Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory

By Dudley Ross Spears

One of the first contacts I ever had with a Roman Catholic Priest was in Cookeville, Tennessee. It was my maiden Voyage as a gospel preacher. The Roman “Pontiff” at that time, passed away and I received a letter from the local parish Priest asking me to pray for the departed soul of the “Pope.” The reason: the Priest informed me the man was being detained in Purgatory and needed our prayers to be released.

Purgatory is a fictional concept of what happens at death and has been a hallmark of the Catholic Church. They practically own the exclusive claim to this doctrine. While they assert it has biblical connections, there is nothing in the Bible at all about either the designation or concept of Purgatory. I declined to pray for the Pope. His destiny was sealed when he died. Nothing I could say to the Lord would alter that.

This fantasy of the Catholic Church originated at the Council of Trent. “There is a Purgatory, and souls there detained, are helped by the prayers of the faithful, and especially by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar.” (Sess. XXV.). James Cardinal Gibbons explained their position in this way. “The Catholic Church teaches that, besides a place of eternal torments for the wicked and of everlasting rest for the righteous, there exists in the next life a middle state of temporary punishment, allotted for those who have died in venial sin, or who have not satisfied the justice of God for sins already forgiven. She also teaches us that, although the souls consigned to this intermediate state, commonly called purgatory, cannot help themselves, they may be aided by the suffrages of the faithful on earth. The existence of purgatory naturally implies the correlative dogma – the utility of praying for the dead – for the souls consigned to this middle state have not reached the term of their journey. They are still exiles from heaven and fit subjects for Divine clemency.” (FAITH OF OUR FATHERs, James Cardinal Gibbons, Archbishop of Baltimore, P.J. Kenedy & Sons, page 173).

Catholic doctrine makes an unwarranted distinction between what they call “venial sins” and “mortal sins.” They define “venial sins” as: “An offense against God which does not deprive us of His friendship and which merits only temporal punishment. It is called venial because it is more easily pardoned than mortal sin. Venial sin, however slight it may be, is, nevertheless, an injury done to God. It diminishes the fervor of charity, and causes us to tend to God with less affection than He deserves. It dims the light of the intellect, weakens the will, and so disposes to mortal sin. It deprives man of many degrees of grace and glory. Unless expiated, it will merit the pains of purgatory in the world to come.” (THE CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIC DICTIONARY, page 994).

They define mortal sin as: “A grievous offense against the law of God. This sin is called mortal because it deprives us of supernatural life and brings damnation and death of the soul. Three conditions are necessary for a mortal sin: gravity of matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will. The gravity of matter is determined by Holy Scripture, by the definitions of the (Catholic, DRS) Church, by the testimony of the Fathers, Doctors, and theologians, by the universal belief of the faithful, and by reason enlightened by faith. Mortal sin is a revolt against God, supreme Lord, contempt of His adorable majesty, an act of monstrous ingratitude. It is an offense against Christ who redeemed us, and against the Holy Ghost who sanctifies us. It deprives one of sanctifying grace and thus prevents one from acquiring merit or sharing in the satisfying merits of the Church. It tarnishes the soul, and causes remorse of conscience, an inclination to evil, darkening of the intellect, weakening of the will. It deprives one of the right to heaven, and entails penalties, some of which are incurred in this life, and the loss of God forever as well as eternal punishment.” (Ibid. page 652). Those guilty of “mortal” sin go to hell – not to this illusion called Purgatory.

For a period of time the Catholic Church raised revenue by selling what they called “Indulgences.” These indulgences were peddled among Catholics not only for the living but also for the dead.” One of the common priestly sayings was, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.” An indulgence, to a Catholic, was his assurance that he would escape punishment for sin and help the departed dead be released from Purgatory. Historians have noted that “Repentance fell by the wayside.” Erasmus, partner to Martin Luther, is reported to have said, “Everywhere the remission of purgatorial torment is sold; nor is it sold only, but forced upon those who refuse it.”

Catholics now argue that the money given for indulgences was all voluntary. It reminds me of those who see no difference in buying services and making donations. It is similar to those TV and Radio preachers who don’t “sell” their wares, they just stipulate how much you have to donate to them to get their products.

John Tetzel was commissioned by Pope Leo X to sell these indulgences to raise money to complete the building of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. Catholics consider Tetzel’s and Leo’s actions as abuses. They cannot deny the practical effect of these indulgences. They may be correct on the abuses, but are wrong on the intent of selling indulgences. The intent of those indulgences provided the ordinary Catholic with the hope that not only he, but his departed dead, would find relief from punishment for sin. Thus it was tied to the false doctrine of purgatorial punishment and all its ramifications.

There is a very simple way to refute this false doctrine. Neither the term nor the concept is found in anything from God. The Bible is silent regarding any intermediate state of the dead where the dead suffer for sins and are held as exiles from heaven till some living person prays or pays to have them released. That is the simple way. Let some Catholic priest or theologian produce biblical evidence that the doctrine is from God. They cannot do it.

In the absence of Scripture, Catholic defenders turn to the apocryphal book of II Maccabees. Keep in mind this is not an inspired document and has absolutely no divine sanction, It is not even accurate history in some instances. Chapter 12 verses 43-46 read: “And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection. For, if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead… It is therefore, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins.” Scholarly linguists question the authenticity not only of the book, but particularly this selection. Many exaggerations are made in the book. But this passage is not what Catholics should use to support their doctrine that only those guilty of “venial” sins are in need of prayers and money from the living to obtain release.

The context in which the apocryphal statement is made deals with those guilty of idolatry. They died idolaters! This is surely not considered a “venial” sin by the Catholic Church. Idolatry is classed as a ‘mortal” sin by the Catholic Church. Remember their definition? “This (mortal sin) sin is called mortal because it deprives us of supernatural life and brings damnation and death of the soul.” Remember again: “A venial sin is an offense against God which does not deprive us of his friendship and which merits only temporal punishment.” The Catholic cannot have it both ways. The doctrine of Purgatory offers a second chance to sinners, but the Bible does not. At the end, when the Lord returns to judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31) those who are in sin will go away into everlasting punishment (Matthew 25:46). There is no reprieve from the final sentence pronounced upon those guilty of sin.

Jesus spoke of the deaths of a rich man who went to hell and of a poor beggar (Lazarus) who went to the bosom of Abraham. When the rich man asked that Lazarus come and give him relief from torment, Abraham said, “Son, remember that you in your lifetime received good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and you are tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed: so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence” (Luke 16:25-26). At death eternal destinies are sealed and unchangeable.

Lazarus died, but was comforted, not being punished in some imagined purgatorial torment. The rich man suffered excruciating pain in torment. While the candle of life burns, God gives all men the opportunity to prepare. Once that flame goes out, there is no altering the eternal destiny of anyone. The unrepentant wicked will never be released from punishment. Solomon tells us even now, “When a wicked man dies, his expectation will perish, and the hope of the unjust perishes” (Proverbs 11:7). It behooves any rational being to reject doctrines that promise a false hope and get right with God now.

Originally published in Gospel Truths, Vol. IX, Number 4, April 1998, PP.9-10

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