Perfection is, broadly speaking, a state of completeness and flawlessness. If people were perfect, they would be incapable of performing a task in a mediocre, sub-par fashion. Whatever act they may perform would be done with the utmost skill, sufficiency, and grace. To put it plainly, those who could be perfect would have, in a way, one of the perfections of God.
Judging from what God has revealed to his creation humanity, through the written form of His Word, the Bible, for a human to enter Heaven, he must be perfect. This what God created humanity for; perfection. God is constantly reminding us with this teaching, and always exhorting His people to be perfect.
(Matthew 5:48) “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.”
St. Paul even says that without holiness, “no man shall see God.” (Hebrews 12:14)
Jesus does not say the sinful, but rather “the clean of heart…shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
And in Revelation 21:27, John writes, speaking of Heaven, “nothing unclean shall enter it.”
It appears that to attain the joy of Heaven, a person must perfect, free of the stains of sin, and filled with holiness. If these requirements are met, how happy is that soul, to now forever be in the presence of his Creator God. To have no more worry, pain, or sadness on his mind, this soul will be in ecstasy that is indescribable in human words.
On the other hand, if a person dies in willful, unrepentant rebellion against His Creator God whom he owes his own existence to, then he will be punished in the fires of Hell. In Hell there is only sadness, hatred, darkness, and pain; the pain of the loss of Heaven and union with God. Nothing can help these souls who are damned to the pain of Hell, not by God’s doing, but rather that of their own.
Jesus says in Luke 3:17 that Hell is full of “unquenchable fire”. Within Hell, Jesus says repeatedly, there shall be “weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Luke 13:28, and six other times in Matthew’s Gospel) In the story of the Second Coming in Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus will judge humanity by people’s individual actions. To those who did not follow His commandments, Jesus says for them to depart “into the everlasting fire” and that they will go into “everlasting punishment”. So, in short, Hell is a place of eternal punishment for souls that are entirely rebellious towards God. No person should want to go to that place.
During our life on Earth, can all Christians attain the perfection necessary to enter Heaven? In Proverbs 24:16 we read that “a just man falls seven times” a day, and 1 John 1:8 says that if “we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves.” A person cannot enter Heaven sinful. That would be like attending a wedding in a soiled garment. Would a Christian then go to Hell, because of dying in his own sin?
That would actually depend on the sin itself. Is all sin equal? 1 John 5:16-17 reads as follows.
“He that knoweth his brother to sin a sin which is not to death, let him ask, and life shall be given to him, who sinneth not to death. There is a sin unto death: for that I say not that any man ask. All iniquity is sin. And there is a sin unto death.”
God tells us that not all sin is equal before His eyes. If a person was to sin a sin not unto death, would he be punished eternally? No, not according to God’s Word. But sin will receive punishment as a consequence. Perhaps I should expand on sin itself a little more.
Sin itself is any voluntary thought, word, action, or omission contrary to the law of God. The Bible is clear that all sin is wrongdoing; but not all merits the same degree of punishment. There is difference between the sin of taking a cookie without asking mother, and the sin of murder. Lesser sin is referred to as venial sin by the Catholic Church, and grave, serious sin is called mortal sin. Mortal sin is sin that is serious in matter, and the sinner is aware that it is serious matter, and gives his full consent, thus completely alienating his relationship with God.
There are two different consequences of sin; first, the guilt of sin, and second, the pain of sin. The guilt of sin is the separation of the sinner from God’s grace, and the need of repentance. The pain of sin is the punishment that is due to the disobedience to God’s Law. The punishment for un-forgiven mortal sin is the fires of Hell. The punishment for venial sin is a lesser punishment, as to fit the crime. This lesser punishment is referred to as temporal punishment, as it is temporary opposed to eternal. Temporal punishment is due to any forgiven sin also; as a consequence of the wrongdoing against God. This is shown in the pages of the Bible, as follows.
Even though Adam and Eve were brought out of their sin (Wis. 10:2), they were still punished by painful childbirth, hard labor for food, and were doomed to die (Gen. 3:16-19).
God forgave Moses and Aaron for their incredulity, but they were kept from the Promised Land (Num. 20:12).
In Numbers 5:5-8 God tells Moses that if a person steals from someone else, “he shall confess the wrong he has done, restore his ill-gotten goods in full, and in addition give one fifth of their value to the one he has wronged”. After confessing the sin, a person is to make restitution for the sin’s damage, not get off Scott-free.
In Numbers 12:1-16 Miriam is forgiven of her sin, yet she had to bear the punishment of it, namely, the pains of leprosy.
God forgave David for his sin of adultery, but since David had caused the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme His name, David’s child was doomed to die (2 Kings 12:13-14)
Psalm 99:8 reads: “Oh Lord, our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God, though you punished their offenses.” God forgives the guilt of the sinner, but makes him undergo punishment as the result of his sin.
Penance due to sin is also spoken of in the New Testament (Mt. 3:8, Lk. 3:3, 17:3)
After all forgiven sin, we must go under expiation of punishment. Having a sin forgiven is not the same as having punishment wiped out. This is crystal clear from God’s Word.
With the differences of venial and mortal sin, and also the temporary punishment that God gives, a question arises. If a person died with a venial sin on his soul, how would he get to Heaven? What if he had not paid the temporal punishment for his sin? He could not enter the pearly gates because of his soul’s uncleanliness, and yet he would not be punished forever in Hell. How would this person enter Heaven? He would have to be purified, that is, cleansed before his entrance into Heaven.
This state or place of afterlife purification of the soul is referred to by the Catholic Church as Purgatory. Put simply, the doctrine of Purgatory can be defined as the process of the application of the saving merits of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection to the soul of a deceased Christian who has died without mortal sin on his soul. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines Purgatory as the following.
“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 into the joy of heaven.” (No. 1030)
“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 tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:
‘As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age, nor the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offences can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.’ -St. Gregory the Great (No.1031)
“This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: ‘Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they may be delivered from their sin.’ (2 Mac. 12:46) From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic Sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:
‘Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.’ -St. John Chrysostom (No. 1032)
So Roman Catholics believe that Purgatory is an afterlife purification state where souls with sanctifying grace, who are stained with venial sin, are purged of their sin before entering Heaven. Catholics also believe that by prayers and sacrifices, we are able to help the souls in Purgatory be admitted to their reward sooner.
I personally believe that the denial of Purgatory results from Martin Luther’s false doctrine of sola Fide (Faith Alone). The Bible nowhere teaches that faith alone in Jesus Christ is the only necessary component to a Christian’s salvation. The Bible clearly teaches that faith in Christ and good works are necessary for salvation (James 2:24). Whatever good or bad acts we make in this life will reap reward or punishment in the next life. St. Paul makes that very clear when he says that we all will appear before Christ’s judgment seat “so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor. 5:10). He does not say that those who “accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior” will get into Heaven without any punishment. No, he says that everyone will be repaid for the deeds they have committed. At the Second Coming Jesus will judge all people by what they have done in their lives, not if they had faith alone. Every person has done something wrong in his life. They will be punished accordingly. If a person has committed a little evil, he will have a little punishment. The punishment fits the crime.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says: “And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come.” (Matthew 12:32) Why would Jesus just mention, out of the blue, forgiveness in the world to come if it was not possible? It appears that from Jesus’ words that there are lesser sins that can be forgiven after death. St. Augustine comments on this saying:
“…that some sinners are not forgiven either in this world or in the next would not be truly said unless there were others who, though not forgiven in this world, are forgiven in the world to come.” (The City of God 21:24)
This is another biblical point that only makes sense if Purgatory is real. Those who die in the stains of venial sin are needed to be cleansed, and judging from Matthew 12:32, they can be forgiven after death. But they would not be forgiven in Heaven, because nothing unclean can enter it, and they would surely not be forgiven in Hell, considering it is the punishment of the damned. This would refer to a third place or state in the afterlife, that of Purgatory.
This place of sin expiation is not contrary to the Bible, as Heaven and Hell are not the only afterlife places. This point is shown in the following Scriptural excerpt.
“Because Christ also died once for our sins, the just for the unjust: that he might offer us to God, being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit, In which also coming he preached to those spirits that were in prison: Which had been some time incredulous, when they waited for the patience of God in the days of Noe, when the ark was a building: wherein a few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water.” (1 Peter 3:18-20)
After His death on the cross, Jesus went and preached to the souls that were in prison. This prison is another afterlife destination, neither Heaven nor Hell. The “prison” could not be Heaven, because before Christ’s Sacrifice, no one could enter it. This prison cannot be Hell, because no amount of good preaching would make the damned change their ways. This prison is commonly referred to as “Abraham’s Bosom” (Luke 16:22), and also “The Limbo of the Fathers”. It may have not been Purgatory, but it shows that a temporary intermediate state does not contradict Scripture.
Another, more explicit teaching on Purgatory is found in Matthew 5:25-26. It reads:
“Be at agreement with thy adversary betimes, whilst thou art in the way with him: lest perhaps the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing.”
Jesus is teaching that we will be locked away in a prison until we repay the damages we have done. How more explicit could he be? The Greek word used for “prison” is phulake, which is the exact same word used in 1 Peter 3:19 to refer to an afterlife prison. Phulake is demonstrably used in the New Testament to refer to a temporary afterlife holding place and not exclusively in this life.
When Jesus told the parable of the servant beating up others who owed him money, after he himself had been forgiven his debts, He said:
“And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” (Matthew 18:34-35)
Since there is no release program in Hell, and no one wants to ever leave Heaven, this also indicates that there is another temporary place of temporal punishment where saved sinners go who have been forgiven their sins, but who have not paid all of their debt for their sins, as referenced to in Matthew 5:25-26.
In Hebrews 12:22-24, St. Paul says the following:
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel. “
We know who the angels are, as well as the first born (those who go directly to heaven upon death), and the judge (God), but the spirits of just men made perfect is another category of heavenly residents. Those would be the just men and women who were not ready for heaven upon death, but who were cleansed in the fires of purgatory and made perfect. The souls of Purgatory are made perfect by God as He purges them clean of their offences against Him.
1 Corinthians 3:10-15 reads as follows:
“According to the grace of God that is given to me, as a wise architect, I have laid the foundation; and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus. Now if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble: Every man’s work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in 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 burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.“
It says our works will go through “fire”. In Scripture, “fire” is used metaphorically in two ways: as a purifying agent (Mal. 3:2-3; Matt. 3:11; Mark 9:49); and as that which consumes (Matt. 3:12; 2 Thess. 1:7-8). So it is a fitting symbol here for God’s judgment. Some of the “works” represented are being burned up and some are being purified. These works survive or burn according to their essential “quality” (Greek “hopoiov” – of what sort).
What is being referred to cannot be Heaven because there are imperfections that need to be “burned up” (Rev. 21:27, Hab. 1:13). It cannot be hell because souls are being saved. So what is it? Catholics simply specify it with the name Purgatory.
The Church Father Origen, student of St. Clement of Alexandria, comments:
“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. For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones; but also wood and hay and stubble, what do you expect when the soul shall be separated from the body? Would you enter into heaven with your wood and hay and stubble and thus defile the kingdom of God; or on account of these hindrances would you remain without and receive no reward for your gold and silver and precious stones? Neither is this just. It remains then that you be committed to the fire which will burn the light materials; for our God to those who can comprehend heavenly things is called a cleansing fire. But this fire consumes not the creature, but what the creature has himself built, wood, and hay and stubble. It is manifest that the fire destroys the wood of our transgressions and then returns to us the reward of our great works.” (Homilies on Jeremias 13: 445, 448 [A.D. 244]).
Following the same theme of spiritual cleansing, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks of the purification of His followers saying, “Everyone shall be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49). In the Psalms we read: “Oh Lord, our God, thou answered them; thou were a forgiving God, though thou punished their offenses” (Psalm 99:8). This Scriptural passage would certainly be consistent with the doctrine of Purgatory, as Jesus promises salvation to the faithful but first requires them to let go of the remnants of their personal un-holiness before entering Heaven.
There is also the instance of prayer for the dead found in Scripture. First, I note that praying for the dead would be useless if there is only Heaven and Hell in the afterlife. Those in Heaven have attained their reward and do not need our prayers, and those in Hell cannot be helped by our prayers. Prayer for the dead would only make sense if there is a Purgatory, where souls are being purged of their sins.
We read in 2 Machabees 12:43-45 the following:
“And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and
religiously concerning the resurrection, (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead;) And because that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had a great grace laid up for up them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.”
This particular verse only makes sense if there is a Purgatory where souls are waiting to be released into Heaven. Most Protestants though, will want to argue that the Books of the Machabees are not Divinely Inspired. To briefly touch on this point, all of Christianity had accepted the Catholic Church’s Biblical Canon that contained 46 Old Testament books until the time of Martin Luther’s Bible translation (1534). Luther did not agree with the Catholic Church’s doctrine of Purgatory. He decided to use the Bible Canon of the 90 A.D. Palestinian Jews, who were the descendants of the same Jews who crucified Christ and also persecuted his followers! Luther seemed to forget that Jesus Christ gave authority to His own Church (Luke 10:16, 1 Timothy 3:15, Eph. 3:5, Eph. 2:20, Matthew 18:17-18, Acts 15:28-29,) and not the Jews that opposed Him. Luther used the Palestinian Canon because it excluded the Book of 2 Machabees, which as we know, speaks of prayer for the dead, an implication of Purgatory.
Rejecting the inspiration and canonicity of II Maccabees does not negate its historical value. Maccabees aids us in knowing, purely from an historical perspective at the very least, the Jews believed in praying and making atonement for the dead shortly before the advent of Christ. This is the faith in which Jesus and the apostles were raised. Orthodox Jews to this day believe in the final purification, and for eleven months after the death of a loved one, they pray a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish for their loved one’s purification. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus or the Apostles condemn prayers for the dead, due to the fact it was a part of their religion of Judaism!
Another instance of prayer for the dead is in 2 Timothy 1:16-18.
“May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me earnestly and found me—may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day!—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.”
It should be clear that Onesiphorus is dead. St. Paul speaks of him in the past tense. He was not ashamed of Paul’s chains, a simple action in the past, not an ongoing one. Since Paul is still in chains (2 Timothy 2:9), and Onesiphorus’s not-being-ashamed is not ongoing, and he is not still refreshing Paul, it is evident that Onesiphorus is no longer living. Paul first asks God’s mercy for the household of Onesiphorus, not Onesiphorus himself. Regarding Onesiphorus, Paul prays that he find mercy from the Lord on that Day. Paul is asking for God’s mercy on Onesiphorus before the throne of Judgment, hence Onesiphorus being dead. Why would St. Paul pray for a dead man if there is only Heaven and Hell? The only explanation is Purgatory.
Prayer for the deceased has been a Christian practice since the time of the New Testament (not to mention the ancient Jewish practice). There is mention of prayer for the dead in the catacombs in Rome. The Early Christians prayed for their dead! Touching manifestations of this belief are found on the walls and tombs of the Catacombs. The souls of the departed are recommended to the holy Martyrs, near whom their bodies are buried. The object of the prayers is peace and refreshment to be found in the afterlife. The departed themselves are represented as requesting the intercession of the living faithful. On one on the tombstones of the catacombs, now in the Lateran Museum, a husband declares that he set this inscription for his beloved wife Lucifera “in order that all brethren who read it may pray for her, that she may reach God.” The writing of the early Christians such as St. Clement (2nd Century), Tertullian (2nd Century), St. Lactantius (3rd Century), St. Ephraem (4th Century), St. John Chrysostom (4th Century), St. Augustine of Hippo (5th century) along with many, many others throughout the course of history. It seems that the Protestants are not believing God’s Word when It says that the Church is the foundation of Truth (1 Timothy 3:15), when it implies that the leaders of the Church actually erred in the teaching of prayers for the dead!
Catholics believe that through their prayers and sacrifices offered for the dead in Purgatory, that the souls of their loved ones might enter Heaven sooner. This power of prayer and the offering of suffering for another is deeply rooted in Scripture.
Matthew 7:7 “Ask, and it will be given to you seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
Matthew 21:22 “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
Mark 11:24 “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Colossians 1:24 “Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church.”
It is entirely correct to say that Christ accomplished all of our salvation for us on the cross. But that does not settle the question of how this redemption is applied to us. Scripture reveals that it is applied to us over the course of time through, among other things, the process of sanctification through which the Christian is made holy. Sanctification involves suffering (Rom. 5:3–5), and purgatory is the final stage of sanctification that some of us need to undergo before we enter heaven. The Bible says that suffering is necessary!
“And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.” (Romans 8:17)
That is why God gives us temporal punishment. We are in a debt of gratitude to Jesus for His Sacrifice, and now, due to His Sacrifice, we are able to pay the temporal punishment and enter Heaven. God demands justice upon those who have broken His Law! (Romans 12:19, Isaiah 30:18)
Some say that Jesus has taken away all of our punishment. If there is no punishment, then why are people still punished by painful childbirth, hard labor for food, and are doomed to die? Because there is still temporal punishment. But due to Christ’s Sacrifice on the Cross, this punishment is able to be paid.
Purgatory is the final phase of Christ’s applying to us the purifying redemption that he accomplished for us by his death on the cross. The Fundamentalist resistance to the biblical doctrine of purgatory presumes there is a contradiction between Christ’s redeeming us on the cross and the process by which we are sanctified. There isn’t. And a Fundamentalist cannot say that suffering in the final stage of sanctification conflicts with the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement without saying that suffering in the early stages of sanctification also presents a similar conflict. The Fundamentalist has it backward: Our suffering in sanctification does not take away from the cross. Rather, the cross produces our sanctification, which results in our suffering, because “[f]or the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” (Heb. 12:11)
Purgatory makes sense because there is a requirement that a soul not just be declared to be clean, but actually be clean, before a man may enter into eternal life. After all, if a guilty soul is merely “covered,” if its sinful state still exists but is officially ignored, then it is still a guilty soul. It is still unclean.
Catholic theology takes seriously the notion that “nothing unclean shall enter heaven.” From this it is inferred that a less than cleansed soul, even if “covered,” remains a dirty soul and isn’t fit for heaven. It needs to be cleansed or “purged” of its remaining imperfections. The cleansing occurs in Purgatory. Indeed, the necessity of the purging is taught in other passages of Scripture, such as 2 Thessalonians 2:13, which declares that God chose us “to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit.” Sanctification is thus not an option, something that may or may not happen before one gets into heaven. It is an absolute requirement, as Hebrews 12:14 states that we must strive “for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
In conclusion, in sight of the previously listed facts, I believe that the denial of Purgatory exhibits a very poor idea of God, and a very flattering idea of self.