Purgatory: When our works are tested with fire.

Some Christians believe there’s no such thing. Here’s why the others believe it exists—in whatever form they imagine it.

Many Christians figure they’re C.S. Lewis fans ’cause they read his Narnia books, as I did in fifth grade. In high school I read his Mere Christianity, and in college I took advantage of its much-larger Lewis collection to read everything I could find. Including, it turned out, his academic stuff… which leads to another story I’ll tell another time.

One of his books was The Great Divorce, Lewis’s attempt to tell a Divine Comedy-style tour of purgatory, with George MacDonald as his guide instead of Virgil. It’s interesting because it gives examples of the sort of people who aren’t ready for heaven. But the book is a big hurdle for various Christians—in particular Fundamentalists—because they don’t believe in purgatory. Depending on how gracious they are (or aren’t), they’d assign Lewis’s case studies to either heaven or hell, and that’s that.

I’ve since found a number of self-described “Lewis fans” have never read The Great Divorce, and those who have, don’t entirely know what to do with it. Lewis was an Anglican, and since the Church of England believes in purgatory, so did he. My acquaintances were largely Assemblies, Baptists, or unaffiliated Fundies, and really didn’t like how their favorite author believed in something they consider “too Catholic” for their tastes. I get that, ’cause I used to be in the same boat: I dismissed purgatory as a ridiculous, non-biblical Catholic invention, invented as a loophole for good pagans who didn’t embrace Jesus, but might if they had one more chance in the afterlife.

Except that’s not what Catholics teach about purgatory. It’s what they teach about limbo. By which I don’t mean the game where you lean backwards under a bar without touching it; I mean the belief there’s a place in the afterlife which isn’t paradise, but isn’t torment either (well, unless the fact you’re never going to heaven is torment), where good pagans and unbaptized Christians go. (Although nowadays most of ’em teach unbaptized Christians go to purgatory.)

What is purgatory then? Purgatory is where you go before you go to paradise or heaven. Because when we die, we still have some sins on our souls, and these sins need to be removed before we can go onward and upward. Purgatory’s where we get those sins removed. That done, we’re clean, and can now enter God’s presence unhindered.

Is purgatory in the bible? Well, kinda. But the very little which suggests the existence of purgatory, has been pulled and stretched like taffy. Those who don’t believe in purgatory rightly point out far too much has been extrapolated from far too little. You know, like the Left Behind novels.

The biblical basis.

The two main bible passages which have to do with purgatory, are these.

2 Maccabees 12.39-45 KWL
39 Those with Judas who needed to retrieve the bodies of the fallen and bring them back to their ancestral graves,
to lie with their relatives, came in what time they had.
40 They found an amulet from Yavneh under the tunic of each of the dead—
an idol which the Law bans from Judeans.
It became clear to all: This was the reason they had fallen.
41 So everyone blessed the Lord’s righteousness, which makes the hidden known.
42 They turned to God for a request—that he count worthy those who’d become sinners,
and plaster over their sins completely.
The noble Judas comforted the masses, to preserve those who hadn’t sinned,
who’d seen for themselves what happened to those who fell into sin.
43 Gathering 2,000 drachmas of silver from the roll of soldiers,
Judas sent it to Jerusalem as a sin offering.
This was an altogether well and beautiful act, taking the resurrection into account:
44 If the fallen aren’t expected to be resurrected, it’s wasteful and silly to pray for the dead.
45 Ought one look forward, with godliness, to those who “sleep”
as a beautiful thanksgiving to be kept in store? It’s a holy and pious thought.
Thus Judas made atonement for those who died, to free them from their sin.

I know. Some of you are thinking, “Who’s Judas? What’s 2 Maccabees? Is that book even in the bible?” Yes—in Orthodox and Roman Catholic bibles. It’s one of the books of the Septuagint which made it into their bibles. Since most Protestants base our Old Testament on the Tanakh, not the Septuagint, we call those books Apocrypha. (Catholics call them deuterocanon, and Orthodox just call ’em the scriptures.) When Protestants don’t consider 2 Maccabees to be bible, we understandably don’t base any of our teachings on it. When they do (like most Anglicans do) they use it as a basis for believing in purgatory.

Okay. So the context of this 2 Maccabees passage is when Judas Maccabee and the Judeans were fighting the pagan Syrians for their independence. And after this particular battle, Judas discovered their fallen comrades were wearing pagan good luck charms—and that was why they died in battle. So to atone for their sin, Judas made a monetary sin offering, and the author of 2 Maccabees states this was the right thing to do, ’cause resurrection: Death isn’t permanent. They will rise again. So it is possible for the dead to be forgiven their sins.

Now, this idea doesn’t work for certain Evangelicals. We insist once you’re dead, all your chances to be forgiven are over. That’s why you gotta turn to Jesus before you die—we’re really sure you can’t later! But Judas believed God’s grace extended to them too. True, they screwed up big time. But it shouldn’t ban them from God’s kingdom altogether. The author of 2 Maccabees believed likewise. So if you think 2 Maccabees is inspired scripture, you gotta accept the possibility.

I do agree God’s grace is unlimited, so yeah, if he wants, he can overlook the foolish superstitions of good luck charms. The Judeans’ amulets had their origin in Baalism, but these guys were nonetheless fighting for the right to worship the LORD, so I have my doubts about how far they were into idolatry. (Possibly not at all, and they were wearing those amulets for sentimental reasons, or because they promised their Baalist parents. We don’t know!) Still, I don’t know that we can extrapolate purgatory from this 2 Maccabees passage—even if we do consider it bible.

And there’s still the New Testament passage to deal with, so let’s look at that now.

1 Corinthians 3.10-15 KWL
10 By God’s grace given to me, I made a foundation like a wise architect.
Others build it. Each person must watch how they build!
11 No one’s able to make a foundation other than what’s there—which is Christ Jesus.
12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, rare stones, wood, grass, straw,
13 each work becomes known: Judgment Day makes it obvious.
It’s revealed by fire, and every work of every sort is tested by fire.
14 If a certain work built on the foundation remains, it’ll get a paycheck.
15 If a certain work will burn down, it’s lost. That person themself will be saved—but like out of a fire.

Now here’s a more solid foundation for the purgatory idea: When we stand before Jesus on Judgment Day, our works get tested with fire. Not necessarily literal fire, like some imagine purgatory, but unworthy works will be burnt up as if you took a match to gunpowder. So if we have any useless works, self-serving works, evil works we were trying to pass off as good works (and Jesus knows better): They burn up. They’re gone. They don’t survive enroute to New Heaven.

And every follower of God, everyone who believes in Jesus, gets tested this way. No exceptions. Everybody’s works get purged.

Obviously this passage isn’t about non-Christians, nor good pagans who are nearly good enough for New Heaven but just need a few sins scoured off them. Purgatory isn’t for almost-Christians, for nearly-Christians, for coulda-been-Christians. Purgatory is only for people who are going into the kingdom. They’ve been resurrected, they’re being judged, and they’re going to New Heaven and New Earth. But first, our evil deeds are getting purged from us. Nothing survives but what’s pure, good, and founded upon Jesus.

So when I talk about purgatory, this is what I mean by it. It’s not a place like hell but not as bad; it’s not “heck.” I wouldn’t even call it a place. It’s more like getting a shower… but, y’know, with fire. Nor do I imagine, as some Christians do, it’ll last years: It’s either quick or instantaneous. Why need it take longer? It’s not meant as torture or punishment. It’s meant to destroy evil.

Once I explain it to people this way, some Christians respond, “Oh. That makes sense.” They won’t wanna call it purgatory—and they don’t have to—but they’re fine with the idea. Of course there are still lots of anti-Catholics out there, who have a serious hangup about any idea which sounds “too Catholic” to them, and they insist—scripture to the contrary—there’s no purging fire for Christians’ works to go through. We just go straight to heaven.

Well, purgatory or purgation isn’t a mandatory belief, so I let it slide. On Judgment Day we’ll discover how right or wrong we are. Hopefully we’ll all have some good deeds we get to take with us to New Heaven; we won’t be one of those sorry Christians who get to go into the kingdom, but have absolutely nothing to take with ’em. That’ll be sad.

The anti-purgatory view.

Those who are entirely sure there’s no such thing as purgatory, tend to point to the story of Jesus and the believing thief. Tradition calls him Dismas, so for convenience I’ll call him that too.

Luke 23.39-43 KWL
39 One of the hanging evildoers was slandering Jesus, saying,
“Aren’t you Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
40 In rebuking reply, the other said, “Have you no respect for God? We’re under his judgment!
41 And we rightly so, for we got the consequence for what we practiced.
But this man did nothing wrong.”
42 He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.“
43 Jesus said, “Amen! I promise you’ll be with me in paradise today.“

If ever there was a candidate for purgatory, it’d be Dismas. The Romans had a bad habit of crucifying people for really minor crimes (or, in Jesus’s case, because he was politically inconvenient), but Dismas admitted he and his fellow evildoer totally deserved death for what they did. It’s why traditions speculate they were insurrectionists or highwaymen, people who murdered their victims for political or monetary gain.

Murderer or not, Jesus said he’d be “in paradise today”—the very same day both Jesus and Dismas died. If there’s such a place as purgatory, Jesus just gave him a get-out-of-purgatory-free card.

As Martin Luther pointed out in his 95 theses, if there’s such a thing as get-out-of-purgatory-free cards, why can’t everyone get one? (And wasn’t it utter simony for the Roman church to be selling such cards? Selling forgiveness? Selling grace? Yeah, I’m with Luther on that one.) But the simpler explanation for many people is there’s no such place as purgatory. There’s paradise or ge-Henna, and after the resurrection, New Jerusalem or the burning pool of sulfur.

The idea of undergoing some additional trial, some sort of purging—even if it’s quick and even painless—doesn’t sit right with a lot of Christians. If Jesus really and truly paid for all our sins, if God totally saved us by his grace, if our karma doesn’t factor into salvation whatsoever, what purpose is there for a purging? To them, it doesn’t sound at all like grace, so it can’t be part of the End.

Which I get. And I agree: That view of purgatory doesn’t sound like grace. But that view of purgatory isn’t what the scriptures have described. We are saved by God’s grace. We do go into the kingdom because of Jesus’s merit, not our own.

But our works also go into the kingdom because of Jesus’s merit—because they have him as a foundation. And when they don’t, they burn.