Arguments Against Purgatory Considered


by Kevin Tierney

One of the most controversial doctrines of the Catholic faith is the one we are set out to discuss right now, purgatory. It is also one of the most fundamentally misunderstood doctrines. Anti-Catholic apologists (such as James White) take citations of Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, make vague references to "satispassio," and misrepresent exactly what the doctrine is. To be fair to the Catholic teaching, the doctrine is stated in only three minor paragraphs in the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church:


1030. All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. [Cf. Council of Florence (1439): DS 1304; Council of Trent (1563): DS 1820; also Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus (1336): DS 1000] The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire: [Cf. 1 Cor 3:15; 1 Peter 1:7]

"As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come." [St. Gregory the Great, Dial 4:39, PL 77:396; cf. Mt 12:31]

1032. This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: "Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." [2 Macc 12:46] From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. [Cf. Council of Lyons II (1274): DS 856] The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them. [St. John Chrysostom, Hom in 1 Cor 41:5, PG 61:361; cf. Job 1:5]

Now that we have some background and definition of the official teaching, I will look at some of the more common arguments against purgatory (cited in red), and see if they really do refute the Catholic doctrine, or just refute a straw man or misunderstanding of the doctrine. 

Purgatory and the Bible

"Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin." Hebrews 10:18. Our forgiveness is already complete; we do not need to be purified in purgatory!

This is a common example of not only how Protestants misunderstand what Catholics mean by purgatory, but how they take a biblical verse out of context. First of all, that one offering for sin is Christ, and we all agree since we tie purgatory into the final phase of sanctification. Our forgiveness is complete in Christ and because of Christ's one offering, this is possible. There is no problem with the one offering or sacrifice, or the ongoing sanctification as an application of that one sacrifice (Hebrew 10:10-14; 1 John 1:7-9; 2:1-2).

But let us read Hebrews chapter 10 in context, and see if that sacrifice applies irrevocably forever to a believer:

16: "This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds," 17: then he adds, "I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more." 18: Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. 19: Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20: by the new and living way which he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, 21: and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22: let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23: Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; 24: and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25: not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.26: For if we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27: but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. 28: A man who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29: How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? 30: For we know him who said, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." And again, "The Lord will judge his people." 31: It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. 32: But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, 33: sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. 34: For you had compassion on the prisoners, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. 35: Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. 36: For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised. 37: "For yet a little while, and the coming one shall come and shall not tarry; 38: but my righteous one shall live by faith, and if he shrinks back, my soul has no pleasure in him." 39: But we are not of those who shrink back and are destroyed, but of those who have faith and keep their souls.

Far from a done deal, the sacrifice of Christ is no longer there for one "who has spurned the Son of God, and profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified"; such a one can "throw away [one's] confidence" and "shrink back" and be "destroyed." The only thing such a sinner looks forward to is judgment, for "the Lord will judge his people" (cf. Romans 2:5-10). We are to keep faith and endure to the end to be saved, "so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised" (cf. Matthew 24:13; 2 Peter 1:10f).

But let’s say salvation was a done deal. Is our sanctification instantly accomplished? Some Protestants say Catholics don’t understand the difference between justification and sanctification. They say justification is instantaneous, and sanctification is a lifelong process. Even granting this, the final step into heaven would require us to be perfectly purified and made completely holy through Christ’s grace, since the church in heaven, where "nothing unclean can enter" contains holy and perfected people (cf. Matthew 5:48; Hebrews 12:14, 23; 1 Thess 5:23; Eph 5:26f; Rev 21:27). So we DO"need to be purified" according to Scripture (cf. Mal 3:2-3; 1 Peter 1:6-9; 1 Cor 3:12-15; Hebrews 12:29), and Christ's one sacrifice is the application of that final purification and sanctification necessary for heaven -- which Catholics call "purgatory."

“When those in Christ die, they are automatically in heaven.”

There is no evidence in Scripture of the infamous mantra “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” (some say it is implied in 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 which actually reads: "we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord" -- RSV). There is often desire to be away from the body and be with Christ, but what believer wouldn’t desire this? Desiring something is not the same as automatically attaining it. And again, being that the Church does not teach a specific time limit in purgatory, and being time on Earth and time in Heaven and eternity are two different things, this objection does not remove the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.

"We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord." - 2 Corinthians 5:1-8 "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far" - Philippians 1:21-23

Again, how one reads here "once you are dead you are automatically in heaven" I don’t know. Both passages suggest desires ("would prefer to be" and "I desire to..."), not absolute affirmative statements. I desire to be a millionaire, does that mean I am one or will necessarily be one? Of course not. This is faulty logic, and cannot be used to refute purgatory, at least not successfully.

“Even when the apostle Paul knew he was imperfect (Philippians 3:12), he knew he would go to be with the Lord when he died (Philippians 1:21-23).”

This is another common misconception of purgatory, that it’s somehow some middle ground. I don’t understand how this verse refutes purgatory. People can rely so heavily on a verse, and attempt to interpret it many ways, all not understanding what the Catholic doctrine of purgatory is. Everyone in purgatory is going to heaven. Just like those who were in Abraham’s bosom such as Noah, Abel, etc (Hebrews 11) were going to heaven, so are those in purgatory. To see this as having any affect on purgatory is to set up and knock down a straw man.

Purgatory and Early Church History

“For at least the first two centuries there was no mention of purgatory in the Church. In all the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr there is not the slightest allusion to the idea of purgatory. Rome claims that the early Church nevertheless believed in purgatory because it prayed for the dead. This was becoming a common practice by the beginning of the third century but it does not, in itself, prove that the early Church believed in the existence of a purgatory. The written prayers which have survived, and the evidence from the catacombs and burial inscriptions indicate that the early Church viewed deceased Christians as residing in peace and happiness and the prayers offered were for them to have a greater experience of these. As early as Tertullian, in the late second and beginning of the third century, these prayers often use the Latin term refrigerium as a request of God on behalf of departed Christians, a term which means 'refreshment' or 'to refresh' and came to embody the concept of heavenly happiness. So the fact that the early Church prayed for the dead does not support the teaching of purgatory for the nature of the prayers themselves indicate the Church did not view the dead as residing in a place of suffering. ”  (from William Webster’s The Church of Rome at the Bar of History, page 114)

This argument is false for several reasons. First, I’d like him to find an early Church Father who during the times of Irenaeus managed to name all 27 books of the canon of the New Testament correctly. How about a Church Father who denied baptismal regeneration? (Webster admits there were none, page 95-96). If this argument is turned around on the Protestant who uses Church history, it hurts him even more. What about those prayers for the dead? Of course they are depicted as being in a place of happiness! They were going to heaven! Nowhere does the Catholic Church deny this. There is also the Latin used, which Webster says only refers to “refreshment” or to “refresh.” Is this compatible with the Catholic concept of purgatory?

(1) We sin on Earth;

(2) We do not sin in Heaven;

(3) The spirit is refreshed, since in heaven we have the spirits of just men made (not declared) perfect (cf. Heb 12:23);

(4) Therefore, the prayer is made to refresh the person, to purify him (cf. 1 Peter 1:6-9).

The Catholic doctrine of purgatory fits quite nicely under these circumstances, and the objections presented thus far do nothing to damage the dogma.

“The concept of purgatory arose long after the Apostles.”

I’d agree with this statement, if we change long after to long before. Jews have always prayed the “Kaddish.” This prayer, which reaffirms faith in God despite the mourner's loss, was thought to hasten the process of purification. So to claim the doctrine was invented long after the Apostles is utterly false. Granted, they did not call it purgatory, but the basis is exactly the same. So the witness of this doctrine existed among the Jews long before the Apostles, was referenced to by the Scriptures (cf. 2 Maccabees 12:42-46), and has continued witness in the earliest Christians and early Church Fathers. The following is a little bit of that testimony:

"The citizen of a prominent city, I erected this while I lived, that I might have a resting place for my body. Abercius is my name, a disciple of the chaste shepherd who feeds his sheep on the mountains and in the fields, who has great eyes surveying everywhere, who taught me the faithful writings of life. Standing by, I, Abercius, ordered this to be inscribed; truly I was in my seventy-second year. May everyone who is in accord with this and who understands it pray for Abercius." (Abercius, Epitaph of Abercius, A.D. 190.)

"The strength of the truly believing remains unshaken; and with those who fear and love God with their whole heart, their integrity continues steady and strong. For to adulterers even a time of repentance is granted by us, and peace [i.e., reconciliation] is given. Yet virginity is not therefore deficient in the Church, nor does the glorious design of continence languish through the sins of others. The Church, crowned with so many virgins, flourishes; and chastity and modesty preserve the tenor of their glory. Nor is the vigor of continence broken down because repentance and pardon are facilitated to the adulterer.It is one thing to stand for pardon, another thing to attain to glory; it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire; another to have purged all sins by suffering. It is one thing, in fine, to be in suspense till the sentence of God at the day of judgment; another to be at once crowned by the Lord." (St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letters, 51[55]:20, A.D. 253.)

"But also, when God will judge the just, it is likewise in fire that he will try them. At that time, they whose sins are uppermost, either because of their gravity or their number, will be drawn together by the fire and will be burned. Those, however, who have been imbued with full justice and maturity of virtue, will not feel that fire; for they have something of God in them which will repel and turn back the strength of the flame." (Lactantius, Divine Institutes, 7:21:6, A.D. 307.)

"Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition; next, we make mention also of the holy fathers and bishops who have already fallen asleep, and, to put it simply, of all among us who have already fallen asleep, for we believe that it will be of very great benefit to the souls of those for whom the petition is carried up, while this holy and most solemn sacrifice is laid out." (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures c. 350 A.D.)

"Useful too is the prayer fashioned on their behalf [of the deceased], even if it does not force back the whole of guilty charges laid to them. And it is useful also, because in this world we often stumble either voluntarily or involuntarily, and thus it is a reminder to do better." (St. Epiphanius of Salamis, Medicine Chest Against All Heresies c. 375 A.D.)

"Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice (Job 1:5), why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them." (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on 1 Corinthians c. 392 A.D.)

"Weep for those who die in their wealth and who with all their wealth prepared no consolation for their own souls, who had the power to wash away their sins and did not will to do it. Let us weep for them, let us assist them [the deceased] to the extant of our ability, let us think of some assistance for them, small as it may be, yet let us somehow assist them. But how, and in what way? By praying for them and by entreating others to pray for them, by constantly giving alms to the poor on their behalf. Not in vain was it decreed by the apostles that in the awesome mysteries remembrance should be made of the departed. They knew that here there was much gain for them, much benefit. When the entire people stands with hands uplifted, a priestly assembly, and that awesome sacrificial Victim is laid out, how, when we are calling upon God, should we not succeed in their defense? But this is done for those who have departed in the faith, while even the catechumens are not reckoned as worthy of this consolation, but are deprived of every means of assistance except one. And what is that? We may give alms to the poor on their behalf." (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Philippians c. 402 A.D.)

"There is an ecclesiastical discipline, as the faithful know, when the names of the martyrs are read aloud in that place at the altar of God, where prayer is not offered for them. Prayer, however, is offered for other dead who are remembered. It is wrong to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we ought to ourselves be commended. But by the prayers of the Holy Church, and by the salvific sacrifice, and by the alms which are given for their spirits, there is no doubt that the dead are aided, that the Lord might deal more mercifully with them than their sins would deserve. The whole Church observes this practice which was handed down by the Fathers: that it prays for those who have died in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, when they are commemorated in their own place in the sacrifice itself; and the sacrifice is offered also in memory of them, on their behalf. If, then, works of mercy are celebrated for the sake of those who are being remembered, who would hesitate to recommend them, on whose behalf prayers to God are not offered in vain? It is not at all to be doubted that such prayers are of profit to the dead; but for such of them as lived before their death in a way that makes it possible for these things to be useful to them after death." (St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermons c. 411 A.D.)

Like all other early Christian beliefs (the Holy Trinity, the doctrine of Christ, the sacraments, the Papacy, the Marian doctrines), we see the general form of the belief, then the further development of it. Purgatory is no different than any other historic Christian doctrine. We see comprehensive evidence for purgatory by those same great bishops and saints of the Catholic Church who later decided upon the very canon of Scripture. I would also venture to say one can find more about purgatory than they can about Christ's atonement on the cross or Original Sin, doctrines that Protestants and Catholics generally agree upon.

While the claim the early Church never spoke of purgatory is false, it still wouldn’t matter. Also the claim there was no real explicit mention of purgatory early on is quite false, since before all the Christological controversies and the canon of Scripture were decided, we see explicit mention of a concept of purgatory.

“The Church used to even sell indulgences to shorten your time in purgatory by a fixed number of days.”

This reminds me of debating a Protestant Fundamentalist, asking where sola scriptura is taught in Scripture, rather than sticking to the subject, they will attack you on doctrines like the Assumption of Mary. Indulgences is not the specific topic of this article, although it is a related doctrine that can alleviate the temporal punishment that is due for sin. Second, they were never sold. James Akin describes this quite well:

"At one time, for a period of perhaps two hundred years, it was possible to give a charitable donation to some cause, such as an orphanage or church building fund, as one of the ways in which an indulgence could be obtained. This was no different than Protestant ministries offering something in exchange for a charitable contribution or "love offering" to a worthy cause. However, because of the scandal that Protestants produced, over four hundred years ago (shortly after the Council of Trent) the Church forbade charitable giving as a way of obtaining indulgences." (How to Explain Purgatory to Protestants by James Akin)

(Mr. Akin also deals with the days episode, so I think we’ll let him do that one as well)

As we can see, the Protestant case against purgatory is full of confusion over what purgatory actually is, and is an attempt to revise history. Do not let the Fundamentalists fool you: the scriptural, patristic and historical evidence along with logic is heavily in favor of purgatory, rather than opposed to the doctrine. A few more citations from the Fathers:

"If a man distinguish in himself what is peculiarly human from that which is irrational, and if he be on the watch for a life of greater urbanity for himself, in this present life he will purify himself of any evil contracted, overcoming the irrational by reason. If he have inclined to the irrational pressure of the passions, using for the passions the cooperating hide of things irrational, he may afterward in a quite different manner be very much interested in what is better, when, after his departure out of the body, he gains knowledge of the difference between virtue and vice and finds that he is not able to partake of divinity [2 Peter 1:4] until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by the purifying fire." (St. Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon on the Dead, A.D. 382)

Before there is even the full correct canon of Scripture, we see explicit references to a firmly entrenched doctrine of purgatory. Again, why is the canon of the New Testament a legitimate development and purgatory not?

"Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment." (St. Augustine, The City of God 21:13, A.D. 419)

"That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible, and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire." (St. Augustine, Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Charity 18:69, A.D. 421)

by Kevin Tierney