by James Akin
Suppose a friend or co-worker comes to you and says:
"The Catholic Church has this massive doctrine of purgatory, invented in the middle ages. The Church used to even sell indulgences to shorten your time in purgatory by a fixed number of days. This doctrine is based on books that don't belong in the Bible. There is no place or region in the afterlife for the saved except heaven. There is no pain in the afterlife, and the minute we die we go to heaven, as Paul says, 'To be absent from the body is to be present with Christ,' praying for people in purgatory makes no sense. Worst of all, it infringes on the sufficiency of Christ's work. It is completely unbiblical. No Protestant could believe it."
What should you say?
Well, the first thing you should say is, "Whoa! Slow down! One argument at a time, okay?" Then go over his arguments with him individually . . .
1. "The Catholic Church has this massive doctrine of purgatory."
This is quite false. As an illustration of this, the section on purgatory in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is only three paragraphs long (CCC 1030-1032). In essence, there are only three points on the matter which the Catholic Church insists: (1) that there is a purification after death, (2) that this purification involves some kind of pain or discomfort, and (3) that God assists those in this purification in response to the actions of the living. Among the things the Church does not insist on are the ideas that purgatory is a place or that it takes time, as we shall see below.
2. "Invented in the middle ages."
The idea that purgatory is a late invention is similarly false. In fact, it has been part of the true religion since before the time of Christ. It is witnessed to not only in such as 2 Maccabees, which itself witnesses to the belief (see below), but in other pre-Christian Jewish books as well, such as The Life of Adam and Eve, which speaks of Adam being freed from purgatory on the Last Day.
It was also part of the true religion in Jesus' day, as the writings of the New Testament show. And it has been part of the true religion ever since Christ's day, as the writings of the Church Fathers show (see the Catholic Answers pamphlet: "The Fathers Know Best: Purgatory").
Not only Catholics believe in this final purification, but the Eastern Orthodox do as well (though they often do not use the term "purgatory" for it), as do Orthodox Jews. In fact, to this day, when a Jewish person's loved one dies, he prays a prayer known as the Mourner's Qaddish for eleven months after the death for the loved one's purification.
Because the doctrine of purgatory was held by pre-Christian Jews, post-Christian Jews, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, nobody thought of denying it until the Protestant Reformation, and thus only Protestants deny it today.
3. "The Church used to even sell indulgences to shorten your time in purgatory by a fixed number of days."
Concerning this argument, first point out that it really deals with the issue of indulgences, which is a separate matter (see my piece, "A Primer on Indulgences"). If one wishes to really hear what Catholics have to say for themselves, one subject must be dealt with at a time, not several at once in some kind of "buckshot" approach to apologetics.
Second, indulgences were never sold. At one time, for a period of perhaps two hundred years, it was possible to give a charitable donation to some cause, such as an orphanage or church building fund, as one of the ways in which an indulgence could be obtained. This was no different than Protestant ministries offering something in exchange for a charitable contribution or "love offering" to a worthy cause. However, because of the scandal that Protestants produced, over four hundred years ago (shortly after the Council of Trent) the Church forbade charitable giving as a way of obtaining indulgences.
Third, Protestants are often confused by the number of "days" that used to be attached to indulgences. They have nothing to do with time in purgatory. Indulgences originally arose as a way of shortening a penitential period on earth. The number of "days" that were attached to indulgences were not understood as shortening time in purgatory, but as easing the purification after death by an amount analogous to the shortening of an earthly penitential period by the number of days indicated.
Fourth, because some people were confused by thinking purgatory was shortened by a set number of days with an indulgence, the Church abolished the "day" figures attached to indulgences specifically to eliminate this confusion.
Fifth, the reason that the "days" were never understood to be days of literal time off in purgatory is that the medieval theologians, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, those living at precisely the period when they "days" were attached to indulgences, were very clear about the fact that time does not work the same way in the afterlife as it does here. In fact, they had a special term for it, and would contrast three different temporal modalities -- the ordinary flow of events we experience here on earth, called "time;" the perpetual present that God experiences, called "eternity;" and the middle, less well understood state experienced by those in the afterlife, known as "aeviternity."
So the Church has never said that purgatory involves the same kind of time as we experience here on earth, or even time at all. Thus Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, no theological liberal, writes that purgatory may involve "existential" rather than "temporal" duration (cf. Ratzinger's book Eschatology). It may be someone one experiences, but experiences in a moment, rather than something one endures over time.
4. "This doctrine is based on books that don't belong in the Bible."
When a Protestant says this, he has in mind 2 Maccabees 12, in which Judah Maccabee and his men pray for their fallen comrades who had "fallen asleep in righteousness" so that they may be "freed from their sins" in the afterlife, and it was a "holy and pious thought" for them to do this.
Thus 2 Maccabees endorses praying for the dead that they may be loosed from the consequences of their sins (for it must be the consequences of sin that are in mind since the saved are not sinning in the afterlife). Since it is not pleasant to be bound to the consequences of one's sins, we can infer some kind of pain or discomfort, and thus the full doctrine of purgatory -- a purification (freeing) after death, which involves some kind of pain or discomfort, and which can be assisted by the prayers of the living.
However, while 2 Maccabees 12 certainly teaches the doctrine of purgatory, the doctrine is in no way "based on" that passage. The doctrine can also be supported from numerous passages in the New Testament, but more fundamentally (and this is what you should point out to the Protestant), it can be derived from the principles of Protestant theology alone.
You see, Protestant are very firm (in fact, insistent) about the fact that we continue sinning until the end of this life because of our corrupt nature. However, they are equally firm (if you press them) about the fact that we will not be sinning in heaven because we will no longer have a corrupt nature. Thus between death and glory there must be a sanctification -- a purification -- of our natures.
This purification may take no time, but as we have seen, this is no barrier to the doctrine of purgatory. The fact remains that between death and glory must come purification, and that is purgatory by definition -- the final purification or, to put it in more Protestant terms, "the final sanctification" or "the last rush of sanctification."
5. There is no place or region in the afterlife for the saved except heaven.
Well, this may be true. The Church teaches that purgatory is the final purification, but not that it occurs in any special region in the afterlife. Just as we do not know how time works in the afterlife -- meaning that purgatory may take no time -- we also do not know how space works in the afterlife, especially for unembodied souls -- meaning purgatory may not take place in any special location.
The final purification may take place in the immediate presence of God (to the extent that God's presence may be described in spatial terms). In fact, in his book on eschatology, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger describes purgatory as a fiery, transforming encounter with Christ and his love:
"Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishments in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God [i.e., capable of full unity with Christ and God] and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. It does not replace grace by works, but allows the former to achieve its full victory precisely as grace. What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy."
Thus according to Ratzinger's way of explaining the doctrine, as we are drawn out of this life and into direct union with Jesus, his fiery love and holiness burns away all the dross and impurities in our souls and makes us fit for life in the glorious, overwhelming light of God's presence and holiness.
6. "There is no pain in the afterlife."
Now this argument is quite false. It is not true that there is no pain in the afterlife, even for the saved. We are told that one day, in the eternal order, "he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away" (Revelation 21:4) -- but note when this happens: in the eternal order, after the descent of the New Jerusalem and the passing away of the current heaven and earth.
Before that time, Scripture gives us no promise that we will be free of all pain. In fact, it indicates quite the opposite. Paul tells us:
"[W]hether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men" (2 Corinthians 5:9-11).
Paul states that out of the fear of the Lord he tries to please God because we will all stand before God to be judged by whether what we have done is good or evil. Thus the prospect of appearing before Christ's judgment seat is a fearful thing, even for the Christian.
This is something recognized even by Protestants. For example, in his Through The Bible series (on Romans 14 in this case), Protestant preacher J. Vernon McGee commented that he was not looking forward to the judgment seat of Christ, because at his judgment seat Jesus Christ was going to take J. Vernon McGee apart, which is certainly something that Christ endorses, saying to his disciples (Christians):
"Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops. I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!" (Luke 12:2-5)
So according to both Jesus and Paul we have reason to fear the unstoppable, unavoidable, unrelenting, and microscopic examination to which our lives will be subjected when we stand before Jesus. We must not have an unreasonable, unhealthy fear of this, the kind which leads to despair, but we must have the healthy, Godly fear which Paul and Jesus counsel.
The painful loss which even the righteous will experience in the afterlife is brought forward with especial clarity in 1 Corinthians, where Paul tells us:
"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" (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
This clearly applies to the saved, for Paul says so ("he himself will be saved"), but it does not indicates that this life-review will be fun, for Paul also says, the person in question's work "is burned up" and "he will suffer loss" and though he will be saved, it will be "only as through fire." Needless to say, seeing ones life's work go up in flames, suffering loss when one was expecting to "receive a reward" and escaping through the flames is not fun.
Thus the day on which we receive our particular judgment at the end of life will not be fun to the extent our works are not good. This clearly shows the reality of pain and discomfort after death but before the inauguration of the eternal order.
Now some Protestants try a dodge to get around this passage by saying that it is our works which are tested. It is true that on the surface of this passage. Paul does say our works will be tested by fire. However, this changes nothing since we will existentially feel it as our works are tested and consumed. That is why Paul says one whose works survive will "receive a reward" -- something he will feel -- and one whose works are consumed will suffer loss -- again, something he will feel.
Thus Paul caps the passage by saying that the saved one who suffers loss will be saved "only as through fire" -- the image being that of a man escaping from a burning building, which is precisely what Paul was talking about -- the local church as a building built by men either with fire-proof materials or materials which will be consumed (read the prior context). Thus the picture is of a man having built up his local church improperly, then seeing his work -- the building he has built -- consumed by fire, so he has to flee from it amid the flames to escape.
Thus while Paul says our works (the building we do) will be tested by fire, he envisions the flames touching us ourselves if our building ignites and we are forced to flee from it. So while under this metaphor in Paul our works are tested, we ourselves feel the consequences of this testing in the most painful way possible, for it is no fun to have to escape from a burning building as the work of your life comes crashing down around you.
7. "Paul says, 'To be absent from the body is to be present with Christ.'"
This is virtually the mantra of some Protestant radio personalities. However, it is totally and completely false. Paul did not say, "To be absent from the body is to be present with Christ." What he actually said was this:
"6 So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body. 11 Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men; but what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience" (2 Corinthians 5:6-11).
Notice that Paul is speaking of himself with the plural "we" in this passage, as he shows in verse 11, mentioning his evangelizing ministry and contrasting the "we" who persuade men and are known to God, with the hope that "your conscience" also has the same view of us. His words clearly have application to other people in principal, but he is speaking primarily of himself.
So what Paul says here is (v. 6) that he knows while he is in the body he is away from the Lord, which is certainly something that is true and which no Catholic would deny. We are not in the immediate, unmasked, visible presence of Christ in this life. So to this verse, a Catholic can simply say, "So what? Who does not know these things?"
Paul then states (v. 8) that he would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. This is the one which Protestant radio personalities slur into "to be absent from the body is to be present with Christ." That is not what Paul said.
First of all, he is speaking concerning himself, remember, not concerning people in general. There are quite a lot of Christians, and to be frank, it is the majority of them, who would much rather be present in the body than die and go to be with Jesus. Paul's preference for death to be with Jesus over life to stay in the body is nothing like a universal sentiment among Christians.
Second, he is expressing a desire. He desires something to happen. But there is a big difference between saying that one want's something to happen and that it will infallibly happen.
Third, there is an even bigger difference between saying one wants two things to happen and to say that when one happens the other will happen instantaneously. For example, if I as a single person said, "I want to go home and eat dinner," I would not mean that the instant I go home I will be eating dinner. Since I am a single person, before I can eat dinner I have to make dinner. There is obviously some time lag between my home-going and my dinner-eating. The same would can be said in the case of a person who says, "I want to go home and watch my favorite program." When one goes home, that does not mean one is instantaneously watching one's favorite program. In fact, it may be hours before one's favorite program comes on.
And notice that in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man Jesus pictures the dead soul as being carried by angels to his place of rest (Luke 16:22). Obviously, under this image, some transport time is pictured.
Fourth, it also does not follow, even if one thing automatically follows from another that the two are identical. If B follows from A, it does not warrant the statement that A is B, yet this is precisely the way in which Protestant radio personalities warp Paul's language when they declare, "Paul says, 'To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.'" They say this in such a way that it sounds like a direct quote, not a summary, and because many people never look up the verse to see what Paul actually says, they never realize that it isn't a direct quote, and so they are misled into thinking Scripture says something it does not.
Thus this (inaccurate) summary of Paul's language has passed into the realm of myth. It is one of those mythical verses that people have heard so often they think the Bible says it even though it actually doesn't (for example, "Spare the rod and spoil the child," "The lion shall lie down with the lamb," (among Pentecostals:) "Speaking in tongues is the evidence of baptism in the Holy Ghost," and the king of all mythical verses: "He helps those who help themselves"). The Protestant radio personalities thus contribute not only to the Biblical illiteracy of society in saying this, but to the Biblical mis-literacy.
Fifth, it is especially ironic that this passage is used to disprove purgatory since it speaks (vv. 9, 10, 11) of the need to please the Lord in this life because when we are absent from the body and present with the Lord we will have to "appear before the judgment seat of Christ" to give an account of everything we have done in our life in the body, which Paul says motivates him since he is one "knowing the fear of the Lord." So one can say, "You want to be absent from the body and instantaneously present with Christ? Fine! Good for you! But what is going to happen when you are absent from the body and present with Christ -- as this very passage shows -- is the particular judgment, at which you will give an account of every one of your deeds and your works will be tested by fire."
In any event, the first thing you should point out to a Protestant who uses the "absent from the body/present with Jesus" canard is: "That's not what Paul said. What he actually said is that he 'would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.' But there is a huge gulf between the statement 'I desire to A and to B' and the statement 'Everyone who does A will instantaneously do B,' much less the statement 'To A is to B'!"
The second thing you should point out is this: "Hey! Remember: Purgatory may be instantaneous! So even if we were instantaneously in Christ's presence after death (contrary to Christ's illustration of being carried by angels to our destiny), so what? That doesn't make one whit of difference to the Catholic position since time does not work the same way in the after life and purgatory may simply be an instantaneous 'in the twinkling of an eye' transformation."
8. "Praying for people in purgatory makes no sense."
One thing Protestants often have a hard time understanding, especially if they are aware of the fact that purgatory may take no time, is the practice of praying for those being sanctified. They will ask, "If one has died and the time of finding forgiveness is over, how can praying make any difference? And if one's purification takes no time, how can you pray for it after the fact?"
In answer to the first question, remember what purgatory is: The final stage of sanctification. Now sanctification can be painful or non-painful (usually the former), including the its final stage. So just as we may pray for others in this life to be made holy more quickly or in a non-painful way, so we may pray for those in the final stage of sanctification to be made holy more quickly or in a non-painful way.
Consider an analogy: 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.
In regard to the second question, how we can pray for someone if their purification was instantaneous, this is no different than praying for any past event. God is outside of time and so knows your request from all eternity, meaning he can apply your request to whatever period in time it is relevant to.
Thus many a Protestant minister, thinking of someone who has just died and whose profession of faith was doubtful, will say, "O Lord, if it is your will, may he have put his faith in your Son before he died!"
Similarly, many Protestant laity, when furiously rushing home because a terrible accident has happened and they are afraid someone, say their daughter, is dead, will pray, "O Lord, when I get there, may she not be dead! May she not be dead, O Lord!" Of course, either she is or she isn't. She has already died or not died. But it is still rational, because God is outside of time and hears all of our requests at once, to ask God to not have let something happen to her while we were gone.
C.S. Lewis, the well-known Protestant author, talks about prayer for past events quite extensively in his writings, and he makes the point that the only time it is irrational to pray for a past event is when one knows that it was not God's will to answer the prayer because one already knows how the event came out. Thus it would be irrational to pray that Abraham Lincoln not be assassinated, since one already knows that he was, or it would be irrational to pray that the Nazis lose a particular battle in World War II if one already knows they won that battle. In those cases it is irrational to pray since one already knows the will of God on the matter and knows that it was not your will. But so long as one does not know what God's will is concerning something, whether it is past, present, or future, it is still rational to pray.
Thus if it turns out that purgatory is instantaneous at the point of death, it is still rational to pray that that final sanctification will have gone easier on those who experienced it, the same way it is rational for a Protestant minister at a funeral to pray in his heart, "O Lord, may this man have put his trust in your Son!"
9. "It infringes on the sufficiency of Christ's work."
Okay. The idea here is that since purgatory involves suffering, it must some how infringe on the sufferings of Christ and imply they weren't sufficient.
Remember: Purgatory is simply the last stage of sanctification. Sanctification in this life involves pain, for "For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. . . . [And] For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant" (Hebrews 12:6, 11), yet no one says that suffering infringes on Christ's sufferings. In the same way, the suffering during the final sanctification in no way infringes on Christ's sufferings or implies they were insufficient.
Quite the contrary! The fact is that the suffering we experience in sanctification in this life is something we receive because of Christ's sacrifice for us. His sufferings paid the price for us to be sanctified, and his sufferings paid the price for the whole of our sanctification -- both the initial and final parts. Thus it is because of Christ's sacrifice that we receive the final sanctification in the first place! If he had not suffered, we would not be given the final sanctification (or the glorification to which it leads), but would go straight to hell. Thus purgatory does not imply Christ's sufferings were insufficient; rather it is because of Christ's sufferings that we are given the final sanctification of purgatory in the first place!
10. "It is completely unbiblical."
What we have said so far should reveal the falsity of this charge. Purgatory is in no way an unbiblical doctrine. Rather, it is completely biblical on both implicit and explicit grounds. Implicitly, it can be derived from the biblical principles that we still sin till death but that there will be no sin in glory. Thus between death and glorification must come purification.
Explicitly, we not only have the witness of passages such as 2 Maccabees 12, but also the witness of passages describing our accounting before Christ in the particular judgment, including the especially vivid depiction of one escaping through the flames in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15.
Jesus himself adds to this when he speaks in Matthew 12:32 of a sin which will neither be forgiven in this age nor the age to come, implying that some sins (venial ones of which we have not repented before death) will be forgiven when we repent the first moment of our afterlife.
Furthermore, in Matthew 5:25-26, Jesus tells us: "Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny."
In this parable God is the Judge, and if we have not reconciled with our neighbors before we see God, God will hold us accountable for the wrong we did to them. This is what the Bible means when it says that God will take our revenge for us, so we should not take it ourselves, because God will defend the cause of the poor and uphold the case of the widow. Whenever a poor person or widow (or anyone else) is oppressed or wronged, God will hold the oppressor accountable for what he did -- unless the wronged person freely chooses to forgive the offender. In that case, God will not hold the offender accountable for the wrong he did on a human level (i.e., against the human he wronged), but unless he has obtained forgiveness from God for the wrong he did against God, he will still be held accountable for that.
Thus in our sins against others they are two dimensions -- the human, by which we sin against our neighbor in the act, and the divine, by which we sin against God in the act. Thus theft is a sin against our neighbor from whom we stole and a sin against God, whose law we broke. We must obtain forgiveness from God for the divine aspect of our sin, but, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 5:25-26, we must obtain forgiveness for the human aspect of our sin from the human we sinned against. If we do not, God will hold us accountable.
Of course, since humans are finite beings, our sins against them can only merit finite punishment (compared to our sins against God, who is an infinite being, so our sins against him can merit infinite punishment). Because this punishment is finite, it must be temporary (for an eternal punishment is infinite since involves the reception of pain over an infinite period of time). But if this punishment we will receive when we are judged by God (according to Jesus' parable) is temporary, then it's purgatory. Thus Jesus says, "You will not get out until you have paid the last penny," because there is a time when your finite punishment due to the finite, human dimension of your sins will be over.
In any event, more than enough has been said to show the inaccuracy of the charge that purgatory is an unbiblical doctrine. In reality, it is very firmly rooted in Scripture.
11. "No Protestant could believe it."
Sorry, but this is also false. There are Protestants who believe in purgatory. One who was very explicit about it was C.S. Lewis. In his Letters to Malcom, he wrote:
"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."
But beyond Protestants like Lewis, who openly admit their belief in purgatory, it may be said that Protestants in general believe in purgatory, they just don't call it that. For every historic Protestant will admit that our sinning in this life does not continue into heaven. In fact, they will be quite insistent that although our sanctification is not complete in this life, it will be completed (instantaneously, they say) as soon as this life is over. But that is what purgatory is! -- the final sanctification, the purification. Thus it is permissible to say that many Protestants believe in purgatory without even realizing it.
A Positive Move
All of these reflections help one understand how to respond to challenges a Protestant may make to the doctrine of purgatory. However, since they are rebuttals, they do not of themselves constitute a positive explanation of the doctrine for Protestants. If one wants to do that -- to make an explanation of the doctrine rather than just to explain why the objections to it fail, then one should tie the preceding insights together and say something like this:
"Purgatory is the name that Catholics give to the final purification which occurs at the end of life. Because we still sin in this life, but will not be sinning when we are in glory, between death and glorification must come purification. This is something even Protestants admit. Purgatory is thus the final rush of our sanctification. It is our transition into glory. All through the Christian life God is purifying our hearts, giving us greater holiness, but this sanctifying process is not complete (or anything like complete) until the end of life. Thus what God did not choose to give us in this life, he chooses to give us once we are dead.
"The only additional points on which the Catholic Church insists concerning the final purification are that, like sanctification in this life, it can involve pain or discomfort, and that, as when someone is being sanctified in this life, we can pray for someone being sanctified in purgatory. The Church does not teach that purgatory occurs in a special region of the afterlife or even that it takes place over time, for we have little idea how time works in the afterlife, and purgatory may be instantaneous from our point of view."
You can then go on to back these up with the Bible verses and other material we have already discussed. In general, you should use the term "sanctification" rather than "purification" or "purging" because "sanctification" is a term Protestants understand and are comfortable with. By phrasing the doctrine in terms of sanctification it makes it intelligible to them and knocks down many of their key objections (for example, the idea that purgatory implies the sufferings of Christ were insufficient).
Thus it is helpful to talk about the souls being sanctified in purgatory and to describe purgatory as the final stage of sanctification. If you do this, it will make the conversation a lot smoother by talking in the language of the person you are talking with, rather than insisting he come over to using your language when he is only barely familiar (and highly skeptical, if not highly hostile) to the idea you are expressing.
Additionally, there are a couple of further points that you should make in your explanation, because many Protestants are confused about them.
Purgatory is not a middle destiny!
First, you should explain that purgatory is not a middle state between heaven and hell. This encourages the Protestant to think of it as not only a distinct region of the afterlife (something the Church does not teach) but, even worse, that purgatory is a middle destiny between heaven and hell. This it totally false, and you should emphasize quite strenuously to the Protestant that everyone who goes to purgatory goes to heaven. In fact, the reason one goes to purgatory is so that one can be fitted for life in heaven. Purgatory thus constitutes the cloakroom of heaven, the place you go to get spiffed up before being ushered into the Throne Room.
For this reason, you should totally avoid any language like, "Purgatory is where you go when you aren't bad enough for hell but not good enough for heaven." This language, besides sounding legalistic, is also going to get a Protestant thinking that purgatory is some kind of middle destiny rather than a temporary phenomenon. Instead, use the language the Church uses:
"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" (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1030).
Thus one should put the emphasis where it belongs, on the incomplete purification of the person rather than saying, "not good enough," which implies (at least to Protestant ears) a legalistic earning of heaven.
The Joys of Purgatory
To further break down the Protestant's barrier to comprehending the doctrine, point out that the Church in no way teaches that purgatory is all pain. In fact, some of the greatest saints and theologians have stressed that since the soul is in closer union with God than it is here on earth, one experiences correspondingly greater joys. Thus St. Catherine of Genoa wrote:
"God inspires the soul in Purgatory with so ardent a movement of devoted love that it would be sufficient to annihilate her were she not immortal. Illumined and inflamed by this pure charity, the more she loves God, the more she detests the least stain that displeases him, the least hindrance that prevents her union with him."
She also wrote:
"Apart from the happiness of the saints in heaven, I think there is no joy comparable to that of the souls in purgatory. An incessant communication with God renders their happiness daily more intense, and this union with God grows more and more intimate, according as the impediments to that union, which exist in the soul, are consumed. These obstacles . . . are the rust and the remains, as it were, of sin; and the fire continues to consume them, and thus the soul gradually expands under the divine influence. Thus, according as the rust diminishes and the soul is laid bare to the divine rays, happiness is augmented. The one grows and the other wanes until the time of trial is elapsed . . . With regard to the will of these souls, they can never say that these pains are pains, so great is their contentment with the ordinance of God, with which their wills are united in perfect charity."
In fact, the souls in purgatory have a large number of reasons for joy: (a) freedom from the committing of sin, (b) freedom from the desire to sin, (c) closer unity with God and Christ, (d) certainty of one's final salvation in a way not possible in this life, (e) a final and full appreciation of just how gracious God has been to one, (f) a final and full appreciation of just how much God loves one, (g) the at last unencumbered and pure love we will feel for God and for others, (h) partial rewards which may be given in anticipation of one's entrance into the full glory of heaven at the end of purgatory.
What's more, there is no teaching that the pains of purgatory outweigh the joys of purgatory. As St. Catherine says, "they can never say that these pains are pains, so great is their contentment with the ordinance of God, with which their will are united in perfect charity." It may (and in my view, it is quite likely) that the pain of seeing some of one's works go up in smoke is more than overbalanced by the joy of seeing some of them remain and inwardly hearing, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant," from the ever-loving and infinitely good Source of our redemption, our life, and our very existence.
Keep the doctrine in perspective
Finally, urge your Protestant brother or sister to keep the doctrine of purgatory in perspective. Protestants often feel (as I know because I was one) that Catholics place as much emphasis on given doctrines as Protestant anti-Catholic literature does. Thus, for example, when a Protestant thinks about a Catholic, he will more often think of him as someone which believes in purgatory rather than someone which believes in the Trinity, and he can mistakenly slip into thinking that purgatory is a more important doctrine to a Catholic than the Trinity.
Thus, because Protestant anti-Catholic polemics focus on areas of (real or perceived) disagreement with Catholics, these areas assume a greater prominence in the Protestant's mind and buys into a distorted view of how important given doctrines are to Catholics. Thus Protestants often imagine Catholicism is a religion of nothing but saints and statues and beads and works and penances and purgatory and suffering and a whole host of minor issues.
In doing this, they are straining at gnats but swallowing camels, missing "the weightier matters" of the Catholic faith and realizing what is more important to Catholics than not. Catholicism is in actuality a religion of God and Christ and the Trinity and redemption and forgiveness and faith and grace and joy, as illustrated by the fact that if you go to Mass and simply listen to the Church's official prayers, you hear a lot more about God and Christ and grace and joy than you do about saints and statues and beads and purgatory.
This should be pointed out, forcefully and repeatedly, to a Protestant brother so that he will have a better understanding of the essence of Catholic teaching and Catholic life, rather than assuming the discussion he hears in Protestant treatment is representative of the emphases Catholics themselves place on matters.
To this end, actually showing him the section on purgatory in the Catechism of the Catholic Church might be beneficial, since it is only three paragraphs out of seven hundred and fifty pages of explaining what the faith is about. To this end, let's close by simply looking at the Catechism's section on purgatory and let the Church speak for itself:
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.[Cf. Council of Florence (1439): DS 1304; Council of Trent (1563): DS 1820; (1547): 1580; see also Benedict XII, Benedictus Deus (1336): DS 1000] 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:[Cf. 1 Cor 3:15; 1 Pet 1:7]
"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."[St. Gregory the Great, Dial. 4, 39: PL 77, 396; cf. Mt 12:31]
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."[2 Macc 12:46] 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.[Cf. Council of Lyons II (1274): DS 856] The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:
"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."[St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in 1 Cor. 41, 5: PG 61, 361; cf. Job 1:5]
Copyright (c) 1996 by James Akin. All Rights Reserved.
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In 1769 James Boswell had this exchange with Samuel Johnson:
Boswell: "What do you think, Sir, of purgatory, as believed by the Roman Catholicks?"
Johnson: "Why, Sir, it is a very harmless doctrine. They are of the opinion that the generality of mankind are neither so obstinately wicked as to deserve everlasting punishment, nor so good as to merit being admitted into the society of blessed spirits; and therefore that God is graciously pleased to allow a middle state, where they may be purified by certain degrees of suffering. You see, Sir, there is nothing unreasonable in this."
Boswell: "But then, Sir, their Masses for the dead?"
Johnson: "Why, Sir, if it be at once established that there are souls in purgatory, it is as proper to pray for them, as for our brethren of mankind who are yet in this life."
Although Johnson was no "Catholick," he recognized that the doctrine of purgatory is not at odds with other tenets of Christianity. In fact, as he may have known, there is considerable scriptural warrant for it, even if the doctrine is not explicitly set out in the Bible.
The doctrine can be stated briefly. Purgatory is a state of purification, where the soul which has fully repented of its sins, but which has not fully expiated them, has removed the last elements of uncleanliness. In purgatory all remaining love of self is transformed into love of God.
At death one's soul goes to heaven, if it is completely fit for heaven; to purgatory, if it is not yet ready for heaven, but not worthy of condemnation; or to hell, if it is completely unfit for heaven. But purgatory is a temporary state. Everyone who enters it will get to heaven, and, after the last soul leaves purgatory for heaven on Judgment Day, purgatory will cease to exist. There will remain only heaven and hell.
When we die, we undergo what is called the particular, or individual, judgment. Scripture says that "it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Heb. 9:27). We are judged instantly and receive our reward, for good or ill. We know at once what our final destiny will be. At the end of time, though, when the last people have died, there will come the general judgment which the Bible refers to, for example, in Matthew 25:31-32: "When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats." In it all ours sins will be publicly revealed (Luke 12:2-5).
Augustine said, in The City of God, that "temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment." It is between the particular and general judgments, then, that the soul expiates its sins: "I tell you, you will never get out till you have paid the very last copper." (Luke 12:59).
Fundamentalists are fond of saying the Catholic Church "invented" the doctrine of purgatory, but they have lots of trouble saying just when. Most professional anti-Catholics--the ones who make their living attacking "Romanism"--seem to place the blame on Pope Gregory the Great, who reigned from 590-604.
But that hardly accounts for the request of Monica, mother of Augustine, who asked her son, in the fourth century, to remember her soul in his Masses. This would make no sense if she thought her soul would not be able to be helped by prayers, if she thought there was no possibility of being somewhere other than heaven or hell.
Still less does the ascription of the doctrine to Gregory account for the graffiti in the catacombs, where the earliest Christians, during the persecutions of the first three centuries, recorded prayers for the dead. Indeed, some of the earliest non-inspired Christian writings, like the Acts of Paul and Thecla and the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity (both written second century) refer to the Christian practice of praying for the dead. Such prayers would have been made only if Christians believed in purgatory, even if they did not use that name for it.
Why No Protests?
No, the historical argument breaks down. Whenever a date is set for the "invention" of purgatory, you can point to something to show the doctrine was already old many years before that date. Besides, if at some point the doctrine was pulled out of a clerical hat, why does ecclesiastical history record no protest against it?
A study of the history of doctrines shows that Christians in the first centuries were up in arms (sometimes quite literally) if anyone suggested the least change in beliefs. They were extremely conservative people, their test of the truth of a doctrine being, Was this believed by our ancestors? Was it handed on from the apostles? Surely belief in purgatory would be considered a great change, if it had not been believed from the first--so where are the records of protests?
Well, they don't exist. There is no hint at all, in the oldest writings available to us (or in later ones, for that matter), that "true believers" in the immediate post-apostolic years complained about purgatory as a novel doctrine. They must have understood that the oral teaching of the apostles, what Catholics call Tradition, and the Bible not only did not contradict the doctrine, but endorsed it.
It is no wonder, then, that professional anti-Catholics spend little time on the history of the belief. (Who can blame them for avoiding an unpleasant subject?) They prefer to claim, instead, that the Bible speaks only of heaven and hell. Wrong again. It speaks quite plainly of a third place, where Christ went after his death, the place commonly called the Limbo of the Fathers, where the just who had died before the Redemption were waiting for heaven to be opened to them (1 Pet. 3:19). This place was neither heaven nor hell.
Even if the Limbo of the Fathers was not purgatory, its existence shows that a temporary, intermediate state is not contrary to Scripture. Look at it this way. If the Limbo of the Fathers was purgatory, then this one verse directly teaches the existence of purgatory. If the Limbo of the Fathers was a different temporary state, then the Bible at least says such a state can exist. It at least proves there can be more than just heaven and hell.
Sometimes Protestants object that Jesus told the thief on the cross that on the very day the two of them died, they would be together in paradise (Luke 23:43), which they read as a denial of purgatory. In actuality, this argument boomerangs on the Fundamentalist and it supports purgatory by proving the existence of at least some state other than heaven and hell, since Jesus did not go to heaven on the day he died. Peter tells us that he "went and preached to the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:19), and after his resurrection, Christ himself declared: "I have not yet ascended to the Father" (John 20:17). Thus at that time paradise was located in some third state besides heaven and besides hell.
"Purgatory Not in Scripture"
Some Fundamentalists also charge, as though it actually proved something, "The word purgatory is nowhere found in Scripture." This is true, of course, but it's hardly the point. The words Trinity and Incarnation aren't in Scripture either, yet those doctrines are clearly taught in it. Likewise, Scripture teaches that purgatory exists, even if it doesn't use that word and even if 1 Peter 3:19 refers to a place other than purgatory.
Christ refers to the sinner who "will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come" (Matt. 12:32). This implies expiation can occur after death. Paul tells us that at the day of judgment each man's work will be tried. This trial happens after death. And what happens if a man's work fails the test? "He will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire" (1 Cor 3:15). Now this loss, this penalty, can't refer to consignment to hell, since no one is saved there; and heaven can't be meant, since there is no suffering ("fire") there. The Catholic doctrine of Purgatory alone explains this passage. Notice that Paul is making four distinct points here. First, this purifying judgment of the works is done after death ("each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it" [v. 13]--the "Day" spoke of here is the day one dies and stands before God to be judged [cf. Heb. 9:27]). Second, the person going through this someone who dies in the state of grace, meaning , they are in a state of friendship with Christ ("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 . . ." [v. 11-12]). Third, this purification involves suffering ("If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss . . . [v. 15]). And four, when this purification
Then, of course, there is the Bible's approval of prayers for the dead: "In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the dead to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin" (2 Macc. 12:43-46). Prayers are not needed by those in heaven, and they can't help those in hell. That means some people must be in a third place, at least temporarily. This verse is so clear on the existence of purgatory that at the time of the Reformation, Protestants had to cut the book out of their Bibles in which it is found out of the Bible in order to avoid accepting the doctrine (Luther, for example also wanted to cut out James, Hebrews, and Revelation).
The fact is that prayer for the dead and the consequent doctrine of purgatory have been part of the true religion since before the time of Christ. Not only can we show it was practiced by the Jews of the time of the Maccabees, but it has even been retained by orthodox Jews today, who recite a prayer known as the Mourner's Qaddish for eleven months after the death of a loved one so that the loved one may be purified. It was not Catholic who added the doctrine of purgatory, but Protestants who, at the time of the Reformation, rejected a doctrine that had always been believed by Jews and Christians--and they cut out a book of the Bible to justify their rejection of it.
Why Go To Purgatory?
Why would anyone go to purgatory? To be cleansed. "But nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]" (Rev. 21:27). Anyone who has not completely expiated his sins--that is, not just had them forgiven, but "made up" for them in this life--is, to some extent, "unclean." Through repentance he may have gained the grace needed to qualify for heaven (which is to say, his soul is spiritually alive), but that's not enough. He needs to be cleansed completely.
Fundamentalists claim, as an article in Jimmy Swaggart's magazine, The Evangelist, put it, that "Scripture clearly reveals that all the demands of divine justice on the sinner have been completely fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It also reveals that Christ has totally redeemed, or purchased back, that which was lost. The advocates of a purgatory (and the necessity of prayer for the dead) say, in effect, that the redemption of Christ was incomplete. . . . It has all been done for us by Jesus Christ, there is nothing to be added or done by man."
It is entirely correct to say that Christ accomplished all of our salvation for us on the cross. But that does not settle the question of how this redemption is applied to us. Scripture reveals that it is applied to us over the course of time through, among other things, the process of sanctification through which the Christian is made holy. Sanctification involves suffering (Rom. 5:3-5), and purgatory is simply the "finishing touches" stage of sanctification that some of us need to undergo before we enter heaven--required since "nothing unclean can ever enter heaven." Purgatory is the final phase of Christ applying to us the purifying redemption that he accomplished for us by his death on the cross.
The Fundamentalist resistance to the biblical doctrine of purgatory presumes there is a contradiction between the Redemption and our suffering in expiation for our sins. There isn't, whether that suffering is in this life or in the next. Paul said he rejoices "in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions" (Col. 1:24). Ronald Knox explained this passage by noting that "the obvious meaning is that Christ's sufferings, although fully satisfactory on behalf of our sins, leave us under a debt of honor, as it were, to repay them by sufferings of our own."
Paul didn't imply there was something lacking in the Redemption, that Christ couldn't pull it off on his own, and no Fundamentalist misreads Colossians 1:24 that way. Analogously, it is not contrary to the Redemption to say we must suffer for our sins; it is a matter of justice. We can suffer here, or hereafter, or in both places, as Augustine wrote.
But some say, "God doesn't demand expiation after having forgiven sins." Tell that to King David. When he repented, God sent Nathan with a message for him: "The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die" (2 Sam. 12:13-14). Even after David's sin was forgiven, he had to undergo expiation. Can we expect less? Fundamentalists think the answer is Yes, because Christ removed the need for any expiation on our part, but the Bible nowhere teaches that.
The main reason for such strong opposition to purgatory is that it can't coexist with Fundamentalism's notion of salvation. For Fundamentalists, salvation comes by "accepting Christ as one's personal Savior." Aside from that one act of acceptance, no acts--meaning no good deeds and no sins--make any difference with respect to one's salvation.
If you are "born again" in the Fundamentalists' sense, you are already saved, and nothing can keep you from heaven. If you are not "born again," you are damned. In Fundamentalism's scheme of things, purgatory would be superfluous, since cleansing before entering heaven would be unnecessary, on the notion that every soul is unclean and that God ignores the uncleanliness by "covering" the soul's sinfulness.
Purgatory makes sense only if there is a requirement that a soul not just be declared to be clean, but actually be clean. After all, if a guilty soul is merely "covered," if its sinful state still exists but is officially ignored, then, for all the protestations that may be given, it is still a guilty soul. It is still unclean. A man who has not bathed in a month is not cleansed merely by putting on clean clothes; clean clothes won't remove the dirt. Likewise, "covering" a soul won't purify it; its dirty state is merely hidden from view.
Catholic theology takes literally the notion that "nothing unclean shall enter heaven." From this it is inferred that a dirty soul, even if "covered," remains a dirty soul and isn't fit for heaven. It needs to be cleansed or "purged" of its dirtiness. The purging comes in purgatory. Indeed, the necessity of the purging is taught in other passages of Scripture, such as 2 Thessalonians 2:13, which declares that God chose us "to be saved through sanctification by the Spirit." Sanctification is thus not an option, something that may or may not happen before one gets into heaven. It is an absolute requirement, as Hebrews 12:14 states that we must strive "for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord."
Money, Money, Money
There is another argument commonly used against purgatory. It's that the Catholic Church makes money off the doctrine. Without purgatory, the claim goes, the Church would go broke. Any number of anti-Catholic books, from the tamest to the most bizarre, claim the Church owes the majority of its wealth to this doctrine. But the numbers just don't add up.
When a Catholic requests a memorial Mass for the dead--that is, a Mass said for the benefit of someone in purgatory--it is customary to give the parish priest a stipend, on the principle that the laborer is worth his hire (Luke 10:7) and those who preside at the altar share the altar's offerings (1 Cor. 9:13-14). In the United States, a stipend is commonly around five dollars, but the indigent do not have to pay anything, and no parish maintains a "schedule of fees." A few people, of course, freely offer more. On average, though, a parish can expect to receive something less than five dollars by way of stipend for each memorial Mass said. These Masses are usually said on weekdays. Furthermore, this money goes to the parish priest, and priests are only allowed to receive one such stipend per day. The bottom line is: No one gets rich on five dollars a day, and certainly not the Church, which does not receive the money, anyway.
But look at what happens on a Sunday. There are often hundreds of people at Mass. In a crowded parish, there may be thousands. Many families and individuals deposit five dollars or more into the collection basket; others deposit less. A few give much more. A parish might have four or five or six Masses on a Sunday. The total from the Sunday collections far outstrips the paltry amount received from the memorial Masses. The facts are that no Catholic parish gets rich off Mass stipends--or even gets much at all.
In interpreting the Bible, in determining whether the doctrine of purgatory contradicts or confirms what is found in its pages, we come upon a recurring question: "Who is to decide?" It hardly suffices to say, "Let the Bible itself decide," since it is the interpretation of the Bible that is in question and no book, not even the Bible, can be self-interpreting. We either interpret it ourselves, using our own resources, or we listen to the word of a divinely-appointed interpreter, if one has been established.
Catholics hold that Christ empowered the Church to give infallible interpretations of the Bible. "I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:12-13). This Jesus said to the apostles. Later, the apostle Paul taught that the Church is "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3:15).
This takes us, of course, to the rule of faith--Is it to be found in the Bible alone or in the Bible and Apostolic Tradition, as handed down by the Church (2 Thess. 2:15, 2 Tim. 2:2)? That is a theme that must be handled elsewhere, but the reader should be aware that the controversy about purgatory is really a controversy about much more than purgatory.
Purgatory has just been a convenient battle ground. The ultimate disagreement concerns the doctrine of sola scriptura. If Fundamentalists understood why that doctrine won't wash--why, in fact, it's contrary to Scripture--they would have little difficulty in accepting purgatory and other Catholic beliefs which are not explicitly set forth in the Bible.
The Existence of Purgatory
A fundamental truth of the Christian faith is that we will not be sinning in heaven. Sin and final glorification are incompatible. Therefore between the sinfulness of this life and the glories of heaven we must be made pure. Between death and glory there is a purification.
Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "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. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned" (CCC 1030-1).
The concept of a purification after death from sin and the consequences of sin is also stated in the New Testament in passages such as 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, Matthew 5:25-26, and 12:31-32.
The doctrine of purgatory, or the final purification, has been part of the true faith since before the time of Christ. The Jews already believed it before the coming of the Messiah, as revealed in the Old Testament (2 Macc. 12:41-46) as well as other pre-Christian Jewish works, such as one which records that Adam will be in mourning "until the day of dispensing punishment in the last years, when I will turn his sorrow into joy" (The Life of Adam and Eve 46-7). Orthodox Jews to this day believe in the final purification, and for eleven months after the death of a loved one they pray a prayer called the Mourner's Qaddish for their loved one's purification.
Jews, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox have always historically proclaimed the reality of the final purification. It was not until the Protestant Reformers came in the 1500s that anyone denied this doctrine. As the following quotes from the early Church Fathers show, purgatory has been part of the Christian faith from the very beginning.
Some imagine that the Catholic Church has an elaborate doctrine of purgatory worked out, but basically there are only three things that are essential components of the doctrine: (1) that a purification after death exists, (2) that it involves some kind of pain, and (3) that the purification can be assisted by the prayers and offerings of the living to God. Other ideas, such that purgatory is a particular "place" in the afterlife or that it takes time to accomplish, are speculations rather than doctrines.
The Acts of Paul and Thecla
"And after the exhibition, Tryphaena again received her [Thecla]. For her daughter Falconilla had died, and said to her in a dream: 'Mother, you shall have this stranger Thecla in my place, in order that she may pray concerning me, and that I may be transferred to the place of the righteous'" (Acts of Paul and Thecla [A.D. 160]).
"The citizen of a prominent city, I erected this while I lived, that I might have a resting place for my body. Abercius is my name, a disciple of the chaste shepherd who feeds his sheep on the mountains and in the fields, who has great eyes surveying everywhere, who taught me the faithful writings of life. 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" (Epitaph of Abercius [A.D. 190]).
"[T]hat very night, this was shown to me in a vision: I saw Dinocrates going out from a gloomy place, where also there were several others, and he was parched and very thirsty, with a filthy countenance and pallid color, and the wound on his face which he had when he died. This Dinocrates had been my brother after the flesh, seven years of age, who died miserably with disease . . . For him I had made my prayer, and between him and me there was a large interval, so that neither of us could approach to the other. . . . and [I] knew that my brother was in suffering. But I trusted that my prayer would bring help to his suffering; and I prayed for him every day until we passed over into the prison of the camp, for we were to fight in the camp-show. Then . . . I made my prayer for my brother day and night, groaning and weeping that he might be granted to me. Then, on the day on which we remained in fetters, this was shown to me. I saw that that place which I had formerly observed to be in gloom was now bright; and Dinocrates, with a clean body well clad, was finding refreshment. . . . [And] he went away from the water to play joyously, after the manner of children, and I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment" (The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity 2:3-4 [A.D. 202]).
"[T]hat allegory of the Lord [Matt. 5:25-26] . . . is extremely clear and simple in its meaning . . . [beware lest as] a transgressor of your agreement, before God the Judge . . . and lest this Judge deliver you over to the angel who is to execute the sentence, and he commit you to the prison of hell, out of which there will be no dismissal until the smallest even of your delinquencies be paid off in the period before the resurrection. What can be a more fitting sense than this? What a truer interpretation?" (The Soul 35 [A.D. 210]).
"We offer sacrifices for the dead on their birthday anniversaries" (The Crown 3:3 [A.D. 211]).
"A woman, after the death of her husband ... prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection. And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice" (Monogamy 10:1-2 [A.D. 216]).
Cyprian of Carthage
"The strength of the truly believing remains unshaken; and with those who fear and love God with their whole heart, their integrity continues steady and strong. For to adulterers even a time of repentance is granted by us, and peace [i.e., reconciliation] is given. Yet virginity is not therefore deficient in the Church, nor does the glorious design of continence languish through the sins of others. The Church, crowned with so many virgins, flourishes; and chastity and modesty preserve the tenor of their glory. Nor is the vigor of continence broken down because repentance and pardon are facilitated to the adulterer. It is one thing to stand for pardon, another thing to attain to glory; it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire; another to have purged all sins by suffering. It is one thing, in fine, to be in suspense till the sentence of God at the day of judgment; another to be at once crowned by the Lord." (Letters 51:20 [A.D. 253]).
"But also, when God will judge the just, it is likewise in fire that he will try them. At that time, they whose sins are uppermost, either because of their gravity or their number, will be drawn together by the fire and will be burned. Those, however, who have been imbued with full justice and maturity of virtue, will not feel that fire; for they have something of God in them which will repel and turn back the strength of the flame" (Divine Institutes 7:21:6 [A.D. 307]).
Cyril of Jerusalem
"Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition; next, we make mention also of the holy fathers and bishops who have already fallen asleep, and, to put it simply, of all among us who have already fallen asleep, for we believe that it will be of very great benefit to the souls of those for whom the petition is carried up, while this holy and most solemn sacrifice is laid out" (Catechetical Lectures 23:5:9 [A.D. 350]).
Epiphanius of Salamis
"Useful too is the prayer fashioned on their behalf, even if it does not force back the whole of guilty charges laid to them. And it is useful also, because in this world we often stumble either voluntarily or involuntarily, and thus it is a reminder to do better" (Medicine Chest Against All Heresies 75:8 [A.D. 375]).
Gregory of Nyssa
"If a man distinguish in himself what is peculiarly human from that which is irrational, and if he be on the watch for a life of greater urbanity for himself, in this present life he will purify himself of any evil contracted, overcoming the irrational by reason. If he have inclined to the irrational pressure of the passions, using for the passions the cooperating hide of things irrational, he may afterward in a quite different manner be very much interested in what is better, when, after his departure out of the body, he gains knowledge of the difference between virtue and vice and finds that he is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by the purifying fire" (Sermon on the Dead [A.D. 382]).
"Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice [Job 1:5], 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" (Homilies on 1 Corinthians 41:5 [A.D. 392]).
"Weep for those who die in their wealth and who with all their wealth prepared no consolation for their own souls, who had the power to wash away their sins and did not will to do it. Let us weep for them, let us assist them to the extant of our ability, let us think of some assistance for them, small as it may be, yet let us somehow assist them. But how, and in what way? By praying for them and by entreating others to pray for them, by constantly giving alms to the poor on their behalf. Not in vain was it decreed by the apostles that in the awesome mysteries remembrance should be made of the departed. They knew that here there was much gain for them, much benefit. when the entire people stands with hands uplifted, a priestly assembly, and that awesome sacrificial Victim is laid out, how, when we are calling upon God, should we not succeed in their defense? But this is done for those who have departed in the faith, while even the catechumens are not reckoned as worthy of this consolation, but are deprived of every means of assistance except one. And what is that? We may give alms to the poor on their behalf" (Homilies on Philippians 3:9-10 [A.D. 402]).
"There is an ecclesiastical discipline, as the faithful know, when the names of the martyrs are read aloud in that place at the altar of God, where prayer is not offered for them. Prayer, however, is offered for other dead who are remembered. It is wrong to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we ought ourselves be commended" (Sermons 159:1 [A.D. 411]).
"But by the prayers of the Holy Church, and by the salvific sacrifice, and by the alms which are given for their spirits, there is no doubt that the dead are aided, that the Lord might deal more mercifully with them than their sins would deserve. The whole Church observes this practice which was handed down by the Fathers: that it prays for those who have died in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, when they are commemorated in their own place in the sacrifice itself; and the sacrifice is offered also in memory of them, on their behalf. If, then, works of mercy are celebrated for the sake of those who are being remembered, who would hesitate to recommend them, on whose behalf prayers to God are not offered in vain? It is not at all to be doubted that such prayers are of profit to the dead; but for such of them as lived before their death in a way that makes it possible for these things to be useful to them after death" (ibid., 172:2).
"Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by 'some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment" (The City of God 21:13 [A.D. 419]).
"The prayer either of the Church herself or of pious individuals is heard on behalf of certain of the dead, but it is heard for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not for the rest of their life in the body do such wickedness that they might be judged unworthy of such mercy [as prayer], nor who yet lived so well that it might be supposed they have no need of such mercy [as prayer]" (ibid., 21:24:2).
"That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible, and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire" (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Charity 18:69 [A.D. 421]).
"The time which interposes between the death of a man and the final resurrection holds souls in hidden retreats, accordingly as each is deserving of rest or of hardship, in view of what it merited when it was living in the flesh. Nor can it be denied that the souls of the dead find relief through the piety of their friends and relatives who are still alive, when the Sacrifice of the Mediator [Mass] is offered for them, or when alms are given in the Church. But these things are of profit to those who, when they were alive, merited that they might afterward be able to be helped by these things. There is a certain manner of living, neither so good that there is no need of these helps after death, nor yet so wicked that these helps are of no avail after death" (ibid., 29:109).
The Hell There Is!
The doctrine of hell is so frightening, almost every heretical cult end up denying the reality of an eternal hell. The Unitarians, the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Christadelphians, Christian Science, Religious Science, the New Agers, and the Mormons--all have rejected or modified the doctrine of hell so radically that it is no longer a serious threat. In recent decades, this decay has even set in on mainstream Evangelicalism, and a number of major Evangelical figures have been advocating the view that there is no eternal hell and the wicked will simply be annihilated.
But the eternal nature of hell is something that is stressed a variety of places in the New Testament. For example, in Mark 9:47-48 Jesus warns us, "[I]t is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched." And in Revelation 14:11, we read: "And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night, these worshipers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name."
Hell is not just a theoretical possibility. Jesus warns us that a real people go there, saying: "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few" (Matt. 7:13-14).
For these reasons, the Catholic Church is absolutely firm in teaching the reality of hell. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: "The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, 'eternal fire.' The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs" (CCC 1035).
And in his 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II wrote that too often "preachers, catechists, teachers . . . no longer have the courage to preach the threat of hell" (p. 183).
Concerning the reality of hell, the pope says, "In point of fact, the ancient councils rejected the theory . . . according to which the world would be regenerated after destruction, and every creature would be saved; a theory which abolished hell. . . . [T]he words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew's Gospel he speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Mt. 25:46). [But] Who will these be? The Church has never made any pronouncement in this regard" (pp. 185-6).
Thus the issue that some will go to hell is decided, but the issue of who in particular will go to hell is undecided.
The early Church Fathers were also absolutely firm on the reality of an eternal hell, as the following quotes show.
Ignatius of Antioch
"Corrupters of families will not inherit the kingdom of God. And if they who do these things according to the flesh suffer death. how much more if a man corrupt by evil reaching the faith of God. for the sake of which Jesus Christ was crucified? A man become so foul will depart into unquenchable fire: and so will anyone who listens to him" (Letter to the Ephesians 16:1-2 [A.D. 110]).
"If we do the will of Christ, we shall obtain rest; but if not, if we neglect his commandments, nothing will rescue us from eternal punishment" (Second Clement 5:5 [A.D. 150]).
"But when they see how those who have sinned and who have denied Jesus by their words or by their deeds are punished with terrible torture in unquenchable fire, the righteous, who have done good, and who have endured tortures and have hated the luxuries of life, will give glory to their God saying, 'There shall be hope for him that has served God with all his heart!'" (ibid., 17:7).
"No more is it possible for the evildoer, the avaricious, and the treacherous to hide from God than it is for the virtuous. Every man will receive the eternal punishment or reward which his actions deserve. Indeed, if all men recognized this, no one would choose evil even for a short time, knowing that he would incur the eternal sentence of fire. On the contrary, he would take every means to control himself and to adorn himself in virtue, so that he might obtain the good gifts of God and escape the punishments" (First Apology 12 [A.D. 151]).
"We have been taught that only they may aim at immortality who have lived a holy and virtuous life near to God. We believe that they who live wickedly and do not repent will be punished in everlasting fire" (ibid., 21).
"[Jesus] shall come from the heavens in glory with his angelic host, when he shall raise the bodies of all the men who ever lived. Then he will clothe the worthy in immortality; but the wicked, clothed in eternal sensibility, he will commit to the eternal fire, along with the evil demons" (ibid., 52).
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
"Fixing their minds on the grace of Christ, [the martyrs] despised worldly tortures and purchased eternal life with but a single hour. To them, the fire of their cruel torturers was cold. They kept before their eyes their escape from the eternal and unquenchable fire" (Martyrdom of Polycarp 2:3 [A.D. 155]).
"When you know what is the true life, that of heaven; when you despise the merely apparent death, which is temporal; when you fear the death which is real, and which is reserved for those who will be condemned to the everlasting fire, the fire which will punish even to the end those who are delivered to it, then you will condemn the deceit and error of the world" (Letter to Diognetus 10:7 [A.D. 160]).
"[W]e [Christians] are persuaded that when we are removed from this present life we shall live another life, better than the present one . . . Then we shall abide near God and with God, changeless and free from suffering in the soul . . . or if we fall with the rest [of mankind], a worse one and in fire; for God has not made us as sheep or beasts of burden, a mere incidental work, that we should perish and be annihilated" (Plea for the Christians 31 [A.D. 177]).
Theophilus of Antioch
"Give studious attention to the prophetic writings [the Bible] and they will lead you on a clearer path to escape the eternal punishments and to obtain the eternal good things of God.. [God] will examine everything and will judge justly, granting recompense to each according to merit. To those who seek immortality by the patient exercise of good works, he will give everlasting life, joy, peace, rest, and all good things.. For the unbelievers and for the contemptuous, and for those who do not submit to the truth but assent to iniquity, when they have been involved in adulteries, and fornications, and homosexualities, and avarice, and in lawless idolatries, there will be wrath and indignation, tribulation and anguish; and in the end, such men as these will be detained in everlasting fire" (To Autolycus 1:14 [A.D. 181]).
Irenaeus of Lyons
"[God will] send the spiritual forces of wickedness, and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, and the impious, unjust, lawless, and blasphemous among men into everlasting fire" (Against Heresies 1:10:1 [A.D. 189]).
Irenaeus of Lyons
"The penalty increases for those who do not believe the Word of God and despise his coming ... [I]t is not merely temporal, but eternal. To whomsoever the Lord shall say, 'Depart from me, accursed ones, into the everlasting fire,' they will be damned forever" (ibid., 4:28:2).
"After the present age is ended he will judge his worshipers for a reward of eternal life and the godless for a fire equally perpetual and unending" (Apology 18:3 [A.D. 197]).
"Then will the entire race of men be restored to receive its just deserts according to what it has merited in this period of good and evil, and thereafter to have these paid out in an immeasurable and unending eternity. Then there will be neither death again nor resurrection again, but we shall be always the same as we are now, without changing. The worshippers of God shall always be with God, clothed in the proper substance of eternity. But the godless and those who have not turned wholly to God will be punished in fire equally unending, and they shall have from the very nature of this fire, divine as it were, a supply of incorruptibility" (ibid., 44:12-13).
"Standing before [Christ's] judgment, all of them, men, angels, and demons, crying out in one voice, shall say: 'Just if your judgment!' And the righteousness of that cry will be apparent in the recompense made to each. To those who have done well, everlasting enjoyment shall be given; while to the lovers of evil shall be given eternal punishment. The unquenchable and unending fire awaits these latter, and a certain fiery worm which does not die and which does not waste the body but continually bursts forth from the body with unceasing pain. No sleep will give them rest; no night will soothe them; no death will deliver them from punishment; no appeal of interceding friends will profit them" (Against the Greeks 3 [A.D. 212]).
"I am not ignorant of the fact that many, in the consciousness of what they deserve, would rather hope than actually believe that there is nothing for them after death. They would prefer to be annihilated rather than be restored for punishment. . . . Nor is there either measure nor end to these torments. That clever fire burns the limbs and restores them, wears them away and yet sustains them, just as fiery thunderbolts strike bodies but do not consume them" (Octavius 34:12-5:3 [A.D. 226]).
Cyprian of Carthage
"An ever-burning Gehenna and the punishment of being devoured by living flames will consume the condemned; nor will thee be any way in which the tormented can ever have respite or be at an end. Souls along with their bodies will be preserved for suffering in unlimited agonies. . . . The grief at punishment will then be without the fruit of repentance; weeping will be useless, and prayer ineffectual. Too late will they believe in eternal punishment, who would not believe in eternal life" (To Demetrian 24 [A.D. 252]).
Cyprian of Carthage
"Oh, what a day that will be, and how great when it comes, dearest brethren! When the Lord ... [will] cast into hell evildoers and will condemn our persecutors to the eternal fire and to punishing flame!" (Letters 58:10 [A.D. 253]).
"[T]he sacred writings inform us in what manner the wicked are to undergo punishment. For because they have committed sins in their bodies, they will again be clothed with flesh, that they may make atonement in their bodies; and yet it will not be that flesh with which God clothed man, like this our earthly body, but indestructible, and abiding for ever, that it may be able to hold out against tortures and everlasting fire, the nature of which is different from this fire of ours, which we use for the necessary purposes of life, and which is extinguished unless it be sustained by the fuel of some material. But that divine fire always lives by itself, and flourishes without any nourishment . . . The same divine fire, therefore, with one and the same force and power, will both burn the wicked and will form them again, and will replace as much as it shall consume of their bodies, and will supply itself with eternal nourishment . . . Thus, without any wasting of bodies, which regain their substance, it will only burn and affect them with a sense of pain. But when He shall have judged the righteous, He will also try them with fire" (Divine Institutes 7:21 [A.D. 307]).
Cyril of Jerusalem
"We shall be raised therefore, all with our bodies eternal, but not all with bodies alike: for if a man is righteous, he will receive a heavenly body, that he may be able worthily to hold converse with Angels; but if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. And righteously will God assign this portion to either company; for we do nothing without the body. We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest in like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the fruits of the past" (Catechetical Lectures 18:19 [A.D. 350]).
"In everlasting punishment they [the soldiers who murdered my new converts] will become slaves of hell along with him [Coroticus], for truly whosoever commits sin is a slave, and is called a son of the Devil" (Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus 4 [A.D. 452]).