Purgatory in Protestant traditions

“Purgatory is also found among many non-Catholic Christians. In fact, Christians who reject the doctrine of purgatory, in its consciously articulated form or at least the concepts that undergird it, are of the minority position.

As we’ll argue below, such a widespread belief among Christians outside the visible boundaries of the Catholic Church gives reason to think purgatory is for real and is so intertwined with the sources of Christian revelation that Christians can’t get away from it.

Belief in purgatory is also found among Protestant Christians old and new.

Martin Luther himself was among those who believed in purgatory, even after he began the Protestant movement, although he changed his view later, after the Reformation. For example, in his Ninety-Five Theses (1517), Luther wrote, “The pope does very well when he grants remission to souls in purgatory, not by the power of the keys, which he does not have, but by way of intercession for them.”

Just a few years later, in his Defense and Explanation of All the Articles (1521), Luther re-affirmed his belief in purgatory, saying, “The existence of a purgatory I have never denied. I still hold that it exists, as I have written and admitted many times, though I have found no way of proving it incontrovertibly from Scripture or reason.”

In one of his sermons, he says the following:

[The Holy Spirit] kindles a new flame or fire in us, namely, love and desire to do God’s commandments. In the kingdom of grace this should begin and ever grow until the Day of Judgment, when it shall no longer be called grace or forgiveness, but pure truth and perfect obedience. In the meantime He continues to give, forgive, to bear and forbear, until we are laid in our graves. Now if we thus continue in faith, that is, in what the Holy Spirit gives and forgives, in what he begins and ends, then the fire on the judgment day, by which the whole world is to be consumed, will cleanse and purify us, so that we will no longer need this giving and forgiving, as if there were something unclean and sinful in us, as there really is at present; we will certainly be as the brightness of the dear sun, without spot and defect, full of love, as Adam was at the beginning in paradise.

Luther also acknowledged the legitimacy of praying for the dead. In his Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper (1528), he says:

As for the dead, since Scripture gives us no information on the subject, I regard it as no sin to pray with free devotion in this or some similar fashion: “Dear God, if this soul is in a condition accessible to mercy, be thou gracious to it.” And when this has been done once or twice, let it suffice.

Luther eventually would change his view about purgatory, rejecting it as a doctrine of the devil (1537):

Therefore purgatory, and every solemnity, rite, and commerce connected with it, is to be regarded as nothing but a specter of the devil. For it conflicts with the chief article [which teaches] that only Christ, and not the works of men, are to help [set free] souls. Not to mention the fact that nothing has been [divinely] commanded or enjoined upon us concerning the dead.

Other Protestants at the time of the Reformation also expressed openness to purgatory.

For example, Philipp Melanchthon, in his Apology to the Augsburg Confession (1531), wrote, “Our opponents quote the Fathers on offerings for the dead. We know that the ancients spoke of prayer for the dead. We do not forbid this.”

Another famous Protestant who affirmed purgatory was the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. Although he denied purgatory as an article of faith, he believed that it is a reality: “I personally hold that a certain temporal punishment after this life is rather reasonable and probable.”

Leibniz elsewhere explains:

The remission of sins which delivers us from the pains of hell by virtue of the blood of Jesus Christ does not, however, prevent there from still being some punishment in this life or in the other, and the one which is in store for us in the other life serving to purge souls is called purgatory. Holy Scripture insinuates it, and reason endorses it on the grounds that according to the rules of perfect government, which is God’s government, there should be no sin left entirely unpunished.

What’s unique about Leibniz’s view of purgatory relative to others among Protestants is that he clearly affirms what some have come to call the satisfaction model of purgatory. The satisfaction model refers to purgatory’s punitive dimension, whereby a soul undergoes temporary suffering due to it for past forgiven sins (both venial and mortal) and thus discharges the debt of temporal punishment.

As we’ll see below, many modern Protestants deny this model of purgatory and adopt purely a sanctification model, which says purgatory is a postmortem intermediate state where the soul achieves its complete state of sanctification or holiness through the cleansing of any remaining guilt of venial sin (a sin that “allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it”—CCC 1855) and purging of unhealthy attachments to created goods.

The nineteenth-century German Protestant theologian and church historian Karl August von Hase also affirmed a postmortem intermediate state akin to purgatory. He stated:

Most people when they die are probably too good for Hell, yet surely too bad for Heaven. It must be frankly confessed that the Protestantism of the Reformers is unclear on this point, its justified denial not yet having advanced to the stage of affirmation.

Among modern Protestants who affirm purgatory, perhaps the most famous is the late C.S. Lewis. In his Letters to Malcolm, he writes:

Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—”Even so, sir.”


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