Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Nearly a decade ago Jerry Walls wrote an article for this magazine (“Purgatory for Everyone”) in which he encouraged his fellow Protestants to reconsider their aversion to the doctrine of purgatory. His argument turned on a simple question: “If salvation essentially involves transformation—and, at that same time, we cannot be united with God unless we are holy—what becomes of those who plead the atonement of Christ for salvation but die before they have been thoroughly transformed?”

Appealing to the forgiveness of sins alone is not enough. As he puts the matter: “God not only forgives us but also changes us and actually makes us righteous. Only when we are entirely sanctified or fully perfected in this sense are we truly fit to enjoy the beatific vision of heaven.” All in all, a compelling argument for a period of purgation after death in order to complete the transformation begun at baptism.

In making this argument, however, Walls accepts the standard Protestant view that, however theologically compelling, the doctrine of purgatory lacks scriptural support. That does not deter him. “If theology involves a degree of disciplined speculation and logical inference,” he argues, “then the doctrine of purgatory cannot simply be dismissed on the grounds that Scripture does not explicitly articulate it.” Yet is what nearly everybody assumes in fact true? Is the doctrine of purgatory a fabrication of the medieval spiritual imagination that, however cogent and well supported by theological reasoning, remains remote from the distinctive idioms, ideas, and patterns of thought in the Old and New Testaments?

It will be my thesis that the doctrine of purgatory depends on a robust understanding of sanctification and merit, and this understanding is deeply grounded in the biblical narrative. Perhaps the best place to begin to see this is in the story of David. In the event that will define his tenure as king, David spies Bathsheba bathing in the sun, has her summoned to his quarters, and sleeps with her, and when he learns she has become pregnant, has her husband murdered to cover his tracks.

When David is confronted by Nathan, he immediately confesses, and the prophet pronounces forgiveness and rescinds the penalty of death that is David’s due. But strikingly, Nathan does not wipe out all of the penalties David must suffer. Forgiveness, it would seem, does not wipe the slate completely clean. God is interested in more than mere acquittal. He wants to transform the very person of David, and that will require coming to grips with the full consequences of his heinous act.

Two moments in particular are quite revealing. David’s son Absalom has led a successful coup d’état, and the sinful king must flee Jerusalem. The priests who have been in the employ of David are naturally anxious about their sacerdotal responsibilities. Zadok, the chief priest of that time, takes care to fetch the Ark of the Covenant before David’s departure from the city. But David is not amused by his efforts. “Carry the ark of God back into the city,” he commands. “If I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me back and let me see both it and the place where it stays. But if he says, ‘I take no pleasure in you,’ here I am, let him do to me what seems good to him.”

The second moment comes when David makes his way out of the city and over the summit of the Mount of Olives. There he is met by Shimei, an opponent of David’s from the very beginning of his royal rule. Shimei lunges forward and curses David: “Out! Out! Murderer! Scoundrel! The Lord has avenged on all of you the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned . . . . See, disaster has overtaken you; for you are a man of blood.” Not satisfied with expressing his contempt in words alone, he throws stones and flings dirt at David and those with him. The military commanders accompanying David are understandably shocked and seek David’s permission to do Shimei in. But David will hear none of it: “Let him alone, and let him curse; for the Lord has bidden him.”

One stands in amazement at David’s response. He is the bearer of an eternal promise of God. He knew, in a way Saul never did, that his throne is invulnerable. Yet in spite of this (or precisely because of it?) he will not use his favor with God as a pretext for exempting himself from the humiliating consequences of his sins. Although Nathan had pronounced words of forgiveness, the consequences of his actions cannot be undone, for the effects of sin endure long after its perpetration.

David may take consolation in being forgiven, but he does not confuse forgiveness with the process of spiritual repair. The pain that he must endure is nothing other than the logical consequence of what he has done, and the biblical authors depict him as possessing the spiritual wisdom to see this punitive suffering as a providential path toward transformation, blows that reshape him into an image of one perfected in penitent submission to God’s will. Fleeing the city and humiliated by his adversaries, David puts his future solely in the hands of God: “If I find favor in the eyes of the Lord, he will bring me back.” Put simply: Not my will, Lord, but thine.

A forensic understanding of the atonement can make little sense of the story of David’s penance. For according to this theory, once Nathan pronounced the words of absolution, the matter should have been closed. God had acted; subsequent human deeds can make no material contribution to the process. But if we understand forgiveness as ordered to sanctification of the person, then every detail in this story about David can be pondered and savored. Salvation is not limited to the punctiliar experience of justification (that is, being declared “innocent”); it involves gradual moral and spiritual transformation—something like purgatory for David, at least in this world.

One of the shortcomings of David as an example is that it may suggest that sanctification is simply a process of coming to terms with the effects one’s sins have had on oneself and others. David’s role is in many respects passive. He must patiently await what Nathan has prophesied to come about in order to undergo his trials and enter into his spiritual growth. But the Bible knows of another, more activist strategy, one more in accord with the theology of merit that plays such a central role in the doctrine of purgatory: the giving of alms. In order to understand how this comes about, we need to consider how sins are understood in the later sections of the Old Testament.

The Bible does not understand sin as a purely philosophical concept but always explains both its gravity and means of repair by way of metaphor. At the close of the Old Testament period and on into the New, the predominant metaphor is that of a debt. So the famous words of the Our Father: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” On this understanding, when one sins, one incurs a debt to God, and forgiveness involves the repayment of what is owed. The means of repayment depicted in Scripture vary, but one particularly esteemed means of paying down the debt is through charity to the poor.

The story of King Nebuchadnezzar provides a classic example. He was often presented in early Christian homiletic literature as the model penitent sinner, for obvious reasons: If this heinous sinner can be forgiven, then anyone can. When the king approaches the prophet Daniel in deep contrition over his errors and pleads for a way to make amends, Daniel famously advises: “Pay off the debt you owe for your sins through charity toward the poor.”

This counsel reflects a major revolution in the way in which the Bible understands sin. Whereas David had to make amends for what he had done by graciously enduring the consequences, Nebuchadnezzar can take active steps in the repair of his own soul. Forgiveness is no longer dependent on awaiting what suffering will come. One can make one’s own ordeals of penance, as it were, by inflicting on oneself the pain of giving up a portion of one’s wealth for the sake of those in need.

Traditionally, Protestant interpreters have been uncomfortable with Daniel’s instruction, because it seems to convey a form of “works righteousness.” Nebuchadnezzar is able to buy his way out through his acts of charity. But this caricature presumes a thin and unbiblical view of the merit that flows from almsgiving.

The Hebrew term for almsgiving, tsedaqah, originally referred to a merit or credit that accrued to an individual. It was translated into the Greek as ele-mosun, which means an act of mercy. Frequently in the Greek Bible we see the term ele-mosun used in contexts in which we would expect the word for merit or credit. With this use, the Bible suggests an implicit theology of almsgiving. Acts of generosity (sola gratia!) are gifts that deduct from the bank account of giver and accrue to the needy, and yet they paradoxically generate a “merit” for the doer of the deed. The almsgiver ends up an earner.

St. Augustine would have had no trouble with this improbable juxtaposition of grace (free gift) and merit: Through the gift of divine grace, human beings are enabled to participate in a work of God. Though they win merits for themselves, the merits are themselves the fruit of gifts in the first place. A close analogy might be the young girl who buys a Christmas gift for her mother. From one perspective it is no gift at all; the mother simply gets back what she provided in the first place. But from another angle the gift allows the child to participate in the exchange of love that is basic to the family itself. Her enthusiastic desire to show her love “wins” anew the love her mother has already given her.

And so the revolution that the book of Daniel sets in motion. Whereas David has to endure the unfolding consequences of his own sin to repair his soul, Nebuchadnezzar can initiate the process on his own, taking on penitential suffering by way of almsgiving. This hastening of spiritual repair—the accumulation of merit, to use later terminology—is the reason that almsgiving became such a prestigious act in the spirituality of Judaism and Christianity. It allowed the individual to enact the miracle of God’s grace in his own life and assume the role of an active participant in the repair of the world.

The book of Daniel shows how almsgiving pays down the debt of sin, but the Bible teaches us another important lesson about the power of almsgiving: its ability to deliver one from death. In order to see this in bold relief, let’s take a look at the story of the raising of Tabitha in chapter nine of the Acts of the Apostles. A follower of Jesus who lived in Joppa, Tabitha became ill and died, yet after she was prepared for burial Peter in the power of Christ told her to “get up,” and she did, bringing many in the city to the gospel.

Most New Testament scholars focus their attention on the power of Peter, acting in imitatio Christi, to raise someone from the dead, but this ignores an important dimension of the way in which the story of Tabitha’s restoration to life is told. She was not just a woman of faith. As the author of Acts emphasizes, “She was devoted to good works and acts of charity.” Furthermore, when Peter comes to her dead body, Acts places the needy recipients of her charity alongside the apostle: “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that [Tabitha] had made while she was with them.” To whom were they showing their tunics? Most likely, to God. That alms-deeds could intercede on one’s behalf is made clear just a few verses later when in a different episode an angel tells the centurion Cornelius that “both your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God.”

Cyprian read the angel’s announcement as a commentary on Tabitha’s restoration to life. The third-century bishop and martyr interpreted the widows as “interceding for the dead woman not with their voices but with her corporal works of mercy.” Peter is not acting independently, Cyprian continues, but rather prays over Tabitha “as a fit advocate of widows and the poor,” and rather than drawing on an independent sacerdotal power “conveyed to the Lord the entreaties entrusted to himself” and by the power of the widows’ witness restored Tabitha to life. “Such was the miracle wrought by the merits of mercy,” he concludes, “such was the power of just works. She, who had bestowed on suffering widows the means of life, merited to be recalled to life by the entreaty of the widows.” Her deeds literally spoke for themselves. As Proverbs put it: “Almsgiving delivers from death.”

Thus far we have seen that several elements basic to the doctrine of purgatory can be found in Scripture. First, the story of David shows us that forgiveness is more than being declared innocent; it requires a process of spiritual transformation, a task that most of us will not have completed at the point of death. Sanctification, in turn, includes accounting for the reality of one’s sins—something that, as Daniel’s advice to Nebuchadnezzar reminds us, can be hastened by the merit of almsgiving. Finally, Tabitha’s example teaches us that we can build up a treasury of merit that can free us even from the bonds of death.

If we attend carefully to these factors we won’t be surprised when we encounter the following piece of advice in the fourth-century Apostolic Constitutions on how laypeople should attend to the deceased: “Let the third day of the departed be celebrated with psalms, lessons, and prayers on account of [Jesus] who arose within the space of three days. And let alms be given to the poor out of his goods as a memorial before God on his behalf.” Like Tabitha’s gifts to the poor widows in Acts, alms given on behalf of the deceased function as prayer that continues to have its effect after death. No wonder that Henry VIII, even after his rejection of Rome, made sure his will included instructions for postmortem almsgiving.

There is still a further reason for considering purgatory a fundamental biblical doctrine: Over the past decade or so a number of studies have highlighted the surprising (at least to me!) interdependence of Jews and Catholics on this doctrine. Judah Galinsky, an Israeli historian, has shown that in the mid-thirteenth to fourteenth centuries Jewish communities in Spain began to imitate the Christian practice of leaving sizable charitable bequests in their estate “for the benefit of their souls” after death, a remarkably direct adoption of a common Christian formulation.

Stephen Greenblatt and Leon Wieseltier have also noted that the traditional Jewish practice of having the son pray on behalf of a dead parent for a year after his death (kaddish) appears at roughly the same time that the doctrine of purgatory was gaining momentum in Christian piety. The Jewish folklore of this period stipulates that the father’s safe arrival in the world to come is dependent on his son saying the kaddish in synagogue.

In Wieseltier’s moving account of the year he said kaddish for his father, he spends a good portion of his narrative exploring a tale that probably emerged in the early Middle Ages and was disseminated in an extraordinary number of copies and elaborated in many variants. In the version from the eleventh-century Mahzor Vitry, Rabbi Akiva is walking in a cemetery when he meets a naked man, black as coal, carrying a large amount of wood on his head. The rabbi stops him and asks why he is working so hard, offering to buy him from his master if he is a slave. The man answers, “The man whom you are addressing is a dead man. Every day they send me out to collect wood and use it to burn me.” Why such a terrible fate? The man explains, “I was a tax collector and I would favor the rich and kill the poor.”

“Have your superiors told you nothing about how you might relieve your condition?” Rabbi Akiva asks, and the man begs him not to detain him, because that will anger his tormentors.

For such a man [as I], there can be no relief. Though I did hear them say something ”but no, it is impossible. They said: If this poor man had a son, and his son were to stand before the congregation and recite [the prayer] “Bless the Lord who is blessed!” and the congregation were to answer amen, and the son were also to say “May the Great Name be blessed!” [a sentence from the kaddish], they would release him from his punishment. But this man never had a son. He left his wife pregnant and he did not know whether the child was a boy. And if she gave birth to a boy, who would teach the boy Torah? For this man does not have a friend in the world.

Deeply troubled by this, the rabbi travels to the man’s home town and finds that he has a son, but that the people of the town have not circumcised him. Rabbi Akiva promptly circumcises him and tries to teach him Torah, but he refuses. Rabbi Akiva fasts for forty days. A heavenly voice asks him, “For this you mortify yourself?” and the rabbi replies, “But Lord of the Universe, it is for You that I am preparing him.” The Lord opens the boy’s heart. Rabbi Akiva teaches him Torah and the prayers and presents the boy to the congregation. When the boy recites the prayer “Bless the Lord who is blessed!” his father is released from his punishment.

The man then appears to Rabbi Akiva in a dream and says, “May it be the will of the Lord that your soul find delight in the Garden of Eden, for you have saved me from the sentence of Gehenna.” Rabbi Akiva responds, “Your Name, O Lord, endures forever, and the memory of You through all the generations!”

The themes of the story are evident even to the casual reader. The dead are in peril, and the prayers of the living can influence their fates for the better. Indeed, so predominant was this functional doctrine of purgatory in Judaism that if a father lacked a son, or worried that his son might not fulfill the obligation of saying the appropriate prayers, he would leave money in his will to have someone else say the prayers. This practice sounds a lot like the Catholic custom of having Masses said in one’s name, an ancient Christian practice that St. Augustine already alludes to when he speaks of his mother’s death in his Confessions.

Yet the key point, as both Galinsky and Wieseltier observe, is not the interreligious borrowing but the nature of Judaism that made this possible in the first place. After all, there were many Christian practices that Judaism showed no interest in whatsoever. Why practices that one associates with the doctrine of purgatory? As it turns out there is evidence stretching back to Talmudic times that almsgiving benefits the journey of the deceased after his death. Mar Uqba, for example, was queried as to why he had designated such a high percentage of his money for the poor in his will. “My provisions are scanty,” he replied, “but the road is long.”

Even more illuminating is the responsum of Rav Sherira Gaon. (A responsum is an authoritative rabbinic figure’s response to a question formally submitted to him.) Writing in the tenth century, he said that alms given in the name of a particular deceased man could provide benefit. “If a Holy Man seeks mercy for the deceased whether with alms for the poor or without [that is, by prayer],” he writes,

it is possible that the Holy One (Blessed be He!) will lighten his punishment in recognition of that meritorious person’s merit. But if no [such person is available], we take the poor [who received alms on his behalf] to [his grave] to petition that he be granted mercy. If one of them has [sufficient] merits . . . they may possibly help him; but there is no presumption that it will help: May it be God’s will that He accede to their petition.

What comes out clearly in this responsum is that rabbinic Judaism clearly imagines that the state of the person is not always settled at the time of death and that there is a period of time in which further purgation from sin is possible. Judaism, like early Christianity, imagines that specific human actions like prayer and the offering of alms could have an effect.

Once again we see some of the crucial elements of the doctrine of purgatory: Sins require not just forgiveness but transformation, a process that can extend beyond the confines of a finite human life. That transformation, in turn, can be abetted by acts of mercy toward the undeserving (alms), deeds that generate merits that can deliver one from death. The final move is one in which these merits are potentially transferable to another person. That final move goes beyond the explicit teaching of the Bible. Christians have the example of Christ to draw upon. The merits won by his death apply to us. But it is striking that Jews come to a similar conclusion about the way in which merit can be communicated from one person to another. The fact that both faiths drew out such a similar implication argues strongly in favor of its roots in the common scriptural inheritance that Jews and Christians share.

So where does all of this leave us? Is purgatory a retrievable notion for Christians in the twenty-first century? Taken together, the elements that make up the doctrine of purgatory have been criticized as leading to a rigid and mechanical model of merit and sanctification more fitting for a cosmic accountant than for the God of Scripture.

Gunther Bornkamm, the highly esteemed New Testament scholar of a generation back, condemned Judaism and Catholicism on this ground. Merits amount to rewards, according to Bornkamm, and “the reward ceases to be God’s free promise and becomes a form of financial capital which individual observers of the law acquire for themselves in heaven and whose payout they can await with certainty. The religious see themselves in the position of a person who is about to emigrate and has invested funds in a bank within the country to which he will soon arrive.” In Bornkamm’s mind, the problem with a concept like purgatory is that it allows the religiously minded person to think he has God in his back pocket. His good deeds have bought grace, and God must deliver the goods.

These are weighty criticisms. Yet they don’t quite hit the mark. In Jewish and Christian sources, the giving of alms functions as an appeal for mercy rather than as a legal claim that would coerce God. The widows who held up the garments made for them by Tabitha demonstrate that charitable deeds could be thought of as a form of prayer. The intercession of these alms-deeds on Tabitha’s behalf does not have God in a hammerlock. On the contrary, they are calling for God to act on behalf of Tabitha as she has acted on their behalf: giving not out of obligation but with abundant and free generosity. The merit displayed serves as a mirror in which God sees himself, intensifying his free grace rather than bypassing it.

This provides the answer to criticisms like Bornkamm’s. The charitable deed is a prayer manifested in human action. Almsgiving is meant to mirror at the human level what has been done for us through Christ at the divine level. This is one of the main reasons why artistic depictions of purgatory in the Middle Ages paired the sacrifice of the Mass with the charity shown toward the poor: Both actions are about showing mercy to the destitute, ours to others in their poverty, and God to us in our sin.

Finally, it should be noted that the doctrine of purgatory has an enduring intuitive appeal. It is striking that Stephen Greenblatt, a nonobservant, secular Jew, was drawn back to the ancient Jewish ritual of saying kaddish for his deceased father. The reasons he gives have to do with his study of purgatory. “Anyone who has experienced the death of a close friend or relative knows the feeling; not only the pain of sudden, irrevocable loss but also the strange, irrational expectation of recovery,” he writes.

These are not merely modern feelings; in fact it is startling that we continue to have them so vividly, since everything in the contemporary world works to suppress them. They were not suppressed in the past. The brilliance of the doctrine of Purgatory . . . lay in its institutional control over ineradicable folk beliefs and in its engagement with intimate, private feelings . . . . The notion of suffrages—masses, almsgiving, fasts, and prayers—gave mourners something constructive to do with their feelings of grief and confirmed those feelings of reciprocity that survived, at least for a limited time, the shock of death.

Greenblatt’s reflections draw attention to a profoundly pastoral dimension to the doctrine of purgatory. Who among us does not desire to show some sign of love for their friends and family whom they mourn at graveside? Both Judaism and Christianity have long held that the prayers and alms of the faithful can be a benefit for their beloved dead. Salvation, after all, is both individual and communal in nature, and the doctrine of purgatory reminds us that our lives are not ours alone. We are linked in a great chain of being (one body, many members, to invoke Paul) to all of our beloved ancestors. We don’t have to pretend that all are saved and by so doing make a mockery of our moral choices, but neither must we commend our beloved to eternal suffering.

Purgatory makes Christ’s atoning sacrifice come alive in our religious practices. C. S. Lewis put the matter just about perfectly when he wrote:

Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?

Yes, spontaneous, perhaps inevitable—but also biblical.

Gary A. Anderson is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at the University of Notre Dame. This essay is adapted from a chapter of his book on purgatory, forthcoming from Yale University Press.

Image by Fr. James Bradley, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.