The Bible and the Future: The Intermediate State (III)

Students of the Protestant Reformation are acquainted with the story of Johann Tetzel, the German monk and seller of indulgences who provoked Luther’s ire and decision to affix his ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. They may even recall the infamous slogan by which Tetzel advertised his indulgences: “The moment the money tinkles in the collection box, a soul flies out of purgatory.”

Though it is not my interest here to trace the career of Tetzel or his practice of selling indulgences, I cite this incident to illustrate the importance of the doctrine of purgatory in the classic Roman Catholic understanding of the intermediate state. However crass and exaggerated Tetzel’s practice may have been, even by the standard of medieval Roman Catholic teaching, he represented well the conviction that the souls of those who die in a state of grace, ordinarily must endure a period of punishment and purification in purgatory before entering heaven and enjoying the vision of God. At the Council of Trent, called by the Roman Catholic Church to answer the Protestant Reformation, this doctrine of purgatory was defined as a “dogma” of the church: “There is a purgatory, and souls there detained are helped by the prayers of the faithful, and especially by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar” (Session XXV). Those who opposed this dogma were anathematized by the same Council, and all bishops were commanded “diligently to endeavor that the wholesome doctrine concerning purgatory…be believed, held, taught, and everywhere preached by Christ’s faithful” (Session XXV).

In several previous articles, I have been considering the biblical teaching regarding individual eschatology and the intermediate state. Before moving on to the subject of general eschatology, the biblical teaching concerning the future return of Christ and its accompaniments, it remains to take one last look at this subject, particularly this Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Because this doctrine represents a peculiar view of the intermediate state, albeit one which departs from the standard of biblical teaching, it merits our attention before we turn to the great event on the horizon of biblical expectation, the coming again of Jesus Christ.


It is important to realize, when treating the doctrine of purgatory, that it is a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church. This is not a doctrine or teaching that mayor may not be believed by the faithful; it is a doctrine, based upon tradition and biblical teaching, that has been infallibly defined and proposed to the faithful as an essential truth. One cannot be a faithful member of the Roman the Catholic Church, and certainly not a faithful member of the ordained clergy, and yet deny this teaching. This teaching belongs to the dogmatic tradition of the Roman Catholic Church. It was first officially defined by the Council of Trent in the period of the Reformation and has been reaffirmed ever since.

What, then, are the contours of this dogma? What exactly does the Roman Catholic Church’s dogma regarding purgatory teach?

This dogma teaches that the majority of believers who die in a state of grace go to purgatory, a place of anguish and suffering. Though some believers, the “saints,” who have lived righteous lives and fully satisfied for the temporal penalties of their sins go directly to heaven, most believers must spend a period of time in purgatory, during which they suffer punishment for their sins and endure a period of cleansing or purification to fit them for heaven. It is interesting to observe that, whereas formerly the emphasis in Catholic writings fell upon suffering punishment for sin’s penalties in purgatory, more recently the emphasis has fallen upon purgatory as a place of cleansing or purification.

The importance of purgatory in traditional Roman Catholic teaching rests upon a particular understanding of the role of good works in meriting the reward of eternal life. Some baptized members of the church who fall into mortal sin and thereby from a state of grace, because they have not been restored through the sacrament of penance before death, go immediately to hell. Most believers, however, with the exception of the saints who go immediately to heaven, fail to make full or plenary satisfaction in this life for the temporal penalty of their sins.1 Purgatory is the place where whatever remaining satisfaction for venial sins committed in this life maybe paid. Even though all good works and satisfactions are themselves produced by the cooperation of the believer with God’s grace, these good works and satisfactions are the necessary prerequisites for entrance into eternal life. Purgatory. in this respect, represents eloquently the Roman Catholic insistence upon meritorious good works as basic to salvation.



The length of the believer’s stay in purgatory, as well as the severity of the punishment suffered, varies. Some endure a longer and more severe suffering than others. The length and severity of the believer’s stay in purgatory depends, as we just noted. on the kind of life the believer lived before death. But it also depends, to some extent, upon the kind of assistance granted believers in purgatory by their friends on earth. Prayers offered on their behalf, indulgences purchased in their name, and masses spoken for them (for which payment is often made),2 all contribute to lessening the severity and duration of the believer’s suffering in purgatory. Hence, Tetzel sold indulgences in the early sixteenth century, provoking the ire of Luther and the Reformers. He was justifiably promising the friends of departed believers that these indulgences would lessen their stay in purgatory. Though he may have been guilty of a crassly commercial presentation of this practice, even exaggerating the benefits that would accrue to those on whose behalf the indulgence was purchased, he was nonetheless acting consistently with a teaching that remains an essential part of Catholic dogma to this day.

It should also be added that the pope plays a key role in the administration of purgatory and the determination of the severity and length of the believer’s suffering the temporal penalty of sin. It is the pope’s prerogative to grant indulgences which not only lighten the severity of the punishment but also terminate it altogether.

These are the main lines of the traditional Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory.3 There are considerable debates within Catholicism over such matters as the location of purgatory, the nature and quality of the pains suffered, the duration of the purifying process and the method by which the work of the living benefits those in purgatory. But none of these has been given a dogmatic answer. The essential elements of Catholic teaching are the insistence that most believers need, subsequent to death, to undergo a further period of making satisfaction for the temporal penalty of sin and cleansing before they enjoy the blessed vision of God, and that the duration and severity of this satisfaction are lessened by the assistance of the living who do good works on their behalf.4


If these are the main lines of the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory, the question that cannot be bypassed is: On what is it based? What constitutes the ground underneath this dogma that permits the Roman Catholic Church to teach and impose it upon the faithful?

Before evaluating the Scriptural evidence cited in support of this dogma, it is interesting to note that there is a history to its development. In the second century, Justin and Tertullian, two of the church fathers, taught that the dead are waiting in the grave for the consummation. Only in the third century do we find Origen teaching the idea of a particular purification for individuals prior to their ultimate salvation. Origen, however, developed this teaching, which became a kind of germ for the development of a full-fledged doctrine of purgatory. as part of his teaching of the universal salvation of all men (called “apocatastasis”)! It was not until the thirteenth century, at the Second Council of Lyons (1274), and the flfteenth century, at the Council of Florence (1439), that the full form of Roman Catholic teaching concerning purgatory took shape. At these Councils, purgatory is clearly understood to be a place of penal and expiatory suffering immediately after death and before entrance into God’s presence.

I briefly cite this history because it illustrates one aspect of the weakness of the basis for the dogma of purgatory. In the famous saying of Vincent of Lerins, a fifth century theologian, the dogma of the church is defined as that “which is believed everywhere, always, and by all.” This saying has served historically as a kind a “rule of thumb” to determine what belongs to the official dogma or teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. The problem is that this rule of thumb is much too stringent to permit purgatory to qualify as a dogma of the church. It simply cannot be shown that the church has everywhere and always and by all believed this to be an essential teaching.

But what of the Scriptural evidence for this dogma? Here three passages have traditionally been cited in support of this teaching: II Maccabees 12:43–45; Matthew 12:32; and I Corinthians 3:12–15. Other passages have been cited as well (e.g.: Isa. 4:4; Mic. 7:8; Zech. 9:11; Mal. 3:2,3; Matt. 5:22,25,26; Rev. 21:27), but these three are the only ones that approximate a proof for this dogma.

The first of these passages, II Maccabees 12:43–45, is found in one of the apocryphal books of the Old Testament and is not recognized as canonical or authoritative by the Reformed churches. The two books of Maccabees treat the Jewish struggle for religious and political freedom against the Seleucid kings, and are full of apparent exaggerations and moralisms. II Maccabees 12:43–45 describes a certain valiant Judas who makes provision for offerings to be taken and an “expiatory sacrifice” to be made on behalf of “the dead, so that they might be released from their sin.”5 Though this passage seems to lend some support for the idea of actions performed on behalf of the dead which release them from punishment, it does not come close to proving the dogma of purgatory. For example, the dead on whose behalf sacrifice and prayer are offered include soldiers who have committed the mortal sin of idolatry, a sin which cannot be atoned for in purgatory or by others who act on behalf of the person who dies in such mortal sin. Thus, even this apocryphal text does not support the dogma of purgatory since it speaks of satisfaction made in purgatory for mortal sin.

The second of these passages, Matthew 12:32, speaks of the sin against the Holy Spirit: “And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come.” Though this text clearly means only to teach that such sin will never be forgiven, it is taken by Roman Catholic exegetes to imply that some sins may be forgiven, not only in this age, but also in the age to come. However, even were this a plausible reading of the text (which it is not), it would still not answer to the need. For, since the “age to come” clearly refers to the age subsequent to Christ’s return, this refers to a period that follows purgatory and therefore cannot coincide with it. Purgatory will have ceased to exist, according to Catholic teaching, after the return of Christ and the establishment of the “age to come.”

The third of these passages, I Corinthians 3:12–15, describes a fire of judgment which will reveal and test the works of the righteous. In verses 13–15, we read: “[E]ach man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. Ifa ny man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.” Roman Catholic exegesis of this text argues that this is a description of a literal fire through which “the souls” of the departed will be cleansed. This fiery cleansing coincides with the state of purgatory.

Here again, a close examination of the text proves the error of this exegesis. This passage describes, not the cleansing of the souls of the departed, but the revealing and testing of the works of believers. Furthermore, this passage speaks of the believer being saved “as through” fire, not “through” fire in the sense of a literal punishment. Lastly, this passage describes what will occur on “the day,” that is, on the day of judgment when purgatory will be a thing of the past. There is really nothing, then, that lends itself in this passage to the kind of interpretation traditionally found among Roman Catholic defenders of the dogma of purgatory.

Not only do these most important passages fail to prove the dogma of purgatory, but also the passages cited in addition to them give no support whatever to this dogma. A reading of these passages could only support the dogma of purgatory, were that dogma already presumed and brought to the reading of them.

There is, accordingly, no adequate basis for the dogma of purgatory, whether in the tradition of the church or in the text of Scripture.


It is not only the lack of biblical support for this dogma, however, that is so disturbing. It is also the substantially unChristian character of this teaching that must be recognized. There are significant aspects of the gospel of salvation through the perfect work of Jesus Christ, our Mediator, that are imperiled by this teaching.

First, this dogma shifts the emphasis in our understanding of salvation from God to man. The focus of the dogma of purgatory falls upon the believer’s activity, cooperating with God’s grace to be sure, in performing satisfactions to remit the temporal penalty of sin. Not only must such satisfactions be made in this life—through the sacrament of penance and other good works—but they also extend into the intermediate state in purgatory. Furthermore, those only who escape purgatory are said to be “the saints,” believers who are said to have done “works of supererogation,” that is, works that surpass what is required and accrue to the benefit of others! Likewise, living believers can perform a diversity of good works on behalf of their beneficiaries in purgatory which “merit” a shortening of their stay in purgatory or the severity of their punishment. All of this smacks of a view of salvation in which the sovereign grace of God is diminished and the meritorious acts of believers are exalted. But this plainly contradicts the Scripture’s teaching that sinful man is incapable of doing any saving good (compare Rom. 3:21–27; 7:14–25; 8:3) and that God alone is able to save His people to the uttermost (compare Psalm 32:1–2; Rom. 7:24,25; Eph. 2:8,10; Tit. 3:4–7; I Pet. 1:19).

Second, the dogma of purgatory, in keeping with this shifting of emphasis from the work of God to the work of man, steals from the glory and perfection of the work of our Savior. To echo the language of John Calvin, we should do away with all talk of any “miserable satisfactions” performed by us, even if only done to satisfy the temporal penalty of our sins. Such satisfactions, including the unbloody sacrifices of the mass, are rendered altogether superfluous by the all-sufficient sacrifice and work of atonement Christ has accomplished on behalf of His own (compare Heb. 9:12,26; 10: 14). As the Scripture teaches, “The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:7; compare Heb. 5:9; Rev. 1:5). The inevitable and unhappy fruit of the dogma of purgatory is that it undermines the gospel of the triumph of God’s grace in Christ. Rather than rejoicing in God’s grace and mercy, richly lavished upon us in Christ Jesus, the believer is taught to fix his eye upon his own and others’ works on his behalf.

Third, the interest of the dogma of purgatory, to stress the need for purification and cleansing so as to fit the believer for God’s presence, cannot be met by the kind of human satisfactions and good works which this dogma encourages. The believer’s cleansing occurs through free justification and inward sanctification by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:1; 2 Thess. 2:13). Salvation by grace alone does not militate against the need for cleansing and purification; it only ascribes this cleansing and purification to the powerful working of the Holy Spirit, who alone is able to cleanse the believer through and through. Christ is given to His people for righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). This means that the purification of the believer comes, not through purgatory or works of satisfaction, but through the work of the Spirit who writes the law of God upon the heart (Heb. 10:16).

Fourth, there is in the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory the frightening specter of a church whose authority exceeds the boundaries of what is lawful. The authority of the church in the administration of the gospel is always a ministering authority, an administration of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. The church has no authority to bind the consciences of believers beyond the Word of God, or to impose satisfactions, upon pain of punishment, not required in that Word. Nor does the church (or pope) have the authority to release believers from purgatory. There is no escaping the fact that the dogma of purgatory grants to the church an unbiblical and cruel tyranny over believers, a tyranny that is at odds with the gospel overtures of grace and mercy. It is impossible to square this dogma with an overture like that found in Isaiah 55:1: “Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.”

More could be said about anyone of these problems with the dogma of purgatory. But this should be enough to illustrate how it robs the believer of that comfort which is rightfully his in Jesus Christ. It also conflicts with the blessed hope of an immediate and intensified communion with the Lord upon death in the intermediate state, of which I spoke in my last article. Against this dogma, it is enough to confess as believers that our only comfort in life and in death is that we belong to our faithful Savior, who has folly satisfied for all our sins! The preaching of this gospel comfort in our Lord Jesus Christ must overshadow and displace the unbiblical dogma of purgatory.


1. It is essential to note that, in traditional Catholic teaching, the priest is authorized to remit in Christ’s name the eternal penalty for sin in the sacrament of penance. Nevertheless, the priest thereupon stipulates “satisfactions” that must still be made for the temporal penalty of sin. Purgatory satisfies this temporal judgment and its unmet obligations, not the eternal judgment against sin.

2. The Council of Trent for this reason also emphasized the legitimacy of masses offered on behalf of the dead or masses offered though none of the living faithful are present to receive the body and blood of the Lord.The whole conception of the mass as an unbloody sacrifice, a propitiatory rite that merits grace, is closely joined to this understanding of purgatory.

3. To complete this summary of the Roman Catholic teaching regarding the intermediate state and purgatory, it is necessary to mention the traditional understanding of what are termed the Limbus patrum (“the place of the fathers”) and the Limbus infantum (“the place of the infants”). The first of these, the Limbus patrum, is the place reserved for the souls of Old Testament saints as they awaited the coming of Christ and His “descent into hell,” at which time he announced to them His victory and secured their release into paradise. The second of these, Limbus infantum, is the place reserved for infants who die still in the guilt and corruption of original sin, without opportunity having been given them through baptism to come to salvation. This , Limbus infantum is not an intermediate state, but a permanent department of hell, a place of lesser punishment, to which such infants are consigned. Though the teaching regarding the Limbus patrum is a settled part of Catholic teaching, there continues to be considerable debate regarding the status and nature of the Limbus infantum.

4. The Greek Orthodox church has a doctrine of purgatory, though it does not comprise an essential element of the dogma of the church. This doctrine explicitly rejects the medieval Catholic teaching that the believer suffers a “material” fire in purgatory. However, it is taught that the prayers of the living and the oblation of the bloodless sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ in the sacrament do aid the dead in their attainment of a blessed resurrection.

5. The New Jerusalem Bible translates this passage as follows: “For had he [Judas) not expected the fallen to rise again, it would have been superflous and foolish to pray for the dead, whereas if he had in view the splendid recompense reserved for those who make a pious end, the thought was holy and devout. Hence, he had this expiatory sacrifice offered for the dead, so that they might be released from sin.”

Dr. Venema, editor of this department teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary, Orange City, IA.