Where is Purgatory in the Bible? The Complete Guide

I once heard a priest being asked about Purgatory. This priest had just retired from the University of Notre Dame theology department where he had served as a tenured professor. He was asked whether Catholics still believed in Purgatory. Do you know what he said? 

He completely affirmed the Church's teaching on Purgatory in the most breath-taking way imaginable. His answer left us all emboldened to spread the Gospel. The priest's answer was rich in references to the Bible. Most of all, he left with us an abiding hope for the future and a foretaste of Heaven. 

Actually, the priest's answer wasn't any of those things. But it should have been. It could have been.

Want to know what the priest really said? "Closed for Repairs." He said that, theologically speaking, the doctrine of Purgatory was a darkened building with a sign hanging on its front door. The sign read "Closed for Repairs." 

This answer couldn't be farther from the truth. Here is what his answer could have been. 


Where to Start? The Catechism: What is Purgatory?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1030, gives us the following definition of 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.

There's the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory in a nutshell. Note: there's no "Closed for Repairs" sign. Purgatory is open for business. 

Purgatory is this place of "purification." One does not simply go into Heaven, unless you're a state. People like you and me, we have to be ready for the blinding and terrifying "JOY of Heaven.

So, what's the Latin word for "a place of purification"? 

In Medieval Latin, the word for this place is "Purgatorium." This word then became "Purgatory" in Middle English. The word "purgatory" also comes directly from Scripture, as we'll discuss below regarding 1 Corinthians 3:15.

Here's a great introduction to Purgatory from Father Mike Schmitz: 


Make sure to watch Father Mike's video, above, for the great C. S. Lewis quote about Purgatory! Father also gives a great introduction of a key Bible verse on Purgatory: 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. We'll talk more about this below.  

Important Note!

All those in Purgatory are ultimately destined for Heaven. According to Paragraph 1030, above, all those in Purgatory are "indeed assured of their eternal salvation."

The Bible is clear. "But nothing unclean shall enter [Heaven]" (Rev. 21:27). We can't enter into perfection until we've been perfected. We can't withstand the pure, unfettered countenance of God until we've been purified. 

Great. Purgatory makes logical sense, but ...

Where's Purgatory in the Bible?

There are several places in the Bible where we can find a basis for Purgatory. Purgatory is described as a sort of prison at Matthew 5:24-25. 2 There's also 2 Maccabees 12:44-45, in which the Jews pray for the souls of the dead. 

Here's a great video of Jimmy Akin (Catholic Answers) showing where you can find Purgatory in the Bible:


But the plainest, most straight-forward text to defend Purgatory is 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. 

The Bible's clearest description of Purgatory: 1 Corinthians 3:11-15

Saint Paul compares our lives to a building and our works to its bricks. Hopefully, we built on the correct foundation, Jesus Christ. Our lives are then God's Temple. But what happens to the Temple at death?

According to the commission of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. 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 (Gr. dia puros).
[1 Corinthians 3:11-15 RSVCE]

Our lives are a temple that is burned up when we die. The "fire will test" the quality of each person's work. Our good works will be like gold and "precious stones." Our bad works will be like "hay, stubble." 



The bad will be burned up. The good will remain. Let's hope something remains! 

If our temple "survives" the fire, we "will receive a reward." What's our "reward"? The reward is the reward of all rewards. It's the golden ticket! The reward is Heaven. 

What happens, though, if our temple is burned to the ground? What if nothing survives the fire? Saint Paul tells us that we will "suffer loss," BUT we "will be saved." 

There are a few things to notice: 

1. Where is all this burning happening? 

All this burning is happening after death. After the burning comes the reward. Therefore, this is a place between death and Heaven. It can't be hell, because there's no possibility of a reward for those in Hell. It's after death and not Heaven or Hell. What is this third place? Catholics call it Purgatory.

2. Who "will be saved?" Only those with a surviving building?

No! Both will be saved. Those of us with gold buildings unscorched by the flames will survive. Those of us with only ashes will also survive. Why? Because the foundation remains. What was the foundation? Jesus Christ. 

3. Good works are important!

St. Paul tells us that our good works are like gold bricks. They will remain forever. However, even a man who built a house of straw (on the foundation of Christ) will be saved. 

Lastly, it says "we will be saved," but how will be saved? 

Through the Flames! The Word Purgatory is in the Bible

Did you notice the last part of the passage? Here is 1 Corinthians 3:15 again for reference:

If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through fire (Gr. dia puros).

The word puros appears three times in the above passage from 1 Corinthians. Puros means fire. The Greek word puros becomes pyros in Latin. You may recognize the Latin prefix pyr- in words like pyro-technics (fireworks) or even a pyro-maniac. Pyros doesn't get us to Purgatory, however. 

A fire which purifies ...

The origin of puros, however, is from the Sanskrit for "pure" or "purify."[1] The word purigare in Old Latin is formed from purus "pure" and the root of agere "to set in motion, drive; to do, perform." The Medieval Latin word purgatorium, "means of cleansing," was then formed from purigare or purgare. Finally, the Latin word purgatorium comes into English as "purgatory." 

The word "Purgatory," then, can be found in the Bible through the Greek word puros found at 1 Corinthians 3:15.

"Through Fire" Literal? As Literal as Born Again "Through Water"

"Through fire" is not merely proverbial. Based on the way the Greek is structured, "fire" is the instrument by which we are saved.[2] The fire is the means by which a person is saved. 

Saint Peter uses the same phrase to describe the testing of our faith at 1 Peter 1:7. And again, Saint Peter uses dia udatos (2 Peter 3:20) to describe those who escaped the flood aboard Noah's Ark.

Want some more Bible verses on Purgatory?

Purgatory is all over the Bible! It's in both the New and the Old Testament.

Matthew 5:22,24-25


(22) But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, “You fool!” shall be liable to the hell of fire ... (25) Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; (26) truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.


Saint Frances de Sales argues that in verse 22 "it is only the third sort of offence which is punished with hell; therefore in the judgment of God after this life there are other pains which are not eternal or infernal — these are the pains of Purgatory."[3] 



Also, the “prison” alluded to in verse 25 is Purgatory, according to Tertullian, St. Cyprian, Origen, St. Ambrose, and St. Jerome. The “penny” represents the most minor sins that one commits.

Also, here's another one from the same gospel: Matthew 12:32. This one is explained by Franciscan Friar Joseph Mary, below:



2 Maccabees 12:44-45 

[44] For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. [45] But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.

Ask yourself, why are the Jews offering atonement and prayers for the dead? The dead in Hell cannot use our prayers. The dead in Heaven do not need our prayers.

These verses presuppose a place distinct from Heaven and Hell. In this place, dead people are waiting to be "delivered from their sin."

Moreover, such prayer is considered a "holy and pious thought." In fact, it is a work of mercy for the dead.

Be careful, though. Second Maccabees should be the last book of the Old Testament, but Protestants removed the book from the Bible beginning in the 16th Century. How's that for sola scriptura?

Micah 7:9: 

I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me forth to the light; I shall behold his deliverance.

Isaiah 4:4 

When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. 

Psalm 66:12:

Thou didst let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet thou hast brought us forth to a spacious place.

Also, the Early Church on Purgatory: Statements from the Church Fathers

Collected from Catholic Church in America and The Roots of Purgatory, Catholic Answers:

Clement of Alexandria


The believer through discipline divests himself of his passions and passes to the mansion which is better than the former one, passes to the greatest torment, taking with him the characteristic of repentance for the faults he may have committed after baptism. He is tortured then still more, not yet attaining what he sees others have acquired. The greatest torments are assigned to the believer, for God's righteousness is good, and His goodness righteous, and though these punishments cease in the course of the expiation and purification of each one, "yet" etc. (Patres Groeci. IX, col. 332 [A.D. 150-215]).

Origen


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 (I Cor., 3); 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. (Patres Groeci. XIII, col. 445, 448 [A.D. 185-232]).


"As John stood near the Jordan among those who came to be baptized, accepting those who confessed their vices and their sins and rejecting the rest ... so will the Lord Jesus Christ stand in a river of fire next to a flaming sword and Baptize all those who should go to Paradise after they die, but who lack purgation... But those who do not bear the mark of the first Baptism will not be baptized in the bath of fire. One must first be Baptized in water and Spirit so that,  when the river of fire is reached, the marks of the baths of water and Spirit will remain as signs that one is worthy of receiving the Baptism of fire in Jesus Christ." (Origen, Commentary on Luke, 24th Homily, before 253 A.D)

Abercius

The citizen of a prominent city, I erected this while I lived, that I might have a resting place for my body. Abercius is my name, a disciple of the chaste shepherd who feeds his sheep on the mountains and in the fields, who has great eyes surveying everywhere, who taught me the faithful writings of life. Standing by, I, Abercius, ordered this to be inscribed; truly I was in my seventy-second year. May everyone who is in accord with this and who understands it pray for Abercius (Epitaph of Abercius [A.D. 190]).

The Acts of Paul and Thecla

"And after the exhibition, Tryphaena again received her [Thecla]. For her daughter Falconilla had died, and said to her in a dream: ‘Mother, you shall have this stranger Thecla in my place, in order that she may pray concerning me, and that I may be transferred to the place of the righteous’" (Acts of Paul and Thecla [A.D. 160]). 

Tertullian

That allegory of the Lord [Matt. 5:25-26] . . . is extremely clear and simple in its meaning . . . [beware lest as] a transgressor of your agreement, before God the judge . . . and lest this Judge deliver you over to the angel who is to execute the sentence, and he commits you to the prison of hell, out of which there will be no dismissal until the smallest even of your delinquencies be paid off in the period before the resurrection. What can be a more fitting sense than this? What a truer interpretation? (The Soul 35 [A.D. 210]).
"This place, the Bosom of Abraham, though not in Heaven, and yet above hell, offers the souls of the righteous an interim refreshment until the end of all things brings about the general resurrection and the final reward." (Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4:34, before 220 A.D.)
"Indeed she [a widow] prays for his [her husband's] soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection [Heaven].  And each year, on the anniversity of his death, she offers the Sacrifice [i.e., has a Mass said for him]."  (Tertullian, On Monagomy, 212 A.D.)

Cyprian of Carthage

It is one thing to stand for pardon, another thing to attain to glory; it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire; another to have purged all sins by suffering. It is one thing, in fine, to be in suspense till the sentence of God at the Day of judgment; another to be at once crowned by the Lord (Letters 51[55]:20 [A.D. 253]).

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity

"[T]hat very night, this was shown to me in a vision: I [Perpetua] saw Dinocrates going out from a gloomy place, where also there were several others, and he was parched and very thirsty, with a filthy countenance and pallid color, and the wound on his face which he had when he died. This Dinocrates had been my brother after the flesh, seven years of age, who died miserably with disease. . . . For him I had made my prayer, and between him and me there was a large interval, so that neither of us could approach to the other . . . and [I] knew that my brother was in suffering. But I trusted that my prayer would bring help to his suffering; and I prayed for him every day until we passed over into the prison of the camp, for we were to fight in the camp-show. Then . . . I made my prayer for my brother day and night, groaning and weeping that he might be granted to me. Then, on the day on which we remained in fetters, this was shown to me: I saw that the place which I had formerly observed to be in gloom was now bright; and Dinocrates, with a clean body well clad, was finding refreshment. . . . [And] he went away from the water to play joyously, after the manner of children, and I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment" (The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity 2:3–4 [A.D. 202]). 

Cyril of Jerusalem

Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition, next, we make mention also of the holy fathers and bishops who have already fallen asleep, and, to put it simply, of all among us who have already fallen asleep. For We believe that it will be of very great benefit to the souls of those for whom the petition is carried up, while this holy and most solemn sacrifice is laid out (Catechetical Lectures 23:5:9 [A.D. 350]).

John Chrysostom

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice [Job l:5), 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 (Homilies on First Corinthians 41:5 (A.D. 392)).

Not in vain was it decreed by the apostles that in the awesome mysteries remembrance should be made of the departed. They knew that here there was much gain for them, much benefit. When the entire people stands with hands uplifted, a priestly assembly, and that awesome sacrificial victim is laid out, how, when we are calling upon God, should we not succeed in their defense? But this is done for those who have departed in the faith, while even the catechumens are not reckoned as worthy of this consolation, but are deprived of every means of assistance except one. And what is that? We may give alms to the poor on their behalf (Homilies on Philippians 3:9-10 [A.D. 402]).

Ambrose of Milan

Give perfect rest to thy servant Theodosius, that rest which thou hast prepared for thy saints… I have loved him, and therefore will I follow him into the land of the living; nor will I leave him until by tears and prayers I shall lead him wither his merits summon him, unto the holy mountain of the Lord (Funeral Sermon of Theodosius 36-37 [A.D. 395]).

Augustine

There is an ecclesiastical discipline, as the faithful know, when the names of the martyrs are read aloud in that place at the altar of God, where prayer is not offered for them. Prayer, however, is offered for other dead who are remembered. It is wrong to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we ought ourselves be commended (Sermons 159:1 [A.D. 411]).
Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment (The City of God 21:13 [A.D. 419]).
That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible, and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Charity 18:69 [A.D. 421])

St. Clement of Alexandria

"In the other life there will be two fires, a 'devouring and consuming' one for the incorrigible, and for the rest, a fire that 'sanctifies' and 'does not consume, like the fire of the forge,' a 'prudent, intelligent' fire which penetrates the soul that passes through it." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 8.6, c. before 215 A.D.)

St. Basil the Great

"...and if they [i.e., Christians who die] are found to have any wounds from their wrestling, any stains or effects of sin, they are detained.  If, however, they are found unwounded and without stain, they are, as unconquered, brought by Christ into their rest."  (Basil, Homilies and Psalms, 370 A.D.)  

St. Gregory of Nyssa 

"...he [the departed soul] is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by purifying fire."  (Sermon on the Dead)





Footnotes on Purgatory

[1] cf. Thayer's Greek Lexicon, Strong's New Testament 4442: πῦρ
[2] Trent Horn, The Case for Catholicism: Answers to Classic and Contemporary Protestant Objections, Ignatius Press 2017; "Purgatory": "Moreover, in the New Testament, as well as the surround Greek literature, when the verb 'to save' (sozo) is combined with the preposition "through" (dia) and with a noun in the genitive case, the preposition is almost always used in an instrumental sense." 
[3] The Catholic Controversy, translated by Henry B. Mackey, Rockford, Illinois: TAN Books, 1989 [orig. 1596], p. 373

3 comments:

  1. Dear Scott,

    After reading this article I telephoned my Partner in Torah to ask her why the Jews pray for the dead. From my childhood, I remembered my mother lighting yahrzeit candles for her father, mother and, of course, for my father.

    My Partner in Torah told me that this is an act of remembrance for the dead, however, it is not a prayer for the dead. She went on to tell me that there are a few times during the year on certain Jewish holidays, such as Yom Kippur, where the Jews do pray for the dead. However, she said that they only pray for lost loved ones and Holocaust victims.

    I asked her if they pray for all deceased Jews and she said no. I found this very sad. I thought to myself what about all of the Jewish souls that have lived and have no one to pray for them. She agreed that this was very sad.

    I asked her why the Jews pray for the dead, since if they are in heaven, they would not need our prayers, or if in gehinnon they could not use our prayers.

    Without me ever mentioning the word 'Purgatory', she told me that the Jews believe that after death their souls go to purgatory for one year, where they are judged. She also used an allegory for different levels in heaven. She said that for every mitzvah (good deed) that we do, it benefits our deceased relatives in heaven. She said it's like as if they are sitting in an amphithearter, and with each good deed that we do for them, they get to move up a row.

    I wanted to share this information with you. I was completely amazed to learn that the Jews believe in purgatory. I never knew this.

    Blessings!

    Melissa

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    1. Wow! That's all very interesting. I often wonder in what ways contemporary Jews preserve the traditions of Temple-era Jews. It's interesting that it's just for one year. I wonder if the word that describes this year is like "yom," which could mean "day" but also an indeterminate amount of time, as if to say it's an experience outside of time. Very thought-provoking! Thanks!

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    2. Hey! I wanted you to know that I'm following up on this. I just had lunch with Deacon Bob Fishman, a Jewish convert who is now a deacon. He said he was familiar with the one year in Purgatory idea, unfortunately, or where that came from. I'm still looking for the answer, though! A priest was also present who said that Christian mystics have said something about 30 years in Purgatory, and that the Jewish mystics may have come up with something similar. I'll keep looking :) Thanks for the help and interesting comments!

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