Between Heaven and Hell
Purgatory. Of all the many misunderstood doctrines of the Catholic Church, Purgatory may be one of the most lampooned by non-Catholics and most misunderstood by Catholics themselves. Last week, my wife and I published our first ever podcast. On the show we discussed C.S. Lewis’ book The Great Divorce and the concepts of Purgatory found within it. In this post, I thought I would examine some of the more common misunderstandings I run into when it comes to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.
To begin with, I want to start with a quote from Dr. Scott Hahn (an Evangelical convert to Catholicism), to help us clear up a pretty central issue. I really resonated with his statement, and quite honestly he says it much better than I would have!
“On the one hand, as an Evangelical Protestant, I had firm convictions about the finished work of Jesus Christ; that He accomplished our redemption on the cross. Those convictions I still hold fast to. Every Christian, every Catholic must. The work of our redemption is accomplished. It is finished. But the application of that redemptive work of Christ by the Holy Spirit is another matter, one that I did not really come to grips with because it involves suffering which nobody wants to come to grips with — either suffering in this life or suffering afterwards to expiate or to repay or to provide restitution for the effects of sin…Christ has accomplished our redemption. It’s over and done with. He has finished it. But then He sends the Holy Spirit to apply it, and the application of redemption is just as essential…Jesus said, ‘I come to baptize with fire and spirit.’ And so, when the Spirit comes at Pentecost, tongues of fire appear, and whenever the Holy Spirit appears, there is Holy Fire. When we are taken up into the Spirit, there we are consumed with a passionate, burning love, the furnace of Christ’s heart, the reality of the Holy Spirit, the fiery love of God. That is not because Christ’s work is not enough. It’s rather the application of the work of Jesus Christ.”1
Now onto some other misconceptions.
Some Common Misconceptions About Purgatory
The New Catholic Encyclopedia says: “Purgatory is the state, place or condition in the next world which will continue until the Last Judgment, where the souls of those who die in a state of grace, but not yet free from all imperfection, make expiation, that is, restitution for unforgiven venial sins and mortal sins that have already been forgiven, and by doing so, are purified before they enter heaven.”
- Purgatory isn’t a second chance. You either die in a state of friendship with God and in His grace or you don’t.
- Purgatory isn’t a place per se, but rather a process. This process may take place “somewhere” or it may be merely a condition or a state in the afterlife.
- Purgatory doesn’t necessarily require time. Pope Emeritus Benedict wrote that purgatory may involve “existential” rather than “temporal” duration.2
Church Teaching on Purgatory
The doctrine of Purgatory is covered in three fairly brief paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. They are paragraphs 1030-1032 and you can read them here. Simply enter the paragraph number into the search bar and hit enter, then click on continue to read more. Essentially the Church’s teaching can be distilled into a few brief points:
- The souls in Purgatory are saved, but they are being purified in order that they may stand before an all-holy God.
- This purification involves some kind of pain or discomfort.
- The teaching of the Church on this matter is based on the teaching of Scripture, and it’s teaching on prayers for the dead.
So, where in Scripture do we see Purgatory?
Scriptural References to Purgatory
The word Purgatory (much like the word ‘trinity’, or ‘incarnation’, or even the word ‘bible’) is never actually used by the Scriptures. But the concept of Purgatory – the purification from the attachment to sin and the things of this world; the removal of all works which are not done in and with and through Christ – that concept actually seems to be quite clear.
Perhaps the clearest reference in Scripture comes from St. Paul’s writings where he discusses the concept of being saved “though fire.” “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, straw— 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.”3 Here St. Paul discusses a Day of Judgement which will reveal the eternal value (or lack thereof) of each man’s works. He acknowledges the suffering that is a part of this judgement of the man’s works, and his ultimate salvation – “but only as through fire.”
And Christ Himself speaks of forgiveness for sins in the “age to come” when He says, “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.”4 For those Christians who dismiss Purgatory out of hand, the question must be asked, “What then are these sins which can be forgiven in the age to come?”
The Place of the Dead
There are multiple places in Scripture where a distinction is made between those, “in heaven or on earth or under the earth”5 and St. Paul reveals to us that Christ is with these souls as He is with us when he writes,“Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ (that is, to bring Christ down) or ‘Who will descend into the abyss?’ (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).”6
Scripture is full of verses referencing either Sheol or Hades. Both reference a place other than Hell – which is not Heaven. The words Sheol (in Hebrew), Hades (in Greek), and Purgatorium (in Latin) represent the concept of Purgatory as we have come to know it today.
We can see the story of Purgatory unfold as we examine Scripture passages beginning in the Old Testament and moving to the New.
“Great is thy steadfast love toward me. Thou hast delivered my soul from the depths of sheol.”7
“Withhold not your kindness, O Lord from the dead.”8
“For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.”9
Purgatory itself comes to an end as we look at the book of Revelation which describes how, at the end of time, both death and Hades will be thrown into hell, saying that this is the second death, the lake of fire.10 At the end of all things, there will be no more death; and once the purification of all souls has taken place, there will be no more need for Hades or Purgatory.
These and other passages have given rise to the Church’s understanding of the three states of the Church – “…some of his disciples are pilgrims on earth. Others have died and are being purified, while still others are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is’ ”11
Prayers for the Dead
Prayers for the dead are attested to even prior to Christ in 2 Maccabees where we read, “So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they 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. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”12
This passage establishes, even for those who may not consider Maccabees to be Scriptural, that this was a common practice within Judaism prior to the time of Christ. We see an echo of this in the New Testament when Paul offers a prayer for a dead Christian named Onesiphorus saying, “may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus.”13 And indeed in the early Church we see an abundance of evidence for the practice of praying for the dead.
The inscriptions in the Roman Catacombs showing prayers for the dead range in date from the first century (the earliest dated is from A.D. 71) to the early part of the fifth; with the greatest number (of the several thousand which are extant) belonging to the ante-Nicene period, i.e. the first three centuries after Christ.14 There are prayers of a formal character, in which survivors address their petitions directly to God the Father, or to Christ, or to the angels saints and martyrs collectively, or even to one of them in particular. Most frequently they ask for: peace, the good (i.e. eternal salvation), light, refreshment, life, eternal life, union with God, union with Christ, union with the angels and saints, and liberation from sin. Sometimes the writers of the epitaphs request visitors to pray for the deceased, and sometimes the dead themselves ask for prayers, as in the well-known Greek epitaph of Abercius which says: “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.”
So overwhelming is the witness of the early Christian monuments in favour of prayer for the dead that no historian any longer denies that the practice and the belief which the practice implies were universal in the primitive Church, and in this there is no break of continuity between Judaism and Christianity.
Additionally, the testimony of the earliest liturgies is in harmony with that of the monuments. All of them without exception – Nestorian and Monophysite as well as Catholic, those in Syriac, Armenian, and Coptic as well as those in Greek and Latin – contain the commemoration of the faithful departed in the Mass, with a prayer for peace, light, refreshment and the like, and in many cases expressly for the remission of sins and the effacement of sinful stains. The following, from the Syriac Liturgy of St. James, may be quoted as a typical example: “we commemorate all the faithful dead who have died in the true faith…We ask, we entreat, we pray Christ our God, who took their souls and spirits to Himself, that by His many compassions He will make them worthy of the pardon of their faults and the remission of their sins”15
There are Protestants Who Believe in Purgatory?!
You really don’t have to look much further than C.S. Lewis himself. Check out the following quotes.
“Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?”
“I believe in Purgatory. . . . Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not beak the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first.’ “It may hurt, you know’—”Even so, sir.'”
“I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don’t think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.”
“My favorite image on this matter comes from the dentist’s chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am ‘coming round’,’ a voice will say, ‘Rinse your mouth out with this.’ This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But . . . it will [not] be disgusting and unhallowed.”16
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Answering Common Objections, Purgatory: Holy Fire, Dr. Scott Hahn ↩
cf. Joseph Ratzinger’s book Eschatology ↩
1 Corinthians 3:11–15 RSVCE ↩
Matthew 12:31–32 RSVCE ↩
Revelation 5:3, 13 ↩
Romans 6b-7 ↩
Psalms 86:13 ↩
Sirach 7:33 ↩
1 Peter 3:17-22 ↩
Revelation 20:14 ↩
Catholic Church. (2000). Catechism of the Catholic Church (2nd Ed., p. 249). Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference ↩
2 Maccabees 12:41-45 ↩
2 Timothy 1:18 ↩
For detailed references see Kirsch, “Die Acclamationen”, pp. 9-29; Cabrol and Leclercq, “Monumenta Liturgica” (Paris, 1902), I, pp. ci-cvi, cxxxix, etc. ↩
Syr. Lit. S. Jacobi, ed. Hammond, p. 75 ↩
C.S. Lewis excerpts from Letters to Malcom ↩