According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), ‘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 Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory therefore has to do with ‘final purification of the elect’. Although the doctrine in its present form was formulated at the Councils of Florence (1445) and Trent (1545-1563), its origin is more ancient, and can be traced as far back as the 3rd century A.D.
Purgatory was first mentioned in Christian literature in connection with the North African martyr Perpetua (c.a. 202). While in prison before her execution, Perpetua thought about her brother Dinocrates who had died of cancer at the age of seven. In a dream, Perpetua saw the emaciated and pale figure of her brother in a dark and gloomy place. Moved by the sight of her suffering brother, Perpetua prayed incessantly day and night with sighs and tears for his emancipation. In a subsequent dream, Perpetua saw her brother again. But this time, he was clean, well clothed and playing with other children. When she woke up, she realised that her brother’s punishment had been revoked.
This story became the basis of the idea of purgatory that was developed variously in both the Western and Eastern traditions of the Church. In his Enchiridion, Augustine the fifth century theologian advocated the idea that believers are subjected to purgatorial fire before they are admitted into heaven. For this reason he is sometimes called the ‘father of purgatory’. It was Origen, however, who gave the doctrine its primitive shape when he wrote: ‘If a man departs this life with lighter faults he is condemned to fire which burns away the lighter materials, and prepares the soul for the kingdom of God, where nothing defiled may enter’. The idea of purgatory is found in the writings of many important patristic theologians like Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Great.
The main text often appealed to by Catholic theologians as providing the basis for the doctrine is 2 Maccabees 12:43-45: ‘For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin’. Without going into the background, this text, which was composed during the intertestamental period, alludes to prayers offered for the dead. It maintains that such prayers are legitimate because of the resurrection. The passage suggests that such prayers may atone for the sins of the dead and thereby ensure their safe passage into the kingdom of God. Protestants, however, regard 2 Maccabees as apocrypha and thus not part of the canon of Scriptures. The text in question therefore cannot be the authoritative basis for Christian doctrine.
The second text that is often quoted as supporting the doctrine is Matthew 12:32. According to this passage those who speak against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, ‘either in this age or in the age to come’. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604) maintains that this passage alludes to purgatory because it suggests that some sins are ‘forgiven in the age to come’. Many Bible scholars, however, have rightly argued that the interpretation forwarded by Gregory is forced. Furthermore, there is no mention anywhere else in the New Testament of sins being forgiven in the afterlife.
The third passage is 1 Corinthians 3. In verse 13, Paul speaks about the fact that on the Day of judgement, the quality of each man’s work will be revealed. In verse 15, we read: ‘If it is burned up, he will be saved, but only as one escaping through fire’. Some Catholic theologians have interpreted this passage as referring to the fires of purgatory. The context, however, suggests otherwise. Here, Paul was referring to the work of the church, particularly that of Christian leaders. He warns that unless their work is built upon the foundation of Christ, it will not survive the test of fire on the Day of Judgement. The passage does not say that believers will pass through the fire of purification. It says that the quality of their work will be tested by fire.
These passages, therefore, do not teach the doctrine of purgatorial purification. The Roman Catholic theologian, Michael Schmaus, has rightly admitted that the doctrine of purgatory is not based on Scripture but rather on the ‘church’s practice of prayer and penance’. Thus, purgatory as a doctrine was weaved into the thinking of the Roman Catholic Church to justify an existing practice. But, as Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann has pointed out, ‘Once this method is followed, there is no possible way of examining particular ecclesiastical and devotional practices for the conformity to scripture and the Gospel’. For this reason, the Reformers of the sixteenth century categorically rejected the doctrine of purgatorial purification as unscriptural. This continues to be the position of Protestantism regarding purgatory. The evangelical theologian Millard Erickson is therefore correct in stating that it is the doctrine of purgatory that ‘distinguishes Catholicism and Protestantism in general’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.