Dr. Michael Horton on Purgatory

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Also at odds with immediate, conscious presence of the soul with God is the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory. According to this teaching, even if the guilt of sin is forgiven, the punishment for particular sins must be suffered before entrance into paradise. purgatory is but an extension of the doctrine of penance, which denies the sufficiency of Christ’s active and passive obedience. If the guilt of our sins has been fully remitted, then punishment would be capricious and unjust. Besides contradicting central doctrines of the gospel, the idea that after people die they enter a state of purgation has no biblical support. Rather, the idea can be traced through Origen to the speculations of Plato and the Greco-Roman belief in three levels of existence in Hades: the lower region Tartarus (hell), a middle region for those who were neither good nor evil, and the Elysian fields, often identified with the Isles of the Blessed.


The wide evidence of belief in a period of probation – of testing – before attaining everlasting glory in many religions may be considered a relic of the original covenant given to humanity in Adam. However, the Bible identifies this probation with the representative headship of Adam, recapitulated and fulfilled by the Last Adam. Non-Christian religions, however, place this trial in the hands of every person, to be fulfilled personally by works, if not in this life then in the next.

By contrast, some in early Judaism taught that the soul at death goes to Gehenna, a holding place for final resurrection and judgment, and, as we have already seen above, Jesus taught that while unbelievers go to Gehenna at death, believers are with him in paradise. Roman Catholic theology bases the idea of purgatory on 2 Maccabees 12:42-45, which speaks of Judas Maccabeus having “made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” However, this act of Judas Maccabeus was a large sum of money that he sent to the temple “for a sin offering.” This is precisely the background of the temple worship that the writer to the Hebrews (among others, including Jesus) says has come to an end with Christ’s sacrifice of himself. By using this apocryphal (i.e., noncanonical) verse as a proof text for purgatory, Roman catholic interpretation returns to the shadows of the law after the reality has come. Those who die in mortal sin go directly to hell, but with few exceptions all believers die with some venial sins that must be atoned for.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church,

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 Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent…. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead. 2

As for those who die in mortal sin, “the teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, ‘eternal fire.'” 2

The clear teaching of Scripture, however, is that every believer goes to be with the Lord upon death. Therefore, there is no point in praying for the dead, much less for purchasing indulgences, or otherwise expending effort on behalf of securing an earlier release of the departed from their punishments in purgatory. “Just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes the judgment …” (Heb. 9:27).
Furthermore, it is just as clearly and centrally taught in Scripture that believers do not “achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” 2 but are clothed in the righteousness and holiness of Christ’s sufficient merit.


Horton, Michael Scott. “2. Opposition To Immediate, Conscious Existence In The Presence Of The Lord.” The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. 913-15. Print.

2 Catechism of the Catholic Church (Liguori, Mo.: Liguori Publications, 1994), 268-69

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