Skip to content

Purgatory’s Logic, History, and Meaning (Chris Castaldo)

In the recent issue of Credo Magazine, “Purgatory: An Evangelical Doctrine?”, Chris Castaldo has written a fascinating article titled, “Purgatory’s Logic, History, and Meaning.” As the title suggests, Castaldo takes us back in history to look at the origins and develop of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.

Chris Castaldo serves as director of the Ministry of Gospel Renewal for the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. He is currently reading for a PhD in historical theology at the London School of Theology which examines the doctrine of justification in the writing of Peter Martyr Vermigli and John Henry Newman. Chris is the author of Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic and a main contributor to Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Anglicanism. He blogs at

Here is the introduction to Castaldo’s article:

Whenever I talk about Catholicism, the question of purgatory inevitably emerges. Folks often confuse it with the doctrine of “limbo,” or they may ask, “Didn’t the Church stop teaching purgatory at Vatican II?” And this is among Catholics! Ask an informed Protestant about purgatory and you’re likely to hear the story of how it motivated Martin Luther to swing a hammer in Wittenberg. Chances are, however, that one’s knowledge doesn’t extend much further. This is unfortunate given the frequency with which the topic arises and in view of the opportunity that it presents for gospel witness.

In what follows, we will consider the logic of purgatory, a sketch of its historical development, and a word about its meaning for Reformed theology.

The Logic of Purgatory

According to the Catholic Dictionary, edited by Peter M. J. Stravinskas (1993), purgatory is “The state or condition of cleansing for one who dies in God’s friendship (‘state of grace’), but who still has sins or temporal punishment for which to atone. Neither the nature nor the duration of purgatory is specified in Catholic doctrine; however, the existence of purgatory is a dogma of the Faith. The faithful are encouraged to assist the ‘poor souls’ by their prayers and penances” (406).

Undergirding this summary are several concepts. Such ideas are building blocks on which the doctrine fits together and grows into shape. It is in this assembly of these elements that the logic of purgatory comes into focus.

(1) Purgatory depends on the belief that the dead are judged. The first of these judgments is expected to occur at the moment of death and the second at the end of time (called the “particular” and “general” judgments, respectively). The intervening time period consists of the complex judicial proceeding known as purgatory. Unlike the Hebrew Sheol—the dark, stagnant abode of the dead—purgatory is a place of activity in which the soul is perfected.  This judgment is most frequently portrayed with the metaphors of fire or ice.

(2) Purgatory is predicated on the notion of individual responsibility and free will. While all of humanity shares the guilt of original sin, purgatory executes judgment upon sins that men and women have chosen to commit. In Catholic terminology, these include “venial” sins: minor acts of disobedience that offend God’s holiness without rising to the level of “mortal” sins. More on this to come.

(3) Purgatory implies a particular understanding of the relation of the soul and the body. Accordingly, Christians have affirmed that the soul separates from the body at death to be later rejoined in the resurrection. In this sequence, questions concerning the soul’s nature (whether it is corporeal or incorporeal) is secondary to the belief that the soul is endowed with a substance that can be punished.

(4) Purgatory is an intermediary world in which suffering of the dead may be shortened by the intercessory prayers (or “suffrages”) of the living. In this eschatological scenario, the souls of purgatory are regarded as belonging to “the Church suffering,” a real part of Christ’s Body over which the Church on earth is thought to exercise (partial) authority.

From these four building blocks, one begins to recognize the central question of purgatory: How does a follower of Christ enter the holy presence of God when he or she has died with venial sins?

Read the rest of Castaldo’s article today!

To view the Magazine as a PDF {Click Here}

This issue of Credo Magazine might come as a surprise. Purgatory? Really? I thought we addressed that back in the sixteenth-century? Think again. Not only is purgatory a hot button issue once again on the table, especially given the current excitement with some Protestants returning to Rome, but most recently there has been a renewed interest in purgatory among committed evangelicals. For example, in his new book, Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation, Jerry Walls addresses evangelicals today, arguing not only that Protestants should whole-heartedly embrace purgatory, but that such a doctrine as this can serve as an ecumenical bridge with Catholics. Spoiler alert: The purgatory Walls has in mind does not look exactly like your Catholic grandmother’s. You will have to read this issue of Credo Magazine to see why.

So what should we think about purgatory anyway? My guess is, most evangelicals know little about the history of purgatory, let alone how to jump into a debate over purgatory with their Catholic friends. And to complicate things even more, today we even have evangelicals incorporating purgatory within their Protestant theological framework. So the topic is a relevant one. To give just one anecdote, I was speaking at a conference on the topic recently and to my surprise a pastor approached me afterwards. He shepherds a congregation in a city where Roman Catholicism has a strong presence. Often he has Catholics in his pews, considering Protestantism for the first time. Among other doctrines, they want to know whether purgatory is a biblical “yes” or “no.” Perhaps that is you. Or perhaps you are that pastor. Either way, this issue is for you.

Contributors include: R. C. Sproul, Gregg Allison, Matthew Barrett, Chris Castaldo, James White, Lee Gatiss, David and Sally Michael and many others.

Back to Top