Question: Dr. Luginbill: I have a question about purgatory. I continue to follow your email commentaries on ichthys.com and work my way through your studies, when I have a chance. I really look forward to each new posting. I was wondering if I could take a moment of your time to ask about purgatory. As a former Catholic, I must admit that I never understood the concept of purgatory. Recently I was looking through the Catholic Encyclopedia and found some scriptures that were listed as evidence for the existence of purgatory. Among these were Matthew 12:32 and I Cor 3. Also, there were numerous references to writings of St. Augustine, St. Bernard, St. Isidore and Origen, just to name a few. Is there substantial scriptural evidence that proves the existence of purgatory? Take care and God bless!
Response: As far as "purgatory" is concerned, the passages adduced are the common ones that people who hold this strange idea often mention (often included too is 2Macc.12:39ff. - which, however, is from the Apocrypha and therefore is devoid of any pretense of biblical authority except in the view of the R.C. church, and then officially only since the fifteenth century). As to the church fathers, in my view one builds theology on the Bible, not on commentators of the Bible, no matter how famous they may be. This is true of modern "big names", of the reformers, and of all the "fathers" who went before. This is a also problem in Protestant as well as in R.C. and other circles. If a teaching cannot be clearly supported from the Bible, then it should be viewed as suspect. To the point, it is not as if Augustine and Origen and the like agree with each other on particulars (to the extent that people can really understand what they are saying in all instances over the time and language barriers). But scripture is pure and scripture is constant. Nothing, in my view, is more harmful or more ridiculous than to bring forth the name of a famous theologian of the past on a particular point of view, as if that settled the argument. I'm sorry to go on about this, but it is just this sort of thing that pushes people and their beliefs away from the truth and into man-made theologies that won't hold water. Case in point: my admittedly pedestrian understanding of Augustine's view of this is that souls are judged after death and purified or "purged" at that time (City of God, 21.13; 21:24). While he may have been a great man, nevertheless . . .
1) there is no "soul" per se (the Hebrew word nephesh and the Greek word psyche are synonyms for the heart, the interface between the spirit and the body). There is a human spirit and a body and thus will it ever be - the spirit, our immaterial part, is eternal, but this present body is mortal; how it changes in the future, for better or for worse, depends upon whether or not we choose Christ in this life (see in SR#3 "The dichotomy of man").
2) the judgment doesn't take place until the resurrection (that is true of believers and unbelievers alike); see The Time of Judgment in Peter #18, and for even more detail, in Coming Tribulation part 6, "The Last Judgment".
3) Christ died for our sins - they have been atoned for completely and thoroughly; He bore all of our sins in His body on the tree (1Pet.2:24; cf. Is.52-53; Rom.5:8; Heb.9:28; see the link: Unlimited Atonement); how, then, could there possibly be any further need for any "purging" of them in eternity? Scripture mentions none - anywhere (1Cor.3 and Rev.20 speak of "works" not sins - see below). If it did, this would be the equivalent of saying that Christ's work was somehow "not good enough" - heaven forbid! This point in particular shows how far back in the R.C. tradition the deadly tendency to put works over grace goes (cf. Eph.2:8-9).
So while Augustine may have been a "great philosopher", his teaching about purgatory is clearly only personal speculation devoid of any scriptural support or theological sense. In my humble opinion, he is out there in never-never-land, constructing a theology that fits what "he thinks" and often bears little or no relationship to the Bible. He may have been a "great mind", but I will prefer to stick with "the mind of Christ" no matter how "foolish" that may seem to some (1Cor.2:16). To top all this off, even so, Augustine does not actually teach a literal "purgatory" the way it has been fleshed out by later speculators. To believe in purgatory, one would really have to believe in a sort of "progressive revelation" beyond the Bible to the fathers and popes in which said fathers and popes have authority equal to the Bible - that is the only way to build anything on what Augustine and later fathers have to say about this subject.
As to the two biblical passages, Matt.12:32 and 1Cor.3:11-15, the former doesn't say anything about a "purgatory" or anything of the sort. The "unpardonable sin" is the rejection of Jesus Christ (who is witnessed to by the Spirit; see the link: What is the unpardonable sin?). The other passage, 1Cor.3:11-15, is indeed referring to judgment, the Judgment Seat of Christ (before which all believers must appear: Rom.14:10; 2Cor.5:10; see the link: The Judgment of the Church). First of all, this hasn't happened yet (see above). Secondly, notice that in that context of 1st Corinthians chapter three there is a contemporaneous burning up of the wood, hay, and stubble (i.e., no prolonged "purging" in some compartment of hell); also, the believer does not suffer pain, but is saved - although he/she suffers loss of reward because their works are burned up; finally, it is their "works" which are burned, not their sins. That is to say, the truly noble works a person has done for Jesus in this life are marvelous jewels that will form part of that believer's reward for all time, but it is the "junk" produced (i.e., wasting time out of false motives in cults or other organizations that are not truly serving Him) that is burned up.
In short, there is not a shred of scripture which even suggests anything like a purgatory. How this false doctrine started I leave to forensic historians who have nothing better to do with their time. Why it thrived in the R.C. church, however, I think is pretty obvious: fear of a terrible place in the after-life even for communicants is a nice way of keeping the flock under your thumb, and it can even be profitable (pay up and get uncle Joe released). No cult ever came up with a better device for keeping their chattel enslaved and making a buck at the same time.
Hope this is of some help. For background information, I recommend the article on purgatory in the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church ed. F. Cross. Being Anglican in orientation, it is sympathetic to the idea of purgatory, but nonetheless has a lot of good references to the fathers etc. (this is where I got the Augustine ref).
Please also see the link, in CT 6 "The Last Judgment: Revelation 20:11-15".
In Him whose Word is the only truth, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.