When Martin Luther wrote his famous ‘95 Theses’ in October 1517, he distributed them in at least one of the following ways: Sending them to the Archbishop of Mainz, posting them as a status update on Facebook, and nailing them to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The first is undoubtedly true...the second not so much. As for the famous story of the Wittenburg door, the earliest written evidence for the nailing of the theses only appeared 40 years later, but that doesn’t prove that it didn’t happen. So what were the theses about? Was Luther boldly proclaiming the doctrine of justification by faith alone against Roman Catholic teaching of justification by works? Actually, no. There is no mention in the theses of the doctrine of justification. It only later became a focus of controversy once Luther had left the Roman Catholic Church. The issue in 1517 was in fact indulgences. Luther’s stance was still that of a loyal son of the Roman Catholic Church who simply wished to pose some awkward questions.

What are indulgences?

Roman Catholic belief was that baptism washes away all sin and brings total forgiveness. But what about sins committed after baptism? That was more complicated. When we repent (and if necessary go to confession) God remits the ‘eternal punishment’ due to sin. Putting it crudely, we do not go to hell.

But there remains a ‘temporal punishment’ to pay. Why is that? According to Catholic teaching, when we sin as Christians we dishonour God and so we need to offer God some compensation or satisfaction to restore his lost honour. This can be done by fasting, almsgiving and other meritorious works. But suppose we die without having paid off this debt? It was held that those who die insolvent would still need to pay off what they owe by suffering in Purgatory. Purgatory was seen as akin to hell, with the crucial difference that the suffering in Purgatory was only temporary, and that once the debt of punishment had been paid, the soul would progress to heaven.

But where do indulgences fit in? In the eleventh century the idea caught on that certain meritorious deeds would be rewarded by a reduction of the time to be spent in Purgatory. Best of all was a plenary indulgence, which remitted all of the time owing up to that point. In 1095 this was offered to all penitent sinners who took part in the coming Crusade. The next step was to offer a plenary indulgence to those unable to go themselves but willing to pay for someone else to go in their place. In due course the detail of the Crusade was dropped and an indulgence could be obtained simply by paying a sum of money to the Church.

This was the situation faced by Luther. Indulgences were being sold without any real connection to a true act of repentance. Luther was concerned that people were being misled into believing that salvation could be acquired by purchasing a piece of paper rather than by repenting and believing.

Purgatory as punishment

The doctrine of Purgatory was not developed fully until the Middle Ages, but there were some precedents in the early Church. Questions were asked about the status after death of those Christians whose lives had been less than exemplary. In the third century Church fathers like Tertullian and Cyprian held that sins committed after baptism dishonour God and that we need to offer him some ‘satisfaction’ by way of compensation. In the Middle Ages this view that Purgatory was a form of punishment predominated.

The doctrine of Purgatory was fully developed and found its most famous expression in Dante’s Divine Comedy (1320), which consists of three books on Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Various biblical and other texts were recruited to this cause including Matthew 12:31-32, which states that those who blaspheme against the Spirit will not be forgiven in the age to come. This was taken to mean that some sins will be forgiven then. In 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 Paul states that some will be saved “as through fire” (ESV) and this was also interpreted as Purgatory. The problem is that Paul is referring to what will happen on the Day of Judgement, not a process that takes place between death and final judgement.

Pope Gregory I saw the doctrine develop into its medieval form. Any punishment still owing by a believer at death was to be paid in Purgatory, where the departed suffer the same pains as the lost in hell, with the vital difference that the punishment was only temporary. This suffering could be mitigated by offering the propitiatory sacrifice of the mass for the departed. When the practice of indulgences arose, these were also seen as effective for the dead already in Purgatory – you could act on behalf of loved ones to reduce their punishment.

However, the Protestant Reformers unanimously came to reject the idea of retributive punishment for believers in the afterlife. Hell was only for the lost, not for the saved. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1545–63) reaffirmed the full medieval system: satisfaction, temporal punishments, Purgatory and indulgences.

Purgatory as purification

However, an alternative concept of Purgatory had also been influential from early on, and was especially promoted by the Church father Origen in the third century: Purgatory as a form of purification to make believers fit for heaven.

Ultimate salvation involves being purified from all sin, yet the great majority of Christians (arguably all) have not reached that state of true sanctification when they die. So how do impure and imperfect Christians become pure and perfect? That question is not answered directly in the New Testament and various answers have been suggested. Some Protestants have proposed the idea of a purification process after death. Purgatory by another name.

Recent Roman Catholic thought plays down the idea of punishment (though without losing it completely) and instead emphasises the idea of purification. The 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church has a section on Purgatory (§1030-32). As the title of this section (‘The Final Purification, or Purgatory’) indicates, the emphasis throughout is on the purification required to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven, and this purification is contrasted with the punishment of the damned. Later there is a section on Indulgences (§1471-79), which reaffirms traditional teaching on satisfactions and eternal versus temporal punishment, linking the latter with Purgatory. Temporal punishment is, however, linked with the idea of purification.

This is how Roman Catholic doctrine changes – not by denying what has been taught in the past but by reinterpreting it. Purgatory is still affirmed, but now interpreted as purification rather than punishment.

Probably the most famous Protestant advocate of the idea of a purgatorial purification after death was CS Lewis. He stated that he had never believed that “the faithfulest soul could leap straight into perfection and peace the moment death has rattled in the throat” (A Grief Observed).

In Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, he rejected the view of Purgatory as retributive punishment and commends the Reformers for their resistance to it. In its place he puts the “right view” of Purgatory – seeing it as period of purification. He envisaged the redeemed sinner at death – only too conscious of their remaining impurity – requesting cleansing and purification, even though it may involve suffering: “My favourite image on this matter comes from the dentist’s chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am ‘coming round’, a voice will say, ‘Rinse your mouth out with this.’ This will be Purgatory.”

A number of evangelical writers have followed Lewis in his vision of a Purgatory of purification. A recent example is the American Jerry Walls. Having written volumes on Hell: The Logic of Damnation and Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy, he added to these a third on Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation.

Purgatory as a second chance

Purgatory is not the only answer that has been given to the question of how impure, imperfect Christians become sanctified in the afterlife. One widespread theory held after the Reformation is that the souls of the righteous are made perfect in holiness at the point of death. More recently it has been suggested that the perfection of the righteous might take place during the Millennium. The New Testament does not offer a clear answer to the question. The idea of Purgatory as purification is one possible answer, though we have no basis for affirming it as a doctrine. More recently the idea has been put forward that Purgatory might be an opportunity for people to embrace salvation after death – a second chance for those who have rejected it in this life or indeed a first chance for those who never had the opportunity. Some today are proposing such a concept of Purgatory.

Protestant reformers rejected the idea of punishment for believers in the afterlife

Again, in his novel The Great Divorce, Lewis imagined a journey by a group of insubstantial passengers from a dull, limbo-like existence in hell, to a heaven far too painfully real for them to be ready to join in yet. Each passenger must learn what it means to lose their old self and live in the kingdom of heaven, but not all of them choose to do so. Lewis seemed to be hinting at some sort of purgatorylike second chance.

The question of “What happens to those who do not have an opportunity to respond to the gospel in their lifetime?” is an important one. The idea of post-mortem evangelism – an opportunity to accept Christ after death – is just one among a number of proposed solutions. There are significant problems with the idea (though space precludes going into them). But if there were such a phenomenon, should we call this Purgatory? In Christian history that term has been used to describe a process of punishment or purification after death of those who are saved. To use the term to describe a different process of post-mortem evangelism seems confusing.

Can Protestants believe in purgatory?

But isn’t the idea of Purgatory contrary to the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone? Doesn’t it undermine the sufficiency of the work of Christ? A doctrine of Purgatory as punishment is certainly vulnerable to the charge of creating salvation by works rather than grace, and in my view the reformers were correct to reject it.

But what about Purgatory as a process of purification? The doctrines of grace and the sufficiency of Christ are not necessarily contrary to the idea of sanctification and the need for purification from sin. If Purgatory is seen as the continuation and culmination of that process, then it is not contrary to these basic Protestant principles.

That does not mean that the idea of Purgatory is necessarily true and it must be assessed in the light of scripture as a whole and, in my view, there’s simply not enough biblical support to affirm it as an established doctrine.

Nevertheless, perhaps Protestants shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss it as a medieval doctrine that belongs in the past, either. While there is no room for the idea of Purgatory as punishment – paying off a debt of ‘satisfaction’ that we owe to God – CS Lewis’ idea of Purgatory as a time of cleansing and purification after death is a more plausible theory. It brings to completion the process of sanctification. After all, if you died and went to heaven today, would you be ready to stand in front of a perfect God? Certainly our sins are forgiven, and we stand righteous in his sight, but the shaping of our character may be a longer process.  Would those parts, as yet unperfected, need to melt away first in the awesome fire of his holy love?

Tony Lane is professor of historical theology at London School of Theology