Defending Purgatory?

Roger Olson stirred up a pot of controversy as he speculated on the appropriateness of a Protestant form of purgatory.  C. Michael Patton offered a response which is worth reading.  Being a Protestant myself I don’t believe in purgatory and I’m not sure many of those who responded to Olson quite understood what he was offering.  In the past few years I’ve had an increasing interest in Catholic theology (and Orthodox theology as well).  My Protestant training has more than once given me the wrong impression on several doctrines in both of these traditions.  I would like to suggest a recent resource from a Catholic writer who defends the doctrine of purgatory.  The book is Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction by Terence Nichols.  He is a professor of theology and chair of the theology department at the University of St. Thomas.

Nichols starts with the consideration of the early tradition of Christians praying for their dead.  This goes back as far 200 A. D. with the account of Perpetua praying for her deceased brother Dinocrates.  He quotes Augustine, “There is no doubt that the dead are helped by the prayers of the holy Church, by the saving sacrifice [that is, the Eucharist], and by the alms given for their souls, in order that God may deal more mercifully with them than their sins have deserved.”   Nichols notes that this “practice has continued in both the Western and Eastern churches up to the present.”  (172)  The current thought in Roman Catholicism presents purgatory “as a state of growth and purification of love after death rather than a state of paying penalties for venial (that is, nonmortal) sins.”  He immediately dismisses two caricatures: there is no physical fire in purgatory and purgatory is not a “third state.”

Why is purgatory not found in Scripture?  Nichols cautions us not to move too fast.  Though the word purgatory is certainly not found in Scripture (just as the term Trinity is not found either) the concept can be found.  He points to Matt. 12:32 “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”  He also cites Matt. 5:25-26.  So “why is there no clear mention of purgatory?”

“The first generations of Christians clearly thought that the resurrection was a sign that the end times were upon them.  Paul himself expected the Lord to return and the general resurrection to occur in his lifetime. . . No one expected a prolonged period between death and the resurrection.  This is clear in Jesus’s saying: ‘you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23).  At the very least, this indicates that Matthew and his readers expected the return of Jesus within their lifetime.  Jesus may have believed the end times were imminent also, but I will leave this an open question.  In any event, there is a lot in the New Testament on the coming judgment but little on any intermediate state, which would have been very brief if the resurrection and judgment were coming soon.” (173)

Finally, Nichols says the main reason for accepting purgatory is “that to come fully into the presence of God, we must be loving as God is loving.”  (174)  The process of sanctification does not end at the grave.  It is certainly not beyond God’s power to change us suddenly.  But “it is that we need time to accept God’s grace and to change under its influence.  Everything in our lives indicates that.  Even apparently sudden changes, we now know, are preceded by a long period of psychological preparation.”  (174-75)

Whether you agree or disagree I think Nichols makes a case worth hearing and interacting with.

Another helpful resource is What Catholics Really Believe–Setting the Record Straight: 52 Answers to Common Misconceptions about the Catholic Faith by Karl Keating (Ignatius Press).


About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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