We've all heard about Purgatory. But what is it exactly? Is it in the Bible? And why do Catholics believe in it?
January 16, 2002
What is purgatory? This question comes up in virtually every sort of catechesis whether offered to those already in the Church or those in the process of joining. In class, a wag could earn easy points with fellow-students (though probably not teachers) by answering that catechesis itself is purgatory. I certainly felt that way about the RCIA course I took on my way into the Church, and a lot of others did too.
There is even a certain sense in which the catechesis metaphor can be made to work. Catechesis often involves preparing you for a new state in life the state of a communicant, the state of a confirmand, the state of membership in the Church. The purpose of purgatory is to prepare you for heaven.
In both cases, a process is meant to help you overcome things that would impede you in the new state. Catechesis is focused directly on teaching the faith (ignorance of or disbelief in the faith being inconsistent with one's new state). By doing so, it also encourages one to abandon sinful patterns of behavior (these being inconsistent with the faith).
Purgatory is focused directly on removing the remaining consequences of the sins one committed in life (these being inconsistent with the state of heaven). For all we know, it may also play a role in putting right erroneous
ideas about the Faith that one innocently held in life (these also being inconsistent with the state of heaven).
In both cases, the process of preparation for one's new state is not a uniformly pleasant one. While both catechesis and purgatory can involve joy (respectively, the joy of discovering the faith and the joy of knowing with certitude that one will be in heaven), the letting go of bad beliefs and habits is not fun. For this reason, it is appropriate for others to pray for those undergoing preparation for their new state whether in the classroom or in purgatory.
Limits of the Metaphor
But no metaphor must be pressed beyond its limits, and there are definite limits to this one. Two in particular spring to mind: First, because God is directly in control of purgatory, it always works. Everyone who goes to
purgatory ends up going to heaven and ends up being thoroughly prepared for it. With catechesis, that guarantee isn't in place. Those undergoing catechesis may not enter the state for which they are being prepared (they may quit the program) and they may not be properly prepared for the state even if they do (through poor catechesis).
Second, again because God is directly in control of purgatory, any discomfort felt by those undergoing it is the result of their own bad choices. With catechesis, that guarantee isn't in place. Catechists can increase the discomfort of their students in a variety of ways by failing to explain accurately the Catholic Faith, by explaining it accurately but in a confusing manner, or by failing to tailor their presentation of the Faith to
the needs and concerns of their students.
(A particularly inexcusable example of the latter is the practice in many parishes of "mainlining" all students through a full RCIA program, regardless of their background; a person who has lived for years as an active, devout, and fully-catechized member of a different Christian community has very different catechetical needs than a person who has never lived as a Christian.)
In approaching their task, catechists are well-advised to bear in mind the warning of James that those who are teachers will be held to a higher standard (Jas. 3:1). Catechists must convey the Catholic Faith accurately,
clearly, and in a way suited to the needs of their individual students.
Purgatory and Protestantism
To this end, there is one particular group of students that American catechists will often encounter for whom purgatory is an especially sensitive subject: those converting to the Catholic faith from Protestantism.
Though the section on purgatory in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is only three paragraphs long (CCC 1030-1032), the doctrine looms much larger than that in the minds of many Protestants. This is because the subject of purgatory was one of the doctrines to which the Protestant Reformers most objected. It even found a place in Martin Luther's 95 Theses when other concepts, such as justification, did not. As the Protestant state churches were set up and commenced the forcible re-education of the Catholic populace to the new Protestant beliefs, attacks on purgatory assumed a prominent place in popular preaching.
This remains the case today. Whenever the Catholic Church is criticized in Protestant circles especially in conservative ones the doctrine of purgatory is almost invariably among the top ten "unbiblical doctrines" for which the Catholic Church is faulted. This means that for many American candidates for reception into the Catholic Church, the subject of purgatory will be an especially sensitive one one about which the candidates may have heard a great deal of criticism.
Thus, catechists must take special care when presnting the doctrine of purgatory. For it is very easy, by not understanding the special concerns former Protestants have about purgatory, to confirm some of a candidate's
worst fears about the Catholic Church through a careless presentation of the Church's teaching. On purgatory, a catechist needs to proceed with care.
Some False Starts
Of course, one temptation that catechists must resist knowing that former Protestants may be resistant to the doctrine is to downplay it. Desiring for the doctrine not to be a stumbling block for their students, catechists can easily say, "Out of the 2,865 paragraphs in the Catechism, only three are devoted to purgatory. This is a very unimportant doctrine." Some catechists might be tempted to portray it as an optional belief or worst yet as
"something we don't believe anymore." Both approaches are mistaken because both of them rest on a false premise: that purgatory isn't part of what Catholics must believe.
The section in the Catechism on purgatory is sufficient to show false the "we don't believe it anymore" claim. And, while it is true that the doctrine of purgatory isn't near the top of the "hierarchy of truths," it is
nevertheless a truth and one that the Magisterium has infallibly proposed for the belief of the faithful. The Councils of Florence and Trent infallibly defined the existence of purgatory as an article of the Faith, so
this is not an optional belief. And it is one with practical consequences, for those who are aware of the reality of purgatory are likely to take steps to avoid it or to minimize it, both for themselves and for others.
Teaching vs. Speculation
Another mistake in discussing the doctrine of purgatory is confusing what the Church teaches regarding it with how that teaching has commonly been elaborated. There are many elements in common explanations of purgatory that are, in fact, theological speculation or metaphor, not Church teaching.
What the Church teaches is that there is a purification that occurs after death for all who die in God's friendship but who have not been sufficiently purified for the glory of heaven. This purification can involve some kind of
pain or discomfort. And the faithful on earth can assist those being purified for example, by their prayers and by the saying of Mass.
Most of the additional things one hears about purgatory are theological speculation or metaphor. For example, the idea that purgatory occurs in a special "place" in the afterlife is a matter of speculation. We don't know
that. And, for that matter, we don't know how the concepts of "place" or "space" work in the afterlife.
Similarly, discussion of individuals spending time in purgatory also must be understood with nuance. Just as we don't know how space works in the intermediate state between death and resurrection, neither do we know how
time works. The common teaching among medieval theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas is that the departed exist in a state sharing some of the properties of time and some of the properties of eternity but properly identical with neither. From our time-bound perspective in this world, purgatory might be instantaneous, having existential rather than temporal "duration."
The image of purgatory as a cleansing fire also is one that the Church will not say is literally true. The Catechism notes only that "The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a
cleansing fire" (CCC 1031, emphasis added) and stresses that the purification "is entirely different from the punishment of the damned" (ibid.). This suggests considerable reserve with respect to the image of fire in purgatory.
"Where Is That in the Bible?"
One of the most pressing questions a convert from Protestantism is likely to have about purgatory is where it can be documented in the Bible. There are a number of passages that bear mentioning.
One of the most famous is 2 Maccabees 12:32-45, in which we read that Judah Maccabee prayed for and had a sacrifice offered for certain of his men who had been killed fighting for the Lord. This was the ancient equivalent of praying for the dead and having a Mass said for them.
The text is explicit in saying that Judas Maccabee prayed and offered sacrifice so that "the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out" (v. 42) and "that they [the fallen soldiers] might be delivered from
their sin" (v. 45). The sin in question was wearing pagan good-luck charms even though they were fighting for the cause of the Lord, rather like a Catholic soldier superstitiously wearing into battle an Egyptian Ahnk or a
Taoist Yin-Yang or another non-Christian symbol as a good-luck charm. The text notes that Judah's fallen men had "fall[en] asleep in godliness" (v.45), for they were fighting for the Lord; they simply did so with an
admixture of superstition. They had a venial sin even though fundamentally they were on the side of right.
The text thus envisions that someone can die in a state of grace but still carry the temporal (temporary, non-eternal) consequences of sins. It also envisions that the actions of the living (prayer and sacrifice) can assist
those in this condition. For this reason, the passage has been a particularly useful demonstration of the principles involved in the Church's teachings and practice regarding purgatory.
It has been so useful, in fact, that the Protestant Reformers felt it necessary to delete this book from the Bible as a way of undercutting the Church's teaching and practice. This means that some converts from
Protestantism will feel hesitancy about appealing to this passage, for it is not in the Bibles they are accustomed to using. To this there are three responses.
The first is pointing out that this book had been included in Scripture from the dawn of Christian history. 2 Maccabees is part of the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament), which is the version of Scripture that the apostles and other authors of the New Testament quoted over eighty percent of the time. Also, some passages in the New Testament specifically allude to 2 Maccabees (for example, Hebrew 11:35b refers to 2 Maccabees 7). When the early councils that determined the canon of Scripture met (such as the council of Rome in A.D. 382, the first to address the issue), 2 Maccabees was included in the list of books along with all the others. It was to avoid this doctrine that the Protestant Reformers felt it necessary to remove from Scripture a book that previously had been almost universally honored.
The second point is that 2 Maccabees is a pre-Christian book. It is a Jewish book. And so it is no surprise to find that Jews today pray for their departed loved ones. For almost a year after a loved one dies, devout Jews
pray a prayer known as the Mourners' Qaddish (the "Mourner's Blessing") for the purification of their loved ones. The belief in purgatory a posthumous purification has been part of the true religion since before the time of
Christ! Jews accept it, Catholics accept it, Eastern Orthodox accept it, the other Eastern churches accept it. Only the Protestant churches that have arisen in the last 500 years challenge it.
The third response is to point out that there are multiple New Testament passages besides 2 Maccabees that support the doctrine of purgatory. These texts reflect the fact that, even though sin is forgiven, painful
consequences may remain to be dealt with after death and before an individual enters the full glory of heaven. Included are the passages in which Jesus alludes to the sin that will be forgiven neither in this life nor the next (Matt 12:32; suggesting that some may be forgiven in the next life), and he warns that after one faces judgment before God, one may be punished "till you have paid the last penny" (Matt 5:26; suggesting that
after one has paid the last penny one will no longer be punished).
One of the clearest texts pertaining to purgatory is 1 Corinthians 3:12-15, in which Paul warns that "fire will test what sort of work each one has done" (v. 13). When this testing by fire is 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" (vv. 14-15). Escaping through flames is not a "fun" thing. Thus Paul indicates that one can make it into heaven even though the testing one will experience after death is not a fun thing.
One may also point out that we will be totally sinless when we are with God in heaven. Indeed, Scripture says that God is "of purer eyes than to behold evil and canst not look on wrong" (Hab 1:13) and that "nothing unclean shall enter" the heavenly city (Rev 21:27). Since many (most!) of us are still quite unclean at the time of death, this means that between death and glory must come a purification.
This recognition opens an important way of making the concept of purgatory intelligible to the Protestant mind. Though Catholic theology often uses the terms justification and sanctification in a largely overlapping manner,
Evangelical theology customarily draws a sharp line between the two. When this is done, it is often claimed that justification refers to the forgiveness of sins while sanctification refers to the purification of our behavior so that we no longer commit sins. (This does not fully accord with the usage of these terms in the Bible, but that is another matter.) Given this usage, it is possible to explain purgatory in categories familiar to Protestants. Even after we have been forgiven, there are still sinful tendencies and consequences that remain to be dealt with. Even after justification there is sanctification.
Since we will be totally sanctified (holy) in heaven, if we die imperfectly sanctified we must have our sanctification brought up to snuff before we are in the glory of heaven. Whether that change has some form of duration or whether it is instantaneous (as it will be for those Christians alive on the last day; 1 Cor 15:51-53, 1 John 3:2), the Church does not say. It only says that the transformation occurs, that we will be completely sanctified.
Purgatory, then, may be seen as the last stage of sanctification, whether it happens over "time" or all in a rush. And this answers another common Protestant difficulty with purgatory: the question of whether it "detracts"
from the work of Christ. Protestants themselves acknowledge that, whereas forgiveness is an instantaneous thing, sanctification is a process. Yet it does not detract from the work of Christ and, indeed, is empowered and enabled by that work. Jesus' death on the cross is the cause of our sanctification as much as it is the cause of our justification, though Protestants generally see the former as a process and the latter as instantaneous.
The bottom line is: It's all God's grace. It all comes to us because of Christ's death. Without Him, we would be doomed, but because of His love for us we may be both forgiven and sanctified, whether all at once or not.
One thing remains true: When we are united to God in heaven, we will be both totally forgiven and totally sanctified. If we die with the first but without the second, God will make sure we receive the gift of complete
holiness before we are with Him in glory.
James Akin is senior apologist for Catholic Answers of San Diego, California. He is the author of The Salvation Controversy and Mass Confusion: The Do's and Don'ts of Catholic Worship, as well as a contributor to the forthcoming Catholic Encyclopedia of Apologetics.
We've all heard about Purgatory. But what is it exactly? Is it in the Bible? And why do Catholics believe in it?