Purgatory: Replying a comment

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Dear friend,
Thank you so much for your comment that included many references from scripture. As one who strives to tremble at the word of God, I took your comment very seriously. I accept the point, which you make only implicitly, that the fact that the Bible does not mention the word “purgatory” should not prevent us from identifying any reference to a “state after death of suffering and forgiveness,” should it exist.

As you can imagine, I spent some time thinking over my answer. It gave me an appreciation of the extent to which a person’s theology influences the way a particular text is interpreted.

An even greater blessing that I gained from going through these texts was that it reinforced for me that the people of God will one day stand before the judgment seat of Christ, not to decide where we will spend eternity (this has been decided once and for all when we became His children), but to give account for our deeds. On that day our deeds will be judged for what they are worth. I do not believe that we read about a place of terrible suffering and agony for God’s people after death, much less about the possibility of transfer of any merit from the treasury of merit of the church. I believe that once we die, our account is frozen and no changes are made until the time we stand before the judgment seat of Christ. But we have today at our disposal to make the necessary changes and do whatever we can for the Lord.

First, I will try to explain very briefly why I am convinced that the concept of purgatory is not compatible with the Bible. Secondly, I will explain why I believe that the Bible references quoted by you do not refer to Purgatory.

I Purgatory not a plausible proposition
The Bible tells us that . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Every human being, whether it is a great person like Mother Theresa or an ordinary person, is a sinner who stands in need of the saving work of our Lord.

In 1 Tim 1:15-16 we read that Paul acknowledges that before Christ saved him, he was the worst of sinners. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.

Any good deeds of righteousness that we may do will not add to our credit to go to heaven. Isaiah describes our righteousness thus: . . . and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth . . . Isaiah 64:6

When we come to Jesus in faith and true repentance, He washes us clean with His precious blood and we become saints and Christians in the Bible sense of the term. We are saints, not because of anything that we have done, but because Jesus’ blood is so powerful and effectively washes us and makes us pure. So we have nothing to boast in this. In the Bible we see that the word “saint” was used for ordinary Christians (Acts 9:13, 32; 26:10; Romans 1:7; 8:27; 15:25,26,31; 1 Cor 14:33, 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1,15; 3:18;6:18; Phil1:1; 4:21; Col 1:12, 26; 1 Tim 5:10; Phil 1:5,7; Jude 1:3 and so on).

The question that is likely to arise is whether we become sinless when the Lord cleanses us. When Jesus cleanses us, He takes off the covering of our righteousness (remember it was likened to filthy rags?) and puts on us His righteousness. So after that, when we stand before God the Father, God sees Jesus’ righteousness and not ours. Even as we are hidden by His righteousness, behind the scenes as it were, we still have to handle the body of sin in which we live. We find ourselves in a constant struggle: our souls have been born again as a new person, but in our bodies, we still have the old man. So with the Holy Spirit who indwells us, we strive to lead holy lives. As long as we are in this earth, we will sin from time to time and must come to the Lord for forgiveness. There has been much said about these matters by theologians of both Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions. Let us not merely rely on these but go to the Bible and meditate prayerfully on the various texts themselves.

But we are not as those who keep sinning carelessly and taking the forgiveness for granted. If we do that, it only shows that we were not genuinely cleansed and saved in the first place. If we were really cleansed and saved, we become a new type of people. The Bible describes this transformation as a “new creation” (2 Cor 5:17) and we become a people who hate sin.

The Bible describes people who have genuinely believed in Christ in the following way:
(1 Peter 1:18-19 NKJV) knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.
(Revelation 1:5 NKJV) .. To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood
1 John 1:7) But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.
(Romans 5:9) Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.
(Hebrews 13:12) Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate.
(Matthew 26:28 ) “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.
(Ephesians 1:7) In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace
(Hebrews 10:19-23) Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.

No where does the Bible speak of saints being able to give us any merit to pay off our debt. How can this be? How can the good deeds of any human being help pay off another’s debt? What is the need, when the Lord Jesus has paid it all?

After we are cleansed by His blood and saved, after that, whatever good deeds we do is recorded by the Lord and will be acknowledged one day when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ. On that day, some will be rewarded more and others less according to what they have done. But none of our good deeds will pay off the debt of sin. That is something different and something that ONLY the Lord Jesus could pay. He was born of a virgin, a sinless Man, Son of God, through His Father God, and Son of Man, through His mother, a human being. The sacrifice of a sinless Man was needed to pay off the debt of sin. And He came down to earth, becoming a man for our sakes and died. What a tragedy it is if we should, after all that He died to do, reject His sacrifice and say that we want the saints (who are human beings) and the church (the called-out group of human beings) to pay off the debt of sin!

I cannot go into more detail than this in this answer. But this should suffice to show that the idea of a place of purging after death where merit from the church and the saints can be imputed to us by proxy is (a) totally alien and (b) unnecessary from the standpoint of the holy scriptures.

II Bible verses from your comment
(You have quoted these scriptures in an attempt to show that a place for purging exists after death. I have attempted to refute this. But the scriptures you have quoted do not explain how indulgences can help, neither do they substantiate the belief that merit of the saints or the church may be transferred to the sinner in Purgatory in order to pay off his debts.)

  • Matt. 5:25,18:34; Luke 12:58-59 – temporary state of purgation called a “prison.” There is no exit until we are perfect, and the last penny is paid. Both these references refer to the parable that Jesus told about settling matters quickly. The prison spoken of here is part of the parable and not of the reality that the parable illustrates. When interpreting parables, we do not look for a one-on-one meaning for everything in the parable, but rather look for the main message. In this parable, one must not try to interpret who the officer is for instance. Having said that, it is clear that the Lord is saying that one needs to set things right at the earliest before it becomes too late.
  • Matt. 5:48 – Jesus says, “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are only made perfect through purification. This scripture says nothing about how one becomes perfect. It just lays down what the standard for perfection is for us. The absolute standard is God.
  • Matt. 12:32 – Jesus clearly provides that there is forgiveness after death. Forgiveness is not necessary in heaven, and there is no forgiveness in hell. I think this scripture is emphasizing the terrible nature of this particular sin and the fact that forgiveness is impossible, not now not ever.
  • Luke 12:47-48 – when the Master comes (at the end of time), some will receive light or heavy beatings but will live. This is not heaven or hell. Unbelievers of the Lord Jesus will be judged before being sent to hell. But the Bible talks about believers also being judged for their works. Believers, though justified, will have to bear awards and losses of some sort for the deeds done in the body. But this is not purgatory or a purifying place. No one becomes cleaner here. Neither does the Bible tell us anything about another’s righteousnesss or merit, not even Jesus’ righteousness, being credited to one’s account in this place.
  • Luke 16:19-31 – dead rich man is suffering but feels compassion for his brothers. There is no suffering in heaven or compassion in hell. This story mentions a waiting place, which may be literal or figurative, until the judgment–a place that Abraham describes thus “between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot, nor can those from there pass to us.” This place cannot be purgatory because we do not see any possibility for movement of persons across the great divide between the ‘waiting place’ of the righteous and that of the unrighteous.
  • 1 Cor. 15:29-30 – Paul mentions people being baptized on behalf of the dead, to atone for their sins. They must be in purgatory. What exactly this practice was is not clear, and we do not read about such a practice anywhere else, and so assume that whatever it was, the practice was discontinued in the church. But Paul points to that practice, to show that people do believe in the resurrection. The whole point of the discussion is the reality of the resurrection. This is another example (the other being in Acts 17:23) of how Paul would use the words of even misguided people if they are to his advantage in an argument that is to the glory of God.
  • Phil. 2:10 – every knees bends to Jesus, in heaven, on earth, and “under the earth” which is the realm of the righteous dead. Yes, I think so too, and not just the righteous dead but all the dead will bend their knee before Him.
  • 2 Tim. 1:16-18 – Onesiphorus is dead but Paul asks for mercy on him. There is no need for mercy in heaven, and there is no mercy given in hell. It is not known whether he is dead or not, but as his household is mentioned, it could mean that he is either separated or dead. To say, “the Lord grant to him to find mercy from the Lord on that day,” is not a regular prayer. It is not talking about hell or heaven but shows Paul’s desire that he find himself in a favourable position on the day of Judgment. It also shows us that we do not ever take our salvation lightly.
  • Heb. 12:14 – without holiness no one will see the Lord. We need final sanctification to attain true holiness before God. We believe that when a person is regenerated, the original sin and the sins committed by the person up to that point are cleansed. Jesus covers that person with His righteousness and makes it possible for the believer to have fellowship with a holy God. After that, the believer strives to walk in the path of sanctification, constantly getting cleansed on a day-to-day basis, Jesus righteousness always covering him on the outside. After his life is over, the Lord completes the work that is begun and he is made perfectly holy. Sanctification is a work that begins with regeneration and is completed after his earthly life comes to an end. Yes without holiness we cannot stand before a holy God. With our cooperation, the Lord Jesus sanctifies us day by day, and we grow more and more holy until we die, at which time, He completes the process.
  • Heb. 12:23 – the spirits of just men who died in godliness are “made” perfect. They do not necessarily arrive perfect. All of God’s children will be righteous people who have been made perfect.
  • 1 Peter 3:19; 4:6 – Jesus preached to the spirits in the “prison.” These are the righteous souls being purified for the beatific vision. Both these scriptures allude to the preaching of Jesus through various preachers when they were alive on earth. They do not talk of Jesus preaching to dead people.
  • Rev. 21:4 – no mourning or pain, but only after the coming of the new heaven and the passing away of the current heaven and earth. Yes, this happens after resurrection and judgment. Until this time, people, both the righteous people of God and the wicked enemies of God wait. No other classification exists among the people who die. The idea of purgatory, though painful, is comforting because is distracts us from the truth that we must decide on our course before death intervenes. The Bible allows for only two groups of men– the righteous (the Bible usage of the term referring to those who have been cleansed by the precious blood of Jesus) and the wicked (the Bible usage of the term referring to all the rest). So obviously, in the latter category, we find many who are very fine people. The latter category also contains some not-so-fine people who may be very dear to us. The concept of Purgatory gives us some comfort because it offers hope for such ones. But if Purgatory is a concept that is not substantiated by the holy scriptures, this hope is based on false assurance. And false assurance does more harm than good in the long run, because it effectively hides both the urgency of the matter as well as the wonder of what the Lord has done for mankind, from our eyes. What more can the devil want than this very thing.
  • Rev. 21:27 – nothing unclean shall enter heaven. Even the propensity to sin is uncleanliness. No purgatory means no salvation for most people. Sadly, yes; ‘no purgatory’ does mean ‘no salvation’ for most people. The Bible never claimed that salvation was for the majority, because few will walk in the narrow way. That is why you and I need to be so very cautions and vigilant in these matters. The sanctifying work that is begun in the lives of those who are regenerated is perfected by Him after life on the earth. This is not something that can be achieved by suffering in purgatory but firstly by a sanctifying process that happens during our lifetime where we are being transformed by the Holy Spirit . . . from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18), by constantly going to God for cleansing (1 Jn 1:9), and secondly, having the process of sanctification completed in us when our life is over, so that when we rise, our bodies that are sown in corruption and dishonour are somehow wondrously raised in incorruption and glory. (1 Cor 15:40-46). When we die and are set free from from our body of sin, we lose the propensity to sin.
  • Gen. 50:10; Num. 20:29; Deut. 34:8 – examples of ritual prayer and penitent mourning for the dead for specific periods of time. It is customary to grieve for the dead. Perhaps to give this grief some structure and to guide people as to what needs to be done at this time, each society has customs that dictate what is done, and helps people to get on with their lives. Among the Hebrew people who worshipped the true God, we find no praying for the dead.
  • Baruch 3:4 – Baruch asks the Lord to hear the prayers of the dead of Israel. Prayers for the dead are unnecessary in heaven and unnecessary in hell. As the book of Baruch does not form part of our Bibles, I do not have an idea of why this is so.
  • Zech. 9:11 – God, through the blood of His covenant, will set those free from the waterless pit, a spiritual abode of suffering. One thing in this passage reminds me about what the Lord said at the Last Supper, as narrated by the apostle Paul. “This cup is the new covenant in My blood.” I believe Zechariah’s prophecy looks forward to the time of Jesus (as we can see from the previous passage that describes Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem on the back of colt), and how by His blood, shed on the cross, people would be set free from the prison of sin and death. When people are thus regenerated, they enter into a covenant relationship with Him, the new covenant in His blood. I cannot see anything about purgatory here.
  • 2 Macc. 12:43-45 – prayers for the dead help free them from sin and help them to the reward of heaven. They are in purgatory. As the books of Maccabees does not form part of our Bibles, I do not have an idea of why this is so. But I looked it up in the Internet and found the text. I can see the idea of praying for the dead in this verse. If you regard this book as part of the Bible, you would not find it easy to see my side of the issue. It was probably because of such texts in this book that do not coincide with the express teachings of the apostles and the straightforward theology of the rest of the Bible that this book was included among the set of books called the Apocrypha or the doubtful books.

(The following are verses quoted on the subject of ‘Purification After Death By Fire’)

  • Heb. 12:29 – God is a consuming fire (of love in heaven, of purgation in purgatory, or of suffering and damnation in hell).
    I see no indication in this text of an ‘after death’ situation.
  • 1 Cor. 3:10-15 – works are judged after death and tested by fire. Some works are lost, but the person is still saved. This is the purgation of purgatory.
    1 Cor. 3:15 – though he will be saved, “but only” (houtos-in same manner) through fire. Man is both rewarded and saved by fire.
    1 Cor. 3:15 – suffer loss = “zemiothesetai” = root word “zemioo” = also refers to punishment. This means expiation of temporal punishment.
    1 Cor. 3:13 – revealing the quality of each man’s work by fire and purifying him relates to his sins (not just his good works).
    1 Cor. 3:17 – proves this purgation deals with punishing sin (destroying God’s temple = bad works = mortal sin = death).
    1 Cor. 3:14,15,17 – purgatory thus reveals the state of righteousness (v.14), state of venial sin (v.15) and state of mortal sin (v.17).

    We all know that unbelievers of the Lord Jesus will be judged. But the Bible talks about believers also being judged for their works, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10). This passage is talking about this judgment. As believers, we are justified and will go to heaven, but we will have awards and losses of some sort for the deeds done in the body. However, this is not purgatory or a purifying place. No one becomes cleaner here.
  • 1 Peter 1:6-7 – Peter refers to this purgatorial fire to test the fruits of our faith.
    This is clearly talking about the sanctification of Christians here on earth. Reading verse 8 might help to establish this.
  • Jude 1:23 – people saved being snatched out of fire. People are already saved if in heaven, and there is no possibility of salvation if in hell.
    This is talking about the work we need to do now. People who have not based their whole faith on the Lord Jesus, and Him alone, are lost without Christ. According the the Bible, they will one day have to face the fire of hell. We need to do what we can to snatch them out of this situation. This verse is not talking about something happening after our death. It is about the present.
  • Rev. 3:18-19 – Jesus refers to this fire as what refines into gold those He loves if they repent.
    This scripture too is talking about the here and now. We are to work on being sanctified more and more in our lives as believers. In this passage, the Lord is inviting the Laodicean church to come to Him for righteousness. This is while they are alive on earth.
  • Dan 12:10 – Daniel refers to this refining by saying many shall purify themselves, make themselves white and be refined.
    Both the wicked doing their wicked deeds and those being purified are those who are alive on the earth at the time spoken of.
  • Wis. 3:5-6 – the dead are disciplined and tested by fire to receive their heavenly reward.
    Part of the Apocrypha.
  • Sirach 2:5 – for gold is tested in the fire, and acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation.
    Part of the Apocrypha.
  • Zech. 13:8-9 – God says 2/3 shall perish, and 1/3 shall be left alive, put into the fire, and refined like silver and tested like gold.
    This too is spoken of people who are alive
  • Mal. 3:2-3 – also refers to God’s purification of the righteous at their death.
    Malachi, as with the other prophetic books, is not an easy book to understand. One must be familiar with both style and context. This is a prophecy of the coming of the Lord Jesus to earth and was fulfilled 2000 years ago. Without looking at the context, this text does appear to be speaking of the second coming of the Lord for judgment. If it helps, I would like to point out the beginning of the next chapter, that also looks as if it speaks about the second coming of the Lord. But it is quite easy to see that it is foretelling the first coming of the Lord, that had not yet taken place at the time of the prophecy, as it goes on to mention the coming of Elijah the prophet, a prophecy that was in some way fulfilled by the life of John the Baptist (Luke 1:17, Matt 11:14). So coming back to Malachi 3, yes, He is a refining fire to us now, so that we need not be caught in the fire of judgment with unbelievers after this life. That the refining work happens now in this life is also clear from 1 Peter 1:6-7 “Now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold, which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

True believers will go to heaven. They have already been justified by the work of our Lord Jesus. And yet, even for them, there will come a time to give account for the deeds done while they were alive. Many of them will come to rue the fact that they did not do enough for Him. But at this time, there will be no fire to purify people, either literal or figurative, neither is such a thing necessary. The fire mentioned, whatever it is, will reveal the quality of their deeds, whether worthy or worthless.

The following scriptures are very clear:

  • 2 Cor 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.
  • Heb 9:27-28 And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.
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