5 Myths & Misunderstandings of Indulgences and Purgatory
MYTH #1 – The Catholic Church no longer has indulgences.
This is just not true. Indulgences are a good thing and are still part of the Church’s teaching.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church’s answer to the question, “What is an indulgence?”:
1471 “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”
That is a lot of churchy-speak, so let me break it down. First off – what an indulgence is not. An indulgence is neither permission to sin, forgiveness for a sin, or a way or working oursleves into Heaven. Neither does it make us immune from sinning.
MYTH #2 – Indulgences are a way to “buy your way to Heaven”.
Not at all. Underlying this myth is another one – that the Catholic Church teaches we can earn our way to Heaven through works-based righteousness. Not true. We cannot earn our way to Heaven.
There is a lens through which we must look to understand two aspects of God’s grace, which may help explain where this myth came from.
The first aspect is operative grace, which is the grace God works in each of us, in which we play no part. The gifts of faith and hope are examples of operative grace. They are gifts of God which no man can merit. God gifts us with a new life in faith, we don’t earn it. An analogy is that of a patient in the O.R. who has died and their heart is shocked back into life. The patient didn’t earn life from the doctor.
The second aspect is cooperative grace. This isn’t where we heal ourselves, Rather it is more like a patient going to rehab. We work with the Doctor (God) to cooperate with the process of healing. Indulgences are an example of this cooperative grace.
Many of our Protestant brothers and sisters see sin as having only one consequence – hell. If you are a sinner who isn’t forgiven then you are bound to hell. If you are forgiven, then you go to heaven. But, there are actually two consequences to every sin:
- Eternal punishment – of course the most important kind to know about – without having the eternal punishment forgiven, we can’t be saved.
- Temporal punishment (punishment on this earth) – Think of Adam and Eve being cast out of the Garden of Eden and now enduring suffering, David being made to suffer the loss of his child due to his sin (2 Sam 12), or Moses not being allowed to see the promised land. All of these are punishments on this earth for sin. While the eternal punishment may have been forgiven by God, all of these people still had to suffer the temporal punishment of sin.
If I lie to my wife, it isn’t good enough to ask God to forgive me, I need to ask forgiveness from my wife as well. We need to do the same for all sin – seek forgiveness for the eternal and temporal aspects. Even physical death itself is a part of temporal punishment of sin; though the Christian who is eternally forgiven still dies. St. Augustine says there is a difference between having the poisoned dart removed from you and recovering from the wound. Indulgences deal only with the healing from the wound – not the removal of the dart, which only God can do.
Christ has won our eternal salvation for us by His blood. If we choose His grace, we will be saved and enter Heaven. An indulgence takes nothing away from this work of God alone.
Yet, the Bible says heaven is a place for only those perfected (in every way) through Jesus:
“nothing unclean will enter it (heaven).” -Revelation 21:27
In other words – to be made ready to go to Heaven, we have to be absolutely stripped of all that is not of Jesus. While Jesus’ work on the cross is complete, we don’t share perfectly in this work until we are in heaven, where we will have a full share in His perfection. So, we must be purified before we enter into heaven. If we are not perfectly ready to enter into Heaven at the moment of our death, then the purification process will take place in Purgatory.
An indulgence is only good for those who are already in Jesus’ grace and who have converted hearts = the elect. So, it adds nothing to what Christ has already done, since He has done it all already.
MYTH #3 – The Catholic Church sold indulgences and then decided it was bad to do so and stopped after Luther exposed it.
This is absolutely untrue. The practice of “selling indulgences” is opposed to everything the Catholic church teaches about them. The Church did allow people to offer alms (supporting the Church and the poor, which is a good Biblical practice; e.g. Acts 11:29, 1 Cor 16:1, Gal 2;10, etc); along with prayers, Confession, and going to Communion in order to receive an indulgence. But, since abuses started and there was confusion, the Church reformed the practice and no longer allows alms to be given for part of an indulgence to be granted. This was so there would be no hint of a problem anymore.
The confusion was from some individuals who did try to profit off of indulgences, but the Church has never sanctioned such scandalous actions. So, to blame “The Catholic Church” for the abuse of selling indulgences by a few corrupt men is akin to blaming “The Catholic Church” when someone steals money from a parish today.
Was it a scandal that some sold indulgences? Absolutely! Was it part of Catholic teaching? Absolutely not!
The Church saw that there was abuse by some and moved to fix it. So, Luther did had one valid point – you shouldn’t sale indulgences. But, the problem was with the abuse, not the indulgence itself! Furthermore, Martin Luther used the scandal as an opportunity to further other theological arguments he had.
MYTH #4 – The Catholic Church invented indulgences in the Middle Ages.
We have record of them in the very early Church, so this is certainly not true.
MYTH #5 – Purgatory and Indulgences are Catholic Inventions and Not Found in The Bible.
Some may say that these words are not found in the Bible. But, neither are the words Trinity, divinity, incarnation, monotheism, etc. Just because a word is not found, doesn’t mean the concept isn’t there. So, while the word “purgatory” may not be in the Bible, there are certain passages that implicitly contain the basis of purgatory.
“Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.”
-Matt 5: 25-26:
Here we are being told that we will ultimately be held responsible for all of our actions. There are two dimensions to being forgiven for a sin, the eternal and temporal, as we have said above. While we may be forgiven by God, we still have to go to our brother for forgiveness as well. Here it says that if we fail to obtain the human dimension of forgiveness, then God will hold us responsible ultimately. But, the human element does not merit eternal, but rather finite, punishment. So, it leaves open the door to Purgatory, which is finite.
1 Corinthians 3:11-15:
“For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”
Paul is saying that we will not enter into our reward until we are cleansed of all unrighteousness. Clearly Paul says we will be “saved”, but there will be loss and flames through which one escapes. Also, this loss will be for those things which are not of value.
Lastly, in 2 Maccebees 12 we see the practice of Jews offering up sacrifices for the dead. Any sacrifice for the dead would not do those in heaven or hell any good, so the passage (at the least) points to the Jewish belief in some other state of being in the afterlife, even if some non-Catholic Christians do not recognize the book of 2 Mac to be Biblical.
With all of this evidence we couple some ancient Christian statements on Purgatory and the evidence seems pretty weighty.
As for Indulgences being in the Bible, I have already shown many of the principles of them being in the Bible above. Let me finish with one more.
God forgives temporal punishment through His Church. Ultimately, this is the final point of an indulgence. Scripture says that Jesus gave the authority to forgive sins to men (Matt 9:8, John 20:23, Jam 5:16). But, He also gave them the ability to do “bind” on earth too. Matt 16:19 and 18:18 say the apostles had the ability to “bind on earth” “loose on earth”. Binding and loosing cover a number of things: Church practices, discipline, and temporal penalties (including and up to keeping someone from participating in the life of the Church – excommunication).
Now that we know the Church has this temporal authority, we can see how it applies to us. For more, I recommend this article.
*What Is the Deal With Purgatory?
*A conversation on purgatory
*An argument for purgatory
*Early Christians on Purgatory
*How To Get an Indulgence
*Handbook on Indulgences (aka – Enchiridion of Indulgences). (0)
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