The Biblical doctrine of atonement teaches that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is a complete, final, and wholly sufficient payment for the sins of all who believe. In contrast, the Catholic Church teaches that upon death, believers whose sins have not been fully absolved enter into an interim state, known as Purgatory, in order that any unpaid penalty for venial sins may be satisfied. As these teachings contradict one another, clearly they cannot both be true.
Which, then, is the true teaching? To answer that question, let us first examine the proof texts that are commonly cited by Catholic teachers in support of Purgatory, after which we shall examine further what the Bible teaches regarding atonement. All citations are quoted from the English Standard Version (ESV) unless otherwise noted.
The five verses quoted below, along with related supporting passages, are among the passages most commonly cited by Catholic sources in support of Purgatory. Let us examine each passage individually.
So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen… 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, that they might be delivered from their sin. (Revised Standard Version)
The Catholic argument that this passage provides a Biblical demonstration of the Jewish practice of making atonement for the dead fails for two reasons. First, 2 Maccabees is one of seven apocryphal books included in the Catholic canon which are not included in either the Christian scriptures or the Hebrew Bible. Second, the Apocrypha provides a record of the intertestamental period and was written during the era of Hellenistic Judaism, when Jewish beliefs and practices were shaped and influenced by the surrounding Greek culture, often in a manner not consistent with Mosaic Judaism. An interim state of existence after death does not appear in the earlier, inspired Old Testament, but is prevalent in the writings of Hellenistic philosophers.
When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.
Citing St. Augustine’s City of God, Catholics interpret the cleansing by burning described in this verse as a description of Purgatory. Fire is used throughout scripture as a symbol of both judgment and purification, as it is here. However, the context of the first 35 chapters of Isaiah is a contemporary pronouncement of judgment against the people of Judah, and not of a future judgment. Further, the preceding verse shows that Isaiah is clearly speaking about those who remain in Jerusalem among the living, and not about the dead.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
Here again, fire is used to symbolize judgment and purification. Interpreted alongside Hebrews 9:27, Catholics cite this passage as a description of the process that immediately follows the death of a believer. However, a plain reading of 1 Corinthians 3 shows the fire in this instance being specifically applied to the works of those charged with the responsibility of building up the church, and not to subjects themselves, much less to believers as a whole. Furthermore, this passage describes a single act that takes place on the final Day of Judgment, and not an interim process of purification.
And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
Again drawing on St. Augustine’s City of God, Catholics cite this verse as proof that forgiveness is possible not only in this life, but in the next life. However, this interpretation overlooks the idiomatic nature of Jesus’ words. The phrase “this age or the age to come” was a Jewish expression equivalent to “forever.” Just as Jesus was speaking to a Jewish audience, Matthew, writing also to Jews, preserved this phrasing.
Mark’s more simplified rendering of this statement reads, “But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven” (Mark 3:29). Both verses make use of the Greek word aiōn (age, ever) to express permanence. Luke, addressing a Gentile audience, does away with the Jewish colloquialism altogether, writing “anyone who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven” (Luke 12:10). The original hearers of Jesus’ words, and the subsequent evangelists of His gospel, clearly did not understand his statement to refer to two separate periods of time separated by death, and neither should we.
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.
Catholics apply a symbolic interpretation of this passage, suggesting that the “prison” represents Purgatory itself, while the minor (venial) sins to be cleansed are alluded to by the use of a “penny” to describe the increments of debt. However, reading this passage in the context of surrounding verses, it becomes evident that Jesus is speaking, quite literally and instructively, on matters of personal relationships and interactions.
Just as in our 21st-century legal system, the Roman procedure for settling a civil dispute allowed for the parties to reach a settlement agreeable to all stakeholders prior to the matter being presented before a judge. Jesus highlights this as the preferred course of action, just as in the preceding verses he similarly instructs his listeners to be reconciled to an aggrieved brother prior to presenting an offering to God. In both examples, he is placing a responsibility on his listeners to make amends for any wrongs that they may have committed against another person.
Having answered the Catholic arguments for Purgatory, and demonstrating from Scripture that it cannot be true, we close by offering what is true: the Biblical teaching of atonement through the work of Jesus on the cross.
Atonement describes the cleansing of sins by offering a substitutionary sacrifice. In the Old Testament, a system of animal sacrifices was established for the sake of atonement, and to prepare us to understand the work of Jesus on the cross.
Drawing on the Old Testament imagery of sacrificial lambs, Peter describes Jesus as a lamb without blemish by which we are redeemed. As we are purchased by the blood of Christ, and not by anything perishable, Jesus’ sacrifice is a complete work (1 Peter 1:18-19). There is nothing that we can add to what is already complete that would make it more complete.
The writer to the Hebrews, describing Jesus as our high priest, writes that Jesus sacrificed himself for the people’s sins once for all (Hebrews 7:27). We need not continue the Levitical sacrifices, or otherwise add to the sacrifice that Jesus made, as His death is counted as the final sacrifice.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that in addition to being justified by Jesus’ blood, were are also saved by him from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9). As God’s wrath is satisfied by the suffering that Jesus endured, Jesus punishment is a wholly sufficient payment of the penalty due us.
In conclusion, since Jesus’ spilled blood is a complete, final, and wholly sufficient atonement for the sins of all who believe in him, there is neither a Biblical basis nor a practical need that supports the concept of Purgatory.