Looking for a Second Chance: What About Purgatory and Postmortem Salvation?
June 11, 2000
Most people think that Catholics believe in purgatory and Protestants don’t. That statement needs qualification in two ways. First, the various Orthodox churches also believe in purgatory, though we don’t often hear about it. Second, there is a sense in which Protestants in general and evangelical Christians in particular do indeed believe in purgatory. In fact, I’d like to go on record as saying that I believe in purgatory and that all Bible-believing Christians believe in purgatory.
Before I explain that statement, I should note that Catholics and evangelicals agree on many things. For instance, we agree that the Bible is the Word of God, and we share a common belief in the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, his death on the cross, his bodily resurrection, and his ascension into heaven. We also believe in heaven, hell, angels and demons. We also agree that salvation is only through Jesus Christ (though we don’t agree on what that statement really means). The last few years have seen a new era begin in which Catholics and evangelicals are talking with each other. This is a positive step in that talking is better than shooting each other or making derogatory comments. We have much to gain in the way of mutual understanding both of our doctrines held in common and of those fundamental areas where we disagree.
My goal in this sermon is not to say, “We’re right and they’re wrong” or to condemn anyone. Nor am I trying to convince Catholics to become Protestants. Only the Lord can do something like that. I want to help us understand what we believe and why we believe it. In presenting what we believe about purgatory, I do not wish to suggest that we have a corner on the truth or that we have nothing to learn from others. In a sense we’re all in the same boat. Catholics, Orthodox, mainline Protestants, and evangelicals all need to know, What does God say about the future? We need to be clear on what the Bible really teaches. For instance, we need to know:
What happens to Christians when they die? Where do they go? Do they go straight to heaven or do they go to a place called purgatory? If to purgatory, where is it? What happens there? How long are you there? When do you get out? And how?
I should note that Catholic writers are not totally agreed on the topic of purgatory. What the Council of Trent says about purgatory is not exactly what Pope John Paul II said last August. There isn’t a direct contradiction but rather a difference in tone and emphasis. In mentioning this fact, I’m merely pointing out that Catholics have said different things about purgatory at different times. This isn’t necessarily bad. After all, the same could be said of evangelical Christians regarding many of the secondary issues where we are not in complete agreement.
Part of the problem stems from the fact purgatory is not explicitly taught in the Bible. Many Catholic theologians would agree with that statement. At most they can cite several passages that might be said to infer the existence of purgatory. Some of those include Matthew 5:25 (a passage about promptly resolving personal conflicts), 1 Corinthians 3:15 (which is about the judgment seat of Christ), 2 Timothy 1:16-18 (a wish for blessing upon the household of Onesiphorus), 1 Peter 3:18-21 (a difficult passage by all accounts but probably a reference to the spirit of Christ preaching through Noah to the people living before the flood), and 1 Peter 4:6 (a reference to the preaching of the gospel to those who have since died). A passage in the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees is also cited in favor of purgatory. But the truth is that the Bible doesn’t teach the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. It owes more to religious tradition than to anything found in the Word of God.
I. The Question: What about Purgatory?
Catholic theology regarding life after death can be summarized this way. When you die, your soul goes to one of three places:
If you die with unforgiven mortal sin, you go to hell. The most obvious example of “unforgiven mortal sin” would be deliberate rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ. In this we agree with our Catholic friends that to reject Christ means to go to hell forever.
If you die in a state of perfect holiness, you go directly into the presence of God in heaven. “Perfect holiness” means to be in such a state that there is no sin in your life that stands between you and Lord. Obviously there are very few people who meet this standard.
If you die as a believer in Christ but in a state less than perfect holiness, you go to purgatory where your soul is purified until you are ready to enter God’s presence in heaven. This would include nearly all believers since virtually no one (even in Catholic thinking) achieves perfect holiness in this life.
Catholic writers sometimes call purgatory “The Divine Waiting Room” or the “anteroom of heaven.” It’s a place (or a condition) that is greater than earth but less than heaven. The older writers often stressed the terrible conditions in purgatory, which in the end sounded a lot like the flames of hell. Purgatory was seen as a place of punishment where you paid for your sins before entering heaven. The vision of loved ones suffering in purgatory motivated many Catholics to do whatever it took to free those suffering souls so they could go be with God. More recent Catholic writers have greatly de-emphasized the suffering aspect of purgatory and spoken of it as a place of spiritual growth, moral reformation, and personal preparation for heaven. Still, the very word purgatory contains within it the notion of being “purged” of your sin. It is very difficult to remove the concept of punishment from purgatory.
In the early 1500s a German monk named Johann Tetzel began selling indulgences, which amounted to a scheme by which the living could free the dead from purgatory by the payment of money. His view is summarized in this well-known couplet:
As soon as the gold in the bucket rings
The rescued soul to heaven springs.
Martin Luther was so agitated by this crass commercialism that he nailed his famous 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg partly in response to Tetzel’s excesses. In fairness it should be added that Tetzel’s views were not shared by many contemporary Catholic thinkers. Nevertheless, the poor people who gave their money truly believed that by doing so they were helping a loved one leave purgatory and enter heaven.
How long do people stay in purgatory? The answer is, no one knows. The length of time depends in large part on the kind of life a person lived and the state of their soul at the moment of death. Since only God can make those judgments, purgatory may be as short as a few hours or it may last for hundreds or thousands of years. The greater point is that in the Catholic understanding, almost all believers go to purgatory and almost no one goes directly to heaven. Thus there developed an elaborate doctrine of prayers for the dead, mass for the dead, the lighting of candles for the dead, saying the Rosary for the dead, and so on.
This doctrine has at least one practical result. Many Catholics fear death because they fear purgatory. No matter how devout you have been, you can never be sure what purgatory is like, how long you’ll be there, or when you will finally get to heaven. There can be no real assurance of eternal life under this doctrine.
Not “Ready” for Heaven
Before going further, I would like to say one word in favor of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. In thinking about why people believe as they do, I confess that on one level this doctrine makes perfect sense to me. It is based on the observation that in this life there aren’t very many genuine saints in the normal use of the term. (I realize the New Testament calls all Christians “saints” but that’s not what I’m talking about.) As a pastor I am occasionally called upon to officiate at a funeral for someone whose life gave little evidence of genuine saving faith. Perhaps the person was truly born again but only God knows for sure. There certainly are times when you say to yourself, “That person needs to be fixed up before he is ready to go to heaven.” Again, I realize that’s an earthly way of looking at it but I suppose all of us have felt that way at one time or another.
And as a practical matter I’m sure all of us say with the hymnwriter, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.” Even the best among us come to the end of life conscious of many faults, hidden sins, bad habits never conquered, good deeds never done, and sins repeated time and again. Not many of us seem “ready” for heaven. It is that observation, which is very accurate, that leads our Catholic friends to suppose that there must be some place or condition where those earthly faults are “purged” before we can pass through the gates of heaven.
Our problem at this point is a familiar one, and it is one that we evangelicals share in common with everyone else. We don’t understand the grace of God. Even after years of teaching on the topic, it still does not sink in very deeply. This is not surprising since no doctrine is more repugnant to our nature than the doctrine that everything God does for us comes freely from his grace. Deep in our evangelical hearts, we like to think that, yes, we’re sinners but when you get down to it, we’re not really that bad. In thinking like this we aren’t so different from anyone else. To borrow the words of Anselm (1033-1109), “You have not yet considered how great your sin is.” This is true of all of us. If we understood how far short we fall of God’s standards, we would cling more to his grace and give up all notions of being “ready” for heaven. The truth goes like this: We are worse than we think we are, and God’s grace is far greater than we imagine.
I do think Catholics are right in saying that “something” must be done to us before we can enter heaven, but that “something” was done 2000 years ago and therefore doesn’t need to be repeated or added to in the future.
II. The Answer: Christ Purged Our Sins at the Cross
The question regarding purgatory boils down to this: Does the death of Christ purify us from our sins so that when we die we go directly to heaven or must we be further purified in purgatory? Hebrews 1:3 supplies a key biblical insight at this point: “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” The King James Version gives a slightly different wording to the first phrase: “When he had by himself purged our sins.” This verse is the closest thing to purgatory in the Bible and it doesn’t happen after we die. It happened 2000 years ago when Christ died on the cross. It’s not something I suffer. It’s something Christ suffered for me. He purged us from our sins. I was dirty, he was clean. He took my dirt that I might be made clean. I am never going to face purgatory because he purged me from my sins. My purgatory was 2000 years ago on the cross when Jesus died in my place. To paraphrase an old gospel song, “What can purge away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
Note that the text uses the word “after.” It literally means “having made,” referring to a completed act in the past. The purging of our sins took place at the cross. No other purging is necessary or possible.
How do we know Christ’s work for us is complete? Hebrews 1:3 tells us that when he got back to heaven he sat down at the right hand of the Father. The right hand is the place of highest honor. Maybe you’ve been to a banquet and seen the head table where the VIPs sit. The host sits in the middle and the guest sits at his right hand. Jesus today is seated at the Father’s right hand because it is the highest honor God could give his Son. If there were another crown, he would wear it. If there were another honor, he would have it. But the right hand seat is the highest honor in the universe. And that’s where Jesus is today.
He sat down because his work is finished. That’s what he meant when he cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He did what he came to do. Nothing can be added to the cross. There is no room for self-cleansing, for penance, or for human merit of any kind. God is satisfied with the work of his Son. Nothing can ever be added to the merit of his blood. This is where salvation begins. Until you come to the end of your striving, you can never be saved. As long as you try to be better, you cannot find the Lord. But when you come to the end of yourself, and when you are satisfied with what Jesus did for you, you can be saved. As long as you think there is something you must do to be saved, you are still in your sins.
I conclude that there is no need for purgatory in the future since Christ purged our sins 2000 years ago. In that sense I believe in purgatory, not the one after we die but the one that took place at the cross.
III. The Application: Salvation Depends on Christ Alone
In the end the purgatory debate isn’t about which church is right or what happens when we die. It’s really about the perfection, finality, and completeness of the death of Christ on the cross. Either his death is enough or it isn’t. If it is, nothing else is needed. If it isn’t, then why did he die at all? If sin has been paid for by Christ, to pay for it again is unnecessary and an insult to God.
Hebrews 1:3 isn’t the only verse that stresses this truth. There are many others:
1 John 1:7 (KJV) “The blood of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.”
Romans 8:1 “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
John 5:24 “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
I Peter 3:18 “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”
Romans 5:9 “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!”
Romans 8:33 “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.”
Philippians 3:9 “And be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.”
If we are already cleansed, already purified, already forgiven, already justified, already have the righteousness that comes from God, already in a state of no condemnation before we die, if all those things are true, then purgatory isn’t necessary. It creates a “waiting room” for believers when God opens the door of heaven and says, “Come on in to the mansion I have prepared for you.” Purgatory robs believers of their assurance of heaven. It keeps them guessing and gives them no hope in the moment of death. People who believe in purgatory can never be sure what will happen when they die.
To most people death is the moment of truth. Life is a series of tests and death is like the final exam. And you don’t get your grade until final exams are over. That’s a very human point of view. But is it biblical? The answer is no. Christ took our exams for us 2000 years ago and he passed with straight As! When we come to him by faith, the grades he made are transferred to our permanent record. Even though we flunked every course in life, we are now counted as spiritual valedictorians. We failed the test but he passed with flying colors. He scored a perfect 1600 on God’s SAT. And he voluntarily swapped grades with us. When you come to Christ, you get the grades he earned. You go to the head of the class. You have already graduated in God’s eyes. Heaven is yours forever.
There is one sense, however, in which death is indeed the “final exam.” No one gets a second chance at salvation after they die. Hebrews 9:27 tells us that after we die we face God’s judgment. And today is the true day of salvation (2 Corinthians 6:1-2). Delay is dangerous because no one knows how long they will live. Christ has done everything necessary for sinners to go to heaven. But the opportunity to come to him in saving faith ends when our earthly life is over. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus the rich man in hell wanted Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers who were still alive “so that they will not also come to this place of torment” (Luke 16:28). Those who imagine that their loved one will be saved either in purgatory or in some other post-death scenario are nursing a vain hope.
Why must Christ alone purge our sins?
Only he could do it.
Only he could satisfy divine justice.
Only he could die in our place.
Only he could pay the infinite price for our sins.
Only he could take our punishment.
Only he could give us his perfect righteousness.
Only he could take our humanity upon himself.
Only he could become a curse for us.
When God wanted to create the universe, he spoke and it was done. But when he wanted to redeem us, his Son had to die for us. Mere words would not do. Only the blood of Jesus could cover our sins. Other priests had to offer bulls and goats. Only Jesus could offer himself. That is what he undertook to do. He did not stop until he could say, “It is finished.” He ascended to heaven because he had nothing left to do on earth. He entered God’s presence having purified us from our sins by the sacrifice of himself. He sat down by the Father because the work of redemption was done.
Therefore, I conclude that there is no need for purgatory when we die. The purgatory we need happened 2000 years ago on a bloody Roman cross. He suffered the punishment we should have suffered. He paid our sin debt fully and completely. Because God is completely satisfied with what Jesus did, we do not need to make any further satisfaction to God for our sins, either now or in the future.
Our only need is Jesus. Recently Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, has been speaking to huge stadium crowds. Her four-word theme sums up the truth we need to know: Just Give Me Jesus.
When I am tried, just give me Jesus.
When I am afraid, just give me Jesus.
When I have lost my way, just give me Jesus.
When the world turns against me, just give me Jesus.
When my sin rises up to condemn me, just give me Jesus.
When my life is ebbing away, just give me Jesus.
When I go out into eternity, just give me Jesus.
He’s all we need yesterday, today, and tomorrow. If you know Jesus, you do not need to fear death whenever and however it comes. Put your life in his hands. Trust him as Lord and Savior. Those who know Jesus will never see purgatory because he purged our sins 2000 years ago. Amen.