The Catholic tradition of purgatory teaches that, upon death, many souls enter a spiritual realm between heaven and hell during which their sins are dealt with until they are prepared to enter heaven. It is a place where sin is "purged" before a person can enter heaven. Furthermore, Catholic tradition encourages the living to do works on behalf of the dead in order to improve the situation of those in purgatory. But what does the Bible say about purgatory?
Is the concept of purgatory biblical?
First, it must be clearly noted that the Bible does not teach purgatory. Catholic theologians typically refer to a book in the Apocrypha to support their belief in purgatory. In the Apocrypha, the book of 2 Maccabees states,
"Making a gathering . . . sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead). And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins" (2 Maccabees 12:43-46).
From this, Catholic doctrine teaches that prayers for the dead were offered before the time of Jesus to improve the condition of the soul. While it may be true that some people offered prayers for the dead, the fact remains that the source is a book not included in the Protestant Bible. Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever spoke of the Apocrypha as Scripture or mentioned purgatory.
Belief in purgatory arose within the church at least as early as the fourth century, with some accepting and others rejecting the concept. However, the Council of Trent in in 1563 mentioned the doctrine of purgatory as already being universally accepted within the church. While it may or may not have been universally accepted, it is clear that purgatory was commonly discussed and accepted by many at this time.
A look at the New Testament reveals a very different perspective regarding the afterlife. First, Jesus spoke very clearly of only two choices in the afterlife in Luke 16:19-31. There we find that a certain rich man had died as an unbeliever and was "in torment" (Luke 16:23). Jesus made it clear that the afterlife offers two options, and that both heaven and hell are eternal.
Matthew 7:13-14 also notes, "Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few." Again, only two options are provided. There is no third option.
The end of the Bible also makes clear God's plan for the end of time. Revelation 20:12-15 says,
"And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire."
Once again, only two choices exist—heaven or hell (here called the lake of fire). Purgatory is an extra-biblical teaching developed beyond what Jesus and the apostles presented in the Bible. As such, it lacks biblical authority and is to be rejected. While the idea of a "middle ground" may find historical support in other places or seem sensible to many, the fact is that it is not supported by the Bible—the very book that forms the basis for Christian belief. Believers are not called to offer prayers or works on behalf of the dead. The dead's eternity has already been decided. Instead, we must seek to grow in Christ and share Him with others.
What happens after death?
What is the intermediate state?
The Great White Throne Judgment - What is it?
Is reincarnation biblical?
Does hell have levels, each with a different degree of punishment?
Truth about Eternity