First, let’s get a term out of the way. Purgatory is a concept invented by the Catholic Church, and absolutely does not exist as the Catholics define it. The destination of the soul is determined at the moment of death. Jesus Himself gave us insight into this, and we’ll cover that in a minute. But, the idea that one can have an after-death change of abode where their final destination is determined by actions or inactions of those still here alive on earth (i.e., “Prayers of the Saints”) has no basis in Scripture. In fact, Scripture says exactly the opposite!
With that in mind, there is a valid possibility presented herein, though again, Scripture does not speak precisely to this, but it does support this theory. With all these caveats in mind, here we go:
In Luke 16, Jesus tells the story of Lazarus1 and the rich man. Some believe this be a parable, others believe it to be a true account (I personally lean towards the true account theory, primarily because Jesus used an actual name – Lazarus – rather than “a poor man”. But as always, I reserve the right to be wrong). Either way, the facts are presented by the Son of God Himself. In the story the Rich Man was a sinner – accountable for his selfishness and disdain for those he considered below his “station”. Lazarus was considered so by the Rich Man, and suffered in this life, but he had placed his faith in God.
Lazarus’ soul was immediately carried to “Abraham’s Bosom” (more about that later), and the Rich Man – “In hell2, he lifted up his eyes”. Two men, two destinations – the lesson being that the righteous will receive mercy, and the unrighteous will not. What makes one righteous? We are not righteous on our own, but are made to be righteous by our faith in Christ, or in the case of those before Christ, their faith in God’s promise of delivery which was accomplished on the Cross by the Messiah He would send. On this side of the Cross, the righteous are those who have placed their faith in Christ and His atonement on the Cross. The unrighteous refuse to choose faith in Christ, and thus place their faith in everything but Christ.
In the Luke 16 account, Lazarus was carried to a place of peace and rest Jesus called “Abraham’s Bosom3”. Now, Jesus, during His discourse in John:14 at the Last Supper, told His disciples that “No man cometh unto the Father, but by Me”. So, before Christ rose, the door into God’s presence was not yet open.4 Likewise, before the Great White Throne judgment spoken of in Revelation 7 and 20, the final destination of the eternal torment was not yet opened. So, just where did souls go after death?
Before Jesus the likely possibility is that there was a place of abode separate from both eternal torment, and eternal peace. There are several names the Bible uses for this place, but per Jesus’ description, this abode actually consists of two places: Hell (hades), and Abraham’s Bosom. Additionally, per Jesus’ own description, there is a gulf between the two that permanently separates them. It is also likely that Abraham’s Bosom was also the place Jesus called “Paradise” in His promise to the Thief that had just professed trust in Christ.
So, here’s the picture I’ve drawn: The Rich Man died and went to the Hell side of this abode. As he looked across the gulf, he saw Lazarus in “Abraham’s Bosom” – Paradise! He was even able to talk across the gulf to Abraham, and Abraham answered him! So, assuming this picture holds, all those who have died and not placed their faith in God’s promised solution are in Hell – the “bad” side of this abode – and they’re still there today, already in torment, awaiting their final judgment and sentence. However, all those who had believed God when they died, went to this Paradise/Abraham’s Bosom.
Here’s the wrinkle, though. Because of what Christ has done on the cross, the door is now open to God’s presence5. In Ephesians 4:8, Paul tells the Church at Ephesus that Christ “Ascended up on high, He led captivity captive”, and in Verses 9-10, “Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same that ascended far above all heavens, that He might fill all things.”
Pulling all this together, then, before Christ, when those who had placed their faith in God died, their soul went directly to Abraham’s Bosom – the “good”, if you will, side of the temporary abode, or holding place. When Christ arose, He rescued these souls and carried them into the Father’s presence, so the “good side”, the place He called “Abraham’s Bosom”, is now empty! After Christ, a believer, at death, is carried directly into the Father’s presence because of what Christ did on the Cross. However, disbelievers, both before and after Christ, go to Hell (hades), the “bad side” of this abode awaiting the final resurrection and judgment, where they all will be sentenced to eternal destruction.
Of course, all this is depends on interpretation of what the Bible has said about other things. One thing is certain, though: The Bible has no discrepancies or inaccuracies. That’s what we do here on earth…..
1Not to be confused with the Lazarus Jesus raised from the dead.
2 The actual Greek word used here is the word “hades”, the unseen place of departed souls.
3 The term ‘Abraham’s bosom’ is only used in this passage in the Bible that has different meanings, depending on how it’s used. Here it’s the Greek word ‘kolpos’ which generally refers to the upper part of the chest of a garment that would fold to make a pocket. However, it could also be a ‘bay’, or a ‘creek’, possibly meaning a beach-like place (as in Acts 27). Either way, it was a pleasant place of peace and safety.
4 Remember, God cannot look upon sin. The price has to be paid. So until Christ atoned for our sins on the Cross, there was no way to be in God’s presence.
5 We know this because of two things: First, Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55, Romans 8:34), and second, when we die we are absent from the body and present with the Lord (II Corinthians 5:8)