Purgatory and Ghosts

Randal Rauser, an associate professor of historical theology at Taylor Seminary in Canada, wrote a column on Tuesday for the Christian Post, called “Should Christians believe in ghosts?”  He began by showing that the  ancient Israelites believed in ghosts (Rauser points to the conjuring of Solomon in 1 Samuel 18), and that the Apostles believed in ghosts, quoting Mark 6:48-50,

He was about to pass by them, but when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought he was a ghost. They cried out, because they all saw him and were terrified.

And Luke 24:36-37,

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost.

Rauser then shows, by telling his readers that “Gregory the Great” (that is, Pope Gregory the Great) discussed a number of alleged ghostly apparitions in 585 A.D.

But the question, not of ghosts per se, but of ghosts roaming the world, is a bit troubling theologically.  Shouldn’t they be in Heaven or in Hell?  Professor Rauser’s response to this problem was fascinating to me:

Many Christians have understood ghosts, or at least some of them, as enduring a purgatorial existence. But this does not exclude other possibilities such as some “lost” ghosts who are engaged in malevolent mischief (e.g. poltergeist activity) or ghosts who are regenrated but engaged in particular missions on earth. Moreover, even the purgatory option is open to Protestants, so long as it is qualified appropriately (i.e. some views of purgatory are inconsistent with Protestantism but others are not).

I found two things fascinating here:

  1. That Rauser was willing to acknowledge the possibility of the existence of some form of Purgatory.  He leaves the question at this, without explaining which forms of Purgatory are compatible and which are not.
  2. Conversely, the notion that some views of Purgatory are “inconsistent with Protestantism” is something of an odd claim, these days. Is there anything under the sun that isn’t consistent with some form of Protestantism?  And who’s in charge of Protestantism, to decide which things are authentic manifestations or reforms of the Protestant tradition, and which things are deviations?
Fortunately, I wasn’t the only person with raised eyebrows at this admission. One of the commenters wrote, “Dr. Rauser, could you explain the purgatorial possibilities open to Protestants? I’ve never heard of this. It would certainly be fascinating in its interpretive potential as it applies to the paranormal.”  And yesterday, he responded.  In relevant part, he explained:
Purgatory, boiled down to essentials, is constituted by the following claim:

(1) the process of sanctification in the regenerate continues posthumously.

That’s it. All you need for purgatory is (1). You can always add additional claims like “this posthumous process of sanctification expiates the guilt of sin” but a claim like that is not essential to the doctrine of purgatory.

There is no inconsistency between the core claims of Protestantism and (1). Therefore, it follows that Protestants can accept a doctrine of purgatory.

Just to hammer this point home, let’s assume that a Protestant has absolutely impeccable credentials because she holds to the following very traditional, mainstream Protestant claims:

(2) Penal substitution: Christ suffered in the place of the elect, taking the punishment that was owing to them.

(3) Double imputation: at the moment of regeneration/conversion the guilt of the elect person is imputed to Christ and his righteousness is imputed to the elect.

(4) Justification: at the moment of double imputation the elect person is justified.

There is simply no conflict, or even discernable tension, between (2)-(4) and (1). Thus, a Protestant who has reason to believe that the process of sanctification continues posthumously should have no problem accepting (1) whilst retaining.

Given that Catholics don’t think that Purgatory is something apart from the work of Christ, I’m at a bit of a loss for how “some views of purgatory are inconsistent” at all. The real difference appears to be, not with Purgatory, but with how Protestants and Catholics understand justification and sanctification.

Within Catholicism, God doesn’t simply declare us righteous, He makes us righteous, though the Holy Spirit.  Anything less would be akin to God lying.  In contrast, Lutheranism claimed that God merely declares us righteous, while we remained depraved sinners – Luther compared it to snow covering a dunghill.  Another analogy would be a white shirt stained red with sin.  Luther’s view of justification would just have God putting a white shirt over the stained shirt,* and pretending the stained shirt didn’t exist; Catholicism views God as actually washing away all the filth.

This renders sanctification nearly meaningless in Lutheran theology. It’s simply not necessary for salvation at all.  Instead, sanctification is simply the result of being saved, just as within Calvinism, both justification and sanctification are results of being saved.  So sanctification is helpful for convincing yourself you’re saved, but it doesn’t do anything.  If that’s all sanctification is, there’s no reason for Purgatory.

The reason that Purgatory doesn’t fit well within a Protestant schema isn’t that it adds something to the work of Christ. It’s that if God cares enough about our sanctification to continue to work on us until we’re actually cleansed, then it must be more important than mere evidence of our justification, and it seems to be necessary to enter Heaven (Rev. 21:27).  If all that’s true, forensic-only justification, the most important doctrine of the Reformation, is almost certainly wrong.

Having said all of this, I’m actually not saying that Rauser is necessarily right about ghosts, or about ghosts being in Purgatory (my own inclinations match Jimmy Akin’s), but only that if he is, then it seems to me that he’s showing why the Lutheran understandings of justification and sanctification are wrong, or at least incomplete.  If Rauser gives serious examination to the problem of Purgatory, it seems almost certain that he’ll find himself confronting the Catholic question soon enough.  I’m pleased to see him going down that road, and pleasantly surprised that the Christian Post is permitting him to do so.

*While I disagree with Luther on justification, this was more or less my approach to my wardrobe for many years.


  1. But what happened to the topic at hand as it applies to ghosts? I have often wondered about this because, much to my dismay, I believe in the existence of ghosts as I have experienced them first hand. My concerns are that:
    a) They can’t be the saved because no one would leave the beatific vision to go do anything else, as nothing is better than that,
    b) I don’t believe they are souls in purgatory because they would be solely focused on their grief and making reparations,
    c) you know what c) is. And that’s what makes ghosts scary.

    It may be a difficult topic to treat seriously, but once you’ve experienced it, there’s no way not to.

  2. Carlos,

    It’s a good question. “Ghost” is just the German word for “spirit,” so the real question is, why might some spirits be active in the world?

    (1) Of the souls in Heaven come the authentic saintly apparitions.

    (2) From purgatory, Jimmy Akin says, “there are even reports in Catholic history that spirits in purgatory have–by God’s will–occasionally manifested themselves to those on earth. In these cases, those on earth may see the spirits experiencing their purgation in some way.”

    (3) Of the rest, I shudder to think. They seem unavoidably… diabolical. Whether it’s some part of their torments on Earth, or whether they’re perhaps not the souls of the departed at all (but something yet worse) is a question I can’t answer.


  3. Something just seems so odd to me.

    If we are made new, cleansed, and “put on Christ” (Galatians 4), and this is accomolished by Christ Jesus for us at the cross and in our Baptisms (also Galatians 4), then what more needs to be done AFTER we die???

    It seems a very strange, and contrary to Scripture, notion.

  4. Steve,

    Are you basing your opposition off of the understanding that once we’re Baptized, we don’t sin? Or that Baptism cleanses us from future sin, or something of the sort?

  5. Joe,

    Yes. We Lutherans believe that the sinful self is put to death in Baptism.

    In this external act of God, He puts us to death (Romans 6) and then raises us to new life in Christ (Romans 6)…and this is NOT just a one time event…but that Baptism carries us through our lives and is something that we return to (daily) as Luther said, so that we could have the assurance of our salvation.

    Also, in Romans 6, St. Paul tells us that we are to CONSIDER ourselves “dead to sin”.

    Not that we don’t sin anymore (Romans 7 makes that clear, along with our own lives), but that the promise made to us in Baptism is God’s promise and it is always good and valid.

  6. Steve,

    I’m not 100% sure I’m understanding the distinctions you’re drawing, but perhaps you’d be the person to respond to this.  My view is that the scheme of sin you’ve just described runs headlong into some serious Scriptural problems, but maybe you’ll see things a different way.

    In Christ,


  7. I have no experience of ghosts but I find the question to be interesting.

    I fell off of my chair some years ago when I was listening to an EWTN show featuring Colin Donovan, their “Chief Theologian.” I don’t recall the exact nature of the question but Donovan responded saying that the possibility of ghosts does exist and is not incompatible with Catholic teaching.

    For some reasons unknown to us, God might choose to allow some individuals to roam the world after death as spirits to resolve an issue in their lives.

    You don’t get too much higher an authority in the Church than Colin Donovan.

  8. Some ghost tales are clearly purgatorial.

    A couple’s small girl walked after her death, and when they watched her intently, they realized she was going to a plank in the floor and trying to pull it up. When they looked there, they found a coin her mother had given her to give to a beggar. When they gave it to a beggar, she no longer walked.

    A farmer who had moved a boundary stone walked after his death, a grisly sight, carrying the stone and asking where he should put it. Everyone ran away in terror until he met a shepherd too stupid to be afraid, who told him to put it back where he found it. The next morning, the boundary stone had shifted back to its proper place and the ghost never walked again.

  9. Joe,

    We pray the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday and fervantly believe it (Him).

    I did read the post (the link you provided) and could not disagree more with your theology on the matter.

    Those of us with children know that when our children are disobedient, and unforgiving, we still love and forgive them. They are still our kids.

    God is the same way with His children. He doesn’t forgive us BECAUSE we forgive others. He forgives us because He loves us. There are NO conditions attached to that love and forgiveness based on WHAT WE DO. Then it wouldn’t be grace.

  10. It seems to me that Matthew 6:14-15 could not be clearer that it is a condition on God’s forgiveness.

    I understand that these Scriptures contradict your theology, but why should I take Luther’s claims about God’s forgiveness over Jesus’ own?

  11. You had better make sure that you have really forgiven everyone, then, and that your motives were truly sincere and not motivated by the self.

    Jesus’ own words. “You must be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

    “Whoever does not divest themselves of all that they own cannot be my disciple.”

    How are you doing with those, Joe?

  12. Joe,

    We don’t ignore them, but they are law sayingss (not gospel) meant to expose our sinfulness and drive us to Himself.

    He knows what we are made of. He knows that we are unwilling to live the life He led.

    But He loves and forgives us.

    That’s the gospel.

  13. Old Adam,

    First off, I was a bit short in my last response, so sorry about that. I do think you’re violating the very “putting theology over the teachings of Jesus” trap you accuse everyone else of, but there were more charitable ways of raising that.

    As to Law and Gospel, assume that the Lutheran dichotomy is right.  (Leave to one side that virtually all non-Lutherans reject this precise approach, both now and throughout history).  If true, it would explain the two examples you raised, but would it address Matthew 6:14-15?  

    If that passage is Law, we would be in the position of saying that (1) Jesus taught that God’s forgiveness comes through Law, and that (2) we pray to be judged under the Law every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer.  Obviously, that can’t be right.

    Instead, Mt. 6:14-15 is the very definition of “Gospel” within the Lutheran schema.  It’s even your own definition: “But He loves and forgives us.  That’s the gospel.”

    Jesus presents His forgiveness as unmerited, but not unconditional, a distinction made clear in Mt. 18:23-35.  If you reject this teaching of Christ’s as not true Gospel, wouldn’t that justify rejecting the Lord’s Prayer as well?

    In Christ,


  14. Joe, No need for apologies, at all. I know you have a lot going on.

    (BTW, how dod your radio interview go?)

    Yeah, I do realize that we are pretty much alone on the Law/Gospel paradigm. (one of the reasons that I think we are right! :D)

    I would classify Matt 18 23-35 as law. All the way.

    But then we look at other gospel texts, such as the parable of the workers in the field. And also in John they asked him, “What is it to do the works of the Father?” And Jesus replied, “…believe in the one whom the Father has sent.”

    And there are a lot more as well.

    Enjoying the discussion, very much, Joe.

    Thanks again, my friend. Gonna hit the hay.

  15. oldadam,

    I dont, on principle, reject what your saying because I think in all practical purposes we agree and are just using different terminology. However, the belief from Matthew 18 you mention here is an act of our free will (co-operation in the Catholic theology that I previously quoted to you from the Catechism which includes that even that “co-operation” is a result of God’s work and not our own) that was given to us by God. Indeed, it is this “work” which we must do, even if we may be unaware of that work ourselves (this explains why Catholic doctrine leaves the door open even for those who may not be Baptised, because surely that is for God to decide not us). If we are not required to accept God by turning to him ourselves but God saves us anyway then there is no such thing as free will in any sense. This is a basic tenant of Christian faith, if you don’t have to turn to God why should I even be baptised? Why does Christ call us to participate in these things? If what you are proclaiming is true, I should just live according to my interests and he’ll just choose to save me anyway…

    and i know you don’t agree with me, so please point out where we actually disagree….not based on Luther’s semantics, definitions, and misunderstandings of Catholic teaching, because then you’d be relying on something not Christ centered…

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