Purgatory, Faith and Doctrinal Purity


“For too long we have read scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first century questions.”  -- N.T. Wright, Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision.


Let’s take a moment to visit Europe in the middle of the 16th century, the womb that gave birth to the Protestant Reformation.  Europe was still recovering from the Black Death, the outbreak of plague that decimated the population of Europe in the 14th century and continued to break out in smaller pockets for several centuries thereafter.  Estimates of the death toll range from 30-60% of the population of Europe.  To get a feel of this we would have to imagine a disease quickly spreading across North America killing between 160 million and 380 million people. The fatalities in Metropolitan Toronto alone would be between 750,000 and 1.5 million.

Needless to say, this prompted a great deal of thought about death and what comes after.  Within catholic thought in Europe the possibilities were not limited to heaven and hell.  Two centuries before Christ early Jewish ideas about afterlife included the idea of an intermediate state between death and heaven that purifies generally holy people from flaws and sins every human carries, thus bringing one to the perfect moral condition required for heaven.  By the 16th century the idea had developed into Purgatory, a place where the sins of the flesh are purged by physical pain.

While this belief sounds odd to our Baptist ears, honesty forces us to acknowledge passages in the New Testament that could be used to bolster this idea.  There is Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 3 of a testing “by fire” that burns away our “wood, hay and stubble” leading to a state of salvation, “Yet it will be like an escape through fire.”  Even more puzzling is Paul’s argument in chapter 15 of the same letter that if there were no resurrection the practise of “being baptized for the dead” would be futile.  “Baptized for the dead”???

I do not believe in Purgatory.  I believe the cross is completely adequate to remove the guilt of our sin.  But if we shared this belief we would find any opportunity to avoid lengthy purification by suffering quite attractive.  The doctrine of Purgatory allowed one to reduce their own or someone else’s time in Purgatory by engaging in a variety of spiritual activities.  One such activity was “giving alms” to the poor or to religious institutions.

The idea that the Roman Church was selling forgiveness for future sins through “Indulgences” is an over-simplification of what was happening.  People were being reminded that donating to the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was a form of almsgiving and therefore could be credited against time in Purgatory for one’s self or someone else who had died.

Add fear of the Black Death to this fundraising campaign in the 16th century and one major question became: “How can I get to heaven?”  Martin Luther was not the first to protest the notion of donating to offset time in Purgatory – or the notion of Purgatory itself.  But the recent invention of the printing press allowed his protest to spread.

Luther answered the question, “How can I get to heaven?” from Paul’s letters: “It is by grace you are saved through faith” (Eph 2:9).  We are not saved through what we suffer.  We are saved through what Christ suffered for us.  What a beautiful and glorious truth! 

But we may need to ask a couple of questions about this answer.  Yes, we get to heaven by grace through faith.  But is there more to being “saved” than a ticket to heaven?  The fact that salvation through faith answers the 16th century question about how to get to heaven does not mean that it does not answer other questions as well.  And what is “saving faith”?

Over the next few centuries “Enlightenment” thought informed how we answered those questions.  The rise of individualism led to a deep individualization and personalization of ideas like faith and salvation.  “Good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Lu 2) and the salvation of creation, itself, (Ro 8) took a back seat to Jesus as “my personal Saviour.”

Meanwhile the categorization of knowledge and information led to “faith” being understood as belief in Christian doctrines.  “Saving faith” became a checklist of the minimum doctrinal positions necessary for one’s entrance into heaven.  If you have ever been involved in a conversation about whether or not a person must believe in the virgin birth (or some other doctrinal position) to truly be a Christian, you have experienced the notion of faith as doctrinal purity.  

If we understand “saving faith” to mean “minimal doctrinal purity”, conflict over correct doctrine is both inevitable and passionate.  Not only did reformers protest against Rome, they protested against each other.  With each protest a new denomination began.  We should not be surprised, then, that in contemporary North American Christianity movements of “neo-reformation” are among those making the most ardent protests in the cause of doctrinal purity as they continue to protest doctrinal positions they deem false.

What if saving faith is not a check-list of doctrines establishing a minimum requirement of intellectual beliefs to enter heaven?  What if saving faith is a relational posture toward God that allows us to trust His goodness and mercy?  What if saving faith is a loving relationship with God that allows us, through His Son, Jesus, to come to God with the confidence of beloved children?  What if the only thing that really matters is faith working through love (Gal. 5:6)?  What if faith isn’t a set of logical propositions but a matter of the heart that expresses itself in love for God and others?

What if faith not only answers the 16th century question: “How can I get to heaven?” but also answers the 21st century question: “Is there a hopeful future for this planet?” What if faith were not an answer to only one century’s questions but an attitude of hope and trust in God’s ability to speak to us that informs the spirit in which Christians respond to every century’s questions?

What if the Protestant Movement has adequately answered the 16th century questions and the time has come for us to move past interactions of protest into a dialogue of possibilities?

What we believe is important.  Doctrine gives us places to start talking.  But doctrine always falls short the mystery and majesty of God.  It is, after all, not the pure in doctrine who see God, but the pure in heart.