This is blog #3 in the “Death Swallowed Up in Victory!” series that covers frequently asked questions about what happens at the death of a believer.
In the first blog, we looked at why death is part of our world and what God did to free us from its bondage.
In the second blog, we explored various unbiblical views about what happens to the soul after death.
This blog will cover the concept of purgatory: its history, the logical consequences of such teaching, and the biblical truth that counters this false teaching.
The history of the concept of purgatory (or “the middle state”)
A view that infiltrated the church several centuries after Jesus’ death and resurrection is that believers’ souls must go to a place to be purified before entering heaven. This teaching has confused and caused grief to many.
The term “purgatory” comes from the word “purge” meaning “to purify.” Purgatory is conjectured to be a place of temporary punishment for the souls of believers who had not fully paid the penalty of their sins while here on earth.
Sometime after the first century ended, when all the apostles were dead, there arose a teaching that God's forgiveness of the believer's sins did not wipe out the believer's need to pay penance for his/her sin. Penance is voluntary self-punishment or reparation to show repentance for wrongdoing. According to this teaching, failing to do penance in this life requires the need to be punished in another place before being finally saved. This teaching negates grace and goes back to the Old Testament concept of law. This teaching says salvation comes by initial faith plus additional works. Like all error, this teaching involves a wrong concept of God and, especially, Christ’s finished work on the cross.
What started out as error in teaching soon became tradition that was later incorporated into the state church of the Roman Empire, which became the Roman Catholic Church. Century after century, there arose biblically-oriented groups who tried to "purge" the church of this erroneous teaching, but to no avail. Martin Luther denounced it. John Calvin called it a "deadly fiction of Satan, which nullifies the cross of Christ." Yet, modern Protestants, while avoiding the name “purgatory,” frequently teach the doctrine of "the middle state," a realm of progressive development!
The logical consequences of teaching purgatory
The logical consequence of this teaching is that believers feel continual guilt for not doing enough to pay for sin committed while on earth. Guilt, guilt, and more guilt. Add to that fear, doubt, insecurity. Anyone who is caught up in salvation by works finds it hard to accept God's full grace on every believer.
You start with the "yes but's" and the "what if's.” What if you didn't acknowledge all your sins and/or pay the penance for all your sins before you died? What about the man who experienced a deathbed conversion and had no time for paying his penance for his sins? Then, it must be done after death, right? So, you go to purgatory to be punished for, or purged of, previous sin. Purified so you can finally be perfectly pure and worthy to enter heaven.
How does this purification take place? According to this teaching, there are several options: The living can do good works or self-punishment in your place. The living can pray for the dead to be relieved of their suffering and for God to have mercy on them. A purifying fire in purgatory burns away bad deeds. A high-ranking church official can grant an indulgence, or remission of punishment still due for a sin, as seen in medieval church history.
Truth that counters the false teaching of purgatory
Is there scriptural support for the existence of a purgatory? Absolutely none! Is there scriptural teaching against it? Lots! The New Testament is filled with truth that counters this error-filled teaching.
1. It is God’s job to perfect us!
”being confident of this, that he [God] who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6)
“May he [God] strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.” (1 Thessalonians 3:13)
“But now he [God] has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation." (Colossians 1:22)
We read in Hebrews 9:14 that Christ died to clear our consciences of guilt from sin for which he has already paid.
If anyone would be the best candidate for "purgatory," it would be the thief crucified next to Jesus on the cross. According to Jesus’ own words in Luke 23:43, the thief who expressed a small nugget of faith in who Christ was went directly with Jesus to God's presence in “paradise.” He didn't have time to pay penance for all his sins. Yet, Christ Himself said the thief would be in paradise that very night with Jesus. Jesus certainly wasn’t going to purgatory first!
2. Purgatory violates two scriptural truths.
Tradition is never truth unless it is totally and completely based upon scripture and nothing else.
Truth #1: Belief, not behavior, is the basis for receiving eternal life.
Jesus said this,
“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” (John 5:24)
The believer in Christ crosses over from death into eternal life—instantly—by believing.
Paul wrote this,
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God —not by works, so that no one can boast.“ (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Our salvation and entrance into heaven is entirely based on God’s grace alone, nothing we can do.
Truth #2: Only the blood of Jesus cleanses from sin, not human works or suffering.
Human works or suffering will never and can never cleanse us from any sin. Only Christ’s sacrifice can cleanse us. The New Testament is clear on this subject. For example, these words in Colossians,
“When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2;13-14)
Jesus canceled ALL our debt of sin. ALL our sins were forgiven on the cross—past, present and future. And, since all our sins were future at that time, all are forgiven the moment we believed, not just those from our own pasts.
The Bible teaches that we are no longer recipients or targets of God’s wrath against any sin.
“For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9)
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1)
So, the soul of the believer, after departing the body, is forgiven of all sin and cannot do anything to earn God’s favor and pardon apart from faith in Jesus Christ alone.
To understand all that Christ’s finished work on the cross did for us to make us fit for immediate entrance into God’s presence in heaven, read or listen to “The Gospel” series that covers what Jesus Christ accomplished completely for us through His death and resurrection.
In the next blog, we will answer frequently asked questions about those who are dead.