When I felt the Holy Spirit calling me and my family to fully reconcile with the Roman Catholic Church, I sat down and made a list of all the things about Catholic Doctrine (as I understood it at the time) that I had a serious problem with. And trust me when I tell you, I had some big problems to work through! In my case, I ended up with fourteen primary things (with lots of sub-items under those). These were, to my mind, the “deal breakers” in Catholic theology that, had I not been able to reconcile with (that is the word I chose) I knew there was no way I could ever become a Catholic. I put my list of “fourteen points of reconciliation” together in a “you Catholics, but we Protestants” format. Think of this as kind of like marriage counseling where the husband and wife are separated, but in order to get back together, certain things just have to be sorted out first or they’ll never be able to reconcile. It won’t surprise you to learn that the Catholic belief in purgatory made my list of fourteen things. Here’s how the item reads on my reconciliation list.

You Catholics believe that some Christians will go to purgatory when they die. But we Protestants believe that when a Christian dies, they go immediately into the presence of Jesus Christ.

It might surprise some non-Catholics to learn that not a lot is said about purgatory in the Catechism. By the way, if you want to know what Catholicism actually teaches (vs. what Joe-Catholic at work told you in the break room, or what an “anti-Catholic-theology pastor” as I previously was, taught you from a Protestant pulpit) you need to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. That is the official place where the doctrines of the Catholic Faith are taught authoritatively to faithful Catholics regardless of what any other source (such as a priest, nun, Catholic theologian, a Catholic person you know at work, or even a Pope) says. The Catechism is the authoritative and official “what we believe” of Catholicism. Here is what the Catechism says about purgatory.

III.       The Final Purification, or Purgatory

1030 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.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire: (954, 1472)

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.610 The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead: (958; 1371; 1479)

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them. [1]

That’s it. That’s all. That is the entire Catechism on purgatory. This blog post will be much longer than the Catechism is on the subject, but that is because I want to unpack as much as I can about some of the big ideas above. As you can see, Purgatory is not a huge and protracted doctrine in the Catechism (though much has been written on it by those who wish to elaborate on the central teaching of the Church as I am doing here). It is really a simple doctrine that basically says this:

Before you get to your final eternal state — your eschatalogical ending place —  as a Christian, everything about your life that is impure and unfit for God’s presence will be fully removed from you by the purging and purifying fire of God’s Holy Love. That process will begin (and all of it can happen to full completion) in this life, but whatever, if anything, remains will be completed after you die.

That’s it. Period. But is this a Biblical idea?  I hope to convince you that it is.

First idea… Go through Purgatory now, before you die!

Before we get to the “after you die” focus of purgatory, it may interest you to know that the first emphasis in the Catholic teaching on purgatory begins by focusing on what happens in your life before you die. Did you notice that there in the first three clauses of the Catechism? Here it is again…

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation;

The idea here is threefold; First, that you became a Christian before you died (i.e. “die in God’s grace and friendship”), but second, you did not work through all of your impurities over the course of your life (i.e. “but still imperfectly purified”), and third, you are, nonetheless, on your way to your ultimate and complete destination (i.e. “eternal salvation”). What is this language “still imperfectly purified” all about? Well, in simple terms, it’s about going through purgatory now! Purgatory, properly understood, is not really about a place called purgatory, but about a process of purgation (purging) that begins the moment you become a follower of Jesus Christ, and that is completed at some point before we reach our full eschatological end (which is ultimately the resurrection). Some of my Catholic friends and I will encourage one another by saying, “Let’s go to purgatory now! Before we die!”  Yes, that is a very Catholic idea, and it’s right here in the Catechism. Catholic teaching tells us that while we are Christians we are to be in a life-long process of purification that realistically may not be fully complete for various reasons when we die. In short, we are to be in an intentional process of purgation from sin, brokenness, and imperfection during the entire course of our lives as followers of Jesus. Here is some biblical material about the reality that we are in a state of purgation even now as followers of Jesus Christ;

2 Cor. 7:1 – Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.

1 Jn. 1:8-9 – If we say, “We are without sin,” we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.

1 Pet. 1:22 – Since you have purified yourselves by obedience to the truth for sincere mutual love, love one another intensely from a [pure] heart.

Heb. 12:1 – Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us.

We could go on and on, and every honest Protestant reading this should agree that the ongoing, and often-times painful and “fiery” work of sanctification is a central focus of the Christian life. Why else would Jesus say, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mat. 7;21)? What are all these texts about us working on purification from our sin and defilement through things like confession, repentance, and our own active obedience and faithfulness to Christ about? They are about the ongoing process of purgation (purging) during this life, pure and simple.

There is an Old Testament example of “purgatory now” in Isaiah 6:1-6.

1 In the year King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a high and lofty throne, with the train of his garment filling the temple. 2 Seraphim were stationed above; each of them had six wings: with two they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they hovered. 3 One cried out to the other: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!” 4 At the sound of that cry, the frame of the door shook and the house was filled with smoke. 5 Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.”

The imagery of fiery purgation and purification from sin in this life is common in the Bible. And that is precisely why it is central to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory which begins by emphasizing the important process purification before we die.

Second idea… Finish what is left of purgatory when you die.

In Catholic teaching, there are followers of Jesus who make the pursuit of holiness such a focus of their lives that they enter into what is called the Beatific Vision at the moment of their death. Others (my guess is most people) die before they have completely worked through the bent, broken, and marred places in their lives, and because of this, they will pass through another process of fire upon their death that will complete the work begun in this life. It’s important right here to say a couple of things about what purgatory is not.

FirstIt is not a second chance after you die.

The doctrine of purgatory is about people who are on their way to the beatific vision. Catholic teaching is that you either go to heaven or hell. So, if you find yourself in a state of purgation after you die, high-five the guy next to you and say, “Hallelujah! We made it! Now, let’s get finally and fully ready to go in and meet the King!” There is no way, in Catholic teaching, that you will go to hell if you find yourself going through further purgation after death.

SecondThe fire of purgation (heaven) is not the fire of punishment (hell).

Again, as the Catechism teaches:

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.

The fire of purgation is not hell-fire; it’s “heaven fire.” It is the fire of God’s presence. Purging is not about punishing you. It is about purifying you. It is about fully and finally removing all that is left of you that has not been fully conformed to the image of Jesus as you are on your way to the full disclosure of his heavenly presence. If there is suffering involved, it is the suffering of correction and not condemnation. It hurts to get better sometimes. It hurts to have things burned away that do not belong in our lives, but the pain of purgation brings about purity, transformation, and wholeness.

Gal. 4:19 – My children, for whom I am again in labor [pains] until Christ be formed in you!

Heb. 12:11 – At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.

If the Bible is telling us the truth about the painful but restorative and healing process of purgation, then we know for a fact that it happens both in this life and in the life to come.

1 Cor. 3:10-15 – According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, 11 for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. 14 If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. 15 But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.

Third – (and related to the second point above) Purgatory is not an eternal penalty or eternal punishment for your sins.

The teaching of the Catholic Church is that Jesus Christ has once, and for all, paid the full eternal price, and borne the full eternal punishment for your sins upon the cross. So that I don’t make this post too much longer, read the CCC – 613-615 here, showing that the Catholic Church looks to Christ alone as the only means by which human beings may be saved from eternal punishment for sin.

Purgatory (the process of purging, or purgation from sin) is not about the eternal punishment for sin, but rather, the temporal punishment (which is really about the ultimate, and sometimes painful process of the removal of the practical impact) of sin. The Old Testament gives us images of the refiner’s fire that burns away the impurities that may be present in precious metals (cf. Ps. 66:10, Is. 48:10, Dan. 11:35, 12:10, etc.). This does not involve the destruction of what is precious, but rather, the removal of what hinders total and complete purity.

When I was pastoring people who had committed terrible sins, I had to work hard sometimes to help them to differentiate between temporal and eternal consequences for the things they had done. Some of them had made big mistakes and ruined their bodies, their finances, their marriages, and their reputations. These are all temporal things, but very real aspects of our lives and identities. Some of them wondered how they could really and truly be forgiven by Jesus but still have to go through bankruptcy court, or divorce court, or drug rehab, or even jail. They supposed that by receiving Jesus’ eternal forgiveness that they would perhaps also be freed from the temporal consequences of their actions. Not so. And that is all the Catholic church is saying. Catholic teaching is not that you must pay the eternal price for your sins. Jesus has done that. It is that you must process the temporal effects of your sins through a process of purging, sanctification, and correction — and some of that happens in this life, and whatever does not carries on after death as you complete the final stages of your journey home to the presence of God. Most every Christian will admit if they are honest, that they are enduring some kind of temporal process of difficulty, purification, and even pain as a result of some area of brokenness in their life. Purgatory does not mean that you are not forgiven. YOU ARE! It means, though, that God not only wants you forgiven, but totally cleansed, purified, and healed from every effect of sin on your life so that you finally and fully become the best version of yourself — the YOU that matches up with God’s original created intent for you, which is seen in Jesus Christ! (see Acts 17:31).

Let me connect this last idea to purgatory in a way that I hope will encourage you. The teaching on purgatory is the wonderful and encouraging reality that before you show up fully and completely in God’s presence after you die, all of the things about you that do not measure up to the perfection of Jesus Christ will be finally and totally removed from your life through a fiery process of purgation that is not hellish, but heavenly. For as Fr. Guy de Gaynesford says, “The punishing fire of hell is ice-cold compared to the purifying fire of heaven” (see also Deut. 4:24, 9:3, Rev. 19:2). As Paul says to the Corinthians, you will be saved, but only as through fire (cf. 1 Cor. 3:15).

For my Protestant friends who will quote to me that “To be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:8) and “It is appointed unto man once to die and then face judgment (Heb. 9:27), all I can say is — AMEN! You will be with the Lord, the consuming fire. You will die and be judged. And whatever about you is not completely and fully like Jesus will be burned away from you by God’s consuming, fiery, and Holy love!

Talking to myself in the mirror about the “now and then” of purgatory

In the final paragraphs here, imagine that you can see me standing in front of a mirror talking to myself about everything that I have just said here. As you pass by, you can hear me say to myself…

“Kenny, praise God! You are a follower of Jesus Christ. Jesus has paid the full and final price for your sins and has done all that is necessary for you to be saved from the eternal wages of sin, which is hell and eternal separation from God. Jesus paid it all! And you have accepted that free gift. Hallelujah, you have been saved (Eph. 2:8). Now, for the rest of your life be obedient to Jesus Christ. Work out your salvation with fear and trembling! (Phil. 2:12). Let him show you the crooked places in your life. Let him straighten you out. Confess your sins. Be forgiven. Be cleansed. In this way, you are being saved (1 Cor 15:2). But as you go along, there may be things that simply cannot be corrected in this life. There may be aspects of your identity, your personality, your character, and even sin’s effect on your mind, body, and soul that are impossible on this side of heaven to fully process. Praise God that the refining fire of God’s Holy Love will see you all the way through! In this way, you will be saved (Rom. 5:9). He who began a good work in you will complete it all the way up until the final day when Jesus comes again (Phil 1:6) — which means that after you die and go into the presence of God, he will continue his good work in you. He wants you healed, whole, cleansed, pure, and fully restored in every way. Go through purgation now! And if you need more on the day of your death, God will not stop until he has finished what he has begun.”

There is more to say about things like praying for those “in purgatory” (i.e., in this process of purgation after they die), and the mention of indulgences in CCC 1032), but I will save those for future posts and hopefully give some helpful insight into how I have come to understand what the Catholic Church is teaching in those two areas. For now, though, I have to stop. This post is too long as it is.


References

[1] Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 268–269.

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