This post is post 10 in a series entitled Letting God Lead: My Journey Through Protestant and Catholic Beliefs. While you certainly can read this post by itself, I highly encourage you to check out the rest of the series as well. Find more about this series and a list of all of posts here. *This post contains affiliate links.
Growing up Protestant, I had heard of Purgatory, but knew very, very little about it. In fact, when my Catholic husband and I first got married, I made the joke: “Well, great. When we all die, my family (that I grew up in) is going to get to fast-track it straight to Heaven (because they are Protestant), while I’ll be stuck sitting at a table waiting my turn to get in with you!”
What is Purgatory?
According to official Catholic teaching, Purgatory is a state of being wherein those who are definitely going to Heaven are purified on their way there (since nothing “unclean” can enter Heaven). We do not EARN our salvation in Purgatory–we already have it because of Christ’s work on the cross. Purgatory is just a state of sanctification/purification where any remaining attachments we have to sin are broken.
What Does the Church Teach About Purgatory?
God has given us free will. We use this free will every day as we choose to follow or reject God. Once we die, however, we are held accountable for how we choose to live our lives. Did we seek every day to follow Jesus to the best of our ability, even when it was hard? Or did we just call ourselves Christians without actually being one?
After examining our lives, God will judge whether we were true followers of His or not. Those people who did seek a closer relationship with Him will be allowed to have that relationship with Him in Heaven. Those people who chose not to have a relationship with Him will be allowed not to in Hell. God doesn’t force someone to be in Heaven who doesn’t want to be there.
(Up until this point, Protestants and Catholics should pretty much all agree.)
However, AFTER we are granted salvation and we are 100 percent for sure going there, Catholics believe we undergo a sort of purification process to get us ready for Heaven. After all, nothing unclean can enter Heaven, and no matter how hard we try, most of us are going to leave the earth pretty soiled by sin. Purgatory removes this sin and attachment to sin we still have so we can be fit for Heaven.
Again, Purgatory does NOT earn or give us a second chance for salvation–we already have it–Purgatory just gets us ready for Heaven. (The same way you wouldn’t show up to your wedding in your old stinky gym clothes–you’d shower first.)
Catholic Teachings on Purgatory:
- Purgatory is a state of purification that happens after death (not a physical place)
- It generally involves some sort of pain or discomfort (but it is not ALL pain)
- Its purpose is to prepare Christians for Heaven
- It is NOT a second chance (we’ve already received our judgement)
- It does NOT earn our salvation (we already have it because of Christ’s death on the cross)
- It is not a literal fire
- Purgatory is God’s mercy, not judgement
- God helps us through Purgatory
- The prayers of the saints (Christians) help us move through Purgatory faster
- Time works differently in Purgatory than it does on Earth
- Not every Christian has to go to Purgatory (though most probably do)
- People who die without any sin could potentially skip Purgatory altogether (for example, if they confessed on their deathbed)
- Many people undergo purification here on Earth as well
James Akin gives this analogy:
“Purgatory is the boot-camp of heaven. The purpose of purgatory is to bring you up the level of spiritual excellence needed to experience the full-force presence of God. It doesn’t matter where you start from, there will be no sinning in heaven, and you have to be brought up to that level during final sanctification, before you are glorified with God in heaven.” (source)
And Dummys.com gives this analogy:
“It may help to think of the purgatory in terms of a major operation to save a life. Say a doctor performs surgery on someone’s heart or brain and removes a cancerous tumor. The surgery achieves the main objective, but the wound needs to heal, and the incision needs to be cleaned and rebandaged. Purgatory is like that secondary part of recovery — the healing, cleaning, and bandaging.” (source)
Three Reasons Protestants Typically Don’t Believe in Purgatory
Aside from the most practical reason–which is that most Protestants know very little about what the Catholic Church actually teaches about Purgatory and why–Protestants typically give one or more of these three reasons as to why they don’t believe: 1. Needing purgatory assumes that Christ’s work on the Cross isn’t sufficient, 2. it offers a second chance at salvation and 3. it isn’t in the Bible. But as you’ll see in a minute, these three objections aren’t really accurate.
Objection #1: Purgatory Assumes Christ’s Saving Work on the Cross Isn’t Sufficient
Protestants will be happy to know that official Catholic doctrine also teaches that Christ’s work on the cross is 100 perfect sufficient for our salvation. Like I discussed in the previous series post “Is Faith Alone Enough,” Catholics do NOT believe we have any power to save ourselves through works. Purgatory in no way makes us any more or less “saved.” It doesn’t affect our salvation even an iota. Instead, it is a process we undergo because we are already saved, but we still need to be purified for Heaven.
At this point, many Protestants would counter: “Well, Jesus’s blood covers our sins and He makes us holy.” To which Catholics would respond: “Yes it does. BUT a sinful person covered in holy blood is still a sinful person and unclean at the core.” Purgatory is the process by which God makes us holy, sinfree and spotless through and through.
Objection #2: Purgatory Offers a Second Chance for Salvation
Once again, this is not accurate. The Catholic Church teaches that we receive our judgement sentence when we die and there are no second chances. At judgement time, we are handed our sentence: either Hell or Heaven (passing through Purgatory on the way). Judgement happens first, then Purgatory. Not the other way around.
Objection #3: Purgatory is not in the Bible
Once I dove into Scripture for myself to see what it actually says, I was surprised to see that there are actually several verses which could very well point to Purgatory. Sure, it doesn’t explicitly spell out “You will die. You will go to Purgatory,” but as we discussed in Who Has the Ultimate Authority? A Biblical Look at Sola Scriptura, the Bible was never meant to be a comprehensive guide and just because something isn’t there doesn’t mean it isn’t true. BUT to ease all of our Bible-loving minds (mine included!): here are your verses 🙂
Where is Purgatory in the Bible?
The Catholic belief in Purgatory is based in part on the following verses:
He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought.
Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin. –2 Maccabees 12:43-46
(For more information on why Catholics consider this book Scripture, don’t miss the section on the apocryphal/deuteroncanonical books at the end of the previous series post A Brief Look at the History of Christianity Whether or not it is Scriptural, however, it does offer a historical account that people in that time made sacrifices for the dead.)
“Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized for them?” -1 Corinthians 15:29
(Paul is arguing the existence of Heaven here, but this passage shows that the early Christians believed that our actions here on Earth could help those who have already died–ie, those who are in Purgatory)
“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” –Hebrews 12:14
“and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” –Revelation 21:27
Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. –Matthew 12:32
(in other words, sins can be forgiven both in this age and the next–ie, Purgatory)
“These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.” –Heb 11:39-40
“For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble each mans work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any mans work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).
“for our God is a consuming fire.” (Heb. 12:29)
The Historical Case for Purgatory
In addition to all of the Scripture verses above, which collectively seem to suggest that there is a process of purification that happens after death, we can also find evidence for Purgatory in History as well.
- Prayers for the dead are recorded in the catacombs (the tombs of the earliest Christians).
- Some of the earliest non-Scriptural Christian writings also refer to the practice of praying for the dead.
- Catholics don’t like change. (Sorry, it’s true.) So if the practice or belief had sprung up one day out of nowhere, there would have been some kind of Protest or debate. None is recorded.
- Purgatory is not a Catholic invention. Orthodox Jews today still recite prayers for the dead (the Mourner’s Kaddish) for eleven months after a loved one dies. The Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish people all believe it–just not Protestants.
So, in other words, the Catholic Church didn’t just make this doctrine up out of nowhere, they didn’t invent it, and they aren’t just using it to scare people into the church. They believe it because it is a longstanding belief that has been handed down both from the earliest Christians (and the Jews before them).
What are Indulgences?
Okay, so if we accept that Purgatory exists, and we accept that we get more/less Purgatory depending on how much we need to be purified before we can get into Heaven, it only makes sense that we would want to purify ourselves as much as possible now so that we have less time in Purgatory later. Enter the Catholic Doctrine of indulgences.
Indulgences may be best explained with an analogy: Say one of my children does something naughty (lying, hitting, stealing, etc) and then they come to me and ask for my forgiveness. I love my children, so I would forgive them. BUT I’m still handing out consequences. Maybe if they were truly, truly sorry and completely torn up, I’d skip the consequence. But otherwise, they are probably going to get one. Not because I don’t love them, but to help them learn and grow and not do it again.
Indulgences work the same way. When Catholics go to confession, they are 100 percent forgiven for their sins BUT they still have consequences. Indulgences are spiritual acts of discipline that Catholics do for sins they have already been forgiven for in order to relieve some of the punishment for or attachment to that sin.
(By attachment to sin, I mean–think about all the fun times you had when you were young and carefree and sinful. You *should* regret them fully. But you don’t. You know they are wrong, but you still look back and smile. That’s an attachment. That sin still has some mastery over you.)
Indulgences make us better Christians, a little more holy, a little more Christ-like, etc. They are simply good spiritual things most Christians should want to do or are already doing anyways.
Now yes, there was a brief time in history when things got out of hand and a select few priests were selling indulgences. BUT just because a few people did a very bad thing does not mean that the official church teaching behind it was incorrect. It was the people who were wrong–not the teaching. And you’ll be happy to know that due to that scandal, the Church has since forbidden charitable giving as a way of obtaining indulgences.
(When done in the spirit, giving absolutely can refine our spirit and make us more Godly, but the Church chose to get rid of it altogether rather than deal with the drama, and really–who can blame them?)
What Does the Catholic Church Teach About Indulgences?
- Mass and the sacraments are THE best sources of sanctification and purification, but indulgences can help too.
- Completing indulgences better disposes Christians to take part in Mass and the sacraments.
- You can receive a plenary or partial indulgence. Plenary indulgences remove all temporal punishment due to sin. Partial just removes some.
- Your heart and spiritual formation matter way more than the action itself.
Indulgences come with certain qualifications/requirements:
- You must be baptized
- You must not be excommunicated
- You must have the intention of receiving an indulgence (can’t do one on accident without realizing it)
- You must follow the stipulations for the indulgence
- You can only receive one plenary indulgence a day
- Except at the hour of your death–then you could get another one
- You can receive partial indulgences several times a day
- Indulgences must also be accompanied by confession, the Eucharist and a prayer for the Pope’s Intentions (typically one Our Father and one Hail Mary–but it doesn’t have to be).
So you can’t just collect them like postage stamps. You actually have to DO stuff and get holier. Not just rattle off a few prayers real fast.
Examples of Indulgences
Real indulgences taken from The Handbook of Indulgences: Norms and Grants. **Remember, these must also be accompanied by confession, the Eucharist and a prayer for the Pope’s Intentions. So there is more to all of these than just doing the simple action.
Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament
“A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful when they visit the Blessed Sacrament for the purpose of adoration. When this is done for at least half an hour, the indulgence is a plenary one.”
Visiting the Patriarchal Basilicas in Rome
“A plenary indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who devoutly visit one of the four patriarchal basilicas in Rome and there recite the Our Father and the Creed:
- on the basilica’s titular feast;
- on Sundays and the other 10 holy days of obligation
- once a year on any other day chosen by the individual Christian faithful.”
“A plenary indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who spend at least three full days of spiritual exercises during a retreat.”
Use of Devotional Objects
“The Christian faithful obtain a partial indulgence when they make devout use of a devotional object (such as a crucifix or cross, a rosary, a scapular, or a medal) which has been rightly blessed by any priest or deacon.
If the devotional object has been blessed by the Pope or by any bishop, the Christian faithful can obtain a plenary indulgence while making devout use of it on the solemnity of the holy apostles, Peter and Paul, provided they add to its use a profession of faith made in any legitimate formula.”
Sign of the Cross
“A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who devoutly sign themselves with the cross while saying the customary formula: ‘In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.'”
The pope also has the authority to issue new indulgences at any time. For example, when he granted an indulgence for participants in World Youth Day 2013.
What do you believe happens to us after we die? What are you doing today to prepare for it? Do you believe we even need to prepare?
Enjoyed this post? Don’t miss the rest of the posts in the series!
Resources and Further Reading
I’m not asking you to believe because I say so. Please DON’T take my word for it! The purpose of this series is only to share what I’ve learned on my journey in order to inspire you to begin a journey of your own. Here are a few helpful resources to get you started.