This week's question was posed by Dr. Sam of Mercer University. He asks, "Hebrews 11.35 seems to provide biblical evidence for the existence of purgatory. Is there such a place?"
Hebrews 11.35 in part reads, "Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection." In context the passage refers to the heros of the faith who are examples for the church.
The question here would be whether those refusing to be released were alive or dead at the time of their refusal. If the passage is speaking of those who embraced persecution in order to receive a "better resurrection," perhaps an allusion to some of the early church martyrs, then this passage does not refer to purgatory. Traditionally, this is how the verse is read. However, if their refusal occurred following death, then it could refer to a period of purification between death and judgement.
Traditionally, the ancient teaching of purgatory is deduced from a passage found in the apocrypha, 2 Maccabees 12.39-45. This passage tells of a battle in which a cadre of Jews wearing a symbol of idolatry were slain. When their comrades found them, they prayed God would not hold their idolatry against them and then made offerings on their behalf so they would "rise again" in the time of resurrection. The notion arose that since prayers and offerings on earth benefitted these who had died, there must be some opportunity to atone for unforgiven sins even after one had died.
This idea is further supported by 1 Corinthians 15.29. Here Paul writes of those who were being "baptized on behalf of the dead" so that these dead might "rise again." This suggests the actions of the living may somehow effect those who have died and entered the spiritual realm.
These passages speak of the dead as though they aren't judged immediately following death. Traditionally, the Protestant church has taught that those who die come before God, they are judged, and then sent to heaven or hell with some immediacy. This teaching has substantial biblical evidence, including Jesus' statement to a dying thief, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23.43) indicating that with death comes immediate reconciliation with God. However, both the Maccabean and 1st Corinthian passages offer evidence of a period between death and judgement when those on earth can somehow benefit the dead.
Earlier in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul refers to those who have died as being "asleep," which is a metaphor for death. He goes on to say the dead will, at a later date, be raised. Some could interprete this period of "sleep" to be a time during which the deeds of the living could benefit the dead.
According to the doctrine of purgatory, during this unspecified length of time the unforgiven sins of life would be purged before one can enter paradise. Too, during this time, actions on earth such as prayers, offerings, special masses, etc., could lessen the length of purgation for those who have died.
However, there is another valid interpretation of the sequence of this passage. (1) One dies; (2) One stays dead (sleeps) until the day of judgement; (3) One is judged and sent to heaven or hell. And although this doesn't harmonize well with the tradition of instant reward/punishment, it does fit the sequence of the Corinthians 15 passage.
So is there a purgatory? I suppose only God and those who have died before us know for sure. However, there are millions of Roman and Eastern Orthodox Catholics who believe so, and since the Bible isn't specific about what exactly goes on after death, there seems to be room for this understanding.