What is Purgatory?
Since at least 1274, the Roman Catholic Church has officially affirmed a doctrine of Purgatory. Purgatory is thought to be a place of purging (getting rid of something impure or undesirable). The idea is that since nothing impure will ever enter the Holy City (Revelation 21:27), there must be a place where heaven-bound (yet still imperfect) people go to get cleaned-up and ready for their eternal home.
Most all Protestants protest the idea of Purgatory. Since they don’t see the concept taught plainly in Scripture, they wonder why Roman Catholics proclaim it. I’d like to quickly describe how the doctrine developed, explain why Protestants reject it, and share my personal thoughts.
One fact that needs to be understood about Roman Catholics is that they value ‘church’ (and by that they mean the Roman Catholic Church) tradition far more than most protestants. In fact, they believe Scripture and official Church Tradition carry equal weight in that they flow from the same source (God). So Roman Catholics believe in Purgatory because they see seed for the doctrine in Scripture and believe that seed has grown throughout Church history.
As for Scripture, a handful of verses are usually said to suggest the idea of Purgatory (verses like Matthew 5:26 & 12:32), but probably the best biblical case comes from 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 which says that some Kingdom work has been done in a somewhat shoddy manner. The workers responsible for this will be saved, but ‘only as one escaping through the flames.’
As for Tradition, the practice of praying for the dead was widespread in the early church. It was believed by many that praying for those who had died as imperfect believers could hasten their arrival in heaven. But the tradition wasn’t unified. Some taught that Purgatory was a lot like Heaven, with angels guiding people toward their eternal home. Others taught it was more like Hell, a place where the price for remaining sins is paid in the form of punishment.
Protestants reject Purgatory mainly because they don’t think the Scriptural evidence is strong and they reject church tradition that they don’t think is built from a Scriptural foundation. But Protestants are especially adamant that the Hellish version of Purgatory is theologically flawed. We believe that Jesus has already dealt with our sins. Believers will not have to experience anything like hell after death.
The Heavenly version of purgatory, however, is potentially less offensive to Protestants. Most Christians agree that we die without having ‘arrived’ at perfection. Our characters are not yet completely Christ-like. How will we become completely Christ-like in our character? Will we instantly become perfect the moment we die? Or will there be some process we go through?
Personally, I believe that between the moment of our death and the time of Christ’s appearing, believers will experience something that could be called ‘Purgatory’ in the sense that their souls will be purged of imperfections, but I would just call this Heaven. When Christ appears, this process will be completed for all true believers, for “when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).