The Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory

By: Dr. John Ankerberg / Dr. John Weldon; ©2005
The Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory was officially pro¬claimed as dogma in 1438. This means that until that year, belief in the doctrine was not required. Purgatory is a temporary hell Catholics must attend in order to work off their sins.


The Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory

Is the Doctrine of Purgatory Biblical?

The Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory was officially proclaimed as dogma in 1438. This means that until that year, belief in the doctrine was not required. Purgatory is a temporary hell Catholics must attend in order to work off their sins. Specifically, it is to cleanse the guilt of sins already forgiven and to deal with sins already confessed but not atoned for. (May we be so bold as to ask, whatever happened to the atonement of Christ?!)

Despite the hope of some, the Church has not reversed it teachings on this frightening subject: “Purgatory is a defined doctrine of the Catholic faith. As a Catholic you must believe in it,…”[1]

There are two basic views of purgatory. The first assumes that purgatory is as terrible as hell itself (in fact, it is hell)—only the punishments are temporary:

… purgatory [is] a hell which is not eternal. Violence, confusion, wailing, horror, preside over its descriptions. It dwells, and truly, on the terribleness of the pain of sense which the soul is mysteriously permitted to endure. The fire is the same fire as that of hell, created for the single and express purpose of giving torture. Our earthly fire is as painted fire compared to it. Besides this, there is a special and indefinable horror to the unbodied soul in becoming the prey of this material agony. The sense of imprisonment, close and intolerable, and the intense palpable darkness are additional features in the horror of the scene,… To these horrors we might add many more…. Bellarmine [taught], “Many theologians have said, not only that the least pain of purgatory was greater than the greatest pain of earth, but greater than all the pains of earth put together. This then is a true view of purgatory, but not a complete one.”[2]

The second view is that in spite of such unutterable torments in hell, the mil­lions of sufferers simultaneously experience the bliss of the presence of Mary and Christ. Apparently, this does not cancel out the torments but it somehow makes them more bearable.

Still, only God knows the untold billions of dollars and number of fear-inspired indulgences purgatory has produced over the centuries.

Biblically, of course, all this is not only unscriptural, it constitutes another denial of the completed work of Christ on the cross. That work of Jesus Christ tells us salvation is a free gift, not something we must endure hellish torments in order to secure.

The Scriptures commonly cited in defense of purgatory (Matt. 5:25-26; Luke 16:19-31; 1 Cor. 3:12-23; Heb. 12:29; 1 Pet. 3:19; Rev. 21:27) can only be so appropriated under Catholic premises; by themselves they do not teach purga­tory, as standard commentaries on these verses will show. In fact, the only place purgatory can possibly be inferred from is the Apocrypha (2 Maccabees 12:46).

But “Scripture” alone is not the only rationale for this teaching:

Further than this, it should be carefully observed that for Catholics, “the communion of saints” is sufficient warrant for believing in Purgatory. The statement, however, comes from the Apostles’ Creed and refers to the “fellowship (communion) of Saints” or all true believers on earth—not in the mythical Purgatory of Roman Catholic Tradition. The Apostles’ Creed is not Scripture anyway and was not written by the Apostles at all, but is a second century document.[3]

Our concern is not with exegeting biblical verses when any good commentary or contextual reading will reveal the impoverished nature of Rome’s claims. At issue is the consequences and implications of purgatory historically which tend to reveal its true weight on men’s souls.

In the following pages we will document how the Catholic doctrines of purga­tory, indulgences and the communion of saints have resulted in an openness to alleged visits of the dead and a greater subjection to Catholic dogma.

Throughout the history of the Catholic Church there have been “widespread and constant”[4] apparitions from the alleged dead—including Mary—which are invariably seen to support unique Catholic teachings. As an example we will cite, in some depth, The Dogma of Purgatory, containing both the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur signifying a book is “free of doctrinal or moral error.”[5] This book is full of stories of the alleged spirits of deceased Catholics appearing to the faithful. The result? Inevitably it is a greater bonding to Roman Catholic beliefs and practice.[6]

For example, numerous supernatural visions and appearances of Mary have resulted in the institution of Catholic shrines, days of religious observance and/or holy orders.[7]

Doctrines that the alleged Mary and other dead souls have strongly reinforced in the lives of individual Catholics include : the Mass and Host,[8] the Rosary,[9] indulgences,[10] purgatory,[11] Mary worship,[12] and trust in and worship (dulia) of Catholic saints and angels.[13]

But all this raises a question. Would the saved dead, or Mary, or the holy angels support teachings and practices that were against the Word of God? If not, perhaps we have little recourse but to assign such supernatural phenomena to another source.

If Mary, the dead in purgatory, and dead Catholic saints from heaven actually appear to the living and give false teachings, how is one to distinguish such phenomena from that found in spiritism in general? On what authoritative and logical basis are we to distinguish them? In the following pages we will examine our concerns in more detail.

As noted, historically, Catholic tradition has maintained a strong tie to accept­ing communications from the allegedly sanctified dead. Catholicism teaches that not only may the living help the dead (e.g., indulgences for the souls in purga­tory) but that the dead (i.e., souls in purgatory, the saints, and Mary) may also help the living. As one Catholic priest stated, “Oh! if it were but known how great is the power of the good souls in Purgatory with a Heart of God, and if we knew all the graces we can obtain through their intercession, they would not be so much forgotten. We must, therefore, pray much for them, that they may pray much for us” and “with the intention of obtaining in return through the assistance of their prayers, the favors which we desire.”[14] Thus, “The Church has always recognized the intercessory power of [dead] saints.”[15] Indeed, “Patron Saints” exist for no less than 300 different occupations—and even nations—around the world.[16]

Catholicism also has a tradition of accepting angelic visitations. A common Catholic “prayer to your guardian angel” is as follows: “Angel of God, my guard­ian dear, to whom his love commits me here, ever this day (night) be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide. Amen.”[17]

Officially, the Catholic Church teaches that every person on earth has a guard­ian angel and that “…the angel assigned to the person represents him before God, watches over him, defends him, helps in prayer and in thought, and pre­sents the soul of the just person to God after death. Devotion to one’s guardian angel is encouraged….”[18] Of course, the Bible does teach that guardian angels protect and serve the true believer in Christ (Heb. 1:14). But they characteristi­cally operate behind the scenes—and they never give unbiblical messages.

Regardless, Catholic theological works characteristically accept the concept that the souls in purgatory may also be entreated to come to the assistance of the living.[19] Although it is not an official doctrine that the dead are to actually appear to the living, the practice, which is not uncommon, has apparently never been officially condemned. Because “the Church has never frowned on the invocation of the [dead], a practice which is widespread among the faithful, and which has been advocated by many theologians,”[20] in effect, the door has also been opened in many cases to “nasty things that go bump in the night.”

Even modern channelers have noticed the connection between the Catholic concept of prayers to the dead (i.e., beseeching their help), and their own prac­tices. For example, modern channelers Laeh Garfield and Jack Grant write the following in their Companions in Spirit, a book about spirit guides and how to contact them:

The Catholic Church has long held to the propriety of praying for help from discarnates who have been elevated to sainthood. Intercession may be requested for one’s self or for somebody else. Catholics may also make offerings to saints, and some wear a medallion or other symbols representative of the canonized spirit…. As a practicing Quaker myself I can report that my years of experience with spirit-guide work have only served to deepen and magnify my faith. Many saints and biblical figures have sought and received the advice of angels, who are master guides of the high order.[21]

Joan Cruz, author of Secular Saints, remarks, “… most of all, it is my hope that you will pray to them [the saints] in your troubles and ask for their heavenly assistance…. How wonderful it is to know that we can develop friendship with the saints, that we can consult them in our difficulties and that we can ask them for their help.”[22]

Perhaps all this might explain one of the more surprising claims we have seen—that séances may even have been held at the Vatican. The late Olga Worrall, one of the most reputable and well known of modern psychics, alleges, “ … parapsychology has been taught at the Vatican for centuries. They have séances in the Vatican, but only the priests who are able to handle it are permit­ted to take the training.” She also told a national audience, speaking specifically to Catholics, “If a priest ever tells you that going to a séance is a sin, and to do penance for it, you tell him horsefeathers—they do it in the Vatican.”[23] While no one can deny that many Catholic priests are interested or involved in parapsy­chology,[24] whether the charge of séances at the Vatican is true is unknown to us, although we would be interested in any credible documentation in light of

Deuteronomy 18:10-11: “Let no one be found among you… who is a medium or a spiritist or who consults the dead….”

Regardless, consider the many messages from the alleged dead in purgatory who appear to living Catholics in order to thank them for relieving their suffering or getting them out of purgatory early. One dead Catholic appeared to an abbot, and, pointing to the altar said, “The great redeeming power which has broken my chains; behold the price of my ransom; it is the Saving Host, which takes away the sins of the world.”[25]

In another case, a manifestation of the dead encouraged the use of the Ro­sary, the recipient of the vision being strongly “encouraged to persevere in a practice so visibly approved by Heaven.”[26] Thus:

We know that the Holy Rosary holds the first place among all the prayers which the Church recommends to the faithful. This excellent prayer, the source of so many graces for the living, is also singularly efficacious in relieving the dead…. Venerable Mother Francis of the

Blessed Sacrament had from her infancy the greatest devotion towards the suffering souls, and persevered therein as long as she lived…. In recompense for her charity, God frequently permitted the souls to visit her, either to solicit her suffrages or to return her thanks…. These apparitions… testified their veneration for a large cross and the relics of the saints which their benefactoress [sic] kept in her cell. If they found her reciting the Rosary, add the same witnesses, they took her hands and kissed them lovingly, as the instrument of their deliverance.[27]

In one of her mystical ecstasies, St. Bridget heard the souls in purgatory cry aloud, “Lord God all powerful, reward a hundred-fold those who assist us by their prayers, and who offer to you their good works, in order that we may enjoy the light of your Divinity.”[28]

Also described in vivid detail are the horrors and unspeakable torments of souls in purgatory. The apparitions or materializations of these souls have visibly communicated their agony by appearing to the living with torturous grimaces on their faces, describing their horrendous pain. Consider the following extended illustration:

Apparitions of the souls that are in Purgatory are of frequent occurrence. We find them in great numbers in the “Lives of the Saints;” they happen sometimes to ordinary faithful…. The vision of Purgatory has been granted to many holy souls. St. Catherine de Ricci descended in spirit to Purgatory every Sunday night; St. Lidwina, during her [mystical] raptures, penetrated into this place of expiation, and, conducted by her angel-guardian, visited the souls in their torments. In like manner, an angel led Blessed Osanne of Mantua through this dismal abyss. Blessed Veronica of Binasco, St. Frances of Rome and many others had visions exactly similar, with impressions of terror.
More frequently it is the souls themselves that appear to the living and implore their intercession. Many appeared in this manner to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacouque, and to a great number of other holy persons. The souls departed frequently besought the intercession of Denis Carthusian. This great servant of God was one day asked how many times the holy souls appeared to him? “Oh! Hundreds of times,” he replied.
St. Catherine of Sienna, in order to spare her father the pains of purgatory, offered herself to the Divine Justice to suffer in his stead during her whole life. God accepted her offer, inflicted the most excruciating torments upon her, which lasted until her death, and admitted the soul of her father into eternal glory. In return this blessed soul frequently appeared to his daughter to thank her, and to make to her many useful revelations.
When the souls in purgatory appear to the living, they always present themselves in attitude which excites compassion…. With a sad countenance and imploring looks, in garments of mourning, with an expression of extreme suffering…. At other times they betray their presence by moans, sobs, sighs, or hurried respiration and plaintive accents. They often appear enveloped in flames. When they speak, it is to manifest their sufferings, to deplore their past faults,… Another kind of revelation,… is made by invisible blows which the living receive, by the violent shutting of doors, the rattling of chains, and the sounds of voices.[29]

But throughout history endless mediums have encountered similar phenom­ena, including the just mentioned poltergeist events. Nevertheless, these spirits allegedly in purgatory seem to play on human emotions in order to maintain a belief in Catholic doctrine:

About 30 days after his death he appeared to the lawyer, and implored his assistance, because he was in purgatory. “Are your sufferings intense?” he asked of his friend. “Alas!” replied the latter, “If the whole earth with its force and mountains were on fire, it would not form a furnace such as the one into which I am plunged.”[30]

Consider another typical account:

While the mass of requiem was being celebrated, a venerable Religious of uncommon virtue [i.e., devout person] learned by an interior [mystical] light, that though the deceased was not eternally lost, his soul was in a most miserable condition. The following night the soul appeared to him in a sad and wretched condition. “Yesterday”‘ he said, “you learned my deplorable fate; behold now the tortures to which I am condemned in punishment for my culpable tepidity.” He then conducted the old man to the edge of a large, deep pit, filled with smoke and flames. “Behold the place,” said he, “where the ministers of Divine Justice have orders to torment me; they cease not to plunge me into this abyss, and draw me out only to precipitate me into it again, without giving me one moment’s respite.”[31]

Thus, the dead have sometimes appeared to devout Catholics, conveying their torments, and requesting that Catholic practices such as the Rosary, the sacrament of Mass, penance, etc., be applied on their behalf. More than one spirit has told their contact that, “my pains are incomprehensible to those who do not feel them.”[32] Indeed, after imploring the efforts of the living on their behalf— almost all of whom are visibly concerned to end their suffering—the spirits may even appear to them announcing their resulting deliverance.[33]

Obviously then, these miraculous appearances and spiritual “results” strongly reinforce a commitment to Catholic theology and practice in the hopes of avoid­ing the torments of purgatory: “May they profoundly inspire all who read them with a holy and salutary fear of Purgatory.”[34]


…in order to obtain great purity of soul, and in consequence to have little reason to fear purgatory, we must cherish a devotion towards the Blessed Virgin Mary. This good Mother will so assist her dear children in cleansing their souls and in shortening their purgatory…. Those who wear the holy scapular [religious cloth] have a special right to the protection of Mary… [For example]…the Blessed Virgin appeared to him… saying…Those who die devoutly clothed in this habit [scapular] shall be preserved from eternal fire. It is the sign of salvation, a safeguard in peril, a pledge of peace and special protection, until the end of time.[35]


Now, what are those means which we have to employ in order to avoid, or at least shorten, our Purgatory and mitigate its rigor? They are evidently those exercises and good works which most assist us to satisfy for our faults in this world and to find mercy before God, namely, the following: devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and fidelity in wearing her scapular; charity toward the living and the dead; mortification and obedience; a pious reception of the Sacraments, especially on the approach of death;…[36]

But once again, what we see here is an implicit denial of the full efficacy of the atonement of Christ. If by our own tormenting punishment, purgatory expiates or makes amends for our sin, then Jesus could not have accomplished this on the cross. His suffering must have been insufficient if our own hellish suffering is required in order for us to merit heaven.

Yet this is the heart of the message communicated by the dead in purgatory to the living—that commitment to Roman Catholicism offers one the best or only hope of avoiding purgatory and/or shortening its intensity and/or duration. Be­cause Catholicism also teaches that it is “very probable, and almost certain” that every Catholic will go to purgatory, Catholics who believe this are strongly moti­vated, to say the least, to obey their Mother Church.[37]


  1. Karl Keating, What Catholics Really Believe—Setting the Record Straight (Ann Arbor, MI: Ser­vant, 1992), p. 86
  2. Walter Martin, The Roman Catholic Church in History (Livingston, NJ: Christian Research Institute, Inc., 1960), pp. 79-80, second emphasis added.
  3. Ibid., p. 77.
  4. J. P. Arendzen, Purgatory and Heaven (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1972), p. 47.
  5. Robert C. Broderick, ed., The Catholic Encyclopedia, revised and updated (NY: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987), p. 288.
  6. Fr. F. X. Shouppe, S.J., Purgatory: Illustrated by the Lives and Legends of the Saints (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1973), pp. 276, 286-287.
  7. E.g., Ibid., pp. 289-291; cf., Broderick, ed., pp. 48, 64, 70, 218, 256, 327, 339-340, 359, 392, 442.
  8. E.g., Mark Miravalle, The Heart of the Message of Medjugorje (Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University Press, 1988), p. 48; Shouppe, pp. 155-159.
  9. Shouppe, pp. 185-186, 280-281.
  10. Ibid., pp. 194-196.
  11. Ibid., pp. 243, 250, 264, 278, 288-289.
  12. Ibid., pp. 137-139.
  13. Ibid., p. 279, cf., Broderick, ed., pp. 174, 599.
  14. Shouppe, p. 265.
  15. Broderick, ed., p. 539.
  16. Ibid., pp. 459, 463.
  17. Redemptionist Fathers, Handbook for Today’s Catholic (Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1978), p. 59.
  18. Broderick, ed., p. 37.
  19. E.g., Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, IL: Tan Books and Publishers, 1974), p. 323.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Laeh Garfield, Jack Grant, Companions in Spirit: A Guide to Working With Your Spirit Helpers (Berkeley, CA: Celestial Arts, 1984), p. 99.
  22. Joan Cruz as cited in advertising brochure for Tan Books and Publishers, Autumn, 1989, p. 12.
  23. Brooks Alexander, “Holistic Health from the Inside,” SCP Journal, August, 1978, p. 12.
  24. E.g., Over the years Parapsychology Review and similar periodicals have had articles on Roman Catholicism and parapsychology.
  25. Shouppe, p. 155.
  26. Ibid., p. 185.
  27. Ibid., pp. 184-186; cf. pp. 279-280.
  28. Ibid., p. 264.
  29. Ibid., pp. vii-x, emphasis added.
  30. Ibid., pp. 261-262.
  31. Ibid., p. 101.
  32. Ibid., p. 103.
  33. Ibid., pp. xvi, 104; cf., pp. 156-157.
  34. Ibid., p. xiii.
  35. Ibid., pp. 288-290.
  36. Ibid., pp. 286-287.
  37. Ibid., p. 286. Even Keating says, “Very possibly this will be the large majority of the saved” (What Catholics Really Believe…, p. 90).

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