"So when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And bowing
His head, He gave up His spirit.” (John 19:30)
Recently I have received emails in disagreement with my statement in my article “The Simple Truth” about the non-existence of the so-called intermediate state between heaven and hell called purgatory. The disagreement is centralized on traditional doctrines and beliefs of a certain religious denomination rather than on the infallible trustworthy Word of God. The belief in this intermediate place is that people that die in a state of grace are sent there after death to be purified of their sins before they can enter into the holiness of heaven. The only ones that will bypass purgatory and go straight to heaven are baptized infants and people that lived such holy lives that they are categorized as being a “saint”, and this determination is done here on earth! According to this religious doctrine, the degree of one’s purification is in relation to the amount of sin that has to be remitted for, making each person’s atonement for sin a unique act of its own.
When determining things that pertain to the spiritual afterlife, (which can’t be seen here on earth), there is only one source that has the reliable answers – the Bible. The Bible has consistently proven itself reliable from accurately fulfilled prophecy, historical documentation, archeological findings, manuscript evidence, and the life changing power of Scriptures themselves. Modern day Israel is a manifestation of almost all of these things just within itself. With that said, we can turn to the Bible for our answers to all things of God with confidence. So we now must ask ourselves, is the doctrine of purgatory Biblical? Does it line up with the Word of God or does it contradict the Word of God? Does the Bible indicate anything of such a place? Let’s break it down and see.
First let’s see what the Bible says about life after death before Jesus died for our sins on the cross. Throughout the Old Testament we see the reference to Sheol as the abiding place for the dead. A few examples are Job 17:16, Psalm 16:10, Psalm 86:13, Isaiah 5:14, Jonah 2:2, (NKJV), to name a few. Sheol had two partitions to it. There was one side of comfort and another side of torment. In Luke 16:19-31 Jesus tells the real life story, (not a parable), of the rich man and Lazarus. In the story the rich man dies and ends up in Hades, (the torment side of Sheol now known as Hell) and Lazarus is taken to Abraham’s bosom, a.k.a. Paradise, which was a place of comfort and the waiting place for all of the Old Testament saints until Jesus died on the cross and went down to release them from there to then accompany Him into Heaven. This is the promise that the Old Testament saints put their faith in that is spoken of in Hebrews chapter 11, (see Hebrews 11:13).
Jesus foretold that this “releasing of the captives” was part of His divine mission of His first coming. When He entered the synagogue after His temptation in the wilderness He was handed the scroll of Isaiah where Jesus quoted His own words saying:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me, to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; (Luke 4:18)
The liberty to the captives He was speaking of was the releasing of those in Abraham’s bosom, (a.k.a. Paradise), when He descended into Hell. The apostle Paul also spoke of this event:
“Therefore He says: When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men. Now this, “He ascended” – what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.” (Ephesians 4:8-10)
On an interesting note, the thief on the cross next to Jesus was the last person that would enter into Paradise.
“And Jesus said to him, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43)
Every blood bought believer after this would now go directly into heaven to be with Christ, for the time had now come for the captives in the Paradise partition of Sheol to be set free, as Jesus had foretold in the synagogue.
So we can see that in the Old Testament times, before the Cross, there was undoubtedly no intermediate place where souls went after death for purification. It was either Paradise or Torment in Sheol. Now what does the Bible say about where we go after Jesus made the atonement for the sins of the world? The apostle Paul states very clearly that for the believer to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, (2 Corinthians 5:8), and that to depart from the flesh is to be present with Christ, (1 Philippians 1:22-23). We can’t be in a place where we are still bearing sin that needs to be purged and in the direct presence of the Lord at the same time. This brings us to the purpose of being justified by the blood of Christ while we are here on earth. Romans 5:9 says:
“Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him”. (Romans 5:9)
What does it mean to be justified? Being justified means that we are acquitted of our crime, the slate is wiped clean, our rap sheet is now blank, as if we had never sinned and broken the Law and we can now be deemed righteous. We can only attain this by faith in the sacrificial blood of Christ, (Romans 3:28 & Galatians 3:24). It is a free gift from God given to us by grace.
“…being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus”, (Romans 3:24)
We attain this justification the moment we believe and become born again in Jesus Christ, (Romans 4:5). That means that we attain this justification while we are here on earth, NOT after we die. This in itself eliminates the need or purpose of an after-death intermediate place for one to be purified or purged for their sin. We are already made justified in God’s eyes although we still have to deal with sin while here on earth. Jesus had become sin for us, (2 Corinthians 5:21), when He bore our sins on the Cross. The doctrine of purgatory is a great insult to the finished work of Christ’s sacrifice. It is saying that His atonement is insufficient for our salvation and that it isn’t finished. Yet just before Jesus took His last breath on the cross He said, “It is finished”, (John 19:30).
In the Greek, the phrase, “it is finished”, is written as one word – “tetelestai”. Business documents or tax receipts in the first century A.D. bore the word “tetelestai” across the document to show that the bill had been paid in full. In early New Testament times the readers of John’s gospel would clearly understand that Jesus had died to pay the full debt for their sins when they read the word “tetelestai” on the section of the scroll that we now know as John chapter 19, verse 30. This means that Jesus had fully paid the debt owed by the sinner. There is nothing more to be done!
How could one walk with confidence in Christ and be free of the guilt of sin if the atonement for sin hadn’t been completely accomplished? It would mean that we wouldn’t be able to look to the Cross as the complete removal of our sins and yet that is one of the main central foundations of Christianity. Without the reliable completeness of Christ’s sacrifice what kind of glorious hope would we have? We are sanctified to God because we have passed out of condemnation, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ” (Romans 8:1), leaving nothing that is needed for us to do but to trust in Christ with all of our faith. Since we are no longer condemned we will not stand before Christ in judgment of sin but rather in judgment of our service to Him for our rewards, (1 Corinthians 3:15). Being justified by faith we will not only escape damnation but in Hebrews 10:17 the Lord says, “Their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more”. Once again we can see there is no need for purgatory.
“And it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment,” (Hebrews 9:27)
The writer of Hebrews certainly wasn’t instructed by the Holy Spirit to inform us of an intermediate place of purification when he wrote the above verse. Judgment means heaven or hell and this comes after men die once. Not after purification in purgatory and not after being reincarnated over and over again until perfected, for anyone that believes in reincarnation. Both heaven and hell is the abiding place for souls, whether in comfort or in torment, waiting for their coming resurrection days.
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and contempt.” (Daniel 12:2)
When Christ comes he will resurrect His church, (faithful believers) at the Rapture, (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17), and then the Old Testament saints at the end of the Tribulation along with the believers that accepted Christ and died during the Tribulation, (Revelation 20:46). All of the unrighteous wicked will be resurrected at the end of the thousand year reign of Christ on earth to face the White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15) and then sent into eternal punishment in the Lake of Fire. Until then the spirits of the righteous are in comfort in heaven and the spirits of the unrighteous are in torment in hell awaiting the Judgment. Hell is like a holding cell for a prisoner who is waiting for his sentencing to then be sent to the penitentiary. He has already been convicted. Throughout all of this the Bible mentions no intermediate state – its Heaven or Hell!
One of the most commonly misinterpreted Scriptures that is used for a Biblical documentation for the existence of purgatory is Matthew 5:26 but when viewed in context it is simply an allegory that Jesus is using to prove a point about retaining murderous anger in one’s heart. Starting from verse 25 it says:
“Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.” (Matthew 5:25-26)
What Jesus was speaking about here is that we can’t be right with God and have a murderous hate for someone else at the same time. We need to forgive as we have been forgiven. Jesus was giving an allegory of a debtor that is thrown into prison and remains there until his debt is paid, (a common literal situation in Jesus’ day). So until we settle our differences with our brother, (pay the last penny), we cannot bring our sacrifices to the altar, (vs. 23). This passage actually has nothing to do with anything about death. It is all about settling our differences while here on earth. This is a typical case of taking a Scripture and metaphorically molding into what the interpreter wants it to say rather than for what it says on its own. Even if that verse was speaking about purgatory, we can’t pay our own debt of sin, we may suffer the consequences of our sin, but Christ paid our debt.
Purgatory is in firm contradiction to the Scriptures. We have to wonder how something so blatantly contradictory to Scripture has obtained such a long-time recognition. The answer is mainly due to lack of availability to the Scriptures when this doctrine was originated. The belief in purgatory is basically all that it is – a belief. Anyone can believe something, propose it to an audience lacking Biblical knowledge and if it sounds good it can quickly gain wide momentum. This is the case of the false doctrine of purgatory. It wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that Bibles began to become available to the general public where the common man could now absorb the truth and the concept of purgatory began to be realized for the false doctrine that it is. So in this day and age where we have Bibles in an incredible abundance why would someone still embrace the doctrine of purgatory? They are either: 1.) Fully devoted to the traditions and doctrines of their denomination and/or religion. 2.) They are not grounded in the Word of God. 3.) They are lukewarm in their trust and faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Savior, leaving them unable to discern the truth. All of this just exemplifies the importance of reading our Bibles daily as opposed to just following religious doctrines. If we only let clergy leaders determine for us the things of God how do we know if it is really correct? We don’t! We all need to be like the Bereans in Acts 17 that didn’t just accept the apostle Paul’s preaching but searched the Scriptures to see if what he said was correct.
“These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. (Acts 17:11)
The Lord has given us His Word as a go to place for the correct answers when we are presented with life’s dilemmas. Sometimes the Truth may not be what we always want to hear but it is honest and sure and most importantly always for our protection. With that said, the fact that this man-made doctrine of a place called purgatory isn’t in the Bible is good news for those that search the Scriptures for their answers. After all, haven’t we’ve already done enough suffering here in this world and even more importantly Christ has suffered enough for all of us as far as the punishment for sin goes. So if you have put your faith and trust in Jesus Christ and His work of atonement that He has accomplished on the cross, then you can rest in peace knowing that – it is finished!