Having been raised in a Protestant home and in a predominately Protestant nation, I gave very little consideration to the doctrine of purgatory. However, after years of ministering in a predominately Catholic Latin American culture, it has become evident that the visual images and the very fabric of the Roman Catholic mind-set continues to affect the concepts one has of God and spirituality, even years after having converted to Evangelical Christianity.
When writing the book “The Triumph of Mercy,” which sets forth what I consider to be the biblical doctrine of the ultimate restoration of all and the correctional and temporal nature of hades and the lake of fire, I didn’t include a treatment of the subject of purgatory, thinking it to be superfluous. However, many former Latin American Catholics, after reading the Spanish version of the book, have expressed their difficulty in differentiating between the biblical doctrine of postmortem correctional punishments in hades and the Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory. Exactly what has been the historic Catholic teaching concerning purgatory, and in what sense is it distinct from hades as presented by Evangelical, biblical Universalists?
In considering this subject we must be humbly aware of our limited ability to fully understand God’s ways. Even Paul, while contemplating the infinite wisdom of God’s judgments, exclaimed: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” Some mistakenly understand Paul to be saying here that God’s judgments are infinitely more terrible than we can comprehend. However, in the context of Paul’s declaration we see that it is God’s mercy and wisdom in His judgments which defy comprehension, placing all under disobedience in order to ultimately have mercy on all, uniting all in Him in the end (Rom 11:32-36;Eph 1:10). Due to the fact that His judgments are unsearchable, we must avoid being overly dogmatic concerning every detail of God’s postmortem judgments. Much confusion has resulted from speculating concerning the details of His judgments which He has not seen fit to reveal. However, we can rest assured that His judgments are good and wise beyond our comprehension and culminate in the praise of the glory of His grace.
The first, and most obvious difference between purgatory and postmortem correctional punishment presented by the Evangelical Universalists is that the Roman Catholics claim that purgatory is exclusively for the purging or purifying of the elect – a transitional state in which those who did not commit eternal sins, and faithfully avoided and confessed mortal sins, are purged from all faults and venial (forgivable) sins in preparation for heaven. The rest of mankind are condemned to an eternal hell where they will be subjected to God’s implacable wrath forever, without end.
In contrast to this, most Evangelical Christians do not see merit in the Scriptures for the belief in a transitional region called purgatory, through which Christians must pass before being received into the presence of the Lord. Paul, speaking to believers, spoke of being absent from the body as being present with the Lord (2Cor 5:6-8). While Jesus warns us that it is possible that an unfaithful servant may be excluded from the kingdom, He states that he will receive his portion with the unbelievers – i.e. in hell or Gehenna (Lu 12:46). There is no mention in all of the Scriptures of a third state or region called purgatory, which is neither heaven nor hell, in which the elect are purged from residual sin.
The doctrine of purgatory is based primarily upon a supposed historical Judeo/Christian tradition. In order to show that purgatory has roots in Jewish history they appeal to the belief in the temporal and corrective nature of postmortem punishments which has been held by many Jewish Rabbis since the Inter-testament Period between the Old and New Testaments. A Catholic apologetic states the following concerning their belief concerning Gehenna:
“In the Jewish faith there is no ‘official theological doctrine’ about what happens in the afterlife, therefore, there [is] no properly developed overarching definition of a Heaven or a Hell. However, there are Jewish teachings on a ‘heaven’-like place where the righteous go when they die. There is also an ancient belief in a place of purgation which they call Gehennom. It is a ‘holding place’ of souls to be cleansed of their wickedness. Because they believe most souls do go to Gehennom, they are prayed for. The Mourner’s Prayer or the Kaddish is something Jews do even to this day, and after twelve months here on earth the soul is released.” (emphasis added) 
It is here argued by Catholics that the Jewish Rabbis of the Inter-testament period spoke of Gehenna as a place of purgation. They present this Jewish belief as support of their doctrine of a purgatory for the elect. However, what they fail to point out is that, to the Jews of that time, Gehenna was a place where the unrighteous went in order to be cleansed before entering heaven – not the righteous. The Jewish Rabbis, with the exception of the sect of the Pharisees, did not believe in an eternal hell. Based upon many Old Testament Scriptures, they taught the ultimate restoration of all (Ps 66:3-4; 72:11; 86:9;138:4;145:8-10;Isa 25:6-8; 45:22-24, etc.). It is impossible to take these and many other declarations of universal restoration in the Scriptures seriously and at the same time believe that hell is eternal, and for that reason (among others) the Jews, as well as the Evangelical Universalists, do not understand hell as eternal and without a restorative purpose.
The Catholics also appeal to the testimony of the Early Church Fathers. However, the majority of the Early Church Fathers also held to the belief that hell is temporal and purgatorial, leading to the ultimate restoration of all. (See chapter 13 of my book “The Triumph of Mercy” entitled, “Universalism in the History of the Church.”) Therefore, when the Early Church Fathers spoke of postmortem purification as purgatory, it must be understood that they are referring to the purification of the wicked and not believers. The following are some examples of quotes from the Early Church Fathers which Catholics have taken out of context in order to support their dogma of purgatory:
Clement of Alexandria AD 150 to AD 215.
“Punishment is, in its operation, like medicine; it dissolves the hard heart, purges away the filth ofuncleanness, and reduces the swellings of pride and haughtiness; thus restoring its subject to a sound and healthful state.”
This statement, taken alone, could seem to support the Catholic dogma of purgatory. However, Clement was clearly a Universalist, as any Church historian would affirm, and he is here making reference to the purgative punishments of the ungodly – not the elect, as we can see throughout all his writings:
“The Lord, he says, is a propitiation, ‘not for our sins only,' that is, of the faithful, ‘but also for the whole world.' Therefore He indeed saves all universally; but some as converted by punishments, others by voluntary submission, thus obtaining the honor and dignity, that ‘to Him every knee shall bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth,' that is angels, and men, and souls who departed this life before His coming into the world.”
We can see here that the punishment Clement here refers to is only for those who do not voluntarily submit the Lord in this life.
Origen AD 184 to AD 254.
“But he that despises the purification of the word of God and the doctrine of the Gospel only keeps himself for dreadful and penal purifications afterward; so that the fire of hell may purge him in torments whom neither apostolical doctrine nor gospel preaching has cleansed, according to that which is written of being “purified by fire.” But how long this purification which is wrought out by penal fire shall endure, or for how many periods or ages it shall torment sinners, only He knows to whom all judgment is committed by the Father.”
Only by taking a portion of the above quote out of its context is it possible to give the impression that Origin is speaking of a purgatory distinct from hell (Gehenna). He clearly says that only those who despise the purifying fires, and refuse submission to the Word of God in this life, will then have to go through the purgative fires of hell. He is clearly referring to the impenitent and not the elect. Elsewhere he makes even clearer his belief in the ultimate salvation of all in the consummation of the ages:
“But our belief is that the Word shall prevail over the entire rational creation, and change every soul into His own perfection; in which will choose what He desires, and obtain what He chooses. For although, in the diseases and wounds of the body, there are some which no medical skill can cure, yet we hold that in the mind there is no evil so strong that it may not be overcome by the Supreme Word and God. For stronger than all the evils in the soul is the Word, and the healing power that dwells in Him; and this healing He applies, according to the will of God, to every man. The consummation of all things is the destruction of evil…”
Gregory of Nyssa AD 330 to AD 394.
“When death approaches to life, and darkness to light, and the corruptible to the incorruptible, the inferior is done away with and reduced to non-existence, and the thing purged is benefited, just as the dross is purged from gold by fire.” 
Taken as a whole, it is very clear that the postmortem purgatory that Gregory refers to is not for the elect, but rather for those who die in their sins. He is referring to what we have now come to refer to as “hell.” What traditional Christianity today calls “eternal hell,” is a far cry from the temporal purgatorial restoration of all, referred to by the Early Church Fathers when describing “hell.” He continues making it clear that this purgatory is for the wicked and will not exist forever:
“I believe that punishment will be administered in proportion to each one’s corruptness. Therefore to whom there is much corruption attached, with him it is necessary that the purgatorial time which is to consume it should be great, and of long duration… All evil, however, must at length be entirely removed from everything, so that it shall no more exist. For such being the nature of sin that it cannot exist without a corrupt motive, it must of course be perfectly dissolved, and wholly destroyed, so that nothing can remain a receptacle of it, when all motive and influence shall spring from God alone,” 
“When every created being is at harmony…and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord; when every creature shall have been made one body…. Now the body of Christ, as I have often said, is the whole of humanity. And again he (Paul) writes, ‘Everything shall be subdued to Christ,’ and they shall be subdued by a full knowledge of Him, and by a remodeling. … Now God will be all in all at the time of restitution.”… “The One who both delivers man from evil, and who heals the inventor of evil himself.”
So we see that the purgatorial fires of Gehenna spoken of by the Rabbis and also the Early Church Fathers, was not seen by them to be the transitional place of torments for the elect before entering heaven, but rather the place where all who have not yet attained unto that holiness, without which no one shall see the Lord, are finally purified before being finally restored.
There are a couple of sayings of Jesus which Catholics use to support the dogma of purgatory. One of them is: “Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.” (Matt 5:26;18:34). From this they argue that purgatory is not eternal. However, once again we see that Jesus was not speaking about “purgatory” for the elect but rather “hell fire” [Gehenna pur] for the unrepentant (5:22). In another instance He said that some servants would receive many lashes while others will only receive a few lashes(Luke 12:47). Nevertheless, these two sayings of Jesus are both in agreement with the doctrine of Universalism held by the Early Church Fathers and many Evangelicals today, which teaches that all who are not found written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will be excluded from the presence of the Lord. Then at the White Throne Judgment, if their names are still not found written in the Book of Life, they will then be judged according to their works and each one will receive their part in the Lake of Fire - some receiving a few lashes and others receiving many lashes. Jesus is speaking with reference to Gehenna and the lake of fire – not the Catholic purgatory. Unless one bows their knee, confessing Jesus as Lord in repentance and faith he will by no means get out of Gehenna fire till he has paid the last penny. However, the Lord has sworn that every knee shall bow in submission to Him and every tongue shall confess that He is Lord (Isa 45:23;Phil 2:10-11;1Cor 15:22,28).
The common practice of the Jews and Early Christians of offering prayers and sacrifices for the dead is also cited as evidence of purgatory. They argue that it would have been considered futile to pray for the dead if their state was already eternally fixed, either in heaven or hell. However the Jews to this day still offer prayers for the dead - not because they believe in purgatory but because they believe that hell (Gehenna) is temporal - only lasting as long as necessary for one’s purification. Many in the Early Church offered prayers for the dead for the same reason. They also practiced baptism on behalf of the dead. Protestant Evangelicals do not pray for the dead because it is not commanded in the Scriptures. Although Paul makes mention of the practice of being baptized on behalf of the dead (1Cor 15:29), he neither condemns the practice nor does he enjoin it. They offered prayers for all their departed loved ones – not only those who died in Christ, but also the wayward ones. Therefore their practice of praying for the dead confirms their belief in universal reconciliation of all rather than a purgatory exclusive of the elect.
There is, however, a sense in which all believers will have to pass through a purging or purgatorial fire. Jesus said - speaking to His disciples, that “everyone shall be salted in fire.” (Mark 9:49). Therefore, not even His disciples are exempt from the purifying fires. The Apostol Paul also speaks of a fire through which believers must pass:
“For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; 13 Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is. 14 If any man's work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. 15 If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” (1Cor 3:11-15)
Paul here states that even those who have built their lives upon the foundation which is Jesus Christ will have to pass through the fire which will reveal and consume all works which are wood, hay and stubble. Note that here it is not the individual himself who is being burned up in the fire but rather the vain and worthless works which have no eternal value. The fire does not destroy the individual. What he suffers is not physical pain but loss. He will be saved, but worthless works will not follow him into the kingdom.
In this sense, and in this sense only, can we acknowledge a biblical form of purgation. Based upon this passage, some notable Evangelical scholars, including the renowned C.S. Lewis have defended the belief in a form of purgatory.  However, it is nowhere said to be a place or region, such as heaven or Gehenna, or the Lake of Fire, but is rather the result of being in the presence of Him who is a consuming fire.
I understand the expression “that day” as having reference to the moment we become absent from the body and present with the Lord - whether it be at the Second Coming or at the moment of death. In a moment of time our whole lives will be laid bare - exposed by the penetrating look of Him whose eyes are as a flame of fire. It is not a judgment which determines justification or condemnation, since that was already settled at the foot of the cross and applied to us individually upon believing. I believe that it will be an emotionally painful and shameful revelation for even the most devout saints, but momentary nevertheless. Even the best of saints have some dross in their lives which will be exposed and consumed by the One who is described in Scripture as a consuming fire and everlasting flames (Isa 33:14). Isaiah’s initial reaction upon seeing the Lord was to cry out: “Woe is me, for I am undone.” (Isa 6:5). The same cry is heard in all the major revivals when the presence of the Lord exposes sin and carnality for what it really is.
This purging fire, to which all in Christ will be exposed, should not be seen as something taking place in an interim period after death before being received into the presence of the Lord, but rather the initial experience of being in His very presence. To be absent from the body, for the believer, is to be present with the Lord. At His Second Coming those who are alive and remain will not go to “purgatory.” They will be caught up into the air to meet the Lord (1Thess 4:15-17). It will be more painful for some than for others, as the consuming fire of His presence burns away the wood, hay and stubble in our lives, but it will occur in a moment’s time. It will not be a judgment in which justice is served, and sentence meted out. That was done for us in the person of Jesus Christ when He shed His blood for us on the cross. There is no penal condemnatory judgment awaiting those who are found to be in Christ on that day (Rom 8:1). Those who believe on Him do not enter into judgment, but have already passed from death into life (Jn 5:24).
In contrast to this, the historic traditional Roman Catholic dogma of purgatory, presents the elect as serving time in a place which is often depicted as including literal fiery torments. According to this doctrine, only the elect who are found to be in a state of grace at death, are admitted into purgatory. Those who have committed what they refer to as eternal sins or those who repeatedly committed mortal sins without confessing them to a priest will go directly to an eternal fiery hell without possibility of escape.
Pope Gregory (A.D. 590 – A.D. 604), declared that Catholics “will expiate their faults by purgatorial flames.” He also presented the flames as literal, saying: “The pain is more intolerable than anyone can suffer in this life.” Centuries later, in 1431 at the Council of Florence, purgatory was declared to be an infallible Church doctrine. The Church has made great profit selling indulgences under the promise that the offerings given for departed loved ones will alleviate their suffering and shorten their time in purgatory. These abuses are what led Martin Luther to nail his Ninety-five Thesis to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg in 1517, in protest. His posting of the Ninety-five Thesis is what is considered to have sparked the Protestant Reformation Movement. The declaration made by the Council of Florence concerning purgatory and indulgences for the dead was reaffirmed by the Church in the Council of Trent in 1564, which had convened in order to counter the Reformation.
Some may ask: “What difference does it really make whether or not one believes in purgatory?” Does the doctrine of purgatory as taught by the Roman Catholic Church go against the gospel of Jesus Christ? Sadly, it does. Catholic traditional doctrine has historically taught that venial sins and even “forgiven” mortal sins must be expiated in the flames of purgatory.  Pope Gregory the Great said that in purgatory the elect "will expiate their faults by purgatorial flames,"
By teaching that the saints must expiate their own sins in purgatory, they deny the all-sufficiency of Christ’s propitiatory sacrifice of Himself in our place. The wages of sin is death. That was God’s declared sentence from the very beginning in Eden. Life is in the blood and without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin (Heb 9:22). No amount of flames - no matter how intense, can pay God’s declared penalty which is death. No indulgences are of any avail. There is no hope of resuscitation for those who are already spiritually dead in Adam. We must come to Christ in order to receive His resurrection life – being born again into His new creation (Eph 2:4-9).
The only acceptable sacrifice, able to redeem us from the universal condemnation brought through Adam’s disobedience, is the shedding of the innocent blood of the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world. When John the Baptist - the forerunner of the Messiah, saw Jesus coming toward Him at the Jordan River to be baptized, he declared: “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).“He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” (1 John 2:2).
There is no other way to the Father except through Christ’s expiatory sacrifice for us. No amount of time in purgatory can make the still-born live again. We were born dead in our trespasses and sins, and no amount of works can change that. However, all those who died in Adam will be made alive in Christ, the Last Adam, but each in his own order (1Cor 15:22-23). Jesus said: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6). All of creation was reconciled to God in Christ (Col 1:15-20). However, the only way to experience the peace with God which was brought about by His reconciliation, is through the blood of His cross (v.20;Rom 5:1-2).
Jesus came to destroy all the works of the devil and free us from the last enemy, death, which held us in bondage of fear. If you do not have the full assurance that Christ’s blood cleanses you from all sin - if you live in the dreadful anticipation of purgatory or hell, then look to God. He will show you the cross where His Son Jesus Christ willingly shed His precious blood for the remission of all your sins so that you can live in joyful anticipation of being received into His presence, instead of living in bondage to the fear of death all the days of your life.
“Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.” (Hebrews 2:14-15)
“O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”(1 Corinthians 15:55-57)