief answer, saying that the word, “purgatory,” has an associated English word, “purge.” An example of the use of this word would be this: “In the fall it is necessary to purge the water from the lines of our camper so that they do not freeze and cause leaks in the pipe.” To purge something is to get rid of a contaminant. Purgatory, thus, is a place of purging. What is purged in purgatory is the impurity of the human soul, and this takes place in a time after death and before entry into eternal life.
If you haven’t heard me preach about purgatory you should not be surprised. The teaching of purgatory is limited to the Roman Catholic Church. Neither Protestant Churches nor the Eastern Orthodox Churches hold to the teachings of purgatory. In fact, it is this teaching that has been one of the reasons that the Eastern Orthodox Church has not pursued reunification with the Roman Catholics, maintaining a division that began 1000 years ago.
What exactly does the Roman Catholic Church teach about purgatory? The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) says that “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.”
There are a couple of significant details about this teaching. First, purgatory is not permanent. No one remains there forever. At one time it was taught that one’s time in purgatory normally lasted between 1000-2000 years, although others say that for some it may be a few minutes for some and for others their time there will last for ages. Second, because the RCC teaches that only the soul goes to purgatory, it is the soul that is purged, and thus the purging cannot be done with fire (as is sometimes seen in the Bible). Rather, many say that the soul is purged of its unholiness through an intense longing for God. Third, while it is impossible for us to release a soul of a loved one from purgatory, the RCC teaches that we can relieve someone’s torment or even lessen their time by praying for them. They base this teaching on 2 Maccabees 12:43ff., a book that is part of the Roman Catholic Bible, but not ours. In the past the RCC also taught that by paying money to the church, one could release a soul from purgatory. This became a very effective fundraiser, and some of the most beautiful churches in the Vatican and other places were built by the money collected from people who wanted to spring a loved from the torments of purgatory. This was called “selling indulgences,” one of Martin Luther’s biggest accusations against the abuses of the RCC and a motivation for his call for reformation.
But the most significant teaching about purgatory is that it is not a second chance. As the first line of the Catechism quoted above says, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship. . .” In other words, faith in Jesus Christ remains absolutely important and those who do not believe in him will not go to purgatory or heaven. That means that only believers (most but not all) in Jesus go to purgatory, and everyone in purgatory will eventually end up in heaven. Thus, on the basis of their teaching about purgatory, the RCC cannot be said to teach salvation based on works. Perhaps other teachings lend themselves to that, but not the teaching about purgatory.
In many ways the teaching of purgatory might sound fair. After all, if someone has put their trust in Jesus Christ and truly believes that he died on the cross for their sins but does not live a very faithful life, why should they get off without some sort of punishment? It seems fairer that they have to suffer a little for the sins they committed.
The question that we need to answer regarding purgatory is not, “Can we be saved by other means than faith in Jesus Christ?” but rather, “How completely does faith in Jesus Christ save us?” Again, the RCC does not teach that people who don’t believe in Jesus go to purgatory to get a second chance. The RCC clearly teaches that all who will be saved must believe in Jesus as the one who died on the cross for their sins. What the RCC does seem to say, however, is that there is a limit to how far faith in Jesus can take us toward heaven. Or, to put it another way, faith in Jesus gets us on the road to heaven and we will eventually get there if we believe, but it doesn’t get us all the way there. According to the teaching of the RCC, we still have to suffer a little on that lengthy detour through purgatory.
But what does the Bible teach? In his letter to the Ephesians (2:8-9) Paul says that it is by grace that we are saved through faith, and this is a gift of God in Jesus Christ. No where does Paul say that faith in Jesus Christ gets us on the right road and if we aren’t careful and don’t live well enough, we’re going to have to suffer a difficult detour so that we can be purged of our sins. Throughout Scripture, we are taught over and over again that either we are part of the covenant community by God’s grace, or we are not. Or, to put it another way, God doesn’t intend to eventually save us if we put our faith in Jesus Christ; he saves us fully and completely and he does so right away.
Now, of course, for those of us who really like things to be just and fair, it still does seem unfair that someone who believes but who does not live a very good life (or who believes only late in life after living most of their lives in sinfulness), should not have to suffer even a little for their sins. But that is the wonder of the gospel. Jesus’ death on the cross was so sufficient that he paid the penalty for our sins so completely that we are not obligated to suffer for them at all at any time. Thus, because of the completeness of his sacrifice, we do not need to be purged so that we become holy enough to get into heaven but, rather, we are made completely holy at the moment of our salvation. No further purging is necessary.
Sometimes it is good to know what others believe so that we can better understand what we believe. This is the case here. What we believe is based on the clear teaching of Scripture, and it is certainly a great comfort to know that we will be welcomed into heaven at the moment of death based on our faith in Jesus Christ. The best that the RCC can say is, “We can be comforted because purgatory won’t last forever. Eventually we’ll get there.” Small comfort if the ”eventually” includes suffering for hundreds of years or more.