Purgatory, in Catholic doctrine, is a place where people go after death. It is believed that the people are destined for heaven but must first be purified inorder to attain the required level of holiness. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrfice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (available on www.vatican.va).
One scripture used to justify the performance of a religious ritual on behalf of the dead is 1 Corinthians 15:29 which states, “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” A casual reading of this verse surely seems to justify the assertion that early Christians baptised living believers on behalf of those who died. However, a simple closer look at the words immediately reveals that saint Paul actually did not identify himself with the practice. He refers to those who practised the doctrine as “They“.
As Ellicott’s Commentary correctly points out, there existed amongst some Christians at Corinth who believed that a person could be baptised on behalf of another who was dead. St John Chrysostom, a 4th century archbishop and prolific writer, described the practice in detail:
After a catechumen (i.e., one prepared for baptism, but not actually baptised) was dead, they hid a living man under the bed of the deceased; then coming to the bed of the dead man they spake to him, and asked whether he would receive baptism, and he making no answer, the other replied in his stead, and so they baptised the ‘living for the dead.’
The fact that this was a practice done at the time of Paul does not mean all Christians believed in it. Remember that there were many doctrines and heresies right at the time of Paul in many Christian circles. Some people believing that the resurrection was already past (2 Tim.2:18) and others asserted that there was no such thing as the resurrection of the dead. It is the latter false doctrine that Paul was addressing to the church at Corinth, in Chapter 15 of his epistle. He admonished the Corinthians saying: “But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen: And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.” (1 Cor. 15:13-14). Paul went further to show the inconsistency of “they” who didnt believe in resurrection but yet practised the erroneous baptism of the dead. Clearly, if there was so much concern for the baptism of a dead person, did it not logically follow (from their practice) that there was hope of life after death? For that is what the physical practice of baptism illustrates – a body being laid in water to symbolise death, and being raised, to symbolise the new life – “Therefore we are burried with him by baptism into death, that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Rom.6:4).
The Scripture is clear about holiness: it is not something we attain after we die. We should attain it in this present life. 1 Peter 1:15 was not written for dead people: “But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation.” And we are also admonsihed that “the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Tim.2:19). Thus, to tell people that there is a chance to complete their ‘holiness requirement’ for heaven is to give them a false hope. They will believe wrongly and hence live wrongly.