I will end the three-part series on the afterlife this week with the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, which offers us such a great gift of hope, provided it is properly understood. Purgatory is a teaching that is unique to the Catholic faith alone. The Catholic Church is sometimes accused of making the doctrine up in the Middle Ages in order to justify the buying and selling of indulgences, but there is no truth to that argument. You can read more about indulgences here. Some have also claimed that there is no scriptural basis for the doctrine of Purgatory. I hope to clear up some of the confusion, provide some support for the doctrine, and illustrate what a great gift it is. *Note: You may want to read this article with your Bible, as I cite too many Scripture verses to quote them all.*
The book of Revelation, which is a description of Heaven, says: “but nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who does abominable things or tells lies… (Rev 21:27). The stain of sin is absolutely incompatible with being in the presence of God. I don’t know about you, but my soul doesn’t feel very clean. Yes, Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins and yes, Jesus forgives our sins, most particularly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. However, after our sin is forgiven, in our human nature, we continue to sin, so we are not pure beings. The doctrine of Purgatory does not suggest that what Jesus did for us was not enough, it simply says that we must be made pure before we enter the kingdom. We are, without question, saved through Jesus Christ, but our sinful nature has made our souls impure, and we must cooperate with Jesus’ redemptive work.
Purgatory, coming from the Latin “purgare,” meaning, “to purge or cleanse,” is a place where souls are cleansed and purified from the stain of sin before entering the kingdom of heaven. Upon death, it is determined whether a soul will go to Heaven or Hell. Therefore, while the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us from our sin in order that we might live with Him in Heaven, we need to be responsible for the stain of sin left on our souls. Purgatory should not be thought of as a second chance to get it right, rather, as a place for cleansing the soul before it enters heaven. All souls in Purgatory have avoided condemnation and are inevitably destined for Heaven.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1030-1031) explains that people who die in “God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” will certainly go to Heaven. Since Heaven is a perfect place, our souls should, likewise, be made perfectly holy. Purgatory is not a place of punishment like hell, rather it is a place of purification by fire. The Bible contains countless references, both in the Old and New Testaments, to fire. There is a fire of destruction (e.g. – Genesis 19:24, Micah 1:7, 2 Peter 3:10) and there is fire of purification (e.g. – Isaiah 6:7, Isaiah 43:2, 1 Peter 1:7). In Psalms 66:12, David sings that he was led through fire and water into freedom. Since we won’t have complete freedom from the bondage of sin until we are in heaven, we must first be cleansed of those sins through the waters of Baptism and the fires of Purgatory. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus Himself discusses the two types of fire (Mark 9:43-50). We want to avoid the unquenchable fire – Hell – but we will all be “salted with fire” – Purgatory – which is good and restores flavor. St. Paul also speaks of our work’s quality being tested with fire and that we can be saved from destruction, but only by first getting through the fire (see 1 Corinthians 3:13-15). While this passage is often used to argue against the existence of Purgatory, saying that it only refers to our works as passing through this fire, Catholic teaching holds that our works are reflections of and attached to our faith and our very being. James 2:20-24 substantiates the connection between faith and works by using the example of Abraham’s faithful obedience in action as an expression of his faith in God.
Another objection is that other passages in the Bible refer to only two possible destinations after death – Heaven and Hell. For instance, Matthew 25:46, Luke 13:24, and John 3:16 are verses that describe condemnation and salvation as the only two options for a soul after death. However, Purgatory is not a final destination, but a cleansing pass through on our way to heaven, like a car wash for our souls. If a soul reaches Purgatory for purification, it will, in fact, go to Heaven as its final destination (CCC #1030).
While Jesus never said the word “purgatory” (He also never says Trinity or Bible), He did say some things that alluded to its existence. When Jesus is explaining the sin of blasphemy against the Spirit, He says it is the only sin which “…will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come,” (CCC #1031, Matthew 12:31-32). If this sin cannot be forgiven in the age to come, we are to understand that there are other sins that can be forgiven in the age to come. If Hell is a place where redemption is no longer a possibility, and Heaven is a place of perfect holiness, without sin and nothing left to forgive, then there must be another place where sins are forgiven in the age to come. In Luke 12:58-59, Jesus speaks about a judge throwing you into prison to settle a debt. You cannot be released from prison until every penny of your debt has been paid. Since you cannot be released from the prison of Hell, then the prison where you can pay your debts and from which you can be released to freedom (in Heaven) is Purgatory.
As members of the communion of saints, we are called to pray for one another and offer suffering and sacrifice for our redemption (see Luke 22:32, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, James 5:16, 1 Peter 5:10, 2 Timothy 3:12, Colossians 1:24). After death, the souls of Purgatory do not cease to be members of the communion of saints and, therefore, they rely on our prayers for their purification! They cannot pray for themselves, but only for others. In Purgatory, the soul is seeking to obtain perfection in all things, including love. Perfect love is not self-serving, rather it exists only to serve others. So, it only makes sense that to pray for oneself in Purgatory would be contrary to the selflessness required to achieve perfection.
As mentioned in the previous two articles, the Final Judgement changes things a little bit. When Jesus comes again, Purgatory will be eliminated and there will only be Heaven or Hell in our physical bodies. It is understood that the tribulations that occur during the end times will be enough to purify any souls destined for Heaven that are still alive at that time and will, therefore, not need any further purification to be worthy of seeing God face-to-face.
Purgatory provides us with hope because God, in His justice, does not simply cast us out of His presence for all of the messes we’ve made. Rather, in His mercy, He gives us an opportunity to cooperate with the redemptive work of Jesus, and together, with Him, we can clean up those messes. I will leave you with one final thought for the week. Please do not aim for Purgatory. Aim for Heaven. For one thing, you want to reach the highest degree of Heaven that you personally can attain. Secondly, if you aim for Purgatory, then you run the risk of missing it and potentially sending yourself to Hell by your laziness. A priest once told me, “I’d much rather suffer everything while I’m still alive than suffer one single day in Purgatory.” Do your purification now, by embracing your crosses and making this heroic call to holiness your goal.
For a more in depth analysis of Purgatory, click here.
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