An Examination of Purgatory Prooftexts

The following are taken from the website Scripture Catholic. The sections quoted from the website are in bold.

Matt. 5:26,18:34; Luke 12:58-59 – Jesus teaches us, “Come to terms with your opponent or you will be handed over to the judge and thrown into prison. You will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” The word “opponent” (antidiko) is likely a reference to the devil (see the same word for devil in 1 Pet. 5:8) who is an accuser against man (c.f. Job 1.6-12; Zech. 3.1; Rev. 12.10), and God is the judge. If we have not adequately dealt with satan and sin in this life, we will be held in a temporary state called a prison, and we won’t get out until we have satisfied our entire debt to God. This “prison” is purgatory where we will not get out until the last penny is paid.

Let’s look at the full context of this verse:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms 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. Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” [Matthew 5:21-26]

Christ is going through the moral law (specifically the ten commandments), and is now on the commandment “thou shalt not murder” (Ex 20:13; De 5:17). He then turns to his own authority, rather than that of tradition (cf. Mt 7:29), expositing the words of the Law (v. 21). He states that those who are angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, thereby extending the commandment to even “murderous thoughts.” He goes on to give both legal and spiritual applications: whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council (the Sanhedrin), and whoever says “You fool!” will be liable to “the hell of fire” (v. 22). Christ then turns to how to resolve this issue by telling that, if they are on their way to the altar, to first reconcile with their brother before offering the gift (v. 23-24). He then turns to court language, saying one should “come to terms quickly” with their accuser while “going with him to court,” lest he hand them over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and they be put in prison (v. 25), where they will never get out until they have paid the last penny (v. 26).

Our writer states that “the accuser” most likely refers to the devil, however, this would prove strange given the context – why would Christ tell us to “come to terms quickly” with the devil?! That makes positively no sense. Some would argue that “comes to terms quickly” means to deal with sin, but the original Greek of “come to terms” (ἴσθι εὐνοῶν) means literally “make friends” in the original Greek – again, how can we expect Christ to be instructing us to “make friends” with the devil? It is fairly clear that Christ is continuing the context of the previous verse, which dealt with aggravations we might have with others – here, he is talking about aggravations others might have with us. In this context, it is one to whom we are in debt.

In regards to the payment, this is a reference both to Jewish and Roman practices of the day regarding courts: there were judges in every area of the Jewish nation to handle courts (as per Deu 16:18), and Roman law permitted the accuser and accused of a court case to settle their dispute on the way to the trial (a kind of precursor to “out of court settlements”). Given the immediate context, there is nothing spiritual regarding this court case.

Yet even if we permit that the court language here (judge, guards, etc.) is spiritual (as I know some Protestant commentators say), we have to keep in mind the use of the phrase “until you have paid the last penny.” The phrase means that every tiny little coin will be sought after, and nothing will be forgotten – most definitely, it means all the debt will be paid. However, does this immediately mean Christ is teaching of Purgatory? Compare this with the similar language and case of the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Mt 18:21-35), which likewise dealt with the issue of forgiveness and our transgressions against others. In verse 34 it is said that the servant would be sent into the prison “until he should pay all his debt.” However, given how much was owed (see v. 24), it is clear that the servant was in way over his head, and he would never repay the amount owed. The phrase, therefore, does not refer to a kind of temporal payment, but an eternal payment.

Matt. 5:48 – Jesus says, “be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are only made perfect through purification, and in Catholic teaching, this purification, if not completed on earth, is continued in a transitional state we call purgatory. 

This interpretation of the verse is far removed from the original context. Christ is talking about the topic of mercy (Mt 5:43-48). See the parallel verse in Luke 6:36, and it is even more clear that Christ is saying we should be perfect in mercy, not completely purified by sins. It most definitely does not say that believers need to undergo any kind of “purification.”

Scripture, in fact, makes it clear that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Ro 8:1). What need, therefore, would there be for further purification?

Matt. 12:32 – Jesus says, “And anyone who says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but no one who speaks against the Holy Spirit will be forgiven either in this world or in the next.” Jesus thus clearly provides that there is forgiveness after death. The phrase “in the next” (from the Greek “en to mellonti”) generally refers to the afterlife (see, for example, Mark 10.30; Luke 18.30; 20.34-35; Eph. 1.21 for similar language). Forgiveness is not necessary in heaven, and there is no forgiveness in hell. This proves that there is another state after death, and the Church for 2,000 years has called this state purgatory. 

I’ve dealt with this verse before, and I would suggest readers go there to see the full explanation of this verse. To sum it up, the emphasis is on the wrong syllable: Christ is not saying sins can be forgiven after death, but that the severity of the denial of his Messianic status and Lordship is so great that it shall never be forgiven.

Luke 12:47-48 – when the Master comes (at the end of time), some will receive light or heavy beatings but will live. This state is not heaven or hell, because in heaven there are no beatings, and in hell we will no longer live with the Master. 

As I’ve discussed before, people often have a habit of missing the point of a parable, or taking a parable too literally – this is one such example. But first, let us deal with the addition to scripture: no where, in either verse 47 or 48, does it say that after the beating they “will live.” That is reading into the text something which is not there.

This is because, in actuality, Christ is speaking of different levels of severity of punishment upon those who should have expected the coming of the Messiah and yet did not prepare accordingly. Those who knew better (such as Caiaphas and unbelieving Pharisees) will be punished harshly, while those who did not know better but should have still been prepared (such as, perhaps those who turned against Christ at the instigation of the Sanhedrin) will receive a lighter punishment – they will still, however, receive a punishment. Both parties will also likewise still receive a portion with the unfaithful (v. 46).

Luke 16:19-31 – in this story, we see that the dead rich man is suffering but still feels compassion for his brothers and wants to warn them of his place of suffering. But there is no suffering in heaven or compassion in hell because compassion is a grace from God and those in hell are deprived from God’s graces for all eternity. So where is the rich man? He is in purgatory. 

Verse 23 clearly says the man was in Hades – in other words, hell.

1 Cor. 15:29-30 – Paul mentions people being baptized on behalf of the dead, in the context of atoning for their sins (people are baptized on the dead’s behalf so the dead can be raised). These people cannot be in heaven because they are still with sin, but they also cannot be in hell because their sins can no longer be atoned for. They are in purgatory. These verses directly correspond to 2 Macc. 12:44-45 which also shows specific prayers for the dead, so that they may be forgiven of their sin.

This is an interesting interpretation, given it’s similar to the Mormon argument that one can be baptized on behalf of family members who have passed on. It was also the argument made by the heretic Cerenthis and his followers, who interpreted these verses in such a way. John Chrysostom, in his commentaries, refers to Marcionites abusing this verse as well, though in a different way: they would take a dead man, lay him on a bed, ask for his consent to be baptized, and someone beneath the bed would answer in his stead, and hence they would baptize the corpse shortly thereafter.

This verse has certainly perplexed commentators and theologians throughout history, though few of them, if any, have come to the conclusion that it is speaking on Purgatory. Some of the more plausible explanations:

1) Paul is referring to a possible practice unique among the Corinthians of being baptized in the name of fellow believers who had not yet been baptized. However, his statement here is not an affirmation of such a practice.

2) Paul is referring to believers as a whole as “dead,” since baptism is a symbol of our death with Christ and spiritual resurrection (Ro 6:4).

In any case, nowhere is Paul talking about atoning people for their sins by baptizing the dead.

Phil. 2:10 – every knee bends to Jesus, in heaven, on earth, and “under the earth” which is the realm of the righteous dead, or purgatory. 

This is likewise an interesting interpretation, given it’s popular for some Roman Catholics today to argue that Purgatory is a state of being rather than a literal place (despite the teachings and beliefs of well respected Roman Catholics from the past, including Thomas Aquinas, as well as historical interpretations by church officials).

In any case, jumping to the notion that “under the earth” refers immediately to Purgatory is a massive jump indeed, given that it most likely refers to those who have passed on (in contrast to “on earth,” that is, still alive). It could mean, at the very least, fallen angels waiting in the pit.

2 Tim. 1:16-18 – Onesiphorus is dead but Paul asks for mercy on him “on that day.” Paul’s use of “that day” demonstrates its eschatological usage (see, for example, Rom. 2.5,16; 1 Cor. 1.8; 3.13; 5.5; 2 Cor. 1.14; Phil. 1.6,10; 2.16; 1 Thess. 5.2,4,5,8; 2 Thess. 2.2,3; 2 Tim. 4.8). Of course, there is no need for mercy in heaven, and there is no mercy given in hell. Where is Onesiphorus? He is in purgatory. 

Upon what basis do we believe Onesiphorus was dead? While I recognize a handful of commentators believe he was, there is no evidence this is the case. Therefore, this argument is irrelevant.

Heb. 12:14 – without holiness no one will see the Lord. We need final sanctification to attain true holiness before God, and this process occurs during our lives and, if not completed during our lives, in the transitional state of purgatory.

It is true that without holiness no one will see the Lord, but the author seems to not understand the intent of the writer to the Hebrews. Nowhere does it speak of Purgatory, or come close to the doctrine of Purgatory, and to simply take the truth that without holiness no one will see the Lord and read Purgatory into it is committing blatant eisegesis. In fact, the writer of Hebrews clearly teaches that men are justified before God based on the sacrifice of Christ, and require no further purification.

One verse that demonstrates this:

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. [Hebrews 9:27-28]

And again:

And by [the Father’s] will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. [Hebrews 10:10]

And again:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. [Hebrews 10:19-23]

Such a passage as this last one would be impossible with the doctrine of Purgatory. One could not be able to tell living believers that they could enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus if they required further purification to enter such holy places.

Heb. 12:23 – the spirits of just men who died in godliness are “made” perfect. They do not necessarily arrive perfect. They are made perfect after their death. But those in heaven are already perfect, and those in hell can no longer be made perfect. These spirits are in purgatory. 

At this point, we have to wonder if our author is taking these interpretations of scripture from a secondary source, or simply blatantly mishandling God’s word. Let’s see the full context of the verse:

For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. [Hebrews 12:18-24]

The writer of the epistle speaks of the contact with God in the Old Testament, and contrasts it with us (living believers), who are able – without any form of purification from Purgatory – to approach God and join the company of God, the angels, and believers from the past. This is what “the spirits of the righteous made perfect” refers to. Contrary to proving Purgatory, this passage, like many within Hebrews (see the previous response) proves problematic for those attempting to teach Purgatory from the epistle.

1 Peter 3:19; 4:6 – Jesus preached to the spirits in the “prison.” These are the righteous souls being purified for the beatific vision. 

Are they? Again, let’s look at the full context:

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. [1 Peter 3:18-20]

These “spirits” are those which “formerly did not obey” in “the days of Noah” – are only people from the days of Noah in Purgatory? If we presume the reality of Purgatory, that would be an irrationality. What Peter is actually speaking of is the nature of the “spirit” which has made us alive, and says that with this same spirit he went down and preached to those in the days of Noah, calling for the repentance of man, and yet ignored these warnings until the time of judgment.

Rev. 21:4 – God shall wipe away their tears, and there will be no mourning or pain, but only after the coming of the new heaven and the passing away of the current heaven and earth. Note the elimination of tears and pain only occurs at the end of time. But there is no morning or pain in heaven, and God will not wipe away their tears in hell. These are the souls experiencing purgatory. 

Again, we must understand context – why have the tears and pain and mourning been done away with? Because “the former things have passed away,” not because of Purgatory. Nowhere in the verse is it speaking of souls in Purgatory, nor does it even hint at it. In fact, this event takes place after the resurrection and final judgment (see Rev 20:11-15), and is simply describing the condition of those who have been resurrected – they will not have tears or experience mourning because all that could have caused such things have passed away, and God is making all things new.

Rev. 21:27 – nothing unclean shall enter heaven. The word “unclean” comes from the Greek word “koinon” which refers to a spiritual corruption. Even the propensity to sin is spiritually corrupt, or considered unclean, and must be purified before entering heaven. It is amazing how many Protestants do not want to believe in purgatory. Purgatory exists because of the mercy of God. If there were no purgatory, this would also likely mean no salvation for most people. God is merciful indeed. 

As with Hebrews 12:14, is is true that nothing “unclean” will enter into the city, but why is this? Again, because of the justification of men by God. Does the end of verse 27 even say “only those who have been purified by Purgatory”? On the contrary, it says: “only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” Those who are in the book shall enter into the city without fear of judgment, for they have been elected for salvation “from the foundation of the world” (Re 13:8).

See also the response to Hebrews 12:14 above.

Luke 23:43 – many Protestants argue that, because Jesus sent the good thief right to heaven, there can be no purgatory. There are several rebuttals. First, when Jesus uses the word “paradise,” He did not mean heaven. Paradise, from the Hebrew “sheol,” meant the realm of the righteous dead. This was the place of the dead who were destined for heaven, but who were captive until the Lord’s resurrection. Second, since there was no punctuation in the original manuscript, Jesus’ statement “I say to you today you will be with me in paradise” does not mean there was a comma after the first word “you.” This means Jesus could have said, “I say to you today, you will be with me in paradise” (meaning, Jesus could have emphasized with exclamation his statement was “today” or “now,” and that some time in the future the good thief would go to heaven). Third, even if the thief went straight to heaven, this does not prove there is no purgatory (those who are fully sanctified in this life – perhaps by a bloody and repentant death – could be ready for admission in to heaven). 

All right, many many many many corrections need to be made here.

First, the Greek word here for “paradise” (παράδεισος) is of Persian origin, not Hebrew, and refers to a garden or enclosed park. In the Septuagint, it is used in reference to literal gardens, including Eden as well as the gardens mentioned in the Song of Solomon. In the New Testament, it is only used three times: here, in 2 Corinthians 12:4 when Paul says he was “caught up into paradise,” and in Revelation 2:7 when it talks of the Tree of Life which is “in the paradise of God.”

Second, the argument that there was no comma and that Jesus was actually saying “I say to you today” is similar to the tactic used by Joyce Meyer and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who move the comma to prove their heretical doctrine – unfortunately, our author is here committing the same tactic. While it is true there were no commas in the original Greek, a plain reading of the grammar shows that the traditional placement of the comma (after the “I say to you”) is sound. To quote Young’s Literal Translation:

And Jesus said to him, “Verily I say to thee, To-day with me thou shalt be in the paradise.”

Even just rationally, this argument regarding the comma makes no sense – on what other day would Christ have told the thief this? “Truly I say to you tomorrow…oops! I just told it to you.”

Thirdly, the idea that one can be sanctified by “a bloody and repentant death” suggests that the thief was forgiven because he was crucified. The fact is, the thief was justified by his repentance and faith, not merely because he was crucified.

Gen. 50:10; Num. 20:29; Deut. 34:8 – here are some examples of ritual prayer and penitent mourning for the dead for specific periods of time. The Jewish understanding of these practices was that the prayers freed the souls from their painful state of purification, and expedited their journey to God. 

Genesis 50:10 is speaking of mourning, not prayers – let alone “ritual prayers.” The same can be said for Numbers 20:29 and Deuteronomy 34:8. Mourning does not automatically equal praying, let alone praying for the sins of the dead.

Zech. 9:11 – God, through the blood of His covenant, will set those free from the waterless pit, a spiritual abode of suffering which the Church calls purgatory. 

The term “waterless pit” is in reference to a practice in the middle east where a slave trader would put his slaves and prisoners into a pit or empty well until the next morning, where they were taken out to be sold (think of Joseph and his brothers). The people in the waterless pit is a reference to the state of man, which is enslaved to sin. There is absolutely no reason to immediately assume this passage is about Purgatory.

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