Do You Pay for Your Sins After Death?
Nearly all the world’s religions answer Yes. But what does the Bible say?
DO YOU pay for your sins after death, especially in a purgatory? Yes, say ever so many of the world’s religions. The devout Chinese believes that “a spirit wanders in purgatory for two years after death and must be assisted before it can enter heaven.” To aid such spirits, in times past the Chinese used to offer up sacrifices, but now they burn houses made of paper especially for this purpose.1 There is an elaborate description of purgatorial suffering in the sacred writings of Buddhism.2
In fact, we are told that “an analogy to purgatory can be traced in most religions. Thus the fundamental ideas of a middle state after death and of a purification preparatory to perfect blessedness are met with in Zoroaster, who takes souls through twelve stages before they are sufficiently purified to enter heaven; and the Stoics conceived of a middle place of enlightenment,” which they called empurosis, that is, a place of fire.3
As for Christendom, while here and there a Protestant clergyman may subscribe to the purgatory teaching,4 it is especially known as a teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. Said its Council of Trent: “Whereas the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught . . . that there is a purgatory, and that the souls therein detained are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable Sacrifice of the Altar; the Holy Synod enjoins on the Bishops that they diligently endeavor to have the sound doctrine . . . regarding purgatory everywhere taught and preached, held and believed by the faithful.”5 So it is a teaching of the Catholic church that you do indeed pay for your sins after death.
While this is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church, there is the greatest vagueness about the details of this teaching. Just where is purgatory located? What is the duration of the suffering and how can one tell when one’s loved ones have finally reached heaven? And in particular are there vagueness and decided difference of opinion as to the exact nature of the suffering.
Says Jesuit writer R. W. Gleason: “We must remark that at times purgatory has been presented as a veritable antechamber of hell; and this by theologians of no small merit. The souls imprisoned there are tortured by demons, we are told; their sufferings are more intense than any imaginable on this earth.” However, not all are so certain. As Gleason also notes: “When Bellarmine tells us that it is indeed certain that the pain of fire exists in purgatory, but that the word ‘fire’ may be taken in a metaphorical or a proper sense, that it may refer to pain of sense or to pain of loss, he really leaves us without much that is clear-cut in our certitudes.”5
In fact, there are some Catholics who even hold that those in purgatory are happier than those upon earth. Indeed, “Catherine of Genoa emphatically assures us that no joy on earth is comparable to the joy of purgatory, no joy in fact save the joy of heaven itself.”5 But if this is so, it may well be asked what sort of deterrent is purgatory supposed to be, and why are prayers said for those in it if they are better off than those on earth? Truly, there is much ambiguity on the subject.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the same Council of Trent that defined purgatory at the same time admonished the Catholic clergy that “they must not allow uncertainties or things which have the appearance of falsity to be given forth or handled, and they are to prohibit as scandalous and offensive such things as minister to curiosity or superstition or savor of filthy lucre. Let the bishops see to it that the prayers . . . be not rendered in a perfunctory manner but diligently and punctually.”6
THE VOICE OF TRADITION?
“Catholics Thank God There IS a Purgatory.” So reads an advertisement sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. Among the claims made in these advertisements for purgatory’s existence is that “the fathers and doctors of the Church speak repeatedly of the first Christians praying for the dead.” Also that “Tertullian, second century, admonished ‘the faithful wife to pray for the soul of her deceased husband.’ The fourth century historian Eusebius, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Ephrem, St. Ambrose and St. John Chrysostom all speak of prayers for the departed souls.”
But that these claims presume more than the facts warrant is apparent from the testimony of one authority, that “it is impossible to point out in any writing of the first four centuries any passage which describes the state of any of the faithful departed as one of acute suffering . . . Still less would it be possible to show that the intermediate state was regarded by them as one in which satisfaction was made for sin.”7 This is further borne out by the vagueness with which the Eastern Orthodox Church presents its teaching of purgatory. So the voice of tradition is far from conclusive in this regard.
But even if the voice of tradition were not ambiguous, it of itself would not prove the existence of a purgatory. Why not? Because the writers of the Christian Greek Scriptures warned that there would be a falling away from true faith after their departure, in fact, that it had its beginning even in their day. Moreover, it is granted that some of this early testimony which purported to favor the teaching of purgatory must be credited to “the survival of pre-Christian customs.”5—Acts 20:29, 30; 1 John 2:18.
It is also claimed that the teaching of purgatory finds support in the Scriptures. Among the leading texts used to prove this is 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, which reads: “Other foundation no one can lay, but that which has been laid, which is Christ Jesus. But if anyone builds upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each will be made manifest, for the day of the Lord will declare it, since the day is to be revealed in fire. The fire will assay the quality of everyone’s work: if his work abides which he has built thereon, he will receive reward; if his work burns he will lose his reward, but himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.”—Cath. Confrat.
Can this text be used to prove a purgatory? No, it cannot. In the first place, since a Christian’s works are not literally gold and silver, hay or straw, neither would the fire be literal. In the second place, the fire is said to consume one’s work if it is not the right kind. Certainly it is not the works that go to purgatory. Thirdly, the statement is that the person shall be saved “as through fire,” not actually through fire. Apparently in an effort to make this text say more than it does, Msgr. Knox rendered it: “Yet he himself will be saved, though only as men are saved by passing through fire.”
So what is Paul speaking about at 1 Corinthians 3:11-15? Gold, silver and precious stones endure through flames, but wood, hay and stubble do not. Likewise works of which God approves are not destroyed by his judgments, but erroneous doctrines and works cannot stand before Jehovah’s fiery tests. If the one performing these latter works is prepared to suffer the loss of them when confronted by counsel or judgment from God’s Word of truth, then he will be saved by this cleansing, as though by fire. The Christian minister in his planting and watering work needs to watch how he works, that he builds with durable materials, doing all things in harmony with the truth and according to the example set by Christ Jesus.—1 Cor. 3:5-10.
Matthew 5:25, 26 (Cath. Confrat.) is another text quoted to prove there is a purgatory: “Come to terms with thy opponent quickly while thou art with him on the way; lest thy opponent deliver thee to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Amen I say to thee, thou wilt not come out from it until thou hast paid the last penny.” But what Jesus is here discussing is not the payment for sins after death but the wisdom of settling cases out of court. By no stretch of the imagination can this be used to prove purgatory. Only if purgatory itself were proved could this principle be said to apply to it. Besides, Jesus’ words imply that anyone can escape the penalty, which is something denied by those teaching purgatory.
Still another text used to teach purgatory contains these words of Jesus: “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit, it will not be forgiven him, either in this world or in the world to come.” (Matt. 12:32, Cath. Confrat.) It is argued that this implies forgiveness in the world to come, and for this to be so there must be a purgatory. But not so. First, the basic sense of the text is simply that such sin against the holy spirit is unforgivable at any time, and even in “the world to come” there will be no provision for such forgiveness. (Compare Mark 3:29.) The Bible does speak of a resurrection of judgment for those who have done vile things but not willfully so.
When that resurrection takes place there will be the opportunity for such ones to gain everlasting life through their obedience, but it will also be possible for them through disobedience then to sin against the holy spirit. This will prove to be an unforgivable sin for them, and will result in everlasting destruction.—Acts 24:15; John 5:28, 29; Rev. 20:11-15.
THE BIBLE ANSWER
Do you pay for your sins after death? Not according to the Bible, the Word of God. In the first place it tells us that man does not have a soul but is a soul: “The Lord God formed man of the slime of the earth, and breathed into his face the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Secondly, the Bible testifies that the soul is mortal, not immortal: “The soul that sinneth the same shall die.” “He [Jesus] hath delivered his soul unto death.” And, thirdly, it assures us that the dead are unconscious: “They live under sentence of death; and when death comes, of nothing will they be aware any longer; no reward can they receive, . . . no love, no hatred, no envy can they feel . . . Whatever lies in thy power, do while do it thou canst; there will be no doing, no scheming, no wisdom or skill left to thee in the grave, that soon shall be thy home.”—Gen. 2:7; Ezek. 18:20; Isa. 53:12, Dy; Eccl. 9:5, 6, 10, Knox.
So if man is a soul rather than having a soul, and if that soul is mortal, and if at death his thoughts perish, then how could man be conscious in purgatory after death?
The idea of atoning for one’s sins by suffering after death, or even in this present life, is foreign to the Scriptures. When Jesus cured the paralytic brought to him, Jesus simply said: “Take courage, son; thy sins are forgiven thee.” That was it. Jesus said nothing about his needing to suffer for them. Likewise when he showed his disciples that “repentance and remission of sins” was to be preached, he said nothing about doing penance or suffering later for one’s sins. And so also the apostle Peter counseled the Jews: “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out,” but again nothing about penance or suffering for sins. Testifying to the same truth, the apostle John wrote: “If we walk in the light as he also is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin.” If the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin, that leaves none to be cleansed by purgatorial fires.—Matt. 9:2; Luke 24:47; Acts 3:19; 1 John 1:7, Cath. Confrat.
The Word of God does not present as alternatives life in bliss or life in blisters, but life or death. Jehovah God is loving and just. Everlasting life is one of his gifts. If man does not appreciate that gift, Jehovah God does not torture him. Man simply does not receive everlasting life. When Adam showed that he did not appreciate everlasting life, God did not tell him that he would go to a purgatory, or to a burning hell for that matter, neither did he hold out any hope of Adam’s getting to heaven. Plainly he told Adam: “Still thou shalt earn thy bread with the sweat of thy brow, until thou goest back into the ground from which thou wast taken; dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” As so plainly put by the apostle Paul: “The wages of sin is death.”—Gen. 3:19, Knox; Rom. 6:23, Dy.
But perhaps someone will object, saying, ‘What about such expressions as “where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched,” “lifting up his eyes, being in torments,” “their portion shall be in the pool that burns with fire”? Do not such statements as these contradict the foregoing?’ Not at all. The Bible, being God’s Word, cannot and does not contradict itself. We all use figurative or symbolic language at times, expressions that are not to be understood literally, and so also with the Bible writers. If we but examine the subject matter and the context of such expressions we will find that they are not to be taken literally.—Mark 9:47; Luke 16:23; Rev. 21:8, Cath. Confrat.
The testimony of the Bible is unequivocal, reasonable and just. The idea that you pay for your sins after death, and that by suffering, is pagan, not a Scriptural teaching. Man pays for his sins with death. Yes, “sin offers death, for wages.”—Rom. 6:23, Knox.
1 The World’s Great Religions, 1957. Time, Inc., p. 90.
2 Harvard Classics, 1910, Vol. 45, pp. 701-704.
3 The Encyclopœdia Britannica, 11th Ed., Vol. 22, p. 660.
4 Our Sunday Visitor, October 26, 1952.
5 America, November 1, 1958, pp. 135, 136.
6 The Encyclopœdia Britannica, 9th Ed, Vol. 20, p. 120.
7 Ibid., p. 121.