Q: Is there such a place as purgatory?

If you’ve ever played a muddy football game in the rain, or mowed a Florida lawn in the summertime, you know how desperately a person can need a shower. And like King David after his adulterous tryst with Bathsheba, we’ve all had the moral experience of feeling painfully “unclean.” What’s the solution, then?

Many good Christians accept the teaching that between death and heaven there is an indefinite time of “purgation,” of a painful cleansing of our sins. Throughout its history, the Church of Rome has taught that many followers of Jesus die as loyal believers who can someday be saved – but whose venial (minor) sins mean they aren’t yet ready for heavenly fellowship with a holy Father. So even though Christ paid the cosmic salvation price for our transgressions, there’s still a necessity for both appropriate temporal punishment and also this needed purifying of a sinful soul.

However, Protestant Christians have stoutly rejected the concept of purgatory, for several good reasons. First, Scripture simply does not mention any such place or experience. The most current Catholic catechism points to two verses, I Corinthians 3:15 and I Peter 1:7, as possible support texts, but the evidence is very sparse for such an important teaching.

Also referenced is a passage in the Book of Second Maccabees, which talks about a warrior named Judas whose fellow soldiers had innocently committed the sin of hiding amulets under their armor. When they fell in battle, he offered prayers and a huge financial offering of two thousand drachmas to try and obtain forgiveness and soul deliverance for his deceased friends. Again, the Protestant movement has never seen fit to accept volumes like Maccabees, part of what we commonly the “Apocryphal books,” into the 66 approved books of the Old and New Testaments. (See related question.)

So the great doctrine of Sola Scriptura – the Bible and the Bible only – gives us reason to doubt the validity of Purgatory. Equally important is the pillar of Sola Fide – salvation by faith alone. Martin Luther and many great reformers through the years have pointed God’s people to the reality that the Calvary sacrifice of Jesus is everything: it is sufficient, it is complete, it is eternal. John the Baptist described Jesus as the Lamb of God whose sacrifice “takes away the sins of the world.” Hebrews 10 tells us that Jesus’ gift of salvation is a sacrifice “once for all.”

We have to observe that the doctrine of Purgatory contains a self-administered conflict. If a person’s soul needs cleansing before it is safe to let them into heaven, how can it be appropriate for the prayers and indulgences of other believers to cut that needed time short? Yet this possibility has been taught through the centuries. Christian students have also questioned the fairness or the cosmic proportionality of needed centuries of misery and flames in order to remedy a very finite life of a few decades here on earth.

How much easier to accept the simple and grandly stated promises of God’s Word: that salvation is an immediate and lasting gift! In John 5:24, Jesus himself promises that those who accept his promises and believes the Father who sent him “has eternal life and WILL NOT be condemned.” The great hallmark passage of Christian grace, Ephesians 2:8, 9, make it clear that our salvation is a gift from God. It can’t be earned by good works, and we can never become purified enough, even through purgatorial flames, that our own resulting goodness would warrant salvation.