The present-day Catholic belief in purgatory rests on the official pronouncement of the Council of Trent, the ecumenical synod that established Catholic doctrine in the sixteenth century. In that decree we read:
Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils and very recently in this Ecumenical synod . . . that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar; the Holy Synod enjoins on the Bishops that they diligently endeavour to have the sound doctrine of the Fathers in Councils regarding purgatory everywhere taught and preached, held and believed by the faithful?
The basis on which Catholic doctrine rests is threefold: the Bible, tradition, and reason. The Catholic hierarchy has appealed to all three to establish the doctrine of purgatory.
The need for such a place as purgatory is based on the premise that since whoever comes into the presence of God must be perfectly pure, and since even just men have failings, there would be only a very few who would be good enough to enter heaven at death. It would be most unjust and unthinkable that God would condemn to the eternal pangs of hell great multitudes whose offenses were only minor frailties of the human flesh. Sins are, therefore, not all held of equal magnitude before God. Mortal sins are of such a nature as to consign the sinner to the fires of hell. Venial sins are minor infractions. So there developed the idea of an intermediate state between heaven and hell, where the person who died in a state of grace might pay in torment the debt due for these venial sins, and also for the mortal sins of which the guilt had been absolved in the sacrament of penance, but for which satisfaction had yet to be paid. After this purging by fire and suffering, the sinner could be admitted to the realms of the blest.
This teaching of the purgation of sinners led to another development, the ability of the living to mitigate the sufferings of their deceased loved ones by prayers and alms and good deeds, which could be transferred to the sufferer's account.
Such is the appeal to reason which the Catholic makes for purgatory, and such is the solace the church holds out for the salvation of sinners and the comfort of the bereaved.
What an uncertain salvation it is and what a poor consolation is seen from admissions of churchmen themselves. The church makes no pretense of being able to tell how much purgation is necessary for the sinner or for the individual sins. There is therefore no way of knowing whether the prayers and offerings of the living are sufficient, or whether the sinner must go on suffering the most excruciating tortures for unknown periods to come. It is not even certain that these ministrations will be applied to the one for whom they are intended. We note the following from a well-known expositor of Catholic doctrine:
The value of each Mass is infinite, but we never know with perfect certainty whether or not God has applied it to the individual soul for whom it has been offered, although we do know He answers all our prayers.'
Since the second main appeal Catholics make for purgatory is the evidence of tradition, we will notice some of their claims. The statement is made that this doctrine was held unanimously by the Church Fathers. Such examples as the following are given:
Inscriptions in the catacombs with prayers for the souls of the deceased indicate a belief in intercessory prayer for the dead.
Tertullian (c. A.D. 160-c. 230) speaks of a wife praying for the soul of her deceased husband.
Eusebius (c. 260-c. 340) and Saint Cyril (c. 315-386) mention offering prayers for the departed.
Augustine (354-430) held that the souls of the faithful are not separated from the church, and therefore the church should continue its ministrations for them.
The idea of fire in purification was held by Clement of Alexandria and Origen, and Augustine thought it could be possible. Gregory the Great established the doctrine in his time (d. 604).
Thomas Aquinas in the Middle Ages taught a material fire.
The doctrine was elaborated by Cardinal Bellarmine (d. 1621).
Actually, tracing the development of the idea of purgatory becomes very complicated. There was by no means a unanimity of ideas among the various Church Fathers. This can easily be seen from the writings of these men expounding various views, arguing over different shades of meaning down through the centuries.'
In the Council of Florence in 1439 this teaching was one of the points of difference between the Greek and Latin churches.'
It is significant that such groups as the Waldenses, the Albigenses, the Hussites, and the Reformers rejected the idea of purgatory.
The reference to fire in the intermediate state is taken from its use in the Bible as a symbol of purification. In an endeavor to prove that purgatory is taught in the Bible, certain texts are generally quoted.
In the Apocryphal book of Second Maccabees (12:40) is a reference to praying for the dead. Since this book, with good reason, has not been recognized as canonical by Protestants, we do not consider that it has any value for proving doctrine.
Actually, the belief in the suffering of punishment after death for certain curable offenses is found in pagan philosophy. Plato mentions it.' The Persians believed in prayers for the dead. These pagan ideas crept also into Jewish thought to corrupt it. They can well be among the traditions that Jesus so severely condemned (Matt. 15:3, 9).
The New Testament texts cited as Biblical proof of purgatory are Matthew 12:32 and I Corinthians 3:13-15. Of these even Cardinal Gibbons, in his book The Faith of Our Fathers, says only that Christ and Saint Paul "insinuate the doctrine of Purgatory."
The text in Matthew, that the sin against the Holy Ghost "shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come," only states that there is a sin for which there is no forgiveness. 'Forgiveness for any sin must be sought for in this present world, not in the future. If anyone fails to do this, naturally there remains only condemnation against him, to be executed in the day of judgment. The consequence of a sin that cannot be forgiven is eternal damnation. Such is the meaning clearly brought out in the parallel passage in Mark 3: 28, 29: "All sins shall be forgiven unto the sons of men, and blasphemies wherewith soever they shall blaspheme: but he that shall blaspheme against the Holy Ghost hath never forgiveness, but is in danger of eternal damnation." "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad" (2 Cor. 5:10).
This is also the teaching in the other text, the key reference in the Scriptures taken to support purgatory, 1 Corinthians 3:13-15. Paul, as a wise master builder, built on a solid foundation in his work of preaching the gospel. The church is composed of living stones built upon Christ as that sure foundation. Other workers are to take care how they build up the gospel work. If they build of good material, instruction from the Word of God, that work will stand the fiery trials of persecution (1 Peter 4:12; 1:7) and all the schemes of the devil to destroy it. Jesus taught a similar lesson in His parable of the two houses, one built on sand and the other on solid rock (Matt. 7:24-27). Then in the day of judgment it will be manifested what kind of material a man has built with. The illustration is used of fire, which burns up flimsy material but leaves the stones untouched. A man may see his work go up in flames, yet he himself be saved. So in the spiritual sense. A man's work may have been so poorly built that it will not stand in the day of judgment, yet if the man has repented of his folly and changed his ways, he himself may still be saved, although there will be no work for which he could receive a reward.
That these texts are poor material to base the teaching of purgatory on is admitted even by Roman Catholic historians. From A Catholic Dictionary I quote the following:
We would appeal to those general principles of Scripture rather than to particular texts often alleged in proof of Purgatory. We doubt if they contain an explicit and direct reference to it.7
Cardinal Wiseman admits that a Roman Catholic "could not discover in it [the Bible] one word of purgatory." 8
Since purgatory has no basis in Scripture, it should have no place in the thinking of the follower of Christ, who established His church to teach "all things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:20), and warned against the traditions that would usurp the Word of God (Matt. 15:9).
Furthermore, the whole premise of purgatory is unscriptural. It would not exist if it were not based on a doctrine that is itself unscriptural, the conscious state of the dead. This interrelationship is recognized by Catholic writers. A writer in The Catholic Encyclopedia states it thus:
The proofs for the Catholic position, both in Scripture and in Tradition, are bound up also with the practice of praying for the dead. For why pray for the dead, if there be no belief in the power of prayer to afford solace to those who as yet are excluded from the sight of God?°
The Scripture teaching on death, "The dead know not anything," is clearly shown in such references as Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6, 10. They go to the grave at death and remain there until the resurrection at the second coming of Christ (Job 14:12-14; 1 Cor. 15:51-55; 1 Thess. 4:16, 17).
The great condemnation against the doctrine of purgatory is that it destroys the whole purpose of Christ's death on the cross. It is a denial of the full atonement of Christ. It makes man pay for his sins. Christ's offering for sin is not sufficient, according to this belief. While Christ's forgiveness is acknowledged, man still has a part to do to pay the penalty for his sins.
How different is the Scripture teaching. Christ "died for all" (2 Cor. 5:15), and He died "to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). "The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin" (1 John 1:7).
Eternal life is a gift, not something we can earn (Rom. 6:23). Our own efforts at purging away our sins are utterly unavailing (Jer. 2:22). Our only and completely availing hope of salvation is in exchanging our sins for the righteousness of Christ, which is freely offered us (2 Cor. 5:21).
It is no secret that the church derives large revenues from the teaching of purgatory, in the prayers and alms offered to and for the dead. It is this condition that has led to the well-known remark that "purgatory is not a place; it is a business." The Scripture teaching gives no advantage to the rich, but salvation is freely offered to all. How many have, as it were, taken food from the mouths of their families to pay for masses for the dead, and for what a poor solace!
The awful picture of purgatorial suffering is a complete injustice to the loving character of God, who takes no pleasure in the sufferings of His creatures (Eze. 33:11).
Not in some future existence but today we determine our destiny, and enter into life or death when the day of judgment comes (2 Cor. 6:2; Heb. 9:27).
It is now that the Lord is inviting sin-sick souls, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28).
1 Quoted in Edward J. Hanna, "Purgatory," The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 12, P. 575.
2 Bertrand L. Conway, The Question Box (1910 ed.), p. 461.
3 Henry Charles Lea, A History of Auricular Confession and Indulgences in the Latin Church, vol. 3, pp. 296-371.
4 C. A. Beckwith, "Purgatory," The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, vol. 9, pp. 364, 365.
5 Conway, op. cit., p. 566.
6 James Cardinal Gibbons, The Faith of Our Fathers (1893 ed.), p. 250.
7 W. E. Addis and Thomas Arnold, A Catholic Dictionary, p. 767, art. "Purgatory."
8 Nicholas Cardinal Wiseman, Lectures on the Principal Doctrines and Practices of the Catholic Church, Introduction, p. 16.
9 Hanna, "Purgatory," The Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 12, p. 576.