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Purgatory in Scripture: New Developments

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Nov 17, 2011

The Catholic doctrine of Purgatory and the Catholic practice of prayers for the dead stretch back to the earliest Christian period, but the emphasis on salvation by faith has typically caused Protestants to deny the existence of Purgatory. They also believe that Purgatory is unscriptural. Yet the logic of Purgatory is inescapable. It is rooted in the very holiness of God.

The basic argument runs as follows: God, being all holy, cannot bring into full union with himself those who are still attached to sin. Yet some attachment to sin is typical of the human condition, and only those who actually persistently refuse grace are damned. Holiness in man comes only through transformation. Therefore, when a person dies with a love of God that is still imperfect, he is not yet fit for the ultimate union with God for which he is destined, and he must undergo a further period of purification—a further period of transformation—after death.


Until relatively recently, at least to the best of my knowledge, Catholic apologists have contented themselves with a relatively small number of key Scripture passages to convince Protestants that Purgatory is not unscriptural. Thus they cite 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, in which Judas, the commander of Israel, arranged for prayers for those killed in battle defending the Mosaic Law.

[Judas] sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection (for if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead). And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.

Clearly Judas believed that at least some of the dead were not yet with God but could still be helped by our prayers. Unfortunately, Protestants have typically rejected the two books of Maccabees as apocryphal, because they were not part of the Hebrew Bible (though they were included in the Septuagint and have always been accepted as canonical by the Church).

Still, there are some other helpful passages. For example, there is Matthew 12:32: “And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come.” This text clearly supposes that some process of forgiveness can take place after death, an important point upheld by the Church Fathers, including Isidore of Seville, Augustine, and Gregory the Great, as well as later commentators.

Moreover, St. Paul argued as follows in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:

For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus. Now if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay stubble: Every man's work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire; and the fire shall try every man's work, of what sort it is. If any man's work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man's work burn, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.

It would, perhaps, be unfair to expect anything clearer than that. Moreover, from the second century on, beginning with Tertullian, we have an unbroken traditional witness to Purgatory until it was rejected in the 16th century.

Going Deeper

Now along comes Gary Anderson, professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at the University of Notre Dame. Anderson has a new book on purgatory coming out soon from Yale University Press, which I hope to get my hands on. Meanwhile, the appetite is whetted by an article in the November issue of First Things, drawn from one of the book’s chapters, and entitled “Is Purgatory Biblical?”.

Anderson’s study promises to become “the book” on this question, at least in part because when Anderson reads the Old Testament he sees again and again that it expresses a deep understanding of sanctification and merit which points directly and conclusively to the existence of Purgatory. The First Things article offers two important examples.

The first is the example of King David, who is denounced by the prophet Nathan because he slept with Bathsheba, who conceived a son, and then arranged to have Bathsheba’s husband Uriah killed. David immediately admits his sin and repents, and Nathan rescinds the penalty of death. But he does not wipe out all penalties: David must suffer a great deal throughout the rest of his life. Anderson explains as follows: “Forgiveness, it would seem, does not wipe the slate completely clean. God is interested in more than mere acquittal. He wants to transform the very person of David, and that will require coming to grips with the full consequences of his heinous act.”

And in fact we see this transformation. During Absalom’s rebellion, when David has to flee Jerusalem, the priests make sure to bring the Ark of the Covenant with them when they join David in his flight. But David tells them to take it back to the city:

If I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me back and let me see both it and the place where it stays. But if he says, “I take no pleasure in you,” here I am, let him do to me what seems good to him. (2 Sam 15:25-26)

And later, when David is cursed and pelted with stones by an old opponent, Shimei, he prevents his men at arms from killing him: “Let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord has bidden him” (2 Sam 16:11). Clearly David sees himself as undergoing a trial, a purgation, a transformation in atonement for sin. Yet though he accepts it willingly, his life could be cut off by Absalom at any moment, preventing the completion of the process here on earth, for, as David says in the same verse: “Behold, my own son seeks my life; how much more now may this Benjamite!”

The second example, taken from the Book of Daniel, shows how almsgiving pays down the debt of sin. In this case King Nebuchadnezzar, a great sinner, repents and hopes to make amends. Daniel instructs him: “Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you; break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your tranquility” (Dan 4:27).

This begins a tradition of alms-giving to reduce the debt of sin which, in the New Testament, is further tied to deliverance from death itself. Consider the story of Tabitha, whose good deeds toward the poor were instrumental in Peter’s effort to raise her from the dead (Acts 9:36-40). The beneficiaries of her generosity were all on hand, showing the garments she had made for them to God, and interceding for her.

Other Early Evidence

These examples show the structural concepts which lead logically to Purgatory. Interestingly, Anderson also finds what amounts to evidence for his Old Testament argument in favor of Purgatory from Jewish sources in the medieval period. At that time the Jewish community took up the practice of praying for the dead in a manner very similar to Christians, despite the fact that their customs were very different in most respects. Jewish literature from this period even includes stories—very familiar in Christian mystical literature—of the dead appearing to those who prayed for them to thank them for having freed them from punishment. In reviewing the Jewish literature, Anderson concludes:

What comes out clearly…is that rabbinic Judaism clearly imagines that the state of the person is not always settled at the time of death and that there is a period of time in which further purgation from sin is possible. Judaism, like early Christianity, imagines that specific human actions like prayer and the offering of alms could have an effect.

Note that all of this comes from an article based on but one chapter of an entire book on the subject. We already know that the Fathers and Doctors of the Church have much to say on the topic, that there is an immense tradition of popular piety surrounding Purgatory, and that the Magisterium too has had its say. I would expect all this and more to be treated thoroughly in Anderson’s forthcoming book.

It would seem, then, that it is possible to make a very convincing case for purgatory, and to both articulate and trace very clearly the persistent and highly relevant beliefs about sanctification and merit which are so deeply embedded in both Scripture and Tradition.

What stands out is that God most vehemently desires that every person be saved. He has bound Himself through the Passion and Death of His Son to provide infinite titles to grace to each soul. He wishes this grace to build upon and perfect the gifts He has already given us through nature. And He understands—none better—that sanctification for us is a matter of gradual transformation. Therefore there is a process of purification which God, in His abundant mercy, enables us to go through if we do not persistently reject His call to perfection. That process may or may not be completed by the time we die. If it is not, it can and will continue after death.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Justin8110 - Nov. 18, 2011 10:50 PM ET USA

    It seems to me that purgatory is a hopeful doctrine, after all, who among us is willing to say that we will be ready for heaven when we die? Even the Orthodox who would outwardly deny purgatory have a teaching about how prayers help the dying and in fact I once read a book that made the case that Plato--through his own thinking--came up with a similar idea.

  • Posted by: frhugh1967 - Nov. 18, 2011 5:12 PM ET USA

    A very good article Jeff., because it avoids trying to state cleary what Purgatory is actually like. For instance, "burning in the fires of purgatory etc etc I find particularly unhelpful, and directly contradicts what you write of our Merciful Saviour, who died for us while we were still sinners. Eschatology is a mysterious subject and I found your article very balanced and reminding people that Go desires us all to enter Heaven, whatever that actually is.