Many believe a place exists for those who are neither condemned nor yet saved. What are the facts regarding this popular idea?
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Within the world of professing Christianity, there is disagreement as to what happens to people after death. The vast majority believes that “the good” go to some form of paradise, called heaven, and that “the wicked” go to a place of never-ending torture, called hell.
Some churches (and many non-Christian religions) teach that, after death, there is a third category of people, somewhere in-between good and evil, who go to another place: Purgatory. Those of this status are to go to heaven eventually, but they must first suffer intense punishment.
This reasoning comes from the belief that for sins and evils committed, a sinner must experience a certain degree of suffering as punishment, in this life or the next. The process of intense suffering is said to cleanse one of corruption, making him worthy of being in God’s presence.
However, since many fail to suffer enough in this lifetime (through acts of self-inflicted punishment—penance), after they die, they are allowed to finish their torment in Purgatory. In this place, the souls of repentant sinners are supposedly purged by literally burning them in fire. The fire tortures the person as punishment for his sins, without killing him. In this manner, those who have “accepted Christ,” and are at least marginally “good,” are still able to go to heaven.
Those who have not suffered sufficiently, through penance, are considered to have a lesser status than the more “faithful” who regularly do so. Therefore, those in this third category must pay their “suffering debt” by being sentenced to Purgatory.
The intent behind this teaching is to unify two ideas: the belief that, by Christ’s sacrifice, a person is “saved” and able to go to heaven; and the doctrine that a person must “do penance” in order to be free from sin and be worthy to see God.
In a sense, Purgatory is a temporary hell.
The time necessary in this “place of purifying” can vary widely, based upon “how clean the soul is,” and how many people pray that one’s soul should spend less time there. A person who has just a few sins for which he forgot to do penance—or who was not zealous enough in his self-punishing—will spend only a few years writhing in agony. However, those who have “more guilty souls,” or are members not in good standing within the church, are likely to spend at least a few centuries being tortured by fire.
And then there are the souls who just barely qualify for Purgatory; they are to reside there “until the end of time,” when God supposedly plans to destroy Purgatory. According to this belief, God, in the final judgment, will determine whether they have suffered enough. If they “pass,” and God decides to send them to heaven, they are first thrown into a much more intense “final” purification of whatever sins they have left, so that He can immediately destroy Purgatory without waiting around for all those souls to finish suffering.
Of course, some souls, if they are so popular that people regularly pray for them, need not spend all this time suffering for their sins. Faithful church members may offer “prayers for the dead” for those stuck in Purgatory. Although these souls are not permitted to pray for themselves, prayers from faithful members can significantly shorten their allotted suffering time.
In addition, if “pious” members utter the correct prayers on specific days in November, indulgences are granted. These indulgences allow souls to escape from Purgatory. For example, if a faithful member visits a cemetery and utters a prayer for a soul on each of the first eight days of that month, the soul will be released from Purgatory. Alternatively, if one “Our Father” and “the Creed” are recited for the soul at either a church or public oratory on November 2nd, the soul is freed.
In case a church member forgets to release his friends on the correct dates, or he is unable to visit a cemetery during all eight days, the person in purgatory can still get a partial indulgence (which shortens the time in Purgatory) by other means. At any time, a member may recite the “Eternal Rest” prayer. Or, a member may “fast” (abstain from certain meats) for the soul. Either method of obtaining a partial indulgence is supposedly more effective in November.
Such utter confusion!
The primary reason for the doctrine of Purgatory is the belief that the wages—what one earns—for sin is suffering.
However, notice what the Bible states regarding the wages of sin: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). Simply put, the actual penalty for sinning is death, not suffering permanently in hell or even temporarily in Purgatory. The reason Jesus Christ had to die was to pay the penalty—death in our stead—for our sins. Purgatory actually denies Christ’s role as Savior, in that human beings can atone for their own sins!
The doctrine of Purgatory addresses the fate of those considered Christian who are indirectly headed to heaven, but says nothing about “good” people who never had a chance to obtain salvation.
In order to solve this problem, some churches teach the concept of “Limbo.” Limbo is reserved for those who are not evil enough to be sent to hell or Purgatory, but have not obtained salvation, and are therefore not allowed to enter heaven. Those sent to Limbo are babies who died without being baptized, aborted children and those considered righteous who lived before the time of Christ.
Originally, Limbo was considered a place of mild suffering. However, many felt this was too harsh, so the doctrine was changed to state that those in Limbo feel neither pain nor joy.
Because the concept of innocent babies not being allowed to know joy was unpopular, the doctrine was again changed to reflect that babies are now considered to be “in a state of natural happiness.”
The Limbo doctrine has existed in two forms. One is known as Limbus Patrum, which was for all who, though they lived before the time of Christ, were considered good enough to go to heaven. Supporters of the doctrine of Limbo believe that Christ released all those placed in this condition when He ascended to heaven.
The other form is Limbus Infantium, reserved for children, as described above. Since they are now considered to be in a state of natural happiness, there is no need for them to be removed from Limbo.
The Catholic Church, which has many adherents who believe in Limbo, has considered abolishing the doctrine. Unbaptized children would then be sent to heaven instead of Limbo.
Because there is some disagreement within the church as to whether the pope has authority to alter the long-held tradition, such a decision would likely be unpopular among much of the church’s membership.
Keep in mind that sin does result in suffering in this life. For every effect, there is a cause. When the law of gravity is ignored, the effects can be painful, even deadly. Likewise, when one sins—violates God’s Law (I John 3:4)—it automatically results in pain, misery and suffering in this temporary, physical existence. Though one may repent of sin, be forgiven and be freed from the death penalty, certain consequences may remain. For example, when King David repented of committing adultery and murder, God forgave his sins; however, the life of his illegitimate son was still taken (II Sam. 12:7-14, 18).
While sin brings untold suffering to millions of lives now, its true wages—its ultimate penalty—is much more costly: eternal death!
The second idea that leads many to think a place of purifying is necessary is the doctrine that a soul is immortal. This concept also contradicts the Bible. Man does not have a soul—he is a soul: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (Gen. 2:7). God’s Word plainly shows that souls are mortal—that they can die: “The soul that sins, it shall die” (Eze. 18:4; 18:20) Thus, a soul does not go anywhere after death—it ceases to exist. (Our booklet The Truth About Hell explains this in more detail.)
The belief that pain and suffering is necessary to cleanse one of sin is a common misunderstanding. God does correct human beings (Heb. 12:6) and allows suffering for His purposes. He uses these as tools to teach humanity how to obtain a life full of joy, peace and prosperity. However, once one’s physical life ends, so does his suffering. (To learn more, read our article “Why Does God Allow Suffering?”)
Would a God who “is full of compassion…and of great mercy” (Psa. 145:8) torment and afflict men in a supposed place of purifying?
Of course not! Instead, all who have not known God’s truth will be given an opportunity to enjoy wonderful, joyous, eternal life in the soon-coming kingdom of God!