By Pastor Manny of DCF
Protestants reject the doctrine of Purgatory because of different reasons. Some may say that the word “Purgatory” isn’t in the Bible, therefore, it’s false. Some might say that it’s just a medieval invention by the Catholics. Whatever their reasons are, the rejection of Purgatory often leads to them claiming that after a believer died, he or she will go directly to heaven. Let’s look at what Bible.org has to say on this matter.
“On the other hand, the Bible teaches that believers go immediately to heaven. Before Christ’s death on the cross for our sin, it was called Abraham’s Bosom. Today, the New Testament declares that believers go directly into the presence of the Lord.”
What they claim is that there was an intermediate state where Old Testament saints went, and after the death of Christ, all the believers could directly go to Heaven without the need to enter this intermediate state. However, I don’t think that this claim is rooted in Scriptures, and let’s see what the Holy Word of God really said.
In order for us to understand their argument, we have to know what Sheol is and how it’s being described. In the Scriptures, Sheol (or Hades in Greek) is a Hebrew word that refers to the place of the departed souls or spirits. This is where the unrepentant rebels are placed before they are going to be thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14-15). At the same time, this is where the righteous souls of the Old Testament people are placed because this acts as an intermediate state before the righteous saints can enter heaven knowing the gates of Heaven was not yet opened by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ at their time. Even though both the unrighteous and righteous people enter the Sheol, we have to recognize how the Scriptures differentiated the two.
For Unrighteous Souls:
17 Let me not be put to shame, O LORD,
for I call on thee;
let the wicked be put to shame,
let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.
18 For Sheol cannot thank thee,
death cannot praise thee;
those who go down to the pit cannot hope
for thy faithfulness.
For Righteous Souls:
3 O LORD, thou hast brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.[a]
13 For great is thy steadfast love toward me;
thou hast delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.
What we can conclude from the description of the Old Testament regarding Sheol is that the unrighteous souls do not praise the Lord, and they don’t have the capability to enter into the heavenly relationship with God.
On the other hand, the righteous souls were given a promise of being restored from Sheol in order for them to enter heaven because of God’s love for them. With this, we should now look at what the New Testament presented especially when it comes to the events after the death of Christ, at the Ascension of Christ, and after the Ascension of Christ.
After the Death of Christ:
1 Peter 3:18-19
18 For Christ also died[a] for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison,
1 Peter 4:5-6
5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to the dead, that though judged in the flesh like men, they might live in the spirit like God.
In the 3rd chapter of 1 Peter, Jesus Christ went to the spirits in prison, and this took place after His death because verse 19 comes after verse 18 where it is said that Jesus Christ died for the sins of the world. And then, in the fourth chapter of the same letter, we have St. Peter repeating the same theme where the gospel was preached by Jesus Christ to the dead in order for them to have eternal life. From what I have mentioned before, only the righteous souls of Sheol had the ability to enter heaven, and we can say deductively that the spirits in prison were the righteous souls of Sheol.
At the Ascension of Christ:
8 Therefore it is said,
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives,
and he gave gifts to men.”
9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
This passage is understood as the time when the souls of the righteous Old Testament saints were redeemed by God. When Jesus Christ ascended into Heaven, He was joined by the host of captives, and then, it was mentioned in verse 9 that He first descended into the lower parts of the earth (a reference to Sheol).
With this in mind, Protestants claim that after the Ascension of Christ, the righteous part of Sheol is vacant, and they will conclude that when a believer dies, there is no longer intermediate state which means that Purgatory is not necessary. However, I don’t think that Sheol is still vacant because this is not how the New Testament describes it.
After the Ascension of Christ:
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, “To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!”
After He was exalted by the Father and after He seated at the right hand of the Father, what we can see is that creatures worship Jesus Christ and confess that He is the Lord. And, these creatures were described as being in heaven ( a reference to saints and angels) and on earth (a reference to the Church and the believers) and under the earth (a reference to Sheol). In fact, St. John also included the souls under the earth in his letter where these souls worship God. Remember, only the righteous souls of Sheol give thanks to God and praise Him and what’s more important is the fact that even though Jesus Christ is already in Heaven with the Father, there is still an intermediate state as compared to how the Protestants made their assumptions.