Biblical Overview on Penance, Purgatory, and Indulgences: "Saved As By Fire"

Monday, March 13, 2006


[written in 1994. Originally uploaded on 22 August 2001]



A necessary precondition for the forgiveness of sins; the moral virtue which inclines the will to turn away inwardly from sin, and to render atonement to God for it. It consists in sorrow of the soul for sins committed, in as much as sin is an insult to God, together with a purpose of amendment, manifested in the confession of sins, the performance of penitential works such as prayer, fasting, almsgiving, mortifications, and the patient bearing of all trials sent by God.

{Ludwig Ott}


The place or condition in which the souls of the just are purified after death and before they can enter heaven. The souls are purified by atoning for the temporal punishments due to sin by their willing acceptance of suffering imposed by God. The sufferings in purgatory are not the same for all, but proportioned to each person's degree of sinfulness. Moreover, these sufferings can be lessened in duration and intensity through the prayers and good works of the faithful on earth. Nor are the pains incompatible with great peace and joy, since the poor souls deeply love God and are sure they will reach heaven. As members of the Church Suffering, the souls in purgatory can intercede for the persons on earth, who are therefore encouraged to invoke their aid. Purgatory will not continue after the general judgment, but its duration for any particular soul continues until it is free from all guilt and punishment. Immediately on purification the soul is assumed into heaven.

{Fr. John A. Hardon}

3. INDULGENCE = The remission by the Catholic Church of the temporal punishment due to sins forgiven. The Church has the power, granted by God, to authoritatively dispense and apply the infinite treasury of merits won by Jesus Christ (and secondarily and indirectly by the saints). The efficacy of an indulgence depends on the charity and perfection with which the indulgenced task is done. Indulgences can also be applied to the souls in purgatory.

*** CLICK ON "Tolle, lege!" immediately below to finish this article ***


1. PENANCE: God requires satisfaction of the sinner on account of His holiness and justice, and the injury done to Him, and also for the purpose of the sinner's reformation. E.g., the impure man may be forgiven his sin, and yet be punished (naturally or supernaturally) by ill health. The murderer, both in terms of God's Law and man's laws, may have to expiate for his crime in the electric chair. Penance includes the sorrows, miseries, and trials of life, and also the sufferings in purgatory.

Others can make reparation for one's sins also, according to the Communion of Saints in the Body of Christ. Every sin causes a disturbance in the cosmic order established by God, along with the destruction of moral values in the person and society. Sin is not only a rejection of Divine Law, but also a rejection of the friendship of God. The very existence and weightiness of the punishments of penance ought to impress us with the folly and gravity of sin and its harmful consequences to mankind. The Council of Trent declares:

Neither is this satisfaction so our own as not to be through Jesus Christ. For we can do nothing of ourselves; He cooperating strengthens us (Phil 4:13). Thus, man has not wherein to glory, but all our glorying is in Jesus Christ (1 Cor 1:31; 2 Cor 10:17; Gal 6:14): in Whom we live; in Whom we merit (cf. Acts 17:28) . . . no Catholic ever thought that, by this kind of satisfactions on our parts, the efficacy of the merit and of the satisfaction of our Lord Jesus Christ is either obscured or in any way lessened.

{"On the Most Holy Sacrament of Penance and Extreme Unction, chapter 8, Session 14, November 25, 1551}

Biblical examples of penance include Adam and Eve's exclusion from the Garden of Eden, the disobedient Jews in the desert wandering for 40 years, Moses forbidden to enter the Promised Land, David's sufferings due to his murder and adultery, and sickness and death resulting from taking Communion unworthily (1 Cor 11:30-32). Jesus Christ gave His disciples (by extension, priests) the power not only to "loose" sins (i.e., forgive in God's name), but also to "bind" (i.e., impose penances): Mt 16:19; 18:18; Jn 20:23.

The faithful on earth can render atonement for one another by means of good works performed in a state of grace. The effect is the remission of all or part of temporal punishment for sin. This vicarious atonement among Christians is grounded in the unity of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, and is no different in kind than intercessory prayer for one another - indeed the most effective form. Examples in the Bible include Moses (Ex 32:32), Job (Job 1:5), and in St. Paul's teaching and practice (Col 1:24; 2 Cor 12:15; 2 Tim 4:6).

2. CONFESSION: The priest hears confession as the representative of God, in the exercise of "binding and loosing" (Mt 16:19; 18:18; Jn 20:23). This gives confession its deep seriousness and its bracing power. Confession gives new courage, confidence and a fresh start. The absolution imparted by the priest is not a mere expression of hope but a sacramental, objective reality.

One also learns humility by this practice, receives additional grace, and attains a certainty of forgiveness which is superior to the subjective feelings of the same stressed by Protestantism (even though these are also valid as far as they are legitimate spiritual experiences). If there is an "invention" here, it is the abolition of confession to a priest, not the Catholic practice, which is firmly grounded in Scripture and early and constant Christian Tradition.

3. PURGATORY: C.S. Lewis (Protestant):

Of course I pray for the dead. At our age the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to Him? I believe in purgatory. Our souls demand purgatory, don't they? My favourite image on this matter comes from the dentist's chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn, a voice will say, 'Rinse your mouth out with this.' This will be purgatory.

{Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 107-109}

The notion that our destiny is fixed at the precise point of death is not clear in the Bible. We know we are judged, but this does not preclude purgatory, which is simply a portion of that entire process. Nothing in the Bible indicates that either God's work of grace in us or judgment is speedily completed upon death. We do not even know for sure the ultimate salvation or damnation of anyone. Thus, it follows that we can pray for the souls of all men, and commend them to God's grace and mercy. On the other hand, there is much indication in the Bible in favor of some notion of purgatory, to be seen below.

Most of us end our earthly sojourn far short of sainthood and yet not utterly within the grips of sin. Moreover, some who have been notoriously wicked repent at the last moment (e.g., the thief on the cross), and God will not reject any penitent sinner. Such a death-bed penitent must atone for his life-long transgressions. Nothing defiled can enter heaven. But it would seem that anyone in the "friendship" of God would not deserve the fate of eternal hellfire. Hence, there must exist some process of purgation by which man is fashioned into a creature worthy of entrance into the all-holy presence of God.

Seen in this light, purgatory, contrary to the Protestant horror of it, is actually one of the most merciful aspects of God's love for us, and very consoling to the human heart. Since, in Catholic doctrine, sin is real and must be truly eradicated, not just "covered up," as in Protestantism, a change must occur in all of us sinners after death. Purgatory alone retains both God's loving and holy attributes as pertaining to the Judgment of each human being. A patient who has the assurance of recovery willingly endures the surgeon's knife or other unpleasant remedies. Purgatory is the vestibule of heaven. All of its sufferings are inflicted and endured in love.

The Catholic Church has not declared dogmatically whether or not there is "fire" in purgatory, and the "fire" might be metaphorical, yet the idea of refinement is present either way. There is no comparison between the sufferings in purgatory and those in hell. That in purgatory is temporary, is full of assured hope, it is willingly borne with resolve and patience, and accompanied with intense spiritual joy. The souls in purgatory can also pray and obtain blessings for those on earth, with great charity commensurate with their relative closeness to God.

4. INDULGENCES: The scandal of selling indulgences is thought to be the precipitating cause of the Protestant Revolt. The Catholic Church forbade the sale of indulgences at the Council of Trent (abuses of the practice were previously condemned in Council in 1215, 1245, 1274 and 1312). But Martin Luther went beyond a critique of the abuse of indulgences, and declared the entire practice null and void and contrary to the Bible. This is not correct:

Many saints suffer more than enough to satisfy God's justice. Jesus Christ (and Mary in Catholic theology) didn't have any sin and yet suffered greatly. The Catholic Church gives credit for this suffering to persons who have repented. Thus it "indulges" these persons, not in their sin, but in taking away punishment for the sins. This act is called an indulgence. The Catholic Church will not do away with this beautiful concept and practice (rightly understood) because of the occasional criminal misuse of it in the past. The doctrine of indulgences is closely connected with the Communion of Saints. The transfer of merit through an indulgence is a profound act of "community" and a taking seriously of the communal and unified nature of the Mystical Body of Christ.

In a papal decree given in 1968 by Pope Paul VI, it was made abundantly clear that the pious disposition of the seeker of an indulgence was of paramount importance. In other words, an indulgence was not a piece of magic which existed apart from the spiritual state of its user. It is inconsistent for Protestants to find fault with the Catholic Church for mitigating the austerities of penance in granting an indulgence since their own fundamental principle is the notion of faith alone without good works (as pertaining to the nature of salvation). Thus, indulgences are merely a limited application of a concept which Protestantism raises to universality.

All the main ideas upon which an indulgence is based are found in the Bible: the Church's power to bind and loose, vicarious atonement among members of the Church, and penance. Although the doctrine has developed, like all others, it is not unbiblical in the least. In fact, St. Paul himself issued an indulgence by lessening the temporal penance for sin of a straying brother (2 Cor 2:6-11), which he had previously imposed on him (1 Cor 5:3-5). The Catholic Church adds no more in essence to the practices and theological presuppositions of these two passages.


1. Penance {Mt 16:19; 18:18; Jn 20:23}

Ex 32:30-32 
Num 14:19-23
Num 16:43-48
Num 25:6-13
2 Sam 12:13-14
Rom 8:13,17 
1 Cor 11:27-32
1 Cor 12:24-26
2 Cor 4:10
Phil 3:10
Col 1:24
2 Tim 4:6
Heb 12:6-8
1 Pet 4:1,13

2. Purgatory

Ps 66:12
Ecc 12:14
Is 4:4
Is 6:5-7
Mic 7:8-9
Mal 3:1-4
2 Maccabees 12:39-45
Mt 5:25-6 / Lk 12:58-9
Mt 12:32
Lk 16:19-31 (cf. Eph 4:8-10; 1 Pet 3:19-20)
1 Cor 3:11-15
1 Cor 15:29 (?)
2 Cor 5:10
2 Cor 7:1 
Phil 2:10-11
1 Thess 3:13
1 Thess 4:7
2 Tim 1:16-18
Heb 12:14
Heb 12:29
Rev 5:3,13
Rev 21:27


1. Penance

     A. 2 Samuel 12:13-14 "And David said unto Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said unto David, The Lord     also hath put away thy sin; thou shalt not die. (14) Howbeit, because by this deed thou hast given great occasion to the     enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also {that is} born unto thee shall surely die."

     B. 1 Corinthians 11:27-32 "Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink {this} cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be     guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. (28) But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of {that} bread, and drink of     {that} cup. (29) For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the     Lord's body. (30) For this cause many {are} weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. (31) For if we would judge     ourselves, we should not be judged. (32) But when we are judged, we are chastened of the Lord, that we should not be     condemned with the world."

     C. 2 Corinthians 4:10 "Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made     manifest in our body."

     D. Philippians 3:10 "That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made     conformable unto his death."

     E. Colossians 1:24 "Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my     flesh for his body's sake, which is the church."

2. Purgatory

     A. Isaiah 4:4 "When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood     of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning."

     B. Malachi 3:2-3 "But who may abide the day of his coming? and who shall stand when he appeareth? for he {is} like a     refiner's fire, and like fullers' soap: (3) And he shall sit {as} a refiner and purifier of silver: and he shall purify the sons of Levi,     and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness."

     C. Matthew 12:32 "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, neither in this world, neither in the {world} to come."

     D. 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. (12) Now if any man     build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; (13) 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. (14) If     any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. (15) If any man's work shall be burned, he     shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire."

     E. Revelation 21:27 "And there shall in no wise enter into it any thing that defileth, neither {whatsoever} worketh     abomination, or {maketh} a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life."