Why a Protestant would like the idea of purgatory

The image above is a depiction of souls burning in the flames of Purgatory as displayed on the facade of the Church of Ánimas (Capilla de Ánimas) in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Source/License

“The practice of praying for the dead is, I think, the fundamental origin of the doctrine of purgatory. … We often want to pray for those we love who die. It’s actually fairly hard in certain Protestant services I’ve been at … where you don’t pray for the dead. My heart wants to pray for the dead that I love. That means that I’m one of those Protestants who thinks that there might be something to the doctrine of purgatory.”

This was said by Phillip S. Cary, an American philosopher who serves as a professor at Eastern University. I heard it in a course he teaches: The History of Christian Theology.

Purgatory is said to be a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who are atoning for their sins before going to heaven.

Let me provide the context for the first sentence in the quote by Dr. Cary: “The practice of praying for the dead is, I think, the fundamental origin of the doctrine of purgatory.” Earlier in the lecture, Dr. Cary mentioned that Augustine of Hippo, in his autobigraphical narrative, asked readers to pray for his mother, who was dead. Dr. Cary believes that the doctrine of purgatory developed from this request. The reasoning goes like this: It doesn’t make sense to pray for someone in hell, because it won’t do any good. It doesn’t make sense to pray for someone in heaven, because they don’t need it. Therefore, there must be a third place where the soul of a dead person can be, where prayers could be beneficial.

The reasons for believing

Dr. Cary teaches that the doctrine of purgatory is not from the Bible but that it was developed during the Middle Ages, likely based on a personal request made by Augustine — a theologian of the fourth and fifth centuries. The doctrine of purgatory relies on the soul being eternal (or, at least, existing after death). Dr. Cary’s course contains a lecture about the state of the soul after death, and he makes it clear that the idea of an eternal soul is from Plato, not the Bible. He contends that the Bible teaches that, after death, the soul sleeps until resurrection. (I, too, find this in my own study of the Bible.) It is relevant here to note that Augustine was greatly influenced by Plato.

Despite all of this, Dr. Cary “thinks that there might be something to the doctrine of purgatory”. Why? His own words: “My heart wants to pray for the dead that I love.”

What was the reason that the medieval mainstream church created the doctrine of purgatory? According to Dr. Cary, it seems that they wanted to provide an explanation for Augustine’s request for prayers for his dead mother.

These are self-described Christian scholars and theologians. Their reason for believing (or wanting to believe) is not “because it is what the Bible teaches” or “because it is consistent with Bible teaching”. This particular belief is not in the Bible, nor is it consistent with Bible teaching about death or salvation. That does not seem to be a concern of these scholars and theologians.

The source of authority

I understand that not everyone shares my view of sola scriptura, that the Bible is the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice. I believe that because I believe this:

The Bible is a reliable collection of historical documents written by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses. It contains falsifiable claims that would have shut down the Christian movement at its start if the claims had been untrue. Although the documents were written by about 40 authors on three different continents over a period of about 2,000 years, they are coherent in message. The Bible reports events that were the fulfillment of specific prophecies, and it contains prophecies that have been fulfilled in post-biblical times. Much of the Bible is confirmed by the writings of contemporaries and by archaeological findings. The Bible is by far the best attested writing from antiquity.

In other words, I trust the Bible as sole authority because I believe there is strong evidence that supports it as the word of God.

The basis for belief

Many doctrines of the mainstream church come, not from the Bible, but from pagan philosophy or non-biblical, non-apostolic tradition. Do you know which ones? This post isn’t really about the specific doctrine of purgatory. It’s about ideas and where they come from. It’s about our reasons for believing. The doctrine of purgatory is just one example.

It is important that we know where ideas come from, especially the ideas we embrace or reject. It matters why we believe what we believe. We would be wise to base our beliefs — not on desires or hopes or an attempted explanation of one person’s notion — but on evidence. Only then can we build a thoughtful faith that is less likely to be shaken — and more likely to be true.

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