Image of souls being purified by flames in purgatory. Wikipedia photo by Peter Schmelzle

Ask A Catholic: Is There Really a Purgatory?

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By Matthew Sewell

Is there really a Purgatory? I went to Catholic schools, grade and high school and was taught that there was. But in my years lately I feel Purgatory is here on earth. I was told by a Jesuit priest that it isn’t in the Bible so what am I to believe now? Someone suggested to read a few different books of which I purchased one at a bookstore here in town called “Souls in Purgatory.” Also some other ones. Can you give me some good advice of what I should believe?

catholicThis is a good question, since Purgatory tends can be a confusing and potentially controversial topic.

First, there really is a Purgatory.

Second, references to purgatory and its purpose do indeed appear in Scripture.

While some references don’t appear in the Bibles used by the vast majority of Protestant denominations, the plainest examples do appear in everyone’s Bibles. (See my piece on the difference between Catholic and Protestant Bibles here — more on the Scripture reference in a moment.)

Purgatory, as defined by the Catholic Church, is not a “third” eternal dwelling place along with heaven or hell, insofar as it’s an alternative option for where a person may spend eternity. Instead, Purgatory, from the same root as to purge or to purify, is a place of purification in preparation for heaven.

Here’s what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about Purgatory:

“All who die in God’s grace, 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 (1030).”

So basically, if you make it to Purgatory, your soul is destined for heaven. But it just needs a bit of cleaning up first.

Though the original reference to Purgatory comes from 2 Maccabees 12:39-46, in which Judas Maccabeus and his men pray for the souls of their deceased comrades, perhaps the clearest Scriptural reference comes from none other than St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians:

“For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (3:11-15; emphasis added)

The image of fire, not as consuming but instead as cleansing, is St. Paul’s metaphor of choice for describing the purification — the purgation — we receive when we die in God’s grace but our souls aren’t yet as squeaky clean as they need to be. This perfection is affirmed in Revelation 21:27: “But nothing unclean shall enter [heaven].”

And so, Purgatory not only exists, but it is a necessity if we believe that there are varying levels and severities of sin. If we die with a small amount of sin (venial) on our hearts, but we still die in God’s friendship, what happens to that sin?

With only two possible places to go, as most Protestants have come to believe, we would necessarily be sent to hell for even the smallest shred of sin on our hearts at death, precisely because nothing stained may enter heaven.

The alternative — that God might cleanse our souls of that sin before allowing us entry into heaven — is only possible with the existence of a “stop along the way” — also known as Purgatory.

About Matthew Sewell

Matthew Sewell, a Denver Broncos fan and amateur Chestertonian, loves golf, music, truth and good food. A lifelong Catholic, he graduated from a Catholic college (Carroll College; Helena, Mont.) but experienced a "re-version" to the faith during graduate studies at a state school (N. Arizona; Flagstaff, Ariz.). Irony is also one of his favorite things. He and his wife currently reside in Spokane, though they're Montanans at heart. He blogs at

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  1. This completely contradicts Paul’s “golden chain” in Romans. “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” These words are all in the past tense in the Greek text meaning that our sin is not something that is carried with us into the afterlife, but that we are actually credited with the same righteousness as Jesus as evidenced by the tense of justification, which any orthodox theologian will confirm as the legal act where God declares the sinner to be innocent of his or her sins. So if it’s past tense in relation to this time, then that absolutely rules out our sins being carried with us into the afterlife for some “cleaning up.” Maccabees is an apocryphal book and there’s good reasons why it’s not included in evangelical canon, just the same as Bel and the Dragon and the gospel of Judas. They do not synergize nor confirm with other accepted pieces of scripture. There is no strong argument for Purgatory. If the Bible cared to mention and even treat Heaven and Hell as proper nouns, then it stands to say that Purgatory should be an important enough place to bear mentioning, and yet it’s suspiciously missing from all respected texts.

    • I disagree. St. Paul is talking about our rebirth in Christ as adopted sons of the Father, and what happens if we cooperate with God’s grace working through that gift. The “predestination” Paul talks about is not a promise that we’ll all be in heaven — because that would mean our behavior, good or bad, is utterly meaningless — but is rather talking about God’s plan from the beginning of creation that we can be become his adopted sons and daughters through the waters of baptism. He also doesn’t make any mention that Purgatory specifically does *not* exist — absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

      With regard to 1 & 2 Maccabees, those books (as I mentioned in the post I previously wrote, that’s linked above) were accepted as scripture for 1500 years before Martin Luther unceremoniously removed them and 5 others (not to mention wishing and failing to remove the book of James, as well). The origins of the deuterocanonical books are light years different from any apocryphal *gospel* for many reasons, and it’s inappropriate to conflate the two.

      • No, predestination has nothing to do with cooperation. It happened before time immemorial, that’s why it’s in the past tense. God eternally past has known who were his and who were not, and it had nothing to do with anything that you could impact. Romans is written to believers, so your point about it implying christian universalism is untrue. Predestination is the first link in what eventually becomes glorification which is eternity with God, which we know can only be found in belief in Jesus Christ, therefore believers have been predestined to this belief itself. ““For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Likeness of his Son, imputed with the same righteousness as Jesus had. No mention of waters of baptism. Also, the term foreknew only gives more credence to the commonly accepted definition of predestination.

        “He also doesn’t make any mention that Purgatory specifically does *not* exist — absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Nope, that’s not how argumentation works. The burden of proof is on you to furnish the evidence from the scriptures to support your point. And that’s besides the point, he specifically does mention heaven and hell and yet doesn’t mention purgatory, yet wouldn’t that seem important to know that we do not immediately join God upon death? Your assertion makes Jesus’ words on the cross to the thief a complete lie. Jesus says “today you will be with me in paradise.” not “in a immeasurable amount of time after your afterlife soul has been purified, you will be in paradise. This man was unsaved until the very moment he was crucified, he did nothing good, and yet Jesus says he will be with him in paradise that very day. Not a single utterance of his soul needing to be cleansed. Jesus is a liar if you’re correct.

        Martin Luther had 95 discrepancies with the Anglican tradition, so that should come as no surprise. Remember, purgatory comes from the same train of thought as indulgences, being able to spend money at the catholic church to receive a free pass to sin. So to think that the catholic canon is any more holy than the evangelical is short sighted.

      • Additionally, your assertion necessitates the belief that we must continually ask for forgiveness, which makes sense because you are arguing from catholic tradition, which is fine. However, mainstream evangelical thought has coherent arguments as to why forgiveness happen once and for all, and is not progressive. This is the reason catholic churches still have Jesus on the cross and evangelical churches have an empty cross as their symbols, Jesus paid for sins once and for all for any who would believe in his name. It doesn’t say continue asking for forgiveness, it says believe on Him. Hence the past tense golden chain in Romans. Jesus had paid every debt past, present, and future. All that remains is for those who would believe in Him to claim His payment for them.

        • I appreciate your willingness to comment and engage in discussion, so thanks for your comments! Unfortunately, with how limited this type of interaction can be, there just isn’t a way that’s time-efficient or at all productive to address all the claims you’re making, not to mention the added fact that we disagree so widely will protract the conversation past what I’m willing to participate in.

          That said, there are a lot of preconceived notions about what the Catholic Church is about, so I encourage you, as you’re able, to read and learn from the teachers and saints that Catholicism holds in highest esteem — Augustine, Jerome, Irenaeus, Ignatius of Antioch, Thomas Aquinas, GK Chesterton, Benedict XVI, Therese of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, etc. It is those writers, saints, and mystics who taught me about the richness and majesty of the Catholic faith, so I hope you’re able to find the same!

  2. “With only two possible places to go, as most Protestants have come to believe, we would necessarily be sent to hell for even the smallest shred of sin on our hearts at death, precisely because nothing stained may enter heaven.”

    Matthew as a Protestant, I’ve never been taught this or teach this. Is this what you think we believe?

    • Hey Eric, thanks for your comment – Sorry if I wasn’t super clear with that sentence. The only part I was stating that Protestants believe was that there are only two possible places to go (heaven & hell) immediately after death. With the second half of that sentence I didn’t mean to imply that Protestants believe it, but rather that this is the logical conclusion from such a belief.

      The intent behind the way I arranged the sentence was to say that believing in only Heaven and Hell necessarily suggests that dying in God’s grace allows, basically, no room for error at the point of death — that if Purgatory didn’t exist (that is, a place – or even just a *state* of being – where our souls are cleansed after death and prepared finally for heaven), even the slightest stain of sin would send us to hell. Since no sin can enter heaven, the only place left for a sin-stained soul to go, even if it’s the slightest, itty-bittiest shred of sin, is to hell.

      That, to me, doesn’t make sense – it seems reasonable instead that God’s mercy would allow for some mechanism, some “something” that allows our human souls to be finally perfected before entering heaven. That “something” is what Catholics have referred to as Purgatory.

    • Notwithstanding, I would also love to know what Protestants believe / are taught on the subject 🙂

      • Obviously this is a big discussion but in brief, I’d say the difference seems to be in the Protestant view of the effectual reality of the cleansing of sin through the work of Christ on the cross. A perfect sacrifice, evidenced by the resurrection and witnessed by the Spirit in the conscience of the believer by faith, through the Word of God.

        1 John 1:9
        If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

        Hebrews 10:14
        For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

        Hebrews 9:14
        Just think how much more the blood of Christ will purify our consciences from sinful deeds so that we can worship the living God. For by the power of the eternal Spirit, Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins.

  3. On the occasion of All Souls’ Day, I offer some great further reading on Purgatory:

    “Purgatory is Based on a Promise of Jesus” –

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