What did Martin Luther say about Purgatory?

Martin Luther, the 16th century German priest and professor of theology who initiated the Protestant Reformation, was highly critical of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Luther rejected the existence of purgatory altogether and saw the doctrine as an example of the Catholic Church’s corruption and greed.

What is purgatory?

According to Catholic doctrine, purgatory is a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of sinners who die in a state of grace but have not fully paid the satisfaction due for their sins. After purification in purgatory, these souls are believed to go to heaven. The living can help reduce the punishments in purgatory for the dead by saying prayers, giving alms, and obtaining indulgences.

Belief in the existence of purgatory is linked to the Catholic practice of prayer for the dead. The Catholic Church teaches that there are two punishments for sin: eternal punishment and temporal punishment. Eternal punishment refers to eternal damnation in hell. Temporal punishment refers to the suffering a person endures because of sin in this life and in purgatory after death. Prayer and indulgences offered on behalf of the dead in purgatory can remit some or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.

Luther’s objections to purgatory

Martin Luther had several major objections to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory:

  • He believed it was an unbiblical doctrine not found in scripture.
  • He saw it as a fabrication of the medieval Church used to exploit people for money through the sale of indulgences.
  • He rejected the underlying idea of temporal punishments due to sin after absolution.
  • He challenged the concept of the Treasury of Merit used to support indulgences.

Let’s examine each of these objections in more detail:

Purgatory not found in scripture

Luther’s fundamental objection to purgatory was that he found no theological or biblical basis for its existence. He was unable to find any reference to purification after death or prayers for the dead in the canon of scripture accepted by Protestants. Luther argued that the doctrine was a late invention of the medieval Church rather than an authentic early Christian belief. As a Professor of Biblical Studies, Luther believed doctrines should be firmly rooted in the biblical text.

In his 1517 Disputation Against Scholastic Theology, Luther wrote:

As regarding purgatory, no place in Scripture makes mention thereof, hence even the ancient doctors of the Church, as Irenaeus, Cyprian, Lactantius, Hilary, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Gregory Nazianzen and others, when they speak of the abodes of the dead, make no mention of a purgatory, but only distinguish between hell (Gehenna), and paradise or heaven.

Since purgatory was not explicitly mentioned in the Bible, Luther considered it a false doctrine. He argued that the existing scriptural passages used to justify purgatory, such as prayers for the dead in 2 Maccabees, were not authoritative biblical canon.

Purgatory exploited people through indulgences

Luther saw the doctrine of purgatory as a lucrative source of income for the medieval Catholic Church. By teaching that living people could help lessen punishments for deceased loved ones in purgatory through purchased indulgences, the Church was able to profit financially.

The sale of indulgences related to purgatory aroused Luther’s ire. In his 95 Theses of 1517 that sparked the Reformation, Luther directly challenged the practice:

Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?

Luther objected to the Church potentially profiting from the sorrow of relatives hoping to shorten the suffering of loved ones in purgatory. He saw it as exploitation of people’s grief.

Rejected the concept of temporal punishments

The existence of purgatory is logically tied to the idea that sins incur not just eternal punishment, but temporary, temporal punishments that must be atoned for even after absolution. However, Luther argued that Christ’s passion and death on the cross was the full and complete atonement for the sins of humankind. In his view, God’s forgiveness removed all punishments, both eternal and temporary, so purgatory served no logical purpose.

As Luther wrote in his 1518 Explanation of the Ninety-Five Theses:

For the passion of Christ is the only satisfaction for our sins; it is sufficient, complete and perfect. It needs neither addition, augmentation nor complement. Those who say that punishment or satisfaction for sin is needed in purgatory blaspheme Christ’s passion, and detract from the power and sufficiency of Christ’s passion.

Once forgiven through Christ, sins were completely erased in Luther’s theology, eliminating any need for further purgation.

Rejected the Treasury of Merit

To justify indulgences lessening or eliminating temporal punishments for sins, medieval Catholicism promoted the notion of a Treasury of Merit. This referred to the infinite store of merit earned by Christ on the cross and the superabundant merit earned by the Virgin Mary and saints through their holy lives and good works.

The Church taught that it could draw from this treasury of surplus merit and transfer it through indulgences to the accounts of individual sinners to help remit temporal punishments. Luther wholly rejected this idea:

The true treasure of the Church is the gospel of the glory and grace of God.

He argued that Christ’s merit was His alone and could not be transferred between people. Indulgences distributing merit from the Treasury were therefore meaningless.

Luther’s statements on purgatory

In several of his major writings, Luther directly criticized and rejected the doctrine of purgatory. Here are some key examples:

The 95 Theses (1517)

In this famous document that launched the Reformation, Luther challenged indulgences and papal authority. Several theses criticized purgatory, including:

#27: There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.

#82: Why does not the pope empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?

Sermon on Indulgences and Grace (1518)

In this sermon, Luther stated:

The burning in purgatory is as fictitious as is the payment of money to get oneself or someone else out of it.

The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520)

In this treatise, Luther criticized indulgences and the papacy. He wrote:

Of purgatory there is no mention in Holy Scripture; it is a lie devised by the devil that the papists have received and nurtured.

Against Henry, King of England (1522)

In this work attacking King Henry VIII’s defense of Catholicism, Luther stated:

As for purgatory, no place in Scripture makes mention thereof, neither must we any longer believe in such lying tomfooleries and Pope-bulls.

Luther’s influence on purgatory

Luther’s denial of purgatory was very influential in the Protestant Reformation. His views helped spur the Council of Trent to formally define and clarify the Catholic doctrine of purgatory in response.

Here are some ways Luther impacted purgatory doctrine:

  • His rejection of purgatory became a core tenet of Protestant theology.
  • It led the Catholic Church to formally define purgatory at the Council of Trent.
  • Catholic teaching now presents purgatory more as a process than a place.
  • Emphasis on indulgences lessened within Catholicism due to Luther’s criticisms.
  • Purgatory remains a major theological difference between Protestants and Catholics today.


Martin Luther’s critique of purgatory catalyzed debate within Christianity over the afterlife. His objections stemmed from his theological convictions about the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, the lack of definitive scriptural basis, and abuses tied to indulgences. Though modern Catholic teaching has evolved, purgatory remains integral to Catholic doctrine while denied within Protestant theology. The doctrine continues to epitomize the theological divide between Protestants and Catholics that Luther’s protests helped trigger centuries ago.

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