Is the Notion of Purgatory in the Bible?

Wednesday, July 02, 2003



Here's one the conservative Catholics will like....

Catholics are asked all the time where the notion of purgatory is found inthe Bible. Here are the ways I typically address this issue:

"...for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that there is, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay or straw, the work of each one will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one's work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only through fire." (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)

Protestant Christians believe that the above verse refers only to the final judgment at the end of the world, and that only a person's works are subject to the fire, rather than the person's being.

Catholic Christians point out that the person "suffers loss". While Catholics agree that the context of the passage refers primarily to the final judgment, it is possible that "the Day" can refer to the moment of death. If this were not the case, then there would be suffering in heaven at the final judgment!

It is important to note that those who believe in the doctrine of purgatory do not believe that purgatory is a "second chance" for salvation after death. Rather, those who suffer purgatory were already saved at the moment of death, and are assured of their salvation even while going through purgatory.

Indeed, the Catholic Church teaches that the souls undergoing purgatory are absolutely certain of their salvation with a greater confidence than they could achieve in this life. Furthermore, the Catholic Church makes no dogmatic statement regarding the duration or nature of suffering in purgatory.

Few Christians outside of the Roman Catholic Church believe explicitly in the doctrine of purgatory, though the practice of praying for the dead is done in many denominations and throughout Eastern Orthodoxy.

If you are to go with your opponent before a magistrate, make an effort to settle the matter on the way; otherwise your opponent will turn you over to the judge, and the judge will turn you over to the constable, and the constable throw you in into prison. I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny." (Luke 12:58-59)

Protestant Christians believe that the above passage refers to relationships in this earthly life only. While Catholic Christians accept the possibility of a temporal meaning in this text, Catholics believe it is isogesis to limit the scope of the passage to the temporal.

We believe that the author of Luke's Gospel portrays a Jesus who is using metaphoric speech. God is ultimately our judge. Paying the "last penny" means that, while Christ has paid the penalty of the eternal consequences of our sins on the cross, we must each bear the "temporal" penalty of our lesser personal sins.

In a sense, even the smallest "venial" sin cannot stand before an absolutely perfect God:

"Strive for peace with everyone, and for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14)

"Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure." (1 John 3:3).

Jesus restores our ability to stand before God by covering our sins with his blood, and imputing his righteousness to us upon initial justification. However, Catholics see justification as an ongoing process that includes what Protestants often refer to as sanctification. Catholics maintain that glorification will not occur until sanctification is complete! Even when under the process of sanctification, sin has temporal consequences, and perfect justice demands that a balance be restored from the imbalance caused in human relationships by sin.

Suffering the consequences of personal sin can be a cathartic release and a mercy for some souls:

"My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he likewise disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges." (Proverbs 3:11-12 and Hebrews 12:6-7).

Indeed, if there were no temporal penalty for sin, we would not suffer and die in this life at all. The consequences of sin follow as surely as night follows day. The fact that Jesus did not remove all the consequences of sin is based on empirical evidence, as well as Scriptural inference form the plain sense of the texts.

Purgatory is the temporal penalties of sins committed in this life that have not have not been satisfied before the moment of death. Some theologians speculate that the suffering of purgatory is merely a moment of deep shame and contrition at the personal judgment following death.

Others use analogies of a parent asking a child to wash up before supper. In the same way, it is speculated that God asks us to wash up for the heavenly marriage banquet. In this analogy, the pain is due to our immaturity, like a child resisting washing his or her hands and face before dinner.

Some theologians compare the human person in the face of God to a balloon being filled with air, and the expansion of the balloon is similar to a painful expansion of human consciousness before the Lord. Still others compare the pains of purgatory to the fires of hell depicted in Scripture, and the just consequences of sins committed in life. Perhpas standing before the burning passionate love of a perfect God is painful to a person with some lingering sin.

The difference between purgatory and hell is only with purgatory's finite limit. Catholics believe that the prayers, penances, and acts of charity of the faithful on earth aid those in purgatory.

"And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age, or in the age to come." (Matthew 12:32)

This verse exemplifies that forgiveness is offered in the next life as well as this life, which Catholics argue is only possible if there is a state of purification. Protestants believe that the verse simply emphasizes the seriousness of the sin of blasphemy against the Spirit. Again, there is a sense that Protestants are reading something into the text that is not clearly there, while Catholics are making an inference that is at least implied in the passage.

"Otherwise, what will people accomplish by having themselves baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, then why are they having themselves baptized for them?" (1 Corinthians 15:29)

The above referenced passage is not typically used by Roman Catholics to justify the doctrine of purgatory. Most Catholic and Protestant scholars agree that Paul's main point was to emphasize evidence of the afterlife based on practices already in place in the Corinthian community.

Indeed, Paul did not start the practice of baptism for the dead, nor did he command the baptizing of the dead. Nor does Paul offer specific approval.

Rather, he simply refuses to condemn a practice already in place amongst a local church. Two important points can be drawn from the passage.

First, the main point is that the dead are raised!

Second, the early church did practice praying for the dead, and Paul did not see the practice as one worthy of condemnation. Thus, those who do not accept the doctrine of purgatory should be careful not to condemn those who do.

That being said, since Catholics do believe that salvation is already assured the dead in purgatory, there should not be sense of urgency in forcing the doctrine on others.

Yet, Catholics should also avoid rash judgments of Protestants who question the doctrine of purgatory. The actual term, "purgatory" is not used in Scripture, and while we may feel we are making valid inferences based on Sacred Tradition and strongly implied Biblical principles, the Protestants are correct to warn that the notion cannot be critical to salvation, or God would have made the revelation even clearer.

It should also be pointed out that the Mormons have retrieved the practice of baptizing the dead. Most Christians no longer practice baptism of the dead for two reasons. First, many Christians come from families with long lines of ancestral Christianity.

Second, baptism of the dead has become viewed as unnecessary as the church (even within New Testament Scripture) developed a deeper understanding of the meaning and symbolic nature of baptism, and a greater assurance that those who died in Christ are already with Christ in heaven.

"Everyone will be salted with fire." (Mark 9:49)

This last verse also hints of the possibility of purgatory. When we combine all this with the passage found in Catholic Bibles that is not found in Protestant Bibles, the case for purgatory seems fairly strong. The passage in question comes from 2 Maccabees 12:42-46.

Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had died. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.

The books included in the Catholic Bible that are not found in the King James Bible and subsequent Protestant Bibles are taken form the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament.

This Greek Septuagint version of the Old testament pre-dates Christ, and is the version quoted most frequently in the New Testament. The Septuagint was widely accepted by Christians up to the time of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther rejected the books of Maccabees because they were not in the Hebrew canon established by Jews at Jamnia after the resurrection of Christ around 90 AD.

Scholars disagree on the exact reasons the Jews rejected these books from the canon, but the case can be made that many Palestinian Jews of Jesus' time did only accept the Jewish and Protestant canon prior to Jamnia, and rejected the Septuagint additions. Yet an equally compelling case could be made that some Jews accepted even books Catholics reject! Discoveries at Quumram indicate that many Jews accepted not only the books of the Septuagint, but other books as well!

Catholics accept that Maccabbes is inspired Scripture. Catholic scholars also admit that it is not entirely clear that the author of Maccabbes had our modern notions of purgatory in mind when the passage was written. The primary point of the author is an affirmation of belief in the resurrection of the dead. Nevertheless, by implying that prayers for the dead are a noble and holy thought, the notion of some sort of purgation or purification after death is firmly implied.

Peace and Blessings!

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posted by Jcecil3 4:27 PM

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