Is Martin Luther in Purgatory?

Repeating the same theological debates that have already been hashed out many times in the past—only more intelligently and more eloquently—is bad enough on its own. On top of this, however, we frequently devote ourselves to overly speculative matters that touch little or not at all on everyday faith and practice.

One such matter is the ultimate fate of Martin Luther. Roman Catholics of a more fervent sort assure anyone who cares to listen that Luther is hellbound for his many and gross offenses against the Catholic Church and the Catholic faith. Protestants, meanwhile, insist that Luther—as one who both publicly taught and privately believed that true catholic faith which had suffered accretions and corruptions in centuries past—is surely destined for heaven.

In the spirit of ecumenism, I propose that Martin Luther’s spirit currently resides neither in Paradise, nor in Gehenna, but in Purgatory.

Luther and the Roman Church

Roman Catholics of the variety mentioned above will insist that a heretic and false teacher like Luther could never end up in heaven. After all, he was excommunicated by Pope Leo X, and his excommunication has to this day not been lifted. Yet the Church’s attitude toward Luther has softened considerably in the five hundred years since the Reformation, as evidenced by certain papal statements.

During a 2008 general audience in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Benedict XVI, remarking on Luther’s translation of Romans 3:28 as saying we are “justified by faith alone,” commented that “Luther’s phrase: ‘faith alone’ is true, if it is not opposed to faith and charity, in love.” On a flight back to Rome from Armenia in 2016, Pope Francis was asked whether the Church might “engage in some sort of rehabilitation” of Luther in honor of the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation. He replied,

I think that Martin Luther’s intentions were not mistaken; he was a reformer. Perhaps some of his methods were not right…. There was corruption and worldliness in the Church; there was attachment to money and power. That was the basis of his protest. He was also intelligent, and he went ahead, justifying his reasons for it.

Nowadays, Lutherans and Catholics, and all Protestants, are in agreement on the doctrine of justification: on this very important point he was not mistaken.

Now it would be inaccurate to say that the Reformation hinged only on the doctrine of justification. Even so, statements such as the ones quoted above raise the possibility that if concessions can be made to Luther on this point, perhaps it is not a stretch to think that the Church could extend him a comparable degree of leniency in other matters. Granted, Pope Francis declined to lift Luther’s excommunication in 2017, but it must be remembered that excommunication in itself “does not mean that the Church is condemning a person to hell.” It is, rather, “the most severe ecclesiastical penalty, which impedes the reception of the sacraments and the exercise of certain ecclesiastical acts.” When we take this into account, along with the above papal statements and the fact that purgatory is for those who are “still imperfectly purified,” it should not be inconceivable to Roman Catholics that one day Martin Luther will be among those celebrating in the Kingdom of God.

Revisiting Purgatory

So far I have only addressed Roman attitudes and prejudices. Protestants would surely lodge their own objections, not least that the doctrine of Purgatory is untrue. In the words of Article XXII, “The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory…is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

This clear language would seem to preclude any further discussion. When faced with such clarity, however, we can always count on that singular interpreter and unraveler of the Anglican Articles, John Henry Newman, to make a path through them. In Tract XC, regarding Article XXII, Newman points out that “the doctrine [of Purgatory] objected to is ‘the Romish doctrine.’” Therefore, he reasons, it should not be inferred from the Article that any and every doctrine of Purgatory should be rejected, for example, “the Calvinist doctrine containing purgatory,” or the “Primitive Doctrine” of the early church, or even the “Tridentine,” which was produced after this Article was drawn up and is therefore not necessarily what the “Romish Doctrine” of this Article refers to. We may pass over in silence, as Newman does, any general overview of the Scriptural or Patristic witness on the question—it is enough to demonstrate the logical possibility of a non-“Romish” doctrine of Purgatory.

Yet even if this possibility is granted, it must be asked: why would Luther be in Purgatory, rather than Paradise? The answer is that he showed a lamentable dearth of Christian charity in his later years, particularly in his response to such crises as the Peasants’ War. What else can be said of a man who likened those who earnestly sought freedom and economic prosperity to “mad dogs” that needed to be put down? By the same token, his characterization of Jews as “venomous, bitter worms,” among other epithets, can summon no answer.

We might also observe, taking a cue from our Roman Catholic friends, that Luther’s primary impetus for embarking on reform in the first place was his carnal lust, panting and straining against the restrictions of his monastic vows. Indeed, so incorrigible was he in this regard, that he was only able to wait six years after publishing the Ninety-five Theses before satisfying this lust in his marriage to Katharina von Bora. In light of such offenses, it should be no surprise to us if Luther is even now still undergoing purification.

Conclusion

I began this essay by saying that its subject—the ultimate fate of Martin Luther—is overly speculative and not relevant to one’s everyday Christian life. But if it addressing it here serves to quiet, even a little, that rancorous dissension and spirit of controversy which so infuses online Christian spaces, and if it conduces to any greater harmony and concord between Roman Catholics on the one hand and their Protestant brethren on the other, then I shall consider myself satisfied.


About


'Is Martin Luther in Purgatory?' have 3 comments

  1. April 1, 2022 @ 9:06 am Rev David Biedecker

    Happy April Fools’Day

    Reply

    • April 4, 2022 @ 7:08 am P.M. Summer

      “Ich bin ein Narr für Christus. Wessen Narr bist du?”

      — Dr, Marin Luther

      Reply

  2. March 1, 2024 @ 3:18 am Piers Cadell

    I’m a Catholic and I completely disagree with your uncharitable mischaracterisations, including a misunderstanding of purgatory. Perhaps you are suffering from deadly pride? After all, Jesus said “God alone is good”. The main mischaracterisation is that Catholics are uncharitable. Jesus himself taught about hell, and let’s just say that I think the Catholic Church has been infiltrated – see the Epistle of Jude on this, so I would suggest all the denominations are proving that belonging does not yet mean that we are finally saved, after all we do not lose our free will after what might be described as a conversion to Christ where, with St Paul, we no longer think as a child. I could only be fervent in love for Our Lord, not that Luther would burn in hell, what a horrible and divisive approach you take, perhaps because you are so negative about Catholics it stops you from recognising that you are perfectly capable of failing to do God’s will yourself? Purgatory is part of God’s CHARITY, that souls that are not yet ready for the perfection of Heaven are not lost, but go through purification. Catholics believe that it is far better to suffer in this life and go straight to Heaven, and this is always God’s preference for us, but it is only possible, as you know, by God’s grace, or it would be impossible. Christ is Our Saviour. Amen.

    Reply


Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

(c) 2024 North American Anglican