What is Purgatory? Does the Bible teach it?

What is Purgatory? Does the Bible teach it?

Purgatory is a belief that there is a place after death where the sins of Christians are further cleansed through suffering. Seemingly, purgatory is a halfway house where a person stays, suffers, and eventually makes it to heaven. Does the Bible teach this?

Roman Catholic doctrinal explanation of purgatory:

“Purgatory (Latin, ‘purgare,’ to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.” (1)


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. 604 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: 605

  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. 606

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.” 607 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. 608 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. 609” (2)

From the promotional wizard and fundraiser for the Roman Pope Leo X:

“When the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” – Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar

Modern Roman Catholics try to downplay this quote; by saying it is not accurate. Even granting this, the alleged quote captures Tetzel’s warped theological fundraising strategy.

Scriptures against the doctrine of purgatory:

“And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.”  (Matthew 25:46 KJV)

“When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30 ESV)

“For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.” (Romans 6:10 ESV) (Underline emphasis mine)

“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21 ESV)

“Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” (2Corinthians 5:6-8 ESV)

“He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” (Hebrews 9:11, 27 ESV)

“But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down on the right hand of God; “For by one offering he hath perfected forever them that are sanctified.” (Hebrews 10:12, 14 KJV)

“For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit.” (1Peter 3:18 KJV)

“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1John 1:7, 9 ESV)

As the above Scriptures make clear, Christ’s death is sufficient and complete, being a one-time event. If Christ died for your sins, there are no sins to be paid for in purgatory. Either Christ died for your sins, or He did not. The Roman Church is still in error on the doctrine of justification, which is the heart of this issue. The Christian is justified, or he is not.

As a necessary aside, justification from the Dictionary of Theological Terms:

“The establishment of a sinner in a righteous standing before God. The verb dikaioo means, “to declare or demonstrate to be righteous” (Matthew 11:19; 12:37; Luke 7:29; 10:29). The cognate nouns are dikaiosune (Romans 1:17), dikaiosis (Romans 4:25), and dikaioma (Romans 1:32; 5:16, 18). Dikaiosune is always translated “righteousness” and denotes a perfect rectitude according to the standard of God’s character revealed in His law. The phrase “the righteousness of God” may denote the divine attribute of righteousness, or in the great soteriological teaching of Romans, the righteousness God has provided to give His people a title to eternal life (Rom. 3:22; 5:17, “the gift of righteousness”).

Dikaiosis is the action of declaring righteous, and dikaioma signifies the verdict, the judgment handed down by God. Lenski states the relationship between these two terms: dikaiosis is “a declaring righteous (action)”; dikaioma is “a declaring righteous and thereby placing in a permanent relationship or state even as the declaration stands permanently (result).” The language of Scripture, therefore, points to justification as God’s action in declaring His people righteous and placing them in a state of legal perfection before His law on the basis of the righteousness He provided freely for them in Christ.

There is no more scriptural or succinct theological definition of justification than that given by the Shorter Catechism: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein He pardoneth all our sins, and accepteth us as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.” (See the Westminster shorter catechism Q. 33; see the Westminster Confession of Faith, chap. 11).

The Two Elements in Justification:

The two elements in justification are pardon and imputed righteousness. That is, the total obedience of Christ, both passive and active, avails for the believer. The vicarious atonement of Christ pays the debt of the believer’s sin, satisfies divine justice on his behalf, and renders it possible for God to be just and yet to justify him (Romans 3:26). The imputed righteousness of Christ gives the believer “the adoption of children” (Galatians 4:5) and the title to eternal life.” (3)

Properly understood, God’s justification of the believer on behalf of Christ’s account covers all sin. Therefore, this is no sin remaining to be paid for in purgatory.

The favorite Roman proof text for purgatory:

“If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1Corinthians 3:15 KJV)

This passage fails to prove purgatory exists. This verse informs us that a man’s works are that which are adjudicated in this passage, not a man’s soul. The fire will burn up impious works. Fire in this passage is metaphorical. The Roman Church is reading something into the passage that is not there.

What can be understood from the Corinthian passage?

From Ellicott’s Commentary for English Readers on 1Corinthians 3:15:

“(15) So as.—These words remind us that the whole passage, and especially the reference to fire, is to be regarded as metaphorical, and not to be understood in a literal and physical sense. Forgetting this, Roman divines have evolved from these words the doctrine of purgatory.” (4)

Matthew Poole’s Commentary support’s Ellicott’s interpretation:

“But if his work do not abide, if it shall appear upon the more clear and bright shining out of the truth of the gospel, that though he hath held the foundation right, yet he hath built upon it wood, hay, and stubble, mixed fables, and idle stories, and corrupt doctrine with the doctrine of the gospel,

he shall suffer loss by it, either by the afflicting hand of God, or by a loss of his reputation, or some other way. But yet God will not cast off a soul for every such error, if he keeps to the main foundation, Jesus Christ; he shall be saved, though it be as by fire, that is, with difficulty; which certainly is a more natural sense of this text, than those give, who interpret as by fire, of the fire of the gospel, or the fire of purgatory, of which the papists understand it. For:

1. It is, and always hath been, a proverbial form of speech to express a thing obtained by difficulty; we say, It is got out of the fire, &c.

2. For the fire of purgatory, it is a fiction, and mere imaginary thing, and of no further significancy than to make the pope’s chimney smoke.

3. That pretended fire only purgeth venial sins; this fire trieth every man’s work, the gold as well as the stubble.” (5)

John Calvin’s comments on purgatory are a textbook analysis of the pernicious error of this teaching:

“We should exclaim with all our might, that purgatory is a pernicious fiction of Satan, that it makes void the cross of Christ, that it intolerably insults the Divine Mercy, and weakens and overturns our faith. For what is their purgatory, but a satisfaction for sins paid after death by the souls of the deceased? Thus the notion of satisfaction being overthrown, purgatory itself is immediately subverted from its very foundation.

It has been fully proved that the blood of Christ is the only satisfaction, expiation, and purgation for the sins of the faithful. What, then, is the necessary conclusion but that purgation is nothing but a horrible blasphemy against Christ? I pass by the sacrilegious pretences with which it is daily defended, the offences, which it produces in religion, and the other innumerable evils, which we see to have come from such a source of impiety.” (6)

In closing:

As the readers learned at the beginning of this primer:

“Purgatory (Latin, ‘purgare,’ to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.”

It seems that this teaching of purgatory depends upon a whole series of unbiblical assumptions, all of which undermine the work of Christ. According to the idea of purgatory, Christ’s death does not fully cover certain sins. The doctrine of purgatory is an error that does not recognize the completed work of Christ on the cross.

As the above-quoted noted, the chief error of purgatory is “for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.”   

Additional closing questions:

The error of purgatory teaches that sin can be removed through further personal suffering. The proponents of purgatory must explain how human suffering can pay for sin. The idea of venial sins does not help in answering this question. Are venial sins, sins, or not? If they are sins, did Christ die for them or not? If not, where does the Bible teach this that Christ did not die for all of a true Christian’s sins? Can a Mass (which requires a stipend) said for a deceased relative shorten their time in purgatory?

When considering another Roman doctrine that involves the dead, i.e., praying for the dead, why pray for the dead if there is no value as the Roman Church maintains? Likewise, why conduct a Mass for the dead if not seeking grace for the deceased? There is nothing wrong with seeking grace. However, if seeking grace is motivated by an inferior view of Christ’s substitutionary death, it is wrong. Thankfully, the Roman Church today has ceased from the crass practice of Johann Tetzel; nevertheless, prayers and masses for the deceased still underscore the weakness in Roman theology regarding the sufficiency of Christ’s death for His people. Christian saints are in heaven with Christ, and they need nothing from the saints on earth, i.e., prayers and masses. Purgatory is manufactured with no support in the Word of God. 

“To God, only wise, be glory through Jesus Christ forever. Amen.” (Romans 16:27) And “heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:28, 29)


1.      Hanna, E, Purgatory, In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company, (1911), Retrieved August 31, 2019 from New Advent: http://  http://www.  newadvent.org/cathen/12575a.htm

2.      Catechism of the Catholic Church, (St. Paul, Minnesota, The Wandere Press, 1994), pp. 268-69).

3.      Alan Cairns, Dictionary of Theological Terms, Justification, (Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International), pp. 201-204.

4.      Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, John, Vol. 7, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 296.

5.      Matthew Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible, Matthew, vol. 3, (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985) p. 548.

6.      Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics, XX-XXI, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) Book III, Chapter V, p. 676.

Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: THERELIGIONTHATSTARTEDINAHAT.COM

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