Does the Bible teach purgatory?

Save us from the fireThis is the sixth in a series of articles on biblical terms that describe the afterlife and the unseen world.

Do some Christians undergo purification from the stain of sin between death and entrance into heaven? Many who answer yes to that question embrace the doctrine of purgatory, which became official Roman Catholic dogma in A.D. 1438.

Simply stated, purgatory is a place or state of suffering where the dead bound for heaven achieve the holiness necessary to enter into the presence of God.

It should be noted, according to Catholic teaching, that some saints go directly to heaven upon death, needing no purification, while those who die in the state of unrepented mortal sin find themselves at once, and eternally, in hell. All those in purgatory ultimately make it to heaven.

Preparation for heaven

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, “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 Pocket Catholic Dictionary puts it this way: “The souls of those who have died in the state of grace suffer for a time in purging that prepares them to enter heaven. The purpose of purgatory is to cleanse one of imperfections, venial sins, and faults, and to remit or do away with the temporal punishment due to mortal sins that have been forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance. It is an intermediate state in which the departed souls can atone for unforgiven sins before receiving their final reward.”

The amount of time one spends in purgatory depends on the degree of purging needed. Some proponents of purgatory, however, argue that because the afterlife is experienced outside the element of time, purgatory should be seen as a state or dimension rather than as a place.

Indeed, Catholic theologians speak of the great diversity of purgatorial suffering in both its intensity and duration.

Even so, the question for evangelical Christians is: Does the Bible support the doctrine of purgatory?

An escape through fire

Catholic apologists cite both the Apocrypha (a collection of writings found in the Catholic Bible but excluded from the 66 books of the Protestant canon) and the New Testament to support their belief in purgatory.

For example, the words of Jesus in Matt. 12:32 are cited to support the idea that sins may be forgiven in the age to come. But Jesus is not speaking of post-mortem suffering to atone for one’s own sins; He is pointing out that there is no forgiveness available – ever – to the one who blasphemes the Holy Spirit.

Another oft-quoted passage is Matt. 5:26, where Jesus warns His followers to reach settlements quickly with adversaries lest they be thrown into prison until they pay the last penny. By extension, it is argued that souls with a sin debt must remit payment beyond the grave before entering heaven. But our Lord is not speaking about an after-death prison; He is providing practical advice for living peaceably among our neighbors in the here and now.

The most-often cited New Testament passage in favor of purgatory is 1 Cor. 3:10-15, in which Paul describes the judgment of believers’ works. Verse 15 reads, “If anyone’s work is burned up, it will be lost, but he will be saved; yet it will be like an escape through fire.”

Even a cursory reading of this passage shows that Paul is speaking of believers’ works being judged by fire, resulting in reward, not of their sins being purged through temporal punishment. In verse 14, Paul makes it clear that Christ’s judgment of our works results in a reward, or a wage.

Believers’ works, not their sins, are purged at the judgment seat of Christ. Paul uses figurative language to tell us the fire “discloses” or “tests” the quality of a Christian’s works.

Other New Testament passages speak of a time after resurrection when we give an account of our Christian stewardship, resulting in rewards or loss of rewards (see Rom. 14:10-12 and 2 Cor. 5:10).

In short, the Bible does not support the doctrine of purgatory. Rather, God’s Word teaches the sufficiency of Christ with respect to the purging of sins, a topic explored in more detail in the next column.

Next: Heaven can’t wait; more on purgatory




  1. Spencer Allen

    Bobby, apology accepted. As Rob knows, I’ve had my less than graceful moments in discussion of the faith. Thank you.
    First, a clarification. It isn’t quite correct to say that the Catholic Church didn’t “officially” hold the belief in Purgatory. Rob mentioned, in his article, the date when it was officially proclaimed at council, but many beliefs aren’t officially proclaimed until they are challenged in some way. If you would like, I’m happy to provide writings that precede this date to show that it wasn’t just some invention at that time. Similarly, Protestants and Catholics agree that it wasn’t until a few hundred years after the death of Christ that some beliefs we hold in common were “officially proclaimed” at councils (specifically Nicea). For instance, Christians had a common understanding of the dual nature of Christ (fully human and fully divine), as well as the Trinity (though the word didn’t appear in Scripture, the concept did). However, there was no “official” pronunciation until groups like the Arians started challenging it with false understandings of the nature of Christ and God. Just as you would agree it would be unfair of individuals (such as Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code) to say that Christianity didn’t officially believe it until then, it’s unfair to date the teachings on Purgatory in the same way by when a council had to respond to challenges to teaching.

    I’m fine, though, with not arguing that point since whatever the date that Catholics started believing it doesn’t address whether or not it is in Scripture, which I think is your concern.

    Instead, I want to thank you for clarifying that you are in agreement with me that there is no loss in Heaven. In 1 Corinthians 3, as Rob’s essay points out, our “works” will be judged “on that Day”. Scholars agree that “that Day” refers to judgement, which happens after death. Verse 15 is referring to the individual who builds on the foundation of Christ, as he “will be saved”, but his works are of lesser quality than other individuals. That same verse says his works will be burned up and that “he will suffer loss” and that he will be saved as one “escaping through fire.”

    So, you and I agree, per your post, that we don’t “suffer loss” in Heaven. We both agree that a man in Hell will not “be saved”. We also both agree that judgement occurs “after death”, when you and Rob seem to hold that one is either in Hell or in Heaven. So, where is that man located – Heaven or Hell – if he both suffers loss (which doesn’t occur in Heaven) and is saved (which doesn’t happen in Hell)?


    I apologize if I’ve offended you in any way. That was not my intent. I, too, believe that there will be no more sorrow, crying or pain. In fact, it is written. I also believe that these no longer exist because of the understanding that God gives us. The understanding that these things are finished. These things were the cleansing and purification that we needed. The feelings of the “lack of justice” here in our present world are not from God but from our own jaundiced eyes. The Roman Catholic church didn’t officially hold this belief until over one thousand years after the cross.

  3. Spencer Allen

    Bobby, I don’t mind you disagreeing with what I wrote, but please don’t misrepresent me. If you read through my quote, I never mentioned time or Purgatory existing within the context of time, so I’m having trouble understanding why you think I was “suggesting” it. There have been writers who have used time as a reference to Purgatory, but the Church has taught that this is just a human’s limited way of explaining an experience that transcends our understanding. Rather, as Pope John Paul II explained, Purgatory is most likely an immediate encounter with the grace of Christ upon our death. If you read my post, you’ll see it was consistent with this, as I wrote that it happened “at the moment of our death”, not over a period of years.

    So, while I appreciate your warning not to “add to the Word of God”, I respectfully point out that you had to imply I said something I never said in order to admonish me in that way. We can certainly dialogue in a more respectful way than that, as Peter asks of us in 1 Peter 3:15, which is to do so in gentleness and respect.

    That said, perhaps I’m wrong on Purgatory, and I appreciate your effort to help correct an erroneous view, if so. If you are willing to assist me further, could you help me understand something about your view of Heaven. Is Heaven the type of place where we experience some sort of loss? If so, what is the nature of that loss? I had always been under the impression that Heaven was a place of immeasurable gain where we experience no loss, as we are in the presence of He, who IS, so what could be lacking? Is this your view, too?


    Are you suggesting that a “purgatory” exists within the construct of “time”? In order for “time” to be served, that would logically follow… Be careful not to add to the Word of God.

  5. Spencer Allen

    No, Bobby, the verse you cited doesn’t mean all would need Purgatory. What it does mean is that none of us is “good” inherently. None of us deserve Heaven without the blood of Christ shed upon the cross. Through this, we are invited into Heaven. However, some of us die with attachments to our earthly works. Not guilt of sin – that was forgiven if we are destined for Heaven, but an attachment to these sins. If Rob grants, I’ll demonstrate this through his own essay. Purgatory is where that detachment takes place so we can focus fully on Christ. So, Purgatory has nothing to do with being inherently “good”, but with the grace of Christ acting upon us at the moment of our death to purify our souls from temporal concerns and vices.


    Purgatory is not supported in the Bible. In fact, the Bible makes it clear that there is no one good, no, not one. Therefore all would have to pass through purgatory of it existed. There is no price in the universe that I can pay for my sin. But, Good News, Jesus did!

  7. Patrick E. Devens

    Purgatory does not take away from the sufficiency of Christ’s Sacrifice. Do you not know that the RCC teaches that all those in purgatory are already saved???

  8. Bobby Branch

    Isn’t this where the saying developed, “the moment the coin in the coffer rings, out of purgatory the soul springs”?