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The Burning Truth About Purgatory
Thousands of Catholics leave the Church every year. Their faith is questioned and their religious education doesn't rise to the challenge. Of all the misunderstood Catholic teachings — and there are a few of them — purgatory is often seen as the most embarrassing.
The typical conversation goes something like this:
Non-Catholic: “So you’re a Roman Catholic?”
Roman Catholic: “That’s right. I’m even a Notre Dame fan.”
NC: “Do you believe everything the Church teaches?”
RC: “Well, yeah, I guess so.”
NC: “Even purgatory?”
RC: “I think so.”
NC: “Well, let me get this straight. You believe in an all-loving God, don’t you?”
NC: “Do you believe that this God sent His only begotten Son to die for you?”
NC: “So let me get this straight: You believe in an all-loving God, who loved you so much that He sent His only begotten Son to die for you, just so you can go to heaven when you die. Yet, this loving God first sticks you in a ‘cosmic oven’ and bakes you for a couple hundred years or so until you’re done?”
RC: “Well, I’ve never really thought about it that way.”
NC: “Where in the Bible does it say ‘purgatory’?”
About this time, our Catholic friend is looking for someplace to hide! He seems to have three equally unsatisfactory options. Option number one is blind faith: “I don’t know why I believe it, but I’m going to keep right on believing it anyway. After all, I’m Catholic, so don’t confuse me with the facts!”
Option two is an over-confident triumphalism: “Silly Fundamentalist! Where in the Bible really!”
The third option is to run for the hills.
Each of these options fails to take the situation seriously. Blind faith ignores the importance of an answer. Triumphalism ignores the importance of the question. And running away fails to see the importance of reality.
There is, however, another way: the way of constructive apologetics, which takes the question and the answer very seriously, and prayerfully begins to search the sacred texts and the storehouses of apostolic Tradition to find the truth about these important issues.
The case against purgatory seems to be based on three major objections. First, the teaching of purgatory seems to contradict the finished work of Christ and offend the basic understanding of God as a loving, all-caring, all-merciful God who has forgiven our sins in Christ Jesus. Second, purgatory seems to offer a “second chance” for those who did not follow Christ in this life. Third, purgatory does not appear to be a biblical teaching. Before examining the truth about purgatory, let’s take a look at these objections and see why they should be taken seriously.
Scripture stresses the truth of God’s love, and Evangelical Protestants have frequently had a powerful experience of Christ’s forgiveness. St. John explains: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the expiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10). Jesus Christ Himself stresses mercy over judgment, stating,
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5:24).
Scripture teaches us about a God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). The Christian believer is called to accept the mercy of God as all-powerful, capable of overcoming all sin, and yet the Catholic who holds the teaching of purgatory seems to belittle God’s forgiveness. From this perspective, God appears almost schizophrenic, wanting to forgive our sins and yet meticulously hold us accountable for them, at one time cleansing us from all unrighteousness (cf. 1 Jn. 1:9) and then later deciding to “fry us” for displeasing Him. Have we “passed out of judgment” (cf. Jn. 5:24) or haven’t we? Has Christ forgiven our sins, or hasn’t He?
The second objection against purgatory is that it is a manufactured second chance. If you don’t really want to follow Christ, you can still get to heaven through the “backdoor.” Yet Scripture is clear that spiritual mediocrity is unacceptable (cf. Rev. 3:15-16). Jesus calls for complete commitment. He is either Lord of all, or He isn’t Lord at all. There is no second chance; we are either for Christ or against Him (cf. Lk. 11:23). The doctrine of purgatory seems to be an “end run.” But Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn. 14:6).
The third argument against the doctrine of purgatory flows from a main dogma of Protestant theology, sola scriptura (“the Bible alone”). After all, where in the Bible do we find purgatory? A quick word check in any concordance will demonstrate that the word is nowhere to be found in Scripture. There’s no discussion of some third place between heaven and hell. Surely something as important as purgatory would be clearly taught in the pages of Scripture!
Purgatory also appears to be “guilty by association”: The doctrine is caught up in the “Catholic collection” of the intercession of the saints, indulgences, the sacrifice of the Mass, and other items that are perceived as “unbiblical” and the fruit of mere human tradition. As Christ warns, “[F]or the sake of your tradition, you have made void the word of God” (Mt. 15:6).
These views are held by very sincere Christians, men and women with whom we are united in Baptism. Catholics have an obligation to take these issues seriously.
When I began to investigate the teaching of purgatory, I knew that it wasn’t enough to simply ask, “Where in the Bible is purgatory?” As a Christian, the two most fundamental truths that I held were the Trinity — three Persons in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and the Incarnation, that the eternal Son, at a point in history, took on human nature and became man like us in all things but sin. And yet the words “Trinity” and “Incarnation” were nowhere in Scripture. That is to say, the words weren’t, but the teachings were.
I now needed to go to the Bible and examine whether the teaching of purgatory — whether the word was there or not — was to be found in the teachings of Christ and the apostles. I began to search the Gospels to see if Jesus gave any teachings concerning judgment or purification at the end of our earthly life. I began to see that several of Our Lord’s teachings, far from disproving purgatory, seemed to point to the possibility that there might be some debt of justice that would be paid after our earthly life.
As Christ teaches about the importance of forgiveness, He gives the example of a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. He brought in a man who owed a great deal of money and forgave him the debt. The forgiven man in turn went out and met one of his fellow slaves, who owed him but a fraction of the amount, and demanded repayment. The just king summoned his slave back and said,
“You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt (Mt. 18:32-34).
What was Jesus talking about? Scripture clearly teaches, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). And yet Our Lord Himself gives the example of a man who had been forgiven, afterward acted unjustly, and finally was handed over to repay all that he owed.
Again in St. Luke’s Gospel, Our Lord challenges His followers to make peace with one another, so that they will not be handed over to the magistrate who would throw them into prison: “I tell you, you will never get out till you have paid the very last copper” (Lk. 12:59; cf. Mt. 5:26). Christ calls the believer, who has passed out of condemnation — the sentence of hell — to live a life of justice which will be exacted to the last cent. If this is not the case, then the teachings of Jesus make no sense. The Catholic teaching about purgatory is that if, at the end of a Christian’s earthly life, this debt of justice was not satisfied, he shall be purified in purgatory before entering heaven. The teachings of Christ did not seem to contradict this. But lack of contradiction is still a long way from proof.
In St. Matthew’s Gospel there is a tremendous confrontation between Christ and the Pharisees, in which they accuse Him of exercising authority over demons by the power of Beelzebul, the “prince of demons” (Mt. 12:24). Jesus then warns them of the sin against the Holy Spirit and states,
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Mt. 12:31-32).
If this sin cannot be forgiven either in this age or in the age to come, some sins might be able to be forgiven in the age to come. Without using the word “purgatory,” Jesus is presenting teachings that seemed in harmony with the Catholic teaching on purgatory and were a bit difficult to interpret from an Evangelical perspective. While I was far from ready to accept that Jesus was referring to purgatory, I was finding myself hard-pressed to come to any other conclusion. This “forgiveness of sins” and “the age to come,” the reference to a prison in which we would not be released until we had “paid the last cent” — this is certainly not heaven or hell. We never get out of hell, and heaven is no prison.
I came across a passage in the New Testament that I found very surprising. While addressing the very issue of sin within the Christian community — those who were believers and had accepted the Lordship of Jesus Christ into their lives — St. Paul writes:
For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor. 3:11-15).
The passage is quite clear: Gold and silver, when placed into a furnace, would be purified; wood and hay would be burned away. As this is done, Scripture says we will suffer loss, but be saved “as through fire.” The image of purgatory was becoming more vivid as I read. What else could St. Paul be referring to? He can’t be referring to hell, because it’s clear that the people who undergo this “purifying fire” will be saved, while those who are in hell are lost forever. And yet he can’t be referring to heaven, because he mentions the suffering of loss, while in heaven every tear will be wiped away (cf. Rev. 21:4).
Scripture teaches that God is a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). The point St. Paul seems to make is that, as God draws us to Himself after death, there is a process of purification in the fire of God’s holy presence. God Himself purifies us of those imperfect deeds: the wood, hay, and stubble. And those works that are performed in faithfulness and obedience to Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, those of gold and silver, are purified. This purification is necessary because, as Scripture teaches of heaven — the new Jerusalem — and the temple within it, “Nothing unclean shall enter it” (Rev. 21:27). The biblical images of the purifying fire, through which the believer is saved while suffering loss, were now beginning to sound more and more like purgatory.
But where is the word “purgatory?” I began to see that this question revealed an ignorance on my part. The Scriptures were written in Hebrew and Greek. “Purgatory” comes from the Latin word purgatorium. In Scripture, we do find references to an afterlife that is neither the hell of the damned nor heaven. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word sheol is used to describe this condition; in the New Testament, the Greek term is hades. I had always thought that hades was hell, but Scripture teaches very clearly that hades is not hell; it is distinct from gehenna, or the lake of fire which is the hell of the damned. In fact, the Book of Revelation describes how, at the end of time, death and hades are thrown into hell (gehenna). This is the second death, the lake of fire. Scripture teaches that at the end of time, there is no more death; and once the purification of all souls has taken place, there is no more need for hades. This same concept of sheol (in Hebrew), hades (in Greek), and purgatorium (in Latin) is purgatory as we have come to know it today (cf. Catechism, nos. 1030-32).
The major objection to purgatory is that somehow it undermines the finished work of Christ. Is Christ’s death sufficient? Of course it is! It is sufficient to win our redemption and to allow the Holy Spirit to sanctify us. The work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, however, is the work of purification and sanctification. It is the application of the divine life won by Christ. Purgatory in no way should be viewed as a “second chance,” by which those who did not believe in and follow Christ can somehow “suffer their way into heaven,” despite their rejection of the Christian life. Jesus is clear that those who refuse to follow Him are guilty: “[H]e who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (Jn. 3:18). Spiritual purification is possible only for those who have been reconciled to God in this life (cf. 2 Cor. 5:18-20).
The concept of purification after death dates back to the Jews of pre-Christian times. Evidence of this can be seen in the Second Book of Maccabees. Catholics will quickly cite this as scriptural evidence for the reality of purgatory, but we must remember that Protestants do not accept 2 Maccabees as scriptural. Nevertheless, objective readers will have to note that, even if the seven books of the Old Testament accepted by Catholics and rejected by Protestants are not biblical, they are godly writings and worthy of our consideration. In 2 Maccabees, following a battle, the faithful Jews found out that their fallen comrades each carried with them sacred tokens of idols, which the law forbade the Jews to wear:
[T]hey turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering (2 Mac. 12:42-43).
The sacred text notes that this was an honorable deed, and the passage closes with the statement, “Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Mac. 12:45).
What is striking about this passage is not what it asserts, but what it takes for granted. This episode is not told in an apologetic style, as if to prove that prayer for the dead was a pious act, but rather assumes it. Moreover, once the Catholic Church is accepted as the Church that Christ founded, and thus as the Church that defines the canon of Scripture, the teaching in Maccabees takes on greater weight as inspired Scripture (cf. 2 Tim. 3:16).
What is clear and undeniable is the solidarity the early Christians felt with the deceased. Many ancient Christian monuments call out for prayer. For example, the epitaph of a bishop named Abercius, composed toward the end of the second century, provides: “Standing by, I, Abercius, ordered this to be inscribed; truly, I was in my seventy-second year. May everyone who is in accord with this and who understands it pray for Abercius.” This practice of prayer for the deceased predates a fully developed defense of this practice, which was provided at the ecumenical councils of Lyons II (1274), Florence (1439-45), and Trent (1545-63).
As I began reading the Church Fathers, I was struck not only by the confidence of these holy men and the reality of the purifying fire (cf. 1 Cor. 3:15), but also by how deeply the teaching was rooted in the apostolic Tradition. The historic evidence clearly pointed to a belief in a state of purification that would later be called “purgatory.” This term corresponded to the Hebrew concept of sheol, and to the Greek term hades in the New Testament. This third and temporary state of purification is biblical, apostolic, historical and, most of all, true and completely reconcilable with the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Gospels.
The doctrine of purgatory is completely reconcilable with a loving God who is a consuming fire. As we are drawn up into His love, into His very divine life — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — we begin to burn with that same divine fire, and those impurities to which we have clung in this life must be burned away. This will inevitably involve suffering, as we let go of those imperfect things to which we are attached.
The hidden mystery behind the teaching of purgatory is our calling to live in God for all eternity, which requires us to give perfectly of ourselves (cf. Mt. 5:48). Even with deep faith, the Christian life is difficult. We are called to manifest heroic generosity, and yet generosity hurts in this life. No matter what we’re asked to give, we seem to run out — of time, of energy, of money. God calls us to acknowledge this weakness, this poverty, and to turn to Him and cry out for help that He might fill us with His grace.
In heaven, generosity will not hurt; the lack of generosity will hurt. That is because in heaven God will give Himself to us fully and completely, holding nothing back. Our ability to receive from Him will be completely contingent upon our ability, in turn, to immediately give back. Otherwise, the gift of God would destroy us. Like strapping a water balloon onto a fire hydrant nozzle, we would explode! It is only when we learn the habit of complete and total self-giving that we will be able to experience the joy of heaven.
Christians are called to accept the finished work of Jesus Christ, and to allow that work to be applied to our lives by the work of the Holy Spirit, so that those who are justified will be sanctified. For us it is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.
Martin, Curtis. “The Burning Truth About Purgatory.” Lay Witness (November, 1999).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.
Curtis Martin is the executive director of FOCUS. This article is a condensation of his chapter from Catholic for a Reason: Scripture and the Mystery of the Family of God.
Copyright © 1999 Lay Witness