When I was beginning the process of conversion to Catholicism, I picked up a book on Purgatory to better understand the concept. It was awful. The cover had flames burning everywhere which accurately summed up the tone of the text inside. The message was, you will burn in mini-hell for a long time and you are not going to like it. I have never been one to need things sugar coated, but this was a bit over the top. Until then, I had heard the soft peddled version of purgatory that is most often sheepishly presented in the presence of Protestant critics. This article is meant to give a balanced view that addresses concerns and objections . Unfortunately I couldn't resist featuring the scary image of the burning house seen above.
Premise 1: Some of us are going to heaven
Premise 2: Those in heaven will be perfect and sinless
Premise 3: None of us are perfect and sinless on earth
Conclusion: Something must happen between earthly death and heavenly life that makes us perfect and sinless so that we can be perfect in heaven.
From here there are two possibilities: either we make ourselves perfect, or God does that work for us. The Catholic Church takes the latter stance and believes that those destined for heaven, who are not yet perfect on earth, will be made perfect by God prior to entering heaven.
Does this take an instant? A thousand years? No one knows. We have some hints in Scripture, and some saints throughout the ages had visions that seem to line up with a long duration.
Purgatory rightly is pictured as a fire. However, this is not a fire of God’s anger burning against us. Instead, this is the fire of the Holy Spirit poured out to cleanse and purify us. If you have ever cooperated with the Holy Spirit in untwisting the wickedness of your soul, you are already familiar with the discomfort that becoming holy can bring. The more our souls are disordered and misshapen by evil desires, the more painful it will be to have them straightened out. This process we currently undergo on earth, also known as the process of sanctification, continues in purgatory.
Here is some good news and bad news. Tradition tells us that the souls in purgatory will be full of joy, because they are becoming holy by God’s direct action and are on their way to union with Him. The bad news is, before that journey we will face perfect justice for our sins and pay the temporal debts that we owe.
Imagine that a theft steals 1 million dollars from a bank. Prior to being arrested, the thief has a miraculous conversion to Christianity. The cops catch up and the thief tells them there is no need to bring him before a judge, because his judge is Jesus. Furthermore, it would be against his Christian faith to make him pay back the money to the bank, because Jesus’ finished work on the cross paid it all.
I imagine the cops would chuckle and say, “nice try bud, but you are paying back that money and going to jail”. Did the cops do the right thing? Yes. Although the thief was correct that Jesus paid the eternal debt for his sins, He did not pay the temporal earthly debt. He still owes the $1 million. Furthermore, if he truly is in relationship with God, his conscience will make him want to pay back what he owes.
Here is another scenario: a murderer kills his victim and gets off scot-free. He has a radical conversion and, while walking to the police station to turn himself in and rightly face the just punishment for his crime, he is struck by a falling anvil from the sky. At this point, he has died with a temporal debt of punishment still needing to be paid.
In Purgatory, we will be fully aware of the ways we wronged God and neighbor and will have the opportunity to pay back what we owe. This will cost us something, but we will be happy to do it because we will be fulfilling justice out of love. If you crashed your best friend’s new car, wouldn’t you want to pay to have it fixed? Similarly, if you have sinned, you have crashed your best friend Jesus’s created cosmos.
We are Christians, literally meaning “Little Christs”. Jesus, at the end of His life, fulfilled justice on our behalf through suffering and thereby entered into glory. We are meant to have the life, death, and resurrection of Christ played out in our own lives. This means that at the end of our lives, we will have a cross to bear. Even so, despite the pain of the cross, Christ was never more joyful than the moments where He was fulfilling justice by paying the eternal debt of sin with His act of infinite love. In this life, and in purgatory, we are called to do a tiny version of that.
We say in the Creed that Christ descended into Hell. Guess where purgatory is? You got it, it is located in the very outer reaches of Hell. In other words, we follow Jesus through His life, death, suffering, descent into hell, resurrection, and ascension….all the way to the Father.
Maybe you are wondering if you can skip purgatory. Yes, you can. The way to do so is to face the suffering and consequent purification early, here on earth. Here is the recipe: Avoid sin so that you have no temporal debts. Hold no debts against others, so that the debts you do have will not be demanded to be paid by your master. Do tangible acts of love for God and neighbor with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength. The Church suggests things like giving money to the poor or to the work of the church, praying the rosary, caring for the sick, and the like.
How many times, from a non-Christian, have you heard the puzzled question, “Wait a minute. Are you telling me that if Hitler had a death bed conversion, he would go straight to heaven?” That is a great question, because there is a real issue of justice. Purgatory is the answer to this question. Hitler in this scenario would want to pay for what he has done, he would want his still warped and sick soul to be healed and straightened. Hitler, if he had that conversion, would experience real and terrible pain in holy retribution for the evil he did on earth. If he or any other person gets to purgatory, this means that their eternal debt is paid but their temporal debt is not.
Where is this in Scripture?
25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
Court is the judgment at death. Your accuser is the person you have wronged through sin. Prison is purgatory. Paying the last penny is paying your temporal debt. Getting out means going to heaven.
Let’s enter these definitions and read one of my very dynamic “translations”:
“Settle the debts of your sins before you die and face judgment, or the debt you owe on earth will be seen by God, and God will send you to purgatory, where the Holy Spirit will not allow you to leave until your temporal debt is paid.”
Some people have proposed this prison is just regular hell. The issue with that is that no one leaves hell and Jesus indicates this person will leave when the last penny is paid. The prison is clearly not heaven, because unrighteousness is there. It’s also not earth, because it is a place we could go after the judgment. The place that is not any of those other places is called Purgatory.
Some object that the phrase, “Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny” actually means that we will never get out because as sinners we cannot pay the debt of our sins. Only Christ can. However, what is being addressed does not appear to be an eternal debt, since it can be satisfied on earth if we come to terms with the person we have wronged. Furthermore, it can be settled monetarily, and our eternal salvation obviously cannot.
The eternal debt we owe God is paid by Jesus; we all agree on that, but is this the debt that Jesus is talking about here? No, here is the context:
23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser….
So who is the accuser? Clearly in this passage it is not Satan as John Calvin believed; it is our brothers and sisters. Can we settle wrongs with our neighbors without the atonement of Jesus? Of course we can, we do so all the time. Imagine I borrow your hedge trimmers and use them with reckless abandon, breaking them beyond repair. You accuse me of destroying your property. What do you think Jesus would want me to do in this situation? Should I respond to your charge that Jesus paid it all, including the price of your hedge trimmers, or would Jesus tell me to go down to Lowe’s and buy you a new one- and apologize? If you chose the latter, welcome to the Catholic reading of this passage.
1 Corinthians 3:11-15
11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
Here we learn that after death and before heaven, those of us that built their life on the foundation of Jesus Christ will pass through a fire that will destroy the evil or worthless things and preserve the good. Purgatory is a place after death, before heaven, with fire, that destroys evil in us, prepares us for union with God, and causes us to suffer loss. This passage is describing purgatory.
Some say this is just describing the judgment. However, it does not include the division of the “Sheep and the Goats”, nor does it address those going to hell. This event only happens to those who built their lives on the foundation of Jesus, therefore it is unique to Christians.
Old Testament proofs:
The Old Testament has a number of often cited passages in defense of purgatory. However, there are some objections stating that the arrangement of the afterlife changed after Christ’s descent into Hell and subsequent resurrection. These are fair points in my opinion, even if I do not agree.
Additionally, some of the strongest passages are only found in Catholic Bibles, so Protestants would not accept these as evidence. Nevertheless, it seems that logic dictates that such a place exists, and the New Testament already furnishes ample evidence to ground such a belief biblically.
Christ as Bridegroom:
Prison and fire are not the only images of purgatory. In a Jewish wedding, the friend of the groom meets the potential bride to see if she is open to meeting the potential groom. John the Baptist did this for Christ, and Abraham’s servant was the friend of the groom for Issac. If the initial meeting goes well, the groom meets the bride and they decide to marry.
The groom then leaves to prepare a place for her on his father’s land. In the meanwhile, the groom leaves one of his female relatives, like a sister or a cousin, to stay with his future bride. This female relative tells her more about who the groom is and prepares her for the wedding (this is analogous to the Holy Spirit). When the father approves the structure the groom has built, he gives the go ahead for him to go and get his bride. The groom arrives at night with trumpet blasts- and is often described as a thief in the night. The friend of the bride, the groom’s female relative, kicks into high gear and begins to wash the bride with ritual baths called mikvens. She then clothes her in the wedding clothes, does her hair and makeup, and anoints her with perfume.
That cleansing and beautifying work is analogous to purgatory. You will be cleansed of the stains of your old life, made beautiful, and washed clean in preparation for union with God. The Holy Spirit kicks into high gear when “the roll is called up yonder”, and you ought to be exited, not fearful, of this event.
Questions and Objections:
Objection: Jesus paid it all. That means everything. Catholics don’t believe Jesus did it all and rely on themselves instead of Christ.
Answer: Paul writes in Colossians 1:24:
“24 I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. 25 I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. 27 To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.”
How do you reconcile what you quoted with what I quoted? For that matter, how do you reconcile earlier examples of the thief having to pay back what he owes, or the murderer having to turn himself in after his crime, with your view of what Christ has done?
Here is the Catholic view: Christ reproduces his life, death, and resurrection in us. That is His finished work, and it gets completed in Paul as he cooperates with God’s grace working through him. What was Christ's sacrifice lacking? Nothing, except its application in you! This is the mystery that Paul is describing: “of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory”. Is this our work and our energy? No, it is God’s love working through us, as Paul says, “For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.”
If Christ is alive in you and working in you, then you will live like Him, die like Him, atone for sin like Him, and be resurrected like Him. Verses about the finished work of Christ and His absolute payment of sin through His one sacrifice are 100% true. However, it is a mistake to imagine that Christ’s work is not supposed to be applied in your life. You are to participate in His work by the inspiration of Christ within you, to carry out His atonement in your own life.
This objection fails to understand the more than metaphorical reality of the body of Christ, and Christ’s active role in advancing His kingdom on earth through us by the power of His one sacrifice.
Objection: Purgatory is just a Catholic doctrine made up in the Middle Ages to extort people for money.
Answer: That is manifestly false. There are plenty of writings from the Early Church about purgatory. Here is just one from St. Augustine in his Handbook on Faith, Hope and Charity:
“That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible, and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire.”
Answer: At the time of Martin Luther, the Pope was also condemning the way that indulgences were being abused by German bishops. If you oppose the way that indulgences were used at that particular time and place, welcome to the club. This does nothing to disprove purgatory though.
Objection: The Bible says in 2 Corinthians 5:8, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”. Therefore, we go directly from this life to heaven when we die as Christians.
Answer: Here is what you incorrectly quoted. 2 Corinthians 5:8”