You will not find indulgences anywhere in the Bible. In fact, you will not find anything in the Bible that gives the idea that paying money to the church will help you gain salvation or free you from punishment in purgatory.
What the Bible Says About Indulgences
First of all, the Bible says absolutely nothing about a place called purgatory. The Bible says nothing about indulgences, either. In fact, the Bible shows over and over again that it is impossible to “pay” for our sins. (See Psalm 49:6-8; Matthew 20:28; 1 Peter 1:18, 19.) And the Bible actually attacks the idea that people could get something spiritual by paying money for it. (For an example, read the story of Simon the sorcerer in Acts 8:5-25.)
So, indulgences go against what the Bible teaches.
Why, then, were indulgences invented?
Money. That’s the simple answer. The church needed money.
A Need for Money, Money, and More Money!
Pope Leo X, who was pope at the time the Reformation started, needed a lot of money to keep up the lifestyle that he enjoyed. He lived in the papal palace which was richly decorated. He spent money on musicians and actors because he and his guests liked to be entertained. He hosted festivals and sporting events and these things all cost money. But Leo X did not spend all the church’s money on himself. He was known to be a generous pope and went about with a bag of cold coins which he threw to the crowds that flocked around him. He gave rich presents and rewards to people he liked.
An Unending Supply of Money
Leo’s cousin, Cardinal Pucci, told Pope Leo that he should sell indulgences so that he could pay for all the things he liked. Leo thought it was a good idea. In November of 1517 Leo needed 147 gold ducats to pay for a book on the history of the Roman wars. One ducat is now worth around $160 (Canadian) or about $118 (US).[i] The book the pope wanted would be worth more than $20 000 in today’s money. Maybe it was so expensive because it was an antique, written by Livy about the time of Jesus. In any case, the pope got the money for the book from the sale of indulgences.
Tetzel, the indulgence seller who upset Martin Luther, had been hired to raise money for Cardinal Albert of Mentz. Albert lived a rich life like the pope. His palace was the grandest and most marvellous in all of Germany. Albert needed money because he had a loan to pay back. He owed money to the pope for a cape the pope had blessed, which Albert had to buy from him when he was made an archbishop. Today, the cost of the cape could be more than $3 million. Albert struck an indulgence deal with the pope. The pope gave Albert permission to sell indulgences in his part of Germany, as long as he would share the profits with him and immediately pay for the cape. Albert paid the pope for the cape. Then he hired Tetzel to get the money back, plus what he owed in loans, by selling indulgences to the people.
[i] Based on information from http://www.britishmuseum.org/about_us/news_and_press/press_releases/2012/crowns_and_ducats.aspx.