Purgatory: History, Textual Basis, and Theological Merit, Pt. 6

In last week’s post, we examined the lack of textual basis for the dogma of purgatory. This lack of textual basis, however, does not even cover all the problems with the dogma. The dogma of purgatory, as a whole, is unchristian, and wholly opposed to the message of the gospel. Rome has made the mistake of trying to affirm one important portion of scripture (the just judgment of God), and pushed it far past what it was ever supposed to mean, in a weak attempt to make sense of how God can be just and still justify those who have sinned. It entirely shifts the focus of the gospel (God providing salvific righteousness for sinners through the atoning work of Christ) from God’s grace to the sinner’s work, both in this life and in the intermediate state. It takes away from the perfectness of the work of Christ, and even makes him out to be a liar (after all “It is finished!” doesn’t mean a whole lot when there is still work to be done). God most certainly does call sinners just and righteous because they are truly just and righteous, but not through any work of penance of theirs, nor of any moral perfection which is ontologically inherent to them. The means by which God calls sinners just and righteous is the imputed righteousness of Christ, granted to all those who have been regenerated to new life by the Spirit, not by some ontological transformation of their moral being over the course of their life and death.

Finally, setting aside the soteriological issues with the doctrine, there are also issues of ecclesiology which it brings up. It is certainly true that Christ has given the keys of the kingdom over to the rulers of the church (Matthew 16), but not in such a way as to allow this form of administration to go on. When Christ gave the keys to the kingdom over to Peter and the church which was built on the foundation of the Apostles, he gave the keys in such a way that the church could recognize that which was bound in heaven, not in such a way that it could alter it, particularly for monetary gain. Neither the church nor the pope has the power to change where the souls of those who have died reside, be it in heaven, hell or purgatory. While the doctrine of purgatory may not have been used for the sake of financial gain by the Roman Catholic Church for its entire history, it would be a serious disservice to the study of the subject to not point out the amount of financial gain as well as power that Rome was able to exploit from this dogma. Whether or not theologians of the church who believed in this doctrine had ulterior motives for it, we can see that it was grossly misused, not simply as an errant doctrine, but as a tool by which the church maintained power and financial welfare which they otherwise would not have had. The administration of the church is a serious matter, and abuse or misuse of the power of the offices of authority within it is not to be taken likely. Teachers incur stricter judgment, and teachers with the authority of offices in the church (bishop, priest, pope, etc.) also face this same judgment. The power which they are granted by Christ is one of service, not one of domination, and the dogma of purgatory is unfortunately used as a tool for domination by the church, particularly in the centuries closer to the protestant reformation.