How to Explain Purgatory to a Protestant

Explaining the concept of Purgatory to a Protestant often invites a slew of questions, if not outright disagreement. The idea is notably absent in Protestant theology but is a significant part of Catholic understanding. So how does one go about bridging this theological gap? The best approach is through a dialogue that is rooted in Scripture and guided by the teachings of the Church.

What is Purgatory?

Let’s first establish what Purgatory is, according to Catholic teaching. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030). In other words, Purgatory is not a “second chance” or an alternative to Heaven or Hell. It is a state of purification for souls who have died in the grace of God but still require some purification before entering Heaven.

Why Do Catholics Believe in Purgatory?

Catholics believe in Purgatory because of the biblical support and the teachings handed down by the Church Fathers and Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church). While the term “Purgatory” does not appear in the Bible, the concept is implicitly present in several passages.

Biblical Foundation

The Second Book of Maccabees states, “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Macc 12:45). While this book is part of the Deuterocanonical Scriptures and not included in Protestant Bibles, it does reflect an ancient Jewish belief in praying for the dead, which lends credence to the concept of Purgatory.

In the New Testament, St. Paul refers to a purification by fire for those whose work falls short of perfection: “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15). This passage hints at a process of purification that occurs after death, supporting the concept of Purgatory.

Tradition and Magisterium

The early Church Fathers also discussed a purification after death. For instance, St. Augustine spoke about “an intermediate place” for those who have died with some sins that are not deadly (St. Augustine, Enchiridion).

The Magisterium has also repeatedly affirmed the doctrine of Purgatory, most notably at the Councils of Florence (1439) and Trent (1563).

Addressing Common Protestant Objections

“Purgatory Isn’t in the Bible”

While the term “Purgatory” is not explicitly in the Bible, the concept, as previously discussed, finds roots in both Old and New Testaments. Catholics hold to a “both-and” rather than an “either-or” approach when it comes to Scripture and Tradition. The two are intertwined and interpret each other.

“Purgatory Undermines Jesus’ Sacrifice”

Protestants often argue that the doctrine of Purgatory undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. However, Purgatory is not about “earning” salvation but rather about being fully purified to enter into the presence of God. The Catechism explains, “The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031). The purification in Purgatory is only possible because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

The Universal Teaching vs. Theological Opinions

It’s essential to differentiate between what is a universal teaching of the Church and what is theological speculation. The existence of Purgatory and its role as a place of purification for the souls destined for Heaven is a universal teaching of the Church. Various details—like the nature of the “fire” in Purgatory or the duration of time souls spend there—are matters of theological opinion.


When explaining Purgatory to a Protestant, it is helpful to highlight the biblical basis and the role of Tradition. By making it clear that Purgatory is not a “second chance” or a negation of Christ’s sacrifice, but rather a testament to God’s mercy and justice, one can present a coherent and biblically grounded understanding. The aim is not to win an argument but to deepen the unity that already exists among Christians, “so that the world may believe” (John 17:21).

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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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