An Evangelical View of Purgatory
1. The Dilemma of the Church
A. Unholy Saints
The early church was faced with a great dilemma. The life and death of unholy saints. There were saints who were obviously not entirely sanctified upon death. And the question arose early, what does God do with such persons?
In contemporary evangelicalism we have divided all people into one of two camps. Those who are saved and those who are not. Those who belong to God and those who belong to the devil. This has made the experience of being born again the only door from the region of the damned to the kingdom of the saints.
But, in the earlier church, humanity was divided into four classes of people, not two.
1. There were those who were both “Christian” and holy
2. There were those who were both “Sinners” and wicked.
3. There were those who were “Christian” but were not holy
4. There were those who were “Sinners” but not wicked.
The First group, who were Christians and holy, no one had trouble believing were destined for heaven. The Church could hear preludes of “Well Done!” even before they died.
The Second Group also left behind no ambiguity, They were the sinners who were wicked. If anyone deserved hell they did. They were the villainous.
The Third group, the sinning saints were, however, a great concern. They were Christian. They participated in the Christian Church. They had been baptized into the church. They might even have a “wonderful testimony” but as the years evolved they were not quite ready for heaven, and yet they were “saved” from hell. What do we do with such people?
The Fourth Group was also a dilemma. They were the “good sinners.” They did not participate in the church and did not confess themselves to be Christians, yet they lived a good life. They are our neighbours. They are not depraved or wicked. What is the fate of such people?
The early church responded with variations on the doctrines of Heaven and hell. Between Hell & Heaven they described either a state or place that they called purgatory.
Those that hold to a doctrine of purgatory are quick to assert that they do not pretend to use the scriptures as the starting place. There are no texts in the Old or New Testaments or the Apocrypha that speak of such an experience with any adequate clarity. The doctrine of purgatory arose from the need to solve the dilemma stated above. Later, several Scriptures could be read as alluding to such an experience. I shall look at those later.
B. The Right Definition of Sin
There was a second matter, however, beyond the problem of sinning saints, that served as the foundation of the doctrine of purgatory. Sin was not as simple as some perceived. Early in Christian history, using the scriptures now, sins were seen to fall into two categories. There were some sins that were high handed and some that were inadvertent. There were sins unto death and there were sins not unto death. There were sins that could be forgiven both in this world and the world to come. There were other sins, the unpardonable ones, that could be forgiven neither in this life nor the life to come. The Church attached labels to these two types of sin. Mortal and Venial.
Some sins were deadly, whereby an original impulse became a habit which became a disposition and ended up damaging the soul beyond repair. The Seven deadly sins, undealt with, brought damnation and the forfeiting of salvation.
There were other sins that did not kill, but merely wounded the soul. They were the venial sins. Any judge understands the difference between first degree homicide and manslaughter. Both are evil. One is, however, far more culpable. ( If human justice is a reflection of Divine justice; we are made in the image of God, then our understanding of God’s justice must be close to accurate.)
If this is the case, then the judgment on the two types of sin must find variation in the punishment administered.
The Reformed Tradition, pushing off against Roman theology, has diminished the distinctions between mortal and venial sins. They would see that a sin is a sin is a sin. Any sin will bring an everlasting hell because it was against the eternal God. Any sin makes a person guilty of breaking the whole law. (James 2:10)
But Wesleyans have traditionally made distinctions between sins of intent and “sins” of accident; of course reluctant to call any evil a sin unless it was “a wilful violation of the known law of God.”
C. The Entire Sanctification of the Believer
Of course, the question arises, what does God do with those Christians whose lives have been permeated with venial sin. What happens to those who die still carnally minded?
It is interesting once more to note that every part of Christendom has traditionally believed in entire sanctification. “Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14) “Nothing unclean shall enter.” (Revelations 21:27) The differences between theologies is usually one of chronology (when does it take place) or location (where does it take place).
Here are the more traditional options:
i. The Necessity of Entire Sanctification before Death.
“Without holiness no man shall see the Lord.” (defining holiness in this case as the personal experience of entire sanctification.) Godbey’s book entitled, Holiness or Hell was a graphic presentation of the view that unless you were entirely sanctified before you died, Christian or no, you perished for ever. Being born again was only being half‑saved. Full salvation was necessary to enter heaven. Thanks be to God, that is not the normative Wesleyan teaching!
ii. The Hour and the Article of Death
A view more compatible with Reformed Christianity gave greater place to the entire sanctification by the Holy Spirit either in the last hour of life or in the experience of death itself. The view was called “Sanctification in the hour and the article of death.” If the person was a believer and his/her spiritual development had left areas of life undisciplined, God, at the time of death, made up the difference. If we are saved by the pure elective grace of God as we begin the journey of faith, then it is not improbable that the sanctifying grace of God will cleanse his people from all their sin at the end of their pilgrimage. We are saved by grace!
iii. Sins are Forgiven, Past, Present & Future
In the Neo‑Calvinistic world of Campus Crusade and Moody Bible Institute, the issue is tied in with the theology of unconditional eternal security. Once a person has been born again, the transaction is noted in the Lamb’s Book of Life in indelible ink. Once in, a person cannot fall out. At conversion a person’s sins are all forgiven: the sins of the past, any sins which are current, and any sin which we may commit in the future. Therefore at conversion every believer is entirely sanctified. All post‑conversion sins are forgiven proleptically.
iv. Positional Sanctification
But there is another element of Neo‑Calvinism which has gained prominence within evangelical circles. The divine judge looks at our lives, but he does not regard us as we are in fact, but as we are in Christ. We cannot cover our nakedness with our own garments, but Jesus Christ covers our sinfulness with the robes of his own righteousness. The judgment of our lives independent only upon our being “in Christ”. The only real sin then is the rejection of Jesus. All other sins are mere symptoms of that sin. Upon death then, even with unfinished business, the “saved” shall enter into heaven, positionally holy, though functionally “simul justus et peccator.”
v. The Wesleyan Position(s)
The Wesleyan movement has been far more preoccupied with the entire sanctification of the believer in this life, disconnected from the eschatological question, that any discussion of the exceptions has been substantially ignored. We have usually resorted to any one or more of the above positions. We have just left the departed sub‑standard saint in the hands of God, with a sigh of relief that we do not have to call the shots on that one. But no clear position has been articulated.
2. The Case for Purgatory
The early church throughout its first 1500 years, however, did not resort to any of those options. It chose to go with variations on the doctrine of purgatory.
The Old Testament legacy on the question of life beyond death was uncertain at best. The doctrine of Sheol was as shadowy as the place itself. For the most part there is no teaching about a heaven for the saints or a Hell for the wicked, until post‑exilic Judaism. Even then there was no settled opinion on the matter. The Pharisees espoused a doctrine of Resurrection. For the Sadducees there was no life beyond. The average Jew was unsure.
When we get to the New Testament there is little ambiguity about a heaven and a hell. Jesus gives his own verdict in the debate with the Sadducees, “You are wrong!” (Mark 12:18‑27) His own Resurrection was the irrefutable proof that life went on beyond death. Paul refuses to allow the possibility of agnosticism on this question as he debates with the Corinthians about the Resurrection of the body. (I Cor 15.) There is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun clearly espoused by the New Testament writers.
But the doctrine of purgatory, though not finding its roots in canonical scriptures, does find its roots in pre‑Christian rabbinic literature.
Rabbi Shammai (1st century B.C.) teaches this: that there will be three groups at the judgement : One of the truly Holy, another of the truly wicked, and a third in between. It is immediately written and sealed that the truly holy shall live until the end of time, and it is likewise written and sealed that the truly wicked will remain in Gehenna, as it is written (Dan 12:2). As for the third group, they shall go down to Gehenna for a time and then come up again, as it is written (Zech 13:9, and I Samuel 2:6).
Rabbi Hillel says (Hillel 60 B.C. ‑ A.D. 20) “Sinners, Jew and Gentile alike, having sinned in their body (shall be) punished in Gehenna for twelve months, and then reduced to nothingness.” (Concerning the New Year) In Rabbinic Judaism there was already some awareness of variations on the views of fixed eschatological abodes.
But in the New Testament there were various texts that may have hinted at a similar thing.
Matthew 12:31‑32 states that some sins could not be forgiven in this life or the life to come, but other sins could be forgiven post death. The very matter of sins being forgivable in the life to come that were not forgiven here below, provided some of the stimulus for developing a doctrine of purgatory.
I Cor. 3:11‑15, with its testing by fire of each person’s work at the judgment also provided some of the building material for a purgation of the saints from dead works after death.
Christ’s Descent into hell as described in I Peter 3:18 to 4:6 and His ministry to the dead in John 5:25‑29 left wide open the possibilities of a purgatory in the minds of the ancient church’s theologians. Apparently the welfare of hell’s or sheol’s denizens can be affected after death.
From I Cor 15:29‑30, the baptism for the dead opened up all sorts of unusual interpretations that saw the welfare of the departed being affected by the activities of the saints militant.
Finally the story from Matthew 5:21‑26 that threatens no release from prison until the “last penny is repaid” inferred the affecting of God’s sentence by some sort of restitution. When added to the story in Matthew 18:23‑34 about the unforgiving servant being forgiven, but then thrown into prison “until he should pay the entire debt,” only added more fuel to the fires of purgatory.
These exegesis of each of these ambiguous texts might be correct or incorrect; it is incidental which at the moment, because they did serve to give shape to a patristic theology of some sort of purgatory.
The doctrine of purgatory may also have found one of its launching points in the Apostles’ Creed. Its final paragraph reads:
I believe in the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of the saints; the forgiveness of sins; the Resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting.
The communion of saints below and above, in one great cosmic family, interrelating still, praying for one another still, made the doctrine of purgatory more possible as an explanation of the fate of unholy saints.
We need however to survey some of the extant quotations from some of the earlier theologians we have on record.
Tertullian (before A.D. 220): “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.” (Against Marcion, 4:34)
In this first passage we see the development of an interim place such as the Bosom of Abraham for the saints. Once one such place/state is created, it is not difficult to imagine another.
Tertullian: “We make oblations for the deceased on the anniversary of their death…. If you look in Scripture for a formal law governing these and similar practices, you will find none. It is tradition that justifies them, custom that confirms them, and faith that observes them.” (De Corona Militis. 3:2‑3)
This passage introduces us to prayers and offerings on the “saint’s day” along with the admission that pre‑Tertullian tradition had established the practice, though not any scripture.
The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas (A.D. 203) This rather lengthy document speaks of prayers for a dead brother that eases his post‑death suffering. This particular document was very influential in promoting intercessions for the welfare of the departed by the living. It also served as an impetus to the medieval practice of selling indulgences.
Clement of Alexandria (before A.D. 215) “God does not wreak vengeance, for vengeance is to return evil with evil, and God punishes only with an eye to the good.” (Stromata 7:26)
“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.(Stromata 8.6)
If the roots of Purgatory are not present before Clement of Alexandria, they are substantially in place by his day. The first quotation sees hell being remedial and not merely punitive. The second one sees that Christians may be sanctified post‑death by fire that purges.
Origen (Before A.D. 253) “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.” (Commentary on Luke, 24th homily)
Origen’s orthodoxy has, of course, always been questioned, but here he is well within the orthodoxy of his day and within the orthodoxy of Augustinian Christianity. His baptism of fire is a purgatorial experience and is representative of Alexandrian Christianity.
Lactantius (before A.D. 317) “When God examines the righteous, he will also do so by means of fire. Those whose sins prevail by weight or number will be enveloped by fire and purified, while those made ready by unblemished justice or fulness of virtue will not feel this flame, indeed, there is in them something that will repel the flame and turn it back.” (Institiones 7:21)
Lactantius represents the discernible beginnings of Latin Christianity’s concurrence with Alexandrian on this question. Two kinds of Christians will face the judgment of God differently. Fire will be needed to purify, or entirely sanctify the sinning saint.
Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose, and Jerome all spokesmen for Latin Christianity expanded the understanding of the sanctifying of the believer post death by fire. But it is in St. Augustine, called by some the True Father of Purgatory that the foundations and the edifice of purgatory are firmly in place for the next thousand years. Read Joseph Ntedika’s Evolution of the Doctrine of Purgatory in St. Augustine for all the texts from Augustine that created the purgatorial edifice. By A.D. 400 the doctrine of purgatory is the well defined response to the question, “What does God do with the sub‑standard saint.”
It was during the reformation, when the doctrine of indulgences had become so perverted, that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli removed the allowability of purgatory from most of Protestantism. Indulgences had become so debased and profiteering that to rid the house of this monstrous practice, it was felt prudent to remove the foundation stones as well.
I suspect, however, that P.T. Forsyth was on target when he wrote, “We threw away too much when we threw Purgatory clean out of doors. We threw out the baby with the dirty water of its bath…. It would never have been lost but for the abuses of purgatory, masses and the commerce which the church made of a magical influence on another world. But we threw away too much when we made a clean sweep.” (This Life and the Next, p.34‑36)
3. A Response to Wesley
In the few times that John Wesley makes any comment on purgatory they reflect his misunderstanding of purgatory. He presumed that the Roman church taught that the unsaved went there and were purified. Wesley also saw purgatory as a sub‑section of hell, not the antechamber to heaven. His dominant concern, however, was with the related doctrine of indulgences. He saw the practice as denying the doctrine of Justification by Grace. He therefore makes no place for purgatory in his structure of the universe. Neither, however, does he suggest an alternative, except the ideal of the entire sanctification of all believers prior to death.
4. Some final words
A set of distinctions must be made as I come to the conclusion of this paper. What purgatory was intended to be by the early church fathers, and what it became in medieval practice must be distinguished. The medieval purgatory had become a torture chamber that was “hellish” in everything but duration. It must be replaced by the purgatory of the major Catholic theologians, who knew it to be a foretaste of heaven filled with joyous assurance. (See Dante’s Divine Comedy for a healthier view point.) In classic theology, Purgatory is on the outskirts of heaven, not hell. It is a place of purification, not punishment. C.S. Lewis wrote that when he gets to the front gates of heaven, he is going to say to the person in charge of the doors, “Is there somewhere I can go to clean up?” Purgatory will be for the purifying of intentions and affections and that will not be done through retribution.
A second distinction must be made between purgatory and our influencing any person post‑death via such things as indulgences. Indulgences grew out of the soil of purgatory, in the same way that some Television Evangelists have found out how to make money out of the gospel. The Gospel should not be blamed for how it has been abused, and purgatory should not be blamed for the doctrine of indulgences.
Do I believe in purgatory? I am not sure. But I could not say that I do not believe in it. Some Christians have wanted to allow variations on the theme. People like C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L Sayers, and George MacDonald have found it a useful concept in their concern for moral salvation as opposed to a magical one.
George MacDonald in his sermon on justice writes;
A man might flatter, or bribe, or coax a tyrant; but there is no refuge from the love of God; that love will, for very love, insist upon the last farthing…. The notion that the salvation of Jesus is a salvation from the consequences of our sins in a false, mean, low notion… Jesus did not die to save us from punishment …(but) from our sins….Such is the love of God that He will hold His children in the consuming fire of His distance until they pay the uttermost farthing, until they drop the purse of selfishness with all the dross that is in it, and rush home to the Father and the Son, and the many brethren ‑ rush inside the centre of the life giving fire whose outer circles burn.”
Our God is a consuming fire. The Holy Spirit’s work in our lives is to accomplish the burning away of dross. The Holy Spirit is to be the sanctifier of all of life’s activities. If it is not accomplished in time, I can not imagine God saying, “well that’s OK. It didn’t matter that much.” Oh yes it does! To be saved from myself so that I can be a true man, is the great purpose of His redemption of my life and my world. Salvation is not simply to ensure my safety. I care not a fig about being safe or saved. I want to be good, to be true, to be a person of deep integrity and compassion. If it takes all of time and part of eternity, I would be made like Him. Not because He has waved a wand, but because He has so worked within my life that I will to do His will from the centre of a redeemed personality. It is for that reason that I am prepared to consider a purgatory as part of the making of men whole.
David N. Ashton