A Look At Roman Catholicism (2): Purgatory: Does It Exist?

Greg Litmer
Cincinnati, Ohio

In this lesson, we are going to study the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. I suppose that for most of you, the idea of Purgatory is a hazy one, something that you have heard about but are not quite sure what it is. The Catholic dictionary defines Purgatory in the following manner: "The place and state in which souls suffer for a while and are purged after death, before they go to heaven, on account of their sins. Venial sins, which have never in life been remitted, must be purged away after death, by some pain of sense, inflicted probably by material fire. It is of faith that those in Purgatory can be helped by the prayers and sacrifices of the faithful on earth and especially by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar (Mass, in other words)." You notice in that statement the use of the word "venial" sins. In order to get an understanding of what is actually supposed to be taking place in Purgatory, we need to define what is meant by a "venial" sin.

According to Catholicism, there are two kinds of what they call "actual sins." We are going to give just a brief definition because we will be dealing with this in another lesson. The first type of sin is called a "mortal" sin. The Baltimore Catechism defines it as being a grievous offense against the law of God. A "venial" sin is a less serious offense against the law of God. If you have committed a mortal sin and have not confessed it to the priest and gained absolution, when you die, you go to hell. If you have a venial sin that you have not repented of or confessed, when you die, you will go to Purgatory.


Mortal Venial

1. Grievous 1. Less Serious

2. Condemns to hell 2. Sends to purgatory

So when we discuss the doctrine of Purgatory, what we are talking about is a place or state of being, that exists after death, separate and apart from heaven or hell, where a person who has died with unrepented of venial sins will go and be purged of those sins by a real, physical punishment, and then be fit to enter into heaven. A most important part of this doctrine is that those who are in Purgatory can be helped by those who are still alive on earth by prayer and by having special masses said for them. In this way, the length of their time of punishment will be shortened.

In the book, The Faith of Our Father, James Cardinal Gibbons teaches the doctrine of Purgatory. In there, he says that it is "clearly taught in the Old Testament" and that it is "insinuated in the New Testament." Our purpose will be to examine the proof texts that are used to teach the doctrine of Purgatory and see whether or not that is what they actually teach.

The only passage from the Old Testament that is cited in an attempt to prove the doctrine of Purgatory is from 2 Maccabees 12:43-46. This is one of the Apocryphal books, meaning of doubtful origin. These books were not accepted as inspired by the Jews and belonging in the Old Testament; they were not accepted by the early Christians; and they are not included in the Canon of the Bible accepted today by all non-Catholics. If the doctrine of Purgatory is clearly taught in the Old Testament as the Catholics claim, isn't it strange that it is limited to a book which lacks canonical authority and was not accepted by the Jews as being inspired? That passage says,

"And making a gathering, He sent 12,000 drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection. (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead.) And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may by loosed from sins."

The "he" that is spoken of here is Judas Maccabees. In the story of the book of Maccabees, those people who had died and were being prayed for here were guilty of the sin of idolatry, a mortal sin according to Catholicism, one that condemns people to hell. Catholics contend that Purgatory is for those who have committed venial sins. Therefore, their Old Testament proof depends upon a book that does not belong in the Old Testament to begin with, and the very passage that is quoted contradicts their own teaching about mortal sin when it is used to defend Purgatory. Furthermore, try as I might to find it, 2 Maccabees 12:43-46 does not mention Purgatory.

Let's move into the New Testament. Matthew 12:31, 32 is said to infer the existence of Purgatory. There the Bible says,

"Wherefore 1 say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him: but neither in this world, neither in the world to come."

According to James Cardinal Gibbons, once again, the words of Jesus "leaves us to infer that there are some sins which will be pardoned in the life to come." He goes on to say, "Now in the next life, sins cannot be forgiven in heaven, for nothing defiled can enter there; nor can they be forgiven in hell, for out of hell there is no redemption. They must, therefore, be pardoned in the intermediate state of Purgatory."

I agree that no sin can enter into heaven and that once in hell that is where you will stay. But to say that there will be no forgiveness for a sin in this world nor in the world to come in no way implies that some sins will be forgiven in the world to come. That is reading something into this passage that simply is not there. What it really shows is that that sin is totally without forgiveness, now and forever. It is showing the seriousness of the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. The parallel passage in Mark 3:29 makes it clearer. There we read, "But he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation."

The world to come that is spoken of in Matthew 12 refers to the age when men will have eternal life. I think that Luke 20:34, 35 brings this out very well. It is the time following the resurrection and the judgment. The Catholics do not believe that Purgatory will exist after the judgment. Therefore, even if Matthew 12 taught that there would be future forgiveness of sins after one had died, which it does not, that passage could not be referring to Purgatory because according to their own position, Purgatory will not be in existence at that time.

Now turn to 1 Cor. 3:13-15. This is another popular text for Catholic support of the theory of Purgatory. There Paul writes,

"Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so far as by fire."

Brethren, this is an important passage in the defense of Purgatory, and I would like for us- to reread it carefully. But this time, let's begin with verse 11. There we read,

"For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire."

Now let us notice a few things about that passage. First, the apostle Paul is speaking about a man's work being tried or tested. He is not talking about a man's soul being purged or purified. Second, every man's work is to be tested, but according to the Catholics, every man does not go to Purgatory. Third, Purgatory is nowhere mentioned or implied in that passage. The apostle is teaching that all of us build upon the one foundation, which is Christ, when we spread the Gospel and seek to build the church. The people who are converted are going to be of different types; some will be as wood, hay, or stubble which will be burned up when the going gets rough; others will be like precious stones, silver or gold which will be able to withstand the trials.

Now if we lose our work, or our converts turn out to be like the wood and hay and stubble, certainly we shall suffer loss, but we ourselves can still be saved. If our work abides (in other words, those that we have been instrumental in helping to convert), then we will have the reward of the joy of seeing those people remain true to the Lord. It is possible, however, that the fruit of our labors may perish without it necessarily being our fault. A whole lot depends on the types of people that the converts are, and that is what Paul is talking about.

The next passage is kind of hard to understand. It was used in a Knights of Columbus ad campaign a number of years ago to offer proof of Purgatory. The passage is 2 Tim. 1:18. Let's look also at verses 16, 17 so that we will get a better understanding of what is being talked about. There we read,

"The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain: But, when he was in Rome, he sought me out very diligently, and found me. The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day: and in how many things he ministered unto me at Ephesus, thou knowest very well."

The ad stated that "Paul himself observed the custom of praying for the dead: `The Lord grant unto him to find mercy of the Lord in that day . . . .' Would Paul have prayed for Onesiphorus, then dead, if he believed the soul of his departed co-worker was beyond help?" The reason this is hard to understand is that the whole argument revolves around whether or not Onesiphorus was dead. The Bible does not give us one reason to believe that he was dead. What is happening is that Catholics are assuming the very thing that they need to prove. Paul simply says, "The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day. " Now this could be the day he dies or it could be the day of judgment, try as you might, yon simply cannot find the slightest hint of Purgatory in that passage.

Brethren, there are other aspects of the doctrine of Purgatory that I believe should be mentioned. I have known a large number of people who have spent their hard-earned money to have Masses said for the souls of their departed loved ones whom they have been convinced are languishing in Purgatory. Remember, by praying and having special Masses said for these dead people, Catholics on earth are supposed to be able to shorten their time of punishment. Now, in case the full impact of what this means has not hit you yet, consider this letter which was sent out years ago by the Vincentian Seminary Auxiliary of St. Louis.

"Can you afford to forget your friends and relatives whom God has called away into eternity? This would be a sign of disloyalty and a poor indiction of your love for dear ones. Perhaps the soul of your departed relatives is still in Purgatory. You loved them in life; you should not forget them in death. They cry to you; `Have pity on me, at least you, my friend, for the hand of the Lord has touched me.' You can answer this plea by enrolling your beloved deceased in the Vincentian Seminary Auxiliary Purgatorial Novenas of Masses - All Saints Day. Remember too, your offering will aid in the educating of our young men preparing for the priesthood of Christ. Your charity will please the Divine Master very much and He will reward you abundantly for He cannot be outdone in charity. Write the names of your beloved deceased on the enclosed sheet and mail it to me."

Do you see what has happened? By using this approach, the doctrine of Purgatory has become one of the most lucrative doctrines ever thought up by man. Poor hard working people are being told that they should have Masses said to get their dead loved ones relieved from suffering (Pay to pray, in other words). Lest anyone think that I am exaggerating about the tremendous amounts of money that have been generated by this doctrine, study the history of the sale of indulgences by the Catholic church down through the ages.

Friends and brethren, the Bible does picture an intermediate state between death and the judgment, but it does not give any hope of forgiveness for the wicked in that state. When we die, our fate is sealed. A reading of the account of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16 helps us to understand this. The Bible says, "It is appointed unto man once to die, but after this the judgment" (Heb. 9:27). The only time to get forgiveness for our sins is in this life. Even though the thought of Purgatory may seem pleasing and even plausible to the human mind, it is nothing but a false hope that is not supported in any way by the Word of God.

Now, lest any claim that Purgatory can be justified by human tradition, that it is a natural instinct to pray for the dead and therefore, there must be something to it, I have also heard people attempt to justify fornication on the basis of natural instinct. Our rule of faith must be God's Word, not tradition or instinct. And God's Word does not teach the existence of Purgatory.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 32, pp. 522-524
August 14, 1980