In addition to heaven and hell, the Roman Catholic Church teaches the doctrine of purgatory:
“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 . . . As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, paras. 1030-1031
The doctrine of purgatory presents several problems. Is there any concept of this throughout the New Testament? And how does the doctrine of purgatory fit in with the blood atonement of Jesus Christ?
First, let’s examine the Scripture in question most often cited as a proof text for purgatory:
“If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” – 1 Corinthians 3:15 KJV
What is the context of this passage? Is Paul referring to the individual undergoing a “purifying fire”? Let’s look at the context:
“According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” – 1 Corinthians 13:10-15 KJV
Paul writes that he built upon the foundation laid by Christ, and that every man “take heed how he buildeth thereupon.” He gives examples of how men can build upon the foundation: with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and stubble. But what does he say? “Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.” In this passage, is Paul talking about a person’s soul or their salvation? No, Paul is talking about their works. Man’s works will be tried by fire, and those that are of gold, silver, and precious stones will survive. But works that are made of wood, hay, and stubble will be burned up as a loss. Nowhere in this passage does the context substantiate a person undergoing a purifying fire before entering heaven. The context is clearly about a person’s works.
The other problem with the doctrine of purgatory is how it fits with the blood sacrifice of Christ. What does the Scripture say regarding Christ’s sacrifice for us?
“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all..” – Isaiah 53:4-6 KJV
“Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.” – Romans 4:25 KJV
“For he hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” – 2 Corinthians 5:21 KJV
“Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed.” – 1 Peter 2:24 KJV
Jesus Christ not only bore our sins on the cross, but His work on the cross was propitiatory. In other words, His work on the cross appeased the wrath of God toward us.
“Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.” – Isaiah 53:10-11 KJV
“Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God” – Romans 3:25 KJV
“And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” – 1 John 2:2 KJV
“Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” – 1 John 4:10 KJV
How does this text fit with the doctrine of purgatory? Logically speaking, a person suffering in purgatory is paying a penalty for sins committed in this life. Isn’t the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ sufficient to cleanse us from all sin? Didn’t Christ pay for all sin on the cross?
Throughout the writings of Paul, was he expecting to pay for his sins in purgatory? Was he expecting anyone to pay for their sins in purgatory when he wrote this?
“Therefore we are always confident, knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: (For we walk by faith, not by sight:) We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.” – 2 Corinthians 5:6-8 KJV
Paul writes that when we are absent from the body, we are present with the Lord. How does this fit with a person undergoing the purifying fires of purgatory before entering heaven?
Jesus Christ, the perfect and spotless lamb of God, shed His blood on the cross for our sins. He bore our sins on the cross of Calvary and took the wrath of God in our stead. We cannot add to Christ’s finished work on the cross. He did it all, and there is nothing left to pay. Of course believers in Christ may pay for their sins in this life through pain and/or suffering, but when it comes to the soul the penalties have already been paid by the blood of Jesus Christ.