Monday, February 24, 2014

Is purgatory real?

Deutsch: Johann Tetzel
Johann Tetzel (Wikipedia)
(Part of a series on death and the hereafter)

The most important word in the Old Testament for the intermediate state is Sheol, found 65 times, variously translated as grave, pit, hell, place of the dead. Sheol is mostly known as the abode of the dead. It is the OT designation of the intermediate state, that time between physical death and physical resurrection. A shadowy understanding may contribute to an assumption of a shadowy existence there (Isaiah 38:18). The OT warns against the wicked going down to sheol (Job 21:13; Psalm 9:17; 49:14; 55:15; Prov 5:5; 7:27; 9:18; 15:11, 24; 23:14).
More shadowy are some of the understandings scholars have offered for Sheol. One says that Sheol is nothing more than the grave where the body is placed, nothing more.[1] Another says that Sheol is simply poetic of death in general.[2] Sheol was the OT place of the dead with distinct partitions for the just and the unjust (Malachi 3:17-18), and for the just there is a hope for redemption from Sheol (Psalm 16:10; 49:15; Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2). While there, there is a continuation of fellowship with God (Psalm 23:6; 73:24; Eccles 12:7).

Where does the idea of purgatory come from? The idea of purgatory, the place in which the remnants of sin are purged before entering heaven, comes from a misunderstanding of Sheol. At the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, the Catholic Church published the doctrine of purgatory to burn away the remaining penalties (penances) for sin before entering heaven. Time in purgatory was taught to be shortened by doing penance (i.e., penalties, a mistranslation of repent in Matt. 4:17). If one could not complete satisfaction of sins in one’s lifetime, they could do it in purgatory. The belief developed, based on the idea of the communion of the saints, that believers on earth could assist those in purgatory, by prayers, masses, and later in the 11th Century, by purchasing indulgences. 

Indulgences were the method by which the Catholic Church financed the building of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Martin Luther was incensed by the sales jingle of the indulgence-seller in his area, Johann Tetzel, whose sales pitch went, “When the coin in the coffer clings, the soul from purgatory springs.” It even rhymes in German! Today the Catholic Church still sanctions indulgences and were offered by John Paul II as part of the celebration of the new millennium. 

Today purgatory is taught to be a place of preparation, the anteroom to heaven. Catholics offer scant Biblical basis for purgatory. One is that 1 Cor 3:12-15 is the fire of purgatory, but that is very weak. The second is from the apocryphal book of 2 Maccabees 12:38-46 where 2000 drachmas are given as an offering and there is prayer for the dead. 

The problems with purgatory are that it calls into question both the sufficiency and grace of Christ and the doctrine of glorification of the soul (2 Cor 5; Phil 1:21-23).

[1] R. Laird Harris, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2:892-3. He cites Psalm 88:3-5; Ezekiel 32:21-23.
[2] Allan Moseley. 17 times Sheol is paired with death (eg., Psalm 6:5); 20 times it is the abode of the wicked dead.