What Is Purgatory? Origin, Support, and Opposition

Purgatory has some doctrinal issues. It seems to make salvation a works-based process instead of a gift given freely by the grace of God through his son’s sacrifice and resurrection. So, really, there is no temporal refinement process needed at all.

Aug 21, 2020
What Is Purgatory? Origin, Support, and Opposition

Many of us are familiar with the belief of this “in-between” space between heaven and hell. Perhaps many of the readers of this article have perused Dante’s Divine Comedy, learned about purgatory through popular culture, or attended church at a denomination where they believe in the existence of purgatory.

Purgatory is believed by some as a place for sinners who have God’s grace but need to endure “temporal punishment” for transgressions that did not receive payment during their lives. In other words, if anyone has any leftover sin, this place purges them of it, before they reach the gates of heaven.

For those of us unfamiliar with purgatory or only mildly familiar, we may wonder about this place.

In this article, we’ll discuss the nature of purgatory, whether Scripture talks about purgatory, and what we can learn from this.

We should note that those of the Roman Catholic tradition will most likely believe in the existence of purgatory, and those from other denominations most likely will not. Because I come from a non-Catholic tradition, I do hold the latter view. But it does help to get the Catholic perspective on this issue in articles such as this one, this one, and this one.

What Is Purgatory Like?

We should also note that purgatory does not exist as a second chance for unsaved sinners to redeem themselves. If you have a basic familiarity with Dante’s Divine Comedy, you will know that unsaved sinners, even very good ones, end up in one of the nine circles of Hell, including one of Dante’s favorites, Virgil.

As for purgatory, the most common language we see used is “refinement,” “purification,” and “fire.”

If that gives you any idea, purgatory doesn’t exactly scream Easy Street. A great deal of pain and loss occurs as someone experiences the purification of their sins and the harms their transgressions have caused others.

Intense joy also does appear to occur here along with pain. We should note that purgatory is seen as a gift of God’s grace.

Apart from specifics we see in Dante’s Divine Comedy, a work of fiction, we don’t have many personal accounts of visiting purgatory. After all, you only get there after you’ve passed from your life here on earth.

But we do know that those who believe in purgatory advise others to avoid it and that the saints still living here on earth can help guide people on their journeys in purgatory through prayers and indulgences.

What Are Examples of Purgatory in Other Religions?

The best example I can think of purgatory, in the history of religions, comes from Ancient Greece. The Ancient Greek understanding of the afterlife was that people want to one of three places: a place of torment, a place of paradise, and a place somewhere in-between the two. This third in-between place was known as the Fields of Asphodel. In this third destination in the afterlife, people would souls would wander aimlessly. The people neither lived good nor bad lives, by the Greek definition of them. They would wander in a somewhat dreamlike state for all eternity.

As for other religions, Hinduism and Buddhism have a variant form of purgatory. Neraka or Naraka (depending on which of the two religions) exists as a holding place for the soul in between life cycles and reincarnations.

The Scriptural idea of Gehenna, in the Judaism sense, could also fit some of the molds of purgatory. The Bible often describes this place as a place of refinement, as going through the fire. But theologians have broiled the concept of Gehenna in debate ranging from purgatory to hell itself. In either case, we follow Christianity and not other religions. Even if other belief systems have similar concepts, we need to analyze what Scripture says and follow accordingly. Therefore, let's discuss the support and opposition to the concept of purgatory within the Christian faith. We'll also touch on some of the history of this concept.

What Scriptures Appear to Support Purgatory?

The concept of purgatory, of course, doesn’t arise out of thin air or didn’t spontaneously spawn in the Middle Ages. This idea has existed for centuries.

Most commonly, a person who believes in purgatory will point to scriptures that talk about the refinement process, for instance:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10).

Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny (Matthew 5:26).

If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved — even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Corinthians 3:15).

Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 21:27).

In the Apocrypha, we also run into a number of scriptures that support the idea of purgatory. We should note that most denominations do not believe the verses found in the Apocrypha to exist as part of the biblical canon. And therefore, we should exercise caution when reading these passages.

Verses in the Apocrypha that support the idea of purgatory include 2 Maccabees 12:39-46 (which includes prayers and indulgences to help guide souls out of purgatory).

1 Peter 3:9 also seems to refer to imprisoned spirits whom Jesus ministered to. But this passage has broiled itself in debate for millennia.

What Is the Support Against Purgatory?

Many denominations do not support the idea or doctrine of purgatory. But why? Do they simply not like the idea of purgatory? Or do they have support for their reasons not to believe in it?

One could point to the fact that the refinement process described in the verses above represents sanctification, an ongoing process of purification a Christian receives during their life to become more like Christ.

Most of the passages listed above have a rebuttal found here.

Scripture only seems to discuss two distinct destinations after we perish: heaven or hell.

Also, purgatory has some doctrinal issues. It seems to make salvation a works-based process instead of a gift given freely by the grace of God through his son’s sacrifice and resurrection.

After all, if we experience enough refinement in purgatory, we can earn a spot in heaven. And those on earth can speed up the process via indulgences and prayer (fingers crossed, right?).

Scripture also appears to support the idea that when those who are saved die, they immediately go to heaven, no temporal refinement process involved.

What Can We Learn from This?

We know that certain differences of belief will exist between denominations. The belief in purgatory does not prevent someone from attaining salvation, and vice versa, the nonbelief in the place does not remove someone’s security from heaven.

But the belief in purgatory can and will affect someone’s actions, how they worship, and what they believe about what happens after death.

We should always analyze why we believe what we believe and how it affects our actions as well as in the context of Scripture.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Wojciech Kozielczyk

Hope Bolinger is an acquisitions editor at End Game Press, and the author of almost 30 books. More than 1500 of her works have been featured in various publications. Check out her books at hopebolinger.com for clean books in most genres, great for adults and kids.

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