Purgatory – A Biblical Review

An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory
Ludovico Carracci, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Biblical references are KJV unless otherwise noted.

You will sometimes hear it said that the word ‘Purgatory’ is not to be found in Holy Scripture, and it is true that the word itself did not come into common use until the Middle Ages, but the doctrine whereby souls are detained prior to their entry into Heaven is proved by references to the dead in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Councils of Florence and of Trent and by Tradition. 1

Biblical verses discussing a purge by fire:

For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire. (1 Cor 3: 11-15)

For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble— each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3: 11-15, RSVCE)

Didache Bible commentary on 1 COR 3:15As through fire: Some whose works fall short of the requirements of the Gospel will still be saved but will undergo purification to become worthy of eternal life. Fire consumes flammable materials, but it also tests and refines metal so that it can be purified, reshaped, and perfected. The Church sees this verse as a reference to Purgatory in which the souls of those who died in God’s grace but have not reached the appropriate level of holiness will undergo a painful purification before entering Heaven. The Church’s teaching on Purgatory is based on Sacred Scripture and the immemorial tradition of both Jews and Christians of praying for the dead. (2 Mc 12:39-45) 2

“For if he 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, that they might be delivered from their sin. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.” -2 Machabees 12:44-46, RSVCE

Figure 1. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory

As indicated in Figure 1, those held in Purgatory have only one destination and that is Heaven. If you were found deficient to gain admittance into Heaven, you do not end up in Purgatory. You can not do evil and pray your way to Heaven. On the contrary, if you are in Purgatory, your suffering by the purging process, is with full knowledge that your final destiny is with God in Heaven.

The temporal punishment due to sin, even after the sin is pardoned by God, is scriptural.

And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron, Because ye believed me not, to sanctify me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore ye shall not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12)

Then David said to Nathan, I have sinned against the Lord; and Nathan answered, The Lord has given thy sin quittance, thou shalt not die for it. But thou hast brought on the Lord the contempt of his enemies, and the son that has been born to thee is doomed to die.” (2 Samuel 12:13-14)

Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.” (Matt 12:31-32)

In Matthew 12:31-32 we see that Jesus refers, indirectly, to a possible forgiveness of sins in this world or forgiveness in the world to come. Just not the unforgivable sin of blaspheming the Holy Ghost. St. Augustine said “that some sinners are not forgiven either in this world or in the next would not be truly said unless there were other [sinners] who, though not forgiven in this world, are forgiven in the world to come” (City of God XXI.24)

The same interpretation is given by Gregory the Great (born at Rome about 540) and St. Bede (born 672 or 673).

Purgatory is not the same as hell when hell is used in the general sense. Specific translations use the word Gehenna to refer to the abode of the damned. Hades is another term in other translations used to represent the abode of the damned.

And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into Gehenna (Mark 9:45, NCB)

The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ “ (Luke 16:22-24, RSVCE)

Those in Purgatory suffer in the same way as those in Gehenna or Hades, but they know it is a temporal event and their final destination is Heaven.

Besides a reference to the eternal fire as a part of hell or more specifically Hades or Gehenna, a part of hell is a place where creatures go awaiting the final judgment. There is no fire there in that part of hell, but chains of darkness.

For if God spared not the angels who sinned, but cast them down to hell and delivered them into chains of darkness to be reserved unto judgment; (2 Peter 2:4)

And the angels who kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, He hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great Day— (Jude 1:6)

At the beginning of the Reformation there was some hesitation especially on Luther’s part (Leipzig Disputation) as to whether the doctrine of Purgatory should be retained, but as the breach widened, the denial of purgatory by the Reformers became universal, and Calvin termed the Catholic position “exitiale commentum quod crucem Christi evacuat . . . quod fidem nostram labefacit et evertit” (Institutiones, lib. III, cap. v, 6). Modern Protestants, while they avoid the name purgatory, frequently teach the doctrine of “the middle state,” and Martensen (“Christian Dogmatics,” Edinburgh, 1890, p. 457) writes: “As no soul leaves this present existence in a fully complete and prepared state, we must suppose that there is an intermediate state, a realm of progressive development, in which souls are prepared for the final judgment” (Farrar, “Mercy and Judgment,” London, 1881, cap. iii). 3

The book of Sirach has references to the belief that praying for the dead is of benefit to them as they complete that journey from Purgatory into Heaven:

Rather, with all thy soul fear God, and to his priests give their due; with gift of the consecrated shoulder clear thyself of what is owing. The priests must have their share, by law prescribed, of first-fruits and of offering for transgression; even if thou hast committed a fault in ignorance, a little is claimed for thy cleansing. The gift of the consecrated shoulder thou must make to the Lord, and the offering of all that is dedicated, and the holy first-fruits; moreover, thou must open thy hand to the poor; so thy atonement shall be perfect, and perfect thy blessing. No living man but is thankful for the gift given; and it is ill done to withhold thy favours even from the dead. Fail not to comfort the distressed, let the mourner have thee for his escort. Never tire of visiting the sick; no surer way of winning thy neighbour’s love. Remember at all times what thou must come to at the last, and thou shalt never do amiss.” (Sirach 7:33-40, RSVCE )

Another reference, albeit a little subtle, is the discussion in 2Timothy about Onesiphorus:

The Lord give mercy unto the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain: But, when he was in Rome, he sought me out very diligently, and found me. The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day: and in how many things he ministered unto me at Ephesus, thou knowest very well.” (2 TIM 1:16-18)

With the reference to Onesiphorus separate from his family and the specific in reference to the day of judgement, “in that day,” leads one to believe Onesiphorus is dead and yet St. Paul is praying for him.

Why would St. Paul encourage us to pray for the dead unless there is some remedial effect that can come from that prayer?

Besides St. Paul, what did the early church fathers say about praying for the dead and what biblical references were used to support their position?

First you must define what constitutes a father of the church and by what authority we should hold their teachings.

When it comes to credible witnesses to the teachings of Jesus, no group holds more spiritual weight than the Apostles themselves. Certainly those trained by the Apostles were the first to be taught the spiritual tongue of fire that was given to the Apostles during Pentecost. Those Disciples trained by the Apostles are called the Apostolic Fathers and exhibited 4 qualities that distinguished their credibility as early Church Fathers: 5

  1. Sound Doctrine
  2. Holiness of life
  3. Church approved
  4. Antiquity

Even those Fathers through the Council of Nicea and the formulation of the creed in 325 AD should provide as credible witnesses to the purest faith that Jesus passed to His disciples. These are referred to as the Ante-Nicene Fathers who led the Christians till the fourth century and the Nicene Fathers guiding the Church through the fourth century.5

Sts Titus and Clement were trained by the Apostle Paul. Sts Polycarp and Ignatius were trained by the Apostle John. St Irenaeus was trained by St. Polycarp. But other credible witnesses in the early church included Tertullian, Origen, Lactantius, Ambrose, Cyril of Jerusalem, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine of Hippo, and Gregory the Great (the Pope that stopped the plague of the 6th century by leading a Eucharistic procession through Rome).

In the fourth century, Christian thought concerning the fate of the soul after death was based mainly on the vision of Daniel (Dan 7:9) and on a passage from Paul (1 Cor 3:10-15), and less frequently on Tertullian’s idea of refrigerium and Origen’s concept of a purifying fire….Lactantius (d. after 317) believed that all who died, including the righteous, would be tried by fire, but not until the Last Judgment [cites Instit 7:21 Migne PL 6:800]. Ambrose (d. 397), and Jerome (d. 419/420) had ideas on the fate of the soul after death that make them heirs of Origen. 4

I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.” Daniel 7:9

[Ambrose] also clearly stated that the prayers of the living could help to relieve the suffering of the dead, that suffrages could be of use in mitigating the penalties meted out in the other world…[cites Ambrose on the Emperor Theodosius]…. (page 60) 4

Origen took the notion that fire is a divine instrument, and from the New Testament the idea of baptism by fire (from the Gospels) and the idea of a purificatory trial after death (from Paul). The notion of fire as a divine instrument comes from commonly cited interpretations of Old Testament passages [ e.g. Lev 10:1-2; Deut 32:22; Jer 15:14; cf. Luke 3:16] 4

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.” Lev 10:1-2

For a fire is kindled in mine anger, and shall burn unto the lowest hell, and shall consume the earth with her increase, and set on fire the foundations of the mountains.” Deut 32:22

And I will make thee to pass with thine enemies into a land which thou knowest not: for a fire is kindled in mine anger, which shall burn upon you.” Jer 15:14

John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire” Luke 3:16

And Tertullian writes “All souls, therefore; are shut up within Hades: do you admit this? (It is true, whether) you say yes or no: moreover, there are already experienced there punishments and consolations; and there you have a poor man and a rich…Moreover, the soul executes not all its operations with the ministration of the flesh; for the judgment of God pursues even simple cogitations and the merest volitions. ‘Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.’ Therefore, even for this cause it is most fitting that the soul, without at all waiting for the flesh, should be punished for what it has done without the partnership of the flesh. So, on the same principle, in return for the pious and kindly thoughts in which it shared not the help of the flesh, shall it without the flesh receive its consolation. In short, inasmuch as we understand ‘the prison’ pointed out in the Gospel to be Hades, and as we also interpret ‘the uttermost farthing’ to mean the very smallest offence which has to be recompensed there before the resurrection, no one will hesitate to believe that the soul undergoes in Hades some compensatory discipline, without prejudice to the full process of the resurrection, when the recompense will be administered through the flesh besides.” (A Treatise on the Soul 58 [c. AD 210] or ANF III:234-235)4

Lactantius writes, “But also, when God will judge the just, it is likewise in fire that he will try them. At that time, they whose sins are uppermost, either because of their gravity or their number, will be drawn together by the fire and will be burned. Those, however, who have been imbued with full justice and maturity of virtue, will not feel that fire; for they have something of God in them which will repel and turn back the strength of the flame.” (Divine Institutes 7:21:6 [c. AD 307] or ANF VII:217)4

St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote “For I know that there are many who are saying this: ‘If a soul departs from this world with sins, what does it profit it to be remembered in the prayer?’…[we] grant a remission of their penalties…we too offer prayers to Him for those who have fallen asleep though they be sinners. We do not plait a crown, but offer up Christ who has been sacrificed for our sins; and we thereby propitiate the benevolent God for them as well as for ourselves.” (23 [Mystagogic 5], 8, 9, 10 [c. 350 AD] or NPNF2 VII:154-155)4

St. Ambrose of Milan said in the 4th century, “Give, oh Lord, rest to Thy servant Theodosius, that rest Thou hast prepared for Thy saints….I love him, therefore will I follow him to the land of the living; I will not leave him till by my prayers and lamentations he shall be admitted unto the holy mount of the Lord, to which his deserts call him.” (De Obit Theodosii [c. AD 395] or Migne PL 16:1397)4

St. Augustine of Hippo wrote in the late 4th century (392) “’Lord, rebuke me not in Your indignation, nor correct me in Your anger’ [Psalm 38:1]…In this life may You cleanse me and make me such that I have no need of the corrective fire, which is for those who are saved, but as if by fire…for it is said: ‘He shall be saved, but as if by fire’ [1 Cor 3:15]. And because it is said that he shall be saved, little is thought of that fire. Yet plainly, though we be saved by fire, that fire will be more severe than anything a man can suffer in this life.” (Explanations of the Psalms 37:3 [c. AD 392])” 4

A discussion on the Catechism of the Catholic Church references to Purgatory can be found at: https://usralls.org/catholic-view-of-end-times-pt-3/

The National Catholic Register had an excellent article on Heaven, hell, and Purgatory.


A final word should be mentioned of the extreme mercy that Jesus wants to grant Christians who live in the times we are in. He shared this mercy with St. Faustina in the 1920s. We all know that Jesus is Our Redeemer and grants us admission into Heaven. But the temporal punishment of our sin is not forgiven, not even during confession. There will be a purging by the fire. But Jesus wants us to know His loving Mercy is being spread with abundance on this generation. St. Faustina writes these words from Jesus:

I desire that the Feast of Mercy be a refuge and shelter for all souls, and especially for poor sinners. On that day the very depths of My tender mercy are open. I pour out a whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the fount of My mercy. The soul that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion shall obtain complete forgiveness of sins and punishment. On that day all the divine floodgates through which grace flow are opened. Let no soul fear to draw near to Me, even though its sins be as scarlet.” Diary 699

I want to grant a complete pardon to the souls that will go to Confession and receive Holy Communion on the Feast of My mercy.” Diary1109 6

The Church adopted the Divine Mercy Sunday as the Sunday following Easter by proclamation of Pope John Paul II in the year of our Lord 2000. A person who receives Holy Communion in a state of grace (right after confession), will not only be saved from those sins, redeemed, but even the temporal punishment, the fire, required of those sins will be removed.


  1. PURGATORYBy: Jim Dunning, https://www.mysticsofthechurch.com/2010/04/explanation-of-purgatory-part-1-of-2.html
  2. The Didache Bible, Ignatius Bible Edition, 978-1-58617-973-1, pages 1538-1539
  3. Catholic Teaching on Purgatory – https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12575a.htm
  4. The Church Fathers on Purgatory, http://www.biblicalcatholic.com/apologetics/a105.htm
  5. The Fathers of the Church, Mike Aquilina, ISBN 978-61278-561-5, pgs 18-21
  6. 17 Things Jesus Revealed to St. Faustina About Divine Mercy, https://www.ncregister.com/blog/17-things-jesus-revealed-to-st-faustina-about-divine-mercy

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