Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Purgatory 101

The Litany for Souls in Purgatory raised some questions via email and comments boxes about just what purgatory is and where it can be found in the Bible. I definitely am no theologian but will do my best to explain.

It is true that purgatory, like the Trinity, is a doctrine that is not mentioned by name is Scripture.

My extremely basic explanation:
  • In Heaven we must be perfect to be in the presence of God.
  • When we die we are not perfect. We still have our various imperfections that we are "working on."
  • To make us perfect, we must "finish up" our work. That is Purgatory. Purgatory is for sins that don't deserve absolute punishment.

Purgatory is sometimes described as being a place of great pain (in our souls because we see how far we are from perfection and therefore from God) but also a place of great joy (because we see that we will achieve our goal of Heaven).

Peter Kreeft offers a much more logical explanation:
Purgatory exists because God is both just and merciful.

Purgatory is "like a refiner's fire" (Mal 3:2). It refines and purifies those who at the moment of death are neither good enough for an immediate heaven nor bad enough for hell. "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (CCC 1030). "The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned" (CCC 1031)...

The existence of purgatory logically follows from two facts: our imperfection on earth and our perfection in heaven.
  1. At the moment of death, most of us are not completely sanctified (purified, made holy), even though we are justified, or saved by having been baptized into Christ's Body and having thereby received God's supernatural life into our souls, having accepted him by faith and not having rejected him by unrepented mortal sin.
  2. But in heaven, we will be perfectly sanctified, with no lingering bad habits or imperfections in our souls.
  3. Therefore, for most of us, there must be some additional change, some purification, between death and heaven. This is purgatory.
... Unlike heaven or hell, purgatory is only temporary. Purgatory takes away the temporal punishment still due for our sins after our Baptism, faith, and repentance have already saved us from the eternal punishment due to our sin, that is hell.

Catholic Christianity: A Complete Catechism of Catholic Beliefs
Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church
I like this down to earth analogy of purgatory.
Consider the following analogy about the experience of being a member of the human family. We go out and "play" in the neighborhood. In our adventures we fall down and "muddy" ourselves and have to return home for a good bath. After a thorough scrubbing, the beloved child is once again a sweet-smelling member of the family. If the muddy kid tried to slip on some clean clothes and come to supper without washing up his mother or father would quickly usher him off to get properly cleaned up. Sacramentally, we Catholics "wash as we go" in the blood of Christ.
Paul uses the analogy of "fire" in speaking about the purification to emphasize that it is God's fiery love burning away any remaining impurities in our souls.

However, God completes this process, it happens outside of time which is mind boggling enough in itself. When purification is completed the soul enters into God's presence. This process can be speeded along by the prayers of the living. It can be hard to understand how our prayers can help those in purgatory who have already lived their lives and made their decisions. Again, an analogy is helpful.
... Suppose you have a friend who goes to join the army and is in bootcamp. Now (theoretically) everyone who enters the army must be brought up to a certain level of physical excellence, which is the purpose of bootcamp. It doesn't matter where you start from, bootcamp's purpose is to bring you up to that level of physical excellence.

This is what purgatory does. Purgatory is the bootcamp of heaven. The purpose of purgatory is to bring you up the level of spiritual excellence needed to experience the full-force presence of God. It doesn't matter where you start from, there will be no sinning in heaven, and you have to be brought up to that level during final sanctification, before you are glorified with God in heaven.

Now when you have a friend in bootcamp, whether a physical bootcamp here on earth or the spiritual bootcamp in the afterlife, you can pray for him that bootcamp will go easier on him, that he will brought up to the level of excellence he needs in the most painless way possible. It may or may not shorten his time in bootcamp (in fact, in the U.S. Army bootcamp is of a fixed length), but you can still pray that it will go easier on him as he is brought to where he needs to be.
My favorite view of what Heaven might be like also helps wrap our minds around the concept of purgatory.
... First we review our past life with divine understanding and appreciation of our past life with divine understanding and appreciation of every single experience, good and evil: we milk all our meaning dry. Then we do the same to others' lives from within. We know them more intimately and completely than we could ever know our most intimate friend on earth because we share God's knowledge of each one. When these two preliminary lessons are complete - when we know, love, understand, and appreciate completely by inner experience everything we and everyone else have ever experienced - only then we are spiritually mature enough to begin the endless and endlessly fascinating task of exploring, learning, and loving the facets of infinity, the inexhaustible nature of God.

The idea is not new, for it corresponds to three traditional doctrines: Purgatory, the Communion of Saints, and the Beatific Vision. But each is given new life by being related to the others in this sequence. Purgatory turns out be part of Heaven rather than a distinct place, and consists of moral reeducation rather than mere punishment, rehabilitation rather than retribution. The communion of Saints is rescued from a vague, philanthropic goodwill and made as interesting as human love and communion on earth; getting to know people is in one way or another the only thing we find inexhaustible here as well as there. Finally, the contemplation of God is not boring because it is done with souls matured by the first two tasks. The difference this maturing makes is as great as the difference between a dying saint and a newborn baby...

These are some of the scriptural references used in the Catholic teachings on purgatory.

We must be spotless and pure in God's presence.
Rev 21:27
Matt 5:8

Christ promised there was punishment that exacted what was due but wasn't endless. (And Paul supported this teaching.)
Matt 5: 20-26
Matt 12:32
Matt 18:21-35
Matt 25:31-46
Luke 12:58-59
Heb 9:27
Psalm 99:8

This punishment isn't in Hell because you can't be saved through hellfire. Also, there's no punishment in Heaven.
1 Corinthians 3:10-16
2 Corinthians 5:9-11
Hebrews 12:6, 11

Those who are alive can pray for those who are dead (and vice versa).
1 John 5:16-17
Luke 16:19-31
2 Maccabees 12:38-46
Sirach 7:33

Again I am no theologian and hope that this doesn't raise more questions than it answers. I am happy to answer what I can in the comments boxes as long as we all adhere to the blog's rules about commenting.

Special thanks to my friend L for assistance with this.


  1. Thank you for this. It was well-put.

  2. thanks for this piece. It gives more than ample scriptural, logical and doctrinal information to anyone who is open to the truth. Honestly, no one is obliged to believe in Purgatory. But if we can make any sense from the fact that God's mysterious mercy sits will with his justice, then we have an opening to understand how He can be both at the same time, even in death.

  3. This was very helpful. Perhaps you already knew that Plato imagines purgatory in the Phaedo. And that C.S Lewis believed in a "washroom of heaven." But your explanation is very full. Thanks for this great post.