Inspired by a random post from a Catholic friend, I thought I’d offer a thought on a common argument I see for Catholicism’s doctrine of purgatory.

It has to be said before we get to the argument that the Scriptural evidence for purgatory is pathetic. The Apocrypha has a few passages about prayers to the dead, but as Christians rejected these sources as being Scripture until the counter-reformation, I don’t feel compelled to argue against them. Other passages are often cited by stretching the meaning of the text. For example, one passage appealed to in the Old Testament is Zechariah 9:11, which says:

As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.

Zechariah 9:11, ESV

There’s nothing in any context here that says the “waterless pit” is purgatory, or anything like purgatory. Purgatory, on Catholicism, is established by God for purification. It’s not a prison from which God sets anyone free. A New Testament passage sometimes cited is in Matthew:

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

There’s no reference at all to a place of purification here; it’s just assumed that if we are to be made perfect, we need somewhere like that. This idea is what leads to the argument for purgatory I want to respond to:

But if you really think that you can endure and enjoy the full light and fire of God a second after you die, being essentially the same kind of being you are now, without any additional divine operation on your soul, then you dangerously underestimate either your sinful nature or God’s holiness or the gap between them.

Peter Kreeft

I enjoy a lot of Kreeft’s writing but he’s wrong here, and he’s wrong because Catholic theology is wrong.

Jesus telling His followers to be perfect is not a call for them to become perfect on their own; that’s impossible. In fact the Sermon on the Mount in general is an increasingly impossible list of character traits that culminates with perfection being the standard. Who can meet that? The point is that you can’t meet the requirements of the law. You can’t meet God’s demands. You need someone else to meet them for you. You need Christ!

The argument from purgatory really doesn’t come from Scripture, but the Catholic view that we merit our Salvation. When we work, we become perfected, and it is our merit that earns us a place with God in heaven. If we haven’t been perfected by our works, as Kreeft’s argument goes, we need time to do the works after death. God can’t just declare us righteous, we need “additional divine operation”. But this is precisely where Catholic theology fails. We are declared righteous. William Lane Craig, in his Defender’s podcast, refers to the word used by Paul to describe Abraham’s faith being credited as righteousness:

The first would be the language of reckoning that we talked about last time. Remember we mentioned the Greek word logizomai which says that Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. It was like an accounting term, if you will. It was credited to him as righteousness. The idea here does seem to me to be a sort of judicial notion of a declaration rather than an imparted righteousness that belongs to me.

William Lane Craig

The “brief argument” I wanted to present against Kreeft’s statement is less technical, however, and is something like this:

As a protestant, I do not underestimate the gap between my sinful nature and God’s righteousness. That gap is infinite. I cannot in all of eternity merit enough righteousness to bridge it. No finite work can merit God’s favor because the gulf between myself and God is infinite. Christ’s sacrifice either covers the totality of that gap, or it does not. If it does not, I have no hope. An eternal purgatory is not sufficient for me.

It seems to me that it is actually the Catholic view that underestimates the gap between our sinfulness and God’s perfection, because the Catholic view says that by working hard enough and long enough, I can eventually bridge the gap.