Roman Catholic theology teaches purgatory as the place of temporary suffering where souls of believers go to be further purified from sin until ready for admission to Heaven. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Purgatory is “a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God's grace, are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.” To summarize, in Catholic theology Purgatory is a place that a Christian’s soul goes to after death to be cleansed of the sins that had not been fully satisfied during life.
This explains the Roman Catholic practice of prayers and sacrifices for the dead. However, there is no support for this doctrine from the canon of scripture and evangelical Protestants deny it.
Roman Catholic church finds primary support for this doctrine in two primary places:
- 2 Maccabees 12:42-45 (Apocrypha) which talks about the practice of prayer “for the dead” and making “atonement for the dead that they might be delivered from their sin”
- the teaching of the tradition of the church
Is the Apocrypha Scripture? Protestants deny its inspiration, but the Roman Catholic Church affirms it. For Protestants and Jews, the 2 Maccabees passage is not an authoritative source of doctrine, and contradicts clear statements in scripture about death being a departure from this life for union with Christ as well as the explicit teaching that Christ alone made atonement for us. This passage also contradicts Roman Catholic teaching because it teaches that soldiers who died in the mortal sin of idolatry (which is unforgivable according to Roman Catholic teaching) should have prayers and sacrifices offered for them with the possibility they will be delivered from their suffering.
The primary canonical passage Catholics point to for evidence of Purgatory is 1 Corinthians 3:15, which says, “If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” The passage (1 Corinthians 3:12-15) is using an illustration of things going through fire as a description of believers’ works being judged. If our works are of good quality “gold, sliver, costly stones,” they will pass through the fire unharmed, and we will be rewarded for them. If our works are of poor quality “wood, hay, and straw,” they will be consumed by the fire, and there will be no reward. The passage does not say that believers pass through the fire, but rather that a believer’s works pass through the fire. 1 Corinthians 3:15 refers to the believer “escaping through the flames,” not “being cleansed by the flames.”
Purgatory is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of Christ’s sacrifice. Catholics view meritorious works as contributing to salvation due to a failure to recognize that Jesus’ sacrificial payment has no need of additional “contribution” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Similarly, Purgatory is understood by Catholics as a place of cleansing in preparation for heaven because they do not recognize that because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we are already cleansed, declared righteous, forgiven, redeemed, reconciled, and sanctified. The very idea of Purgatory and the doctrines that are often attached to it (prayer for the dead, indulgences, meritorious works on behalf of the dead, etc.) all fail to recognize that Jesus’ death was sufficient to pay the penalty for all of the believer's sins (past, present and future.)
- 2 Tim 1:18 (they assume that Onesiphorus was dead; however the phrase has Paul simply wishing blessings upon his household)
- Matt 12:32 (to say that something will not happen in the age to come does not imply that it will)
- 1 Cor 3:15 (but this does not speak of a person being burned or suffering punishment, but simply his work)
Should we pray for the dead?
The fact that believers immediately enter into God’s presence implies we should not pray for the dead. With this kind of prayer we are speaking of asking God to change the status of their destiny; of course there is nothing wrong with thanking God for the lives of those that have died. While prayer for the dead is taught in the Apocrypha (2 Macc 12:42-45), it is not taught in canonical Scripture. Believers in the presence of God are in a state of perfect happiness and joy - what good is prayer?
Scripture is clear there are degrees of Heavenly reward are based upon deeds done in this life (1 Cor 3:12-15; 2 Cor 5:10). While David prayer intensely for his sick son before the child’s death; he ceased after his death (2 Sam 12:15-23).
Unbelievers who die go to a place of punishment and eternal separation from the love of God. Prayer does them no good; their final destiny is settled by their sin and rebellion against God in this life. To pray for the dead is to pray for something that that God has told us is already decided and is irrevocable. To teach prayer for the dead, or to encourage others to do so, is to offer false hope and may lead to useless anxiety and much time wasted in prayers that will have absolutely no results, diverting attention from prayers that could be offered for events in this life and have potentially great effect in advancing the kingdom of God.
Ultimately, this doctrine robs believers of the tremendously comforting assurance that death means immediate union with Christ in Heaven (Phil 1:23).