What Does the Bible Say About Purgatory?

Audio Transcript

Purgatory is the topic today. We briefly touched on purgatory in three past APJs — episodes 1150, 1162, and 1290 — but nothing at length. That changes today with a question from Sydney, who lives in the beautiful state of Arizona.

“Hi, Pastor John! I know that some older Christians believed in a secondary refinement or purgatory, a purging of the soul after death and before heaven. C.S. Lewis once rhetorically wrote: ‘Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they?’ He explained that Christians should want purgatory as a sort of self-cleaning before we are ready to enter into the eternal presence of God. He said this in his book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer. Coming from Lewis, purgatory seems like a humble, preparatory step before we enter eternity. Biblically speaking, 1 Corinthians 3:10–15 is the most common biblical proof for it. There we read that ‘each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done’ (verse 13). And ‘if anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire’ (verse 15). But does the Bible confirm purgatory?”

It’s really interesting that this question would come just now, because I am listening to Lewis’s book Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer at this very moment. It’s on my phone. I’m primed.

Nearly Dead Wrong

As much as I love C.S. Lewis and stand in awe of his gifts of logic and poetic vision and his capacities to express things in vivid, concrete, inimitable, analogical ways, nevertheless, his position and his reasoning on purgatory miss the mark. He says flat out in Letters to Malcolm (I’ll give you a longer quote than was given to us),

I believe in Purgatory. . . . Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It’s true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here [meaning, in heaven] and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know” — “Even so, sir.” (145–46)

It’s good writing. I love it. It’s dead wrong, but I love it. No — it’s not quite dead wrong. I’ll try to explain. Now, what’s typical of Lewis here, as in most places, is that he rarely quotes Scripture. If you’ve read Lewis (and I’ve read almost all of Lewis), you know you don’t go to C.S. Lewis to watch serious biblical exposition in the making. You don’t. No doubt, he knows his Bible — goodness gracious, he can quote his Greek New Testament probably better than I can. He probably has got parts of it memorized, and his theology is generally true. He’s not a heretic, but if he had tried to support this belief with Scripture, he would have been hard put to do it.

What the Catechism Says

Now, before I go into particular texts that make purgatory, I think, untenable biblically, let’s define it the way the Roman Catholic Church does, because they’re the ones who promote this doctrine, and let’s see whether Lewis’s argument stands on its own terms. Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says in defining purgatory.

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. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.

“Nobody’s going into the very presence of God with any stain or inner sin left.”

That’s all from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There is no doubt that we must be purified completely, without sin, in order to enter the very presence of God in our final state. Otherwise, we’d be incinerated, and God would be defiled and dishonored. None of us believes that is going to happen. We’re all in agreement about that. That’s not going to happen. Nobody’s going into the very presence of God with any stain or inner sin left.

But here’s the assumption that Lewis and the Catholic Church bring to the situation: their assumption is that it requires another process, beyond the process of this life, to get abiding sin out of our lives. Now, why would they assume that? Since we had a relatively long process of purification or sanctification in this life by the Holy Spirit, and it did not perfect us, we realize it’s going to take a divine stroke or word of purification by the hand of God or the word of God, the way Jesus purified people instantaneously with a word, in order to finish this purifying work. Why would we not rather assume that God does it first progressively in this life, and then at the end finishes it instantaneously?

What Scripture Says

But enough with our human reasoning; let’s go to the Bible. The Roman Catholic Church includes some books in their Bible, called the Apocrypha, which Protestants don’t have in our Bible. One of those books is 2 Maccabees, and in 2 Maccabees 12:45, there is this sentence: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.” Now from that statement, the Catholic Church infers that not only should you pray for the dead, but the dead have sins from which they must be delivered, which leads them to postulate purgatory.

Now Sydney, in his question, points out that if you’re going to go after any New Testament text at all to support purgatory, the one you would go to most is 1 Corinthians 3:13–15, and I’ll quote it again to show how inapplicable it is to purgatory.

Each one’s work [each Christian’s work] will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it [this is the judgment day, in which we are going to be shown to be true or false, and our works are going to be shown to be stubble or valuable], because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

Now in that text, there’s no hint of passing through an extended period of time with the aim of cleansing us from our own impurities. This is a picture of a single, one-time event where our works from this life are shown to be either stubble, for which there’s no reward, or precious stones, for which there will be a reward. There’s no foundation here for purgatory in a text like this.

On the contrary, several texts point in the opposite direction about what happens when we die as Christians. Here’s what Paul says in Philippians 1:23: “My desire is to depart [that is, die] and be with Christ, for that is far better.” The picture is death and an immediate, joyful fellowship with Jesus.

The same thing is confirmed in 2 Corinthians 5:6–9, only it’s even clearer. He says,

We are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord. . . . We would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.

I don’t know how it could be much clearer than to say that “away from the body” is “at home with the Lord.” That’s our immediate hope — not any intervening purgatory between being away from the body and being at home with the Lord. To be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord, which, Paul says, is far better.

Changed in a Moment

Let me go back and suggest why what C.S. Lewis imagined happening between the dirty saint and God at the pearly gates (this discussion they had) would, in fact, never happen.

“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, God says to us, just like Jesus said to the leper, ‘Be clean.’”

Now, you recall that Lewis pictures God saying, “It’s true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy.” Now, if that were to happen, the saint surely would indeed say, “Yes, Lord, nothing impure shall enter your presence. Would you now then, in great mercy, complete the purchase of your Son — namely, my cleansing — and simply say the word ‘Be clean’ the way your Son did?”

When the apostle Paul pictured the resurrection of all the imperfect saints in 1 Corinthians 15:51–52, he said, “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead [in Christ] will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.”

Now, that instantaneous change of our bodies at the resurrection is a better, more biblical picture of what happens to the imperfect soul at death. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, God says to us, just like Jesus said to the leper in Luke 5:13, “Be clean.” And immediately his leprosy left him. That will happen physically at the resurrection, and for those who die before the resurrection, it happens spiritually at death.

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