What Is the Biblical Basis for Purgatory?

Purgatory in the Old and New Testaments

Illuminated page from a manuscript of Dante's Purgatory (The Divine Comedy)
Canto XXV, Purgatory, Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), illuminated page from the Dante Estense manuscript, 1380-1390. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The passages in the current Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 1030-1032) spell out the Catholic Church's teaching on the widely misunderstood topic of Purgatory. As to whether the Church still believes in Purgatory, the Catechism offers the definitive answer: Yes.

The Church Believes in Purgatory Because of the Bible

Before we examine the bible verses, however, we should note that one of the claims by Martin Luther condemned by Pope Leo X in his papal bull Exsurge Domine (June 15, 1520) was Luther's belief that "Purgatory cannot be proved from Sacred Scripture, which is in the canon." In other words, while the Catholic Church bases the doctrine of Purgatory on both scripture and tradition, Pope Leo emphasizes that scripture is sufficient to prove the existence of Purgatory.

Evidence in the Old Testament

The chief Old Testament verse that indicates the necessity of purgation after death (and thus implies a place or state where such purgation takes place—hence the name Purgatory) is 2 Maccabees 12:46:

It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.

If everyone who dies goes immediately to Heaven or to Hell, then this verse would be nonsense. Those who are in Heaven have no need of prayer, "that they may be loosed from sins"; those who are in Hell are unable to benefit from such prayers, because there is no escape from Hell—damnation is eternal.

Thus, there must be a third place or state, in which some of the dead are currently in the process of being "loosed from sins." (A side note: Martin Luther argued that 1 and 2 Maccabees did not belong in the canon of the Old Testament, even though they had been accepted by the universal Church from the time that the canon was settled. Thus his contention, condemned by Pope Leo, that "Purgatory cannot be proved from Sacred Scripture which is in the canon.")

Evidence in the New Testament

Similar passages regarding purgation, and thus pointing to a place or state in which the purgation must take place, can be found in the New Testament. Saint Peter and Saint Paul both speak of "trials" that are compared with a "cleansing fire." In 1 Peter 1:6-7, Saint Peter refers to our necessary trials in this world:

Wherein you shall greatly rejoice, if now you must be for a little time made sorrowful in divers temptations: That the trial of your faith (much more precious than gold which is tried by the fire) may be found unto praise and glory and honour at the appearing of Jesus Christ.

And in 1 Corinthians 3:13-15, Saint Paul extends this image into the life after this one:

Every man's work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in 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 burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.

The Cleansing Fire

But "he himself shall be saved." Again, the Church recognized from the beginning that Saint Paul cannot be talking here about those in the fires of Hell because those are fires of torment, not of purgation—no one whose actions place him in Hell will ever leave it. Rather, this verse is the basis of the Church's belief that all those who undergo purgation after their earthly life ends (those whom we call the Poor Souls in Purgatory) are assured of entrance into Heaven.

Christ Speaks of Forgiveness in the World to Come

Christ Himself, in Matthew 12:31-32, speaks of forgiveness in this age (here on earth, as in 1 Peter 1:6-7) and in the world to come (as in 1 Corinthians 3:13-15):

Therefore I say to you: Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come.

If all souls go directly either to Heaven or to Hell, then there is no forgiveness in the world to come. But if that is so, why would Christ mention the possibility of such forgiveness?

Prayers and Liturgies for the Poor Souls in Purgatory

All of this explains why, from the earliest days of Christianity, Christians offered liturgies and prayers for the dead. The practice makes no sense unless at least some souls undergo purification after this life.

In the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom, in his Homilies on 1 Corinthians, used the example of Job offering sacrifices for his living sons (Job 1:5) to defend the practice of prayer and sacrifice for the dead. But Chrysostom was arguing not against those who thought that such sacrifices were unnecessary, but against those who thought that they did no good:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.

Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture Agree

In this passage, Chrysostom sums up all of the Church Fathers, East and West, who never doubted that prayer and liturgy for the dead were both necessary and useful. Thus Sacred Tradition both draws upon and confirms the lessons of Sacred Scripture—found in both the Old and New Testaments, and indeed (as we have seen) in the words of Christ Himself.