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Problems with Purgatory, prayers for the dead and indulgences (G.G.)

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This is an opinion article from a user of WikiChristian.

By Graham Llewellyn Grove, December 2003, Original article


I was aged 22 when I attended a Roman Catholic church service. I clearly recall my first thought after the service - Why did we pray for the dead?

Before this experience, I had never heard of purgatory, and had never known that people prayed for the dead. To me it didn't make sense to pray for those who had died - either they had been saved and were with Christ, or they did not have a right relationship with God and were eternally separated from him.

I needed to know more.

What is purgatory?

The notion of purgatory is a belief that is unique to the Roman Catholic Church. Other Christian denominations reject the concept.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that purgatory is a place or state of punishment that occurs after death for Christians before they can enter heaven. Through this punishment the Christian is refined and purified, and once pure, he is fit for heaven. It is not hell, because hell is a permanent state - eternal separation from God. Purgatory is only a temporary state, and once purified, the Christian enters heaven.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

All who die in God's grace and friendship, 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.

The Second Vatican Council stated:

The truth has been divinely revealed that sins are followed by punishments. God's holiness and justice inflict them. Sins must be expiated. This may be done on this earth through the sorrows, miseries and trials of this life and, above all, through death. Otherwise the expiation must be made in the next life through fire and torments or purifying punishments.

The word "purgatory" is not found in the Bible, so where did this belief come from?

Writings about purgatory can be found from third century onward. The doctrine was established by Gregory the Great in 604. Belief in purgatory was widespread in the Middle Ages and Christians in this age were plagued with the fear of death because of it. However, at the Council of Florence in 1439 the Greek church declared that belief in purgatory was an irreconcilable differences between them and Rome. The existence of purgatory along with justification by faith plus works was denied by the Luther and the reformers in the sixteenth century and has never been part of the Protestant beliefs.

Prayers to the dead

According to Catholic doctrine, the amount of time a Christian spends in purgatory varies, and is reduced by the prayers of the faithful on earth. In other words, when Christians on earth pray for people who have died, they are apparently reducing the amount of time spent these people spend in purgatory. The Council of Trent affirmed this with

We constantly hold that purgatory exists, and that the souls of the faithful there detained are helped by the prayers of the faithful.


Catholicism teaches that if a person performs certain acts, including saying the rosary or helping someone in need, then his time in purgatory will be lessened. This is called an indulgence.

During the Middle Ages, a trade in indulgences developed known as "the holy trade". People would pay money and in return their sins would be absolved. It was this trade that prompted Martin Luther to examine his faith and resulted in his "95 theses on the disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences" where he attacked the sale of indulgences and ultimately resulted in the Protestant Church being borne in which purgatory was denied and justification by faith alone was proclaimed.

Indulgences remain to this day in the Catholic Church.

The problem of purgatory

"It is finished". These were the last words of Jesus before he died on the Cross. John 19:30 tells us

Jesus said, "It is finished". With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

"It is finished" has been translated from the Greek word "tetelestai". This word was used in ancient Greece as a receipt for taxes, meaning that a debt had been paid in full. What did Jesus mean? What had been paid in full?

Not only is any explicit discussion of purgatory not found in the Bible, but it also runs against the whole theme of the New Testament. Paul wrote in Romans 6:23

For the wages of sin is death

When Christ died, he was paying for our sins. He was receiving our wages, our death. He was paying for our debt, in full.

Paul also wrote in Romans 8:1

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus

If Christ paid for our debt in full and there is no condemnation in Christ, then how can purgatory be required or real? And it follows that without purgatory there is no basis in praying for the dead.


In defense of prayer for the dead, the Roman Catholic Church appeals to 2 Maccabees.

2 Maccabees is one of the books of the apocrypha and is not considered part of the canon of Scripture in the Protestant churches. However, it is included in the Bible within the Catholic Church.

The 12th chapter of 2 Maccabees describes how some soldiers die in battle because they took and wore idols. Judas, the army's leader, took up a collection of money to provide a sin offering. The book then commends this collection with

In doing this he acted very well and honourably, taking account of the resurrection. For if her were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 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, so that they might be delivered from their sin.

This passage does encourage prayer for the dead. However, it also contradicts Roman Catholic doctrine by suggesting that the soldiers will eventually reach heaven despite the fact that they were in possession of idols. Catholicism teaches that idolatry is a mortal sin, not a venial sin - and as a mortal sin the soldiers would have gone immediately to hell upon dying.

2 Maccabees 15:37-38 ends with

So I will here end my story. If it is well told and to the point, that is what I myself desired; if it is poorly done and mediocre, that was the best I could do.

With an ending such as this, it is hard to argue that the writer feels his work has been inspired by God or is God-breathed. Surely we need to be judicious in doctrine we can draw from 2 Maccabees.


When I first heard prayers for the dead, I knew that I needed to know more. The more I learn about purgatory the more I'm brought back to the Gospel. For I know: There is no condemnation in Christ.

Is purgatory real? What is the official teaching of different denominations?

Eastern Orthodox - No

Roman Catholic - Yes

Protestant - No

Pentecostal - No

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