Intro note: The following was prompted by a question asked by one of the members of the Trust the Bible class I teach at my church.
I have a question in regard to ‘Purgatory’, which is this: What is the biblical justification for said place, or idea?
Summary answer, a more lengthy explanation follows:
The concept of Purgatory is not Biblical, but an incorrect teaching of the Catholic church based on a non-biblical passage and faulty exegesis of some passages of canonical scriptures. To expand on this answer, the following is first a Catholic definition and defense of various aspects of the belief in Purgatory and after that, why it is incorrect using quotes from Got Questions and comments from Yvon Prehn.
First a definition of Purgatory from https://www.catholic.com/tract/purgatory
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC 1030). It notes that “this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031).
The purification is necessary because, as Scripture teaches, nothing unclean will enter the presence of God in heaven (Rev. 21:27) and, while we may die with our mortal sins forgiven, there can still be many impurities in us, specifically venial sins and the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven.”
This is incorrect as the Bible clearly teaches that Jesus’s death on the cross cleansed us from all sins and that when we sin in this life, if we confess our sins, we are immediately cleansed of them:
This is important to understand as venial sins are what are supposedly purified in Purgatory. This is a false dichotomy of sin as the following excerpt shows:
The Bible teaches that all of us sin (Romans 3:23) and that the just compensation for sin is eternal death (Romans 6:23). Over and against the concepts of mortal and venial sin, the Bible does not state that some sins are worthy of eternal death whereas others are not. All sins are mortal sins in that even one sin makes the offender worthy of eternal separation from God.
The excerpt from Got Questions goes on…..
1 Peter 3:18, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit.” Take note of the wording, “Christ also died for sins once for all.
…. When Jesus, on the cross, stated, “It is finished” (John 19:30), He was stating that He had fulfilled all that was necessary to grant forgiveness and eternal life to those who would believe in Him. This is why Jesus says in John 3:18 that “he who believes in Him [Jesus] is not judged.” Paul states this fact in Romans 8:1: “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Why are believers not judged? Why is there no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus? It is because the death of Christ satisfied God’s righteous wrath against sin (1 John 4), and now those who trust in Christ will not bear the penalty of that sin.
The Bible does teach by word (Galatians 6:7 and 8) and example (2 Samuel 11-20) that when a Christian gets involved in sin, he or she may reap temporal, physical, emotional, mental and/or spiritual consequences. But the believer never has to reacquire God’s forgiveness due to personal sin because God’s Word declares that God’s wrath toward the believer’s sin was satisfied completely at the cross.
Also, from https://www.gotquestions.org/purgatory.html
Jesus died to pay the penalty for all of our sins (Romans 5:8). Isaiah 53:5 declares, “But He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed.” Jesus suffered for our sins so that we could be delivered from suffering. To say that we must also suffer for our sins is to say that Jesus’ suffering was insufficient. To say that we must atone for our sins by cleansing in Purgatory is to deny the sufficiency of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus (1 John 2:2). The idea that those who are saved by grace through faith have to suffer for their sins after death is contrary to everything the Bible says about salvation.
The Greek aorist tense and how it sheds additional light on this topic
Greek tenses are important in understanding the meaning of verses. In this instance the aorist tense is important. The following is a definition of it from the Blue Letter Bible:
The Aorist Tense
This tense is hardly a tense at all. It describes indefinite or undefined action. The word aoristos derives from an alpha privative (ie. negation) and the verb horizô (meaning “to bound”) thus meaning “without boundaries”.  Is characterized by its emphasis on punctiliar action; It has also been described as an action in a point in time with continuing effects.
One example of the use of the aorist tense is in John 3:16, For God so loved the world. The word “loved” is in the aorist tense—it continues without boundaries.
Another use of the term is in the two verbs in 1 John 1:9, If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Both terms “forgive” and “cleanse” are in the aorist tense—happening at a point in time and proceeding without boundaries. There is nothing in this passage to indicate partial forgiveness or cleansing or that some sort of moral dirtiness remains that must be cleaned up in a future purgatory.
To continue to justify Purgatory, Catholics use 1 Cor 3 (from the same source cited previously)
The Catholic site goes on to say, “Similarly, Paul tells us that, when we are judged, each man’s work will be tried. And what happens if a righteous man’s work fails the test? “He will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15). Now this loss, this penalty, can’t refer to consignment to hell, since no one is saved there; and heaven can’t be meant, since there is no suffering (“fire”) there. The Catholic doctrine of purgatory alone explains this passage.
Got Questions, correctly refutes this thinking in this comment:
The primary Scriptural passage Catholics point to for evidence of Purgatory is 1 Corinthians 3:15, which says, “If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.” The passage (1 Corinthians 3:12-15) is using an illustration of things going through fire as a description of believers’ works being judged. If our works are of good quality “gold, silver, costly stones,” they will pass through the fire unharmed, and we will be rewarded for them. If our works are of poor quality “wood, hay, and straw,” they will be consumed by the fire, and there will be no reward. The passage does not say that believers pass through the fire, but rather that a believer’s works pass through the fire. 1 Corinthians 3:15 refers to the believer “escaping through the flames,” not “being cleansed by the flames.”
The Catholic church also has an incorrect justification for Purgatory by citing a passage in Maccabees as scripture
At its foundation, this justification is not valid as Maccabees is not canonical scripture. First, I’ll share their citation and then why this book should not be considered scripture.
Then, of course, there is the Bible’s approval of prayers for the dead: “In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the dead to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin” (2 Macc. 12:43–45). Prayers are not needed by those in heaven, and no one can help those in hell. This verse so clearly illustrates the existence of purgatory that, at the time of the Reformation, Protestants had to cut the books of the Maccabees out of their Bibles in order to avoid accepting the doctrine.
This quote pre-supposes that the book of Maccabees is part of the Bible, when in fact it is part of the Apocrypha, and though true that it was not accepted by Protestants, long before that, not only Maccabees, but the other books of the Apocrypha were not considered canonical scripture—not the God-ordained books that should be included in the Bible
For a discussion of the Apocrypha and why it is not included in Protestant Bibles, please see the Bible805 lesson on the Apocrypha. How We Got the Apocrypha and its relationship to the Septuagint, click the following link to go to it: https://wp.me/pazrJD-xh .
To summarize that lesson, all the books that make up the Apocrypha were written AFTER the Old Testament closed as the canon of scripture. This decision was made by the Jewish church (see Contra Apion by Josephus for one example of a defense of the accepted canon of the Old Testament)—followed by much of the early church, long before the Protestant Reformation affirmed it.
The books of the Apocrypha were all written during the intertestamental period, between the writing of the Old and New Testaments and though they may be of value historically to show what some believed during that time, they are not of the same value as the books inspired by God.
Following is the infographic that illustrates the relationship between the Old Testament and the Apocrypha:
You can download a PDF copy of this infographic by clicking on the image.
Concluding thoughts on the question of Purgatory
The concept of Purgatory, of suffering after death to burn away the remaining guilt of sin is completely without Biblical support.
Though cleansed from sin, back to the “works” that will be burned up
What then are we to make of the passage that talks about “works” being burned up?
The works that are burned up does not have to do with our eternal salvation and forgiveness of sins but it is a clear statement that the works that we did in this life will be evaluated.
Sadly in relying on our complete salvation from the ultimate penalty of sin because of the death of Jesus on the cross, many Christians don’t seriously consider how they ought to live their lives as followers of Jesus and that they are responsible for what they do and that they will one day give an account for their lives before Jesus.
The challenge of the 1 Cor.3 passage is not to support the false belief of a purgatory that will purge away sins, but the challenge to build into our lives the gold and silver of actions done to serve God and others that will withstand the fire as 1 Cor 3: 13-15, MSG reminds us:
Eventually there is going to be an inspection. If you use cheap or inferior materials, [to build your life as a follower of Jesus] you’ll be found out. The inspection will be thorough and rigorous. You won’t get by with a thing. If your work passes inspection, fine; if it doesn’t, your part of the building will be torn out and started over. But you won’t be torn out; you’ll survive—but just barely.
The purpose of this site and ministry is to help you know, trust, and apply the Bible so that you can build a life of obedient love and service to God that will pass inspection gloriously. Be sure you are signed up for the Bible805 newsletter to link you to and remind you of resources that will help you do that.