Let me commend N. T. Wright’s brief little book For All the Saints. The occasion for his writing was the “mixed message” he believed the Anglican church to be sending by its observance of All Souls Day after All Saints Day. But along the way, Bishop Wright addresses the question of the intermediate state for departed believers and in so doing takes a critical look at (among other things) the doctrine of purgatory and the practice of invoking the saints. Here are a couple of important observations on these two topics:
On the doctrine of purgatory: “The arguments regularly advanced in support of some kind of purgatory, however modernized, do not come from the Bible. They come from the common perception that all of us up to the time of death are still sinful, and from the proper assumption that something needs to be done about this if we are (to put it crudely) to be at ease in the presence of the holy and sovereign God. The medieval doctrine of purgatory, as we saw, imagined that the ‘something’ that needed to be done could be divided into two aspects: punishment on the one hand, and purging or cleansing on the other. It is vital that we understand the biblical response to both of these.
I cannot stress sufficiently that if we raise the question of punishment for sin, this is something that has already been dealt with on the cross of Jesus. . . . The idea that Christians need to suffer punishment for their sins in a post-mortem purgatory, or anywhere else, reveals a straightforward failure to grasp the very heart of what was achieved on the cross. . . .
. . . for the New Testament, bodily death itself actually puts sin to an end. There may well be all kinds of sins still lingering on within us, infecting us and dragging us down. But part of the biblical understanding of death, bodily death, is that it finishes all that off at a single go. . . .
Think about one of Paul’s best-known chapters, often rightly read at funerals. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ,’ he writes (Romans 8.1). The last great paragraph of the chapter leaves no room to imagine any such thing as the doctrine of purgatory, in any of its forms. ‘Who shall lay any charge against us? . . . Who shall condemn us? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? . . . Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor the present nor the future, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!’ And if you think that Paul might have added ‘though of course you’ll probably have to go through purgatory first’, I think with great respect you ought to see, not a theologian, but a therapist.
in fact, Paul makes clear here and elsewhere that it’s the present life that is meant to function as a purgatory. The sufferings of the present time, not of some post-mortem state, are the valley we have to pass through in order to reach the glorious future. . . The myth of purgatory is an allegory, a projection, from the present on to the future. This is why purgatory appeals to the imagination. It is our story. It is where we are now. If we are Christians, if we believe in the risen Jesus as Lord, if we are baptized members of his body, then we are passing right now through the sufferings which form the gateway to life. Of course, this means that for millions of our theological and spiritual ancestors death will have brought a pleasant surprise. They had been gearing themselves up for a long struggle ahead, only to find it was already over.” (pp. 28-35)
On invocation of the saints: “The practice seems to me to undermine, or actually to deny by implication, something which is promised again and again in the New Testament: immediacy of access to God through Jesus Christ and in the Spirit. When we read some of the greatest passages in the New Testament — the Farewell Discourses in John 13-17, for instance, or the great central section (chapters 5-8) of Paul’s letter to the Romans — we find over and over the clear message that, because of Christ and the Spirit, every single Christian is welcome at any time to come before the Father. If, then, a royal welcome awaits you in the throne room itself, for whatever may be on your heart and mind, great or small, why bother hanging around the outer lobby trying to persuade someone there, however distinguished, to go in and ask on your behalf? ‘Through Christ we have access to the Father in the one Spirit’ (Ephesians 2.18). If Paul could say that to newly converted Gentiles, he can certainly say it to us today. To deny this, even by implication, is to call in question one of the central blessings and privileges of the gospel. The whole point of the letter to the Hebrews is that Jesus Christ himself is ‘our man at court’, ‘our man in heaven’. He, says Paul in Romans 8, is interceding for us; why should we need anyone else?
When we step off such firm biblical ground, no matter what later traditions may suggest, we are always taking a risk. Explicit invocation of saints may in fact be — I do not say always is, but may be — a step towards that semi-paganism of which the Reformers were rightly afraid.” (pp. 40-41)