Heaven can’t wait; more on purgatory

Save us from the fire

This is the seventh in a series of articles on biblical terms that describe the afterlife and the unseen world.

In the last column we defined the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory and argued that this long-held teaching finds no support in Scripture.

Perhaps the strongest argument against the doctrine of purgatory is that it undermines the sufficiency of Christ. Just before His death on the cross, Jesus declares triumphantly, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Among other things, this means the work of redemption is complete and that no more sacrifice for sins is required.

The wrath of God has been satisfied as the One who knew no sin became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21).

The writer of Hebrews echoes this truth: “After making purification for sins, He [Jesus] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3b). Further, “For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are sanctified” (10:14).

Paid in full

Jesus paid our sin debt in full on the cross. There is nothing we can do to be forgiven of sins except to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, at which time the penalty for sins – past, present, and future – is removed. We have passed from spiritual death into spiritual life and no longer face condemnation (see John 5:24; Rom. 8:1).

Believers are declared in right standing with God (justified) and granted everlasting life. Then, through the lifelong process of sanctification, the indwelling Holy Spirit conforms believers to the image of Christ, completing the process in glorification, which occurs at the resurrection of the just.

Sins committed after justification affect our fellowship with Christ and should be confessed, but justification is never revoked and the purging of sins never falls on our shoulders. We may suffer because of our sins, but only Jesus suffered for our sins.

Treasury of merit

Another danger in the doctrine of purgatory is the idea of indulgences, which are believed to partially or fully cancel the debt of temporal punishment in purgatory. Once earned, these withdrawals from the Catholic Church’s “treasury of merit,” earned by the works and prayers of Jesus, Mary, and the saints of all ages, may be applied personally or applied to a deceased person believed now to be in purgatory.

Historically, this belief resulted in corrupt practices that spurred Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church at Wittenberg, Germany, sparking the Reformation. The head of the Catholic Church in 1517, Pope Leo X, offered indulgences to finance the new St. Peter’s Church in Rome. The proclamation by church officials – “as soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” – set Luther ablaze.

Even so, the Catholic Church’s first “pope” would have eschewed the very ideas of purgatory and indulgences. Peter writes that the gift of the new birth through the resurrection of Jesus from the dead gives us an “inheritance that is imperishable, uncorrupted, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:4-5).

He goes on to write of Jesus, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; by His wounding you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).

Heaven can’t wait

The Bible describes heaven, not purgatory followed by heaven, as the intermediate state between death and resurrection for the follower of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul describes two different states of existence for the believer. While we are here on earth in our bodies, we are absent from the Lord. And when we are “out of the body” we are “at home with the Lord” (5:8).

If there is an interim step between death and heaven, the Bible makes no mention of it, and we would do well to rest in the plainly stated promises of God’s Word. For those who die in the Lord, heaven can’t wait, nor should it.

One final thought: While evangelicals may disagree with our Catholic friends over the doctrine of purgatory, we share a common expectation of the return of the Lord, resurrection and final judgment, and new heavens and a new earth.

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church declares, “At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed.”

Next: Is heaven our final home?