What is Purgatory?
For many the idea of an intermediary state between this life and heaven almost seems to personally offend them as the God of love could not possibly have created anything in the afterlife for the just other than heaven. Unfortunately, such people fail to see that the existence of purgatory is not a belief in God's lack of ability to save us but is in fact another reality of a loving and merciful God that continues to find a way to save us due to the various ways that we lack the holiness required to be in His presence.
Purgatory comes from the Lain word "purgare," which means to make clean or to purify. As stated by the New Advent website: "It is a place or condition of temporal pubishment for those who, departing this life in God's grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions."
Notice the choice of words: place or condition. Part of knowing God and His will is to recognize that much of what we actually know about either is in fact a mystery, which is a word that the Church is not afraid to use in her own official documents because after all, how do finite beings understand an infinite God? However, the Church does teach that there is in fact a reality for those who do not merit the immediate privilege of heaven who are also not in a state of permanent condemnation.
What is this lack of perfection? 1 John 5:17 tells us that, "All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not deadly." This is certainly referring to those venial faults that were cited earlier that, while leaving us in an imperfect state do not keep us from the hope of the Resurrection.
Karl Keating tells us that: "In purgatory all remaining love of self is transformed into love of God. At death one's soul goes to heaven, if it is completely fit for heaven; to purgatory, if it is not quite fit for heaven, but not worthy of condemnation; or to hell, it it is completely unfit for heaven. Purgatory is a temporary state. Everyone who enters will get to heaven, and, after the last soul leaves purgatory for heaven, purgatory will cease to exist."
The reality is that there are those that are not in a perfect state, which should not surprise any of us since we live in a world tainted by original sin. Further, Catholics also believe that salvation, as stated by Keating, depends on the state of the soul at death. In other words, our salvation is not based on answering an altar call. Life itself is not about important moments that supposedly define us because we still have to live our lives after such moments and/or we are also experiencing other aspects of our lives that are unknown to those who witnessed one of what many call defining moments at a specific time and place that still do not tell our full story.
According to Alan Schreck, "Purgatory is a sign of God's mercy on those who have honestly sought to know God and to do His will in this life, and yet who die in some degree of bondage to sin or the effects of sin." This is of course an absolutely possibility, which is why Jesus said in Luke 12:59, "I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny." Such and idea would only be a threat to a person who dies in a state of mortal sin.
Why is this so? Why can't God just free us from our sins and allow us to be in His presence? Such a question is asked if we think that our salvation is all about us when we forget that we have a relationship with God. With that in mind, we must also think of the reality of God and why our sinful state, regardless of our level of corruption, does in fact, require a state of purification.
As stated by Schreck, we must be fully cleansed, "Because of God's holiness. Sin and God are diametrically opposed. God is so pure, so holy, that nothing impure or sinful can enter into His presence (see Revelation 21:27). Sin is burned away by God's holiness, by His anger against sin, and by His love of the repentant sinner, for our God is a consuming fire ( see Hebrews 12:29). Purgatory means that as a person is drawn nearer to God and finally drawn into the fully glory of His presence, the remaining sin in a person's life is just burned away by the consuming fire of God's hatred of sin and His love for the one bound to it. Sin is purged because it cannot exist in the presence of the all-holy God."
Such a reality is not something we have not seen before. As Schreck says, "The doctrine of purgatory is related to Isaiah's experience" (See Isaiah 6:1-3). After having a vision of God on his throne Isaiah states: Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts! Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it, 'See,' he said. 'now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin is purged.'
There is a reason why there are images with fire with purgatory is because, as Schreck says, "purgation is painful but also cleansing and purifying. This is not an unfamiliar idea; even in this life we experience pain when God breaks us from patterns of sin."
Forgiveness After Death?
Many Christians reject the idea that sins can be forgiven after death because they continue to attach themselves to what they see as that defining moment of salvation. What's most interesting about this teaching is when we become aware of a born again Christian who later in life commits a very serious sin. At that moment if the reality of their salvation is in fact challenged the response is usually that they were never really saved. How can this be if they did the same thing that the other saved people did by answering the preacher's altar call? Or, does this show that we in fact don't know a person's heart based only on what we see, which is why God is not only the judge of that person but also the source of their purification regardless of whether it happens in this life or the next one?
Instead of splitting hairs over this why don't we simply look at the bible to see if in fact a person can be forgiven of some sins after death.
In Matthew 12:31 Jesus says, "...whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit (the sin of attributing to Satan what is the work of the Spirit of God) will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come." To unfold this teaching a bit more, Dave Armstrong tells us that, "...it is clear that Jesus is presupposing that there are other sins that are forgiven after death." Further, Armstrong states that, if the forgiveness of sins after death was a categorical impossibility then, "He (Jesus) would have never mentioned even its theoretical potentiality. He simply wouldn't bring it up at all. He doesn't teach falsehood, being God and omniscient."
One final point is that in searching through many Protestant bibles it is fascinating to see that many of the editors have removed the portion that states in this age or in the age to come. Is this perhaps an alteration to the text to fit a theological agenda? It is one thing to base one's teaching on a different translation but to remove a portion of the text that is supposed to be the Word of God is most disturbing.
We can see now see that the claim that the Catholic Church's teaching on purgatory not being found in the bible is in fact false. While there is no direct statement about it from Jesus, the patriarchs or the prophets we must understand that doing theology is more than finding a statement from the bible, interpreting it our own way and then creating a theology around it. It is true that Jesus did not stand on Mount Sinai and say, "Blessed are those who believe that purgatory exists." However, it is a biblical fact that He did speak of the reality of some sins that are forgiven after death.
The belief of such was also very well known by many of the early Church Fathers, which is why many of them encouraged Christians to pray for the dead. This included individuals such as Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine (whose own mother asked for him to offer Masses for her after she passed away), Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom and Pope Gregory the Great. Meanwhile, Schreck tells us that 4th century Christian Gregory of Nyssa wrote that, "after the departure from the body (a soul that is not purified)...will not be able to participate in divinity, unless the cleansing fire will have purged away all stains of the soul." This is also why there was also a prayer by St. John of Chrysostom that Schreck tells us says, Let us pray also for the repose of the souls of the departed servants of God and for the forgiveness of their every transgression, deliberate and indeliberate." All of this seems to go with quite well with the canonical status given by the Roman Catholic Church to the Old Testament book of 2 Maccabees, which is not included in the Protestant canon. A key statement from this book says that we should, pray for the dead that they might be loosed from their sins (12:46).
As Schreck says, "Praying for the dead makes sense only if those prayers can benefit the dead." This could only make sense with the existence of purgatory because as Keating says, "Prayers are not needed by those in heaven, and they cannot help those in hell. That means some people must be in a third place, at least temporarily."
In conclusion, we can see first that the bible does in fact speak of sins that can be forgiven after death. We also see the practice of early Christians acting on behalf of those in a purgative state with their prayers. So, if we are looking for someone to best to guide us on the validity of this practice should we look to those who participated in what was obviously a regular practice during the early days of the Church, which was closer to the time period when Jesus spoke of this teaching? Or, do we look to those who came centuries later who were already participating in a practice to remove things from the their own faith expressions that they identified as too Roman Catholic? Either way, regardless of how one wants to interpret scripture they cannot say that the belief in praying for the dead as well as the belief in purgatory that goes with this practice is not without biblical reference.
Carlos Arthur Solorzano
- BA & MA in Religious Studies from Cal State Long Beach
- Certified through the Theology of the Body Institute
- Instructor of Theology at St. Augustine Catholic High School
- Co-founder of Humana Corpus Dignitate
- Keating, Karl. Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on Romanism by Bible Chrisitians. Ignatius Press San Francisco 1988
- Schreck, Alan. Catholic and Christian: An Exploration of Commonly Misunderstood Catholic Beliefs. Servant Book Ann Arbor, Michigan 1984
- Bokenkotter, Thomas. A Concise History of the Catholic Church Image Books Doubleday 2004