The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

Purgatory requires dualism


You can only believe in purgatory if you hold a substance dualist view of human beings.

Purgatory is a place that exists according Roman Catholic Theology, and a number of people who are not Roman Catholic believe in it, too. In Catholic theology, it is a place where you go after death if you are not yet ready for heaven, so that you can receive punishments for the venial sins (the less serious sins, as opposed to mortal sins) that have not yet been dealt with in this life. As Thomas Aquinas put it,

[I]f the debt of punishment is not paid in full after the stain of sin has been washed away by contrition, nor again are venial sins always removed when mortal sins are remitted, and if justice demands that sin be set in order by due punishment, it follows that one who after contrition for his fault and after being absolved, dies before making due satisfaction, is punished after this life. Wherefore those who deny Purgatory speak against the justice of God: for which reason such a statement is erroneous and contrary to faith.

Outside of this historical Catholic understanding of purgatory, others have suggested, not that people need to be punished, but rather that they simply need to be fully sanctified (made holy) before reaching their final state in heaven. Jerry Walls defends this view in his book Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation. In public conversations, Dr Walls has remarked that while no doubt the sinful human desire is to have total transformation all at once, the reality is that sanctification is a process that takes time, hence purgatory.

I do not believe in purgatory, but I will not here argue that purgatory does not exist. Instead, I will just make one observation: To believe in purgatory presupposes mind-body substance dualism.

I am taking it as given that Christians who believe in purgatory, as well as those who do not, regard the teaching of the New Testament as authoritative. When Christ returns and the dead are raised, according to St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, both those who were dead and the saints who are still alive will be transformed immediately.

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body…
I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality.

The transformation to glory, honour, power, imperishability etc that is envisioned here is said to happen “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” which I take to mean very quickly, more or less straight away. So a gradual process of transformation to glory seems out of the picture after the resurrection of the dead.

But this does not trouble traditional Catholic theology, since Purgatory is believed to be a place that exists now, and right now the souls of those who will eventually see glory are being purified. This is why Catholics are urged to pray for those in purgatory, and why masses have been said for them, so that their time in purgatory might be made shorter. Similarly, neo-purgatory (as I am wont to call Jerry Walls’ view) can accommodate a period to transformation as one approaches glory prior to the resurrection, when transformation to glory and power etc will occur “in a moment,” provided it locates such transformation in an intermediate state between death and resurrection, as does Roman Catholic theology.

What any such view presupposes, obviously, is that I can exist, I can think, I can be held responsible, I can be punished, I can undergo moral and spiritual improvement, etc, while my body is no more. That won’t come as a shock to people who believe in purgatory, because this is exactly what they believe about themselves. This view is mind-body substance dualism (since the “I,” the mind or soul, is a thing that can exist without any physical substance).

But anyone making a case for purgatory (and anyone considering that case) should consider this fact. In order to believe in purgatory without tension with your other beliefs, you must hold (or adopt, if you do not yet hold) mind-body substance dualism. To the extent that you have a reason to reject that view of human persons, you have a reason to not believe in purgatory.

Or so it currently seems to me.


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  1. The story about Lazarus and the rich man makes it very likely that Jesus was a dualist.

  2. Lotharson, although I think what you said isn’t true, this post is not about whether or not dualism is true. It’s the observation that purgatory requires dualism, so that if you doubt dualism, you should doubt purgatory.

  3. Kevin

    And really, if dualism is true, you would need something like purgatory.

    If the spirit lives on after death, and then returns to the body at the resurrection, why does the resurrection make the spirit sinless?

    • Perhaps the idea is that just as the person is made incorruptible physically at the resurrection in the twinkling of an eye, so too their soul is made free of all corruption at the resurrection. That should be allowable for a person who doesn’t think we need to be temporarily punished after death.

      Sure, that’s not mentioned in the Bible at all, but then I don’t think dualism is mentioned anyway.

  4. FM

    Actually it does not, it just requires hylomorphic dualism, which does not posit mind-body substance dualism.

    ” This view is mind-body substance dualism (since the “I,” the mind or soul, is a thing that can exist without any physical substance).”

    That is also not entirely correct. Hylomorphic dualism allows for the I to survive bodily death without being a separate substance.

  5. Cedric Piggin

    Hi Glen, interesting angle here. I think this is a weak argument against Purgatory.
    You seem to me to be saying, a) “If you believe in Purgatory, you have to believe in Substance Dualism. b) Substance Dualism is incompatible with Christianity, or otherwise invalid and discredited. Conclusion: Don’t believe in Purgatory.
    I agree with premise B, but I think Premise A is false, so the conclusion doesnt follow.
    There are a range of conceptual options in between the extremes of Substance Dualism and Materialistic Monism. Some of these options balance the unity of the soul and the body as a composite being, while allowing for the soul to operate in a limited way independently of the body. The Apostle’s Creed seems to assume this composite nature when it states that Christ descended to the dead. During these three days I think it is plausible to believe His human soul could say to Himself ” I exist, I can think, I can be held responsible, … etc, while my body is no more. ”
    And the upshot of the descent of Christ’s human soul to the dead is that it is an example of the mode of existence which the souls in purgatory could be in, (Jesus knowing and operating, but of course not having to “make due satisfaction” as Saint Thomas phrased it).
    Where do you stand on the soul/body philosophical spectrum, and how does your position account for the activity of Christ in Hades before the Resurrection?

    • “I think this is a weak argument against Purgatory.”

      Cedric, this isn’t an argument against purgatory. It’s an explanation of why Purgatory requires dualism. The claim that dualism is false is a further claim (although yes, you know that I hold it to be true).

      I don’t think anything other than substance dualism about human beings will sustain purgatory. I know that those who hold a Thomist / Aristotelian view disagree, but I agree here with the Maverick philosopher who argues that holding an Aristotelian view of the soul while affirming the soul’s survival of death is incoherent. I explain this further in a podcast episode on the subject:

      As for where I stand on dualism – I am a materialist about human beings. I also don’t believe Christ performed any activity in hades between death and resurrection. To go to hades, in biblical terms, is to be truly dead (as opposed to merely appearing to be dead).

  6. Cedric

    Hi Glenn, thanks for the reply. I will listen to the podcast to undertand your position further, but to clarify, why would Jesus go to Hades for no reason?

    There seems to be a raft of major issues reconciling Materialism and orthodoxy. Putting aside the continual teachings of the Church (i.e the universal understanding of the Apostles Creed), the Church Fathers, the Saints, for 2000 years, what about God breathing a spirit into Adam, ?Also, what about the appearance of Samuel to Saul? Surely this was his disembodied spirit?

    • Cedric, given my understanding of what Hades really is, “why would Jesus go to Hades for no reason?” amounts to “why would Jesus die for no reason?”

      That’s what the question means to me, because Hades is simply – and no more than – the state of the dead (or in some cases, the actual grave, in the ground). Jesus didn’t become dead for no reason.

      God breathes the breath of life into Adam, and Adam came to life. When he stops breathing, he dies. There’s no dualism there. I know there’s a list of “what about” passages, including the encounter with the witch and the message from Samuel.

      I started a series on this subject, which I must return to. Part 2 is here, where I deal with a few of the tiny number of proof texts for dualism. When I get time to do so, I’ll write part 3.

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