Purgatory is an intermediate state of purification between death and heaven for those who die with venial sins for an amount of time appropriate to the amount and severity of the sins as deemed by God to remove the temporal effects of sin.
It is the final purification so that one’s soul can enter heaven unblemished.
What does Purgatory Mean?
The word purgatory comes from the word purge. It is a ‘place’ to purge the attachment to sin and the temporal effects of sin. Purgatory is often thought to be a place of suffering because it is painful to ‘pay’ for past sins and to give up your attachment to sin. It is also often referred to as a place, however it should really be thought of as a process or state of purification and not a physical location.
Because it is thought of as a place of suffering, purgatory is often used as a colloquial term to mean anything that is difficult or causes suffering. In these cases, it’s not referring to the Catholic doctrine.
Who Goes to Purgatory?
Not everyone who dies goes to purgatory. Those who do make it to purgatory die in the state of grace. They are the children of God, who before death, were guilty of venial sins or have failed to do sufficient penance for sins already forgiven. They may still have some attachment to sin, but they die in a state of friendship with God. Purgatory is not an opportunity where the unrepentant can avoid hell or a last chance to choose heaven. Instead it is a last stop for purification to prepare for heaven.
In Revelation 21:27, God tells us that nothing imperfect can enter heaven.
“but nothing unclean will enter it, nor any[one] who does abominable things or tells lies.”
Only those with no blemishes on their souls immediately enter heaven. Those who have not repented and confessed their mortal sins will go to hell. Seeing as how, when we die, many of us will not fit in either of those two extreme categories we must fit somewhere else, somewhere in the middle called purgatory.
The majority of people are neither so free from sin and attachment to sin as to gain immediate entrance into heaven, nor so attached to sin and unrepentant as to be punished forever in hell.
Those people who have repented and confessed their sins will likely go to purgatory on their way to heaven to be purged removing the temporal effects of sin so that the soul is clean enough to enter heaven. One can reduce the amount of time spent in purgatory by means of an indulgence.
Purgatory is rooted in the Bible. Assurance of salvation and automatic entrance into heaven are not biblical. For if that were true one would have to be as perfect as Jesus, of which no human is capable; you would have to not have the ability to sin.
The Temporal Effects of Sin
This may come off as a strange phrase but it is most easily understood by way of analogy. Let’s say someone shoplifts $100 worth of goods. That person eventually repents returns to the shop owner and asks for forgiveness. The shop owner forgives that person. Everything is good right? Not quite, the shop owner is still out $100. While he has forgiven the shoplifter, he has not been made whole. The repayment of at least $100 is the just temporal punishment for his sin.
Likewise, when we sin we accrue temporal punishment for our sins and often it is not paid before we die.
Everyone is a Sinner
We know that God gave each of us the freedom to sin by giving us free will. Sin is the rejection of God and we can either choose God or reject God even after baptism. Thankfully God offers us the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation to make right again our relationship with him and purgatory to cleanse us to be in perfect union with him in heaven.
Purgatory is Rooted in God’s Justice
Human justice and divine justice are somewhat similar because our human system is modeled after the divine system. Without the divine justice system we could have no human justice system.
Human justice recognizes big criminals and little criminals and punishes them accordingly. It has a jail to punish some criminals for one, ten, or thirty days, and a prison where it punishes other criminals for several years to lifetimes.
For instance, pretend that in your city two people are arrested, one for speeding and one for murder, and that both people are sentenced to prison for life. Do you consider it just when one who speeds commits a lesser crime than the other who murdered, yet the speeder receives the same punishment as the murderer? Lesser crimes deserve lesser punishment. Denying purgatory is to accuse God of dealing unjustly with his disobedient creatures.
Purgatory is Rooted in God’s Mercy
Purgatory, as a process of purification from sin and from our attachment to sin, is a great expression of God’s mercy. As we have seen, nothing unclean can enter heaven. Purgatory allows us to be clean and capable of entering heaven. Part of what makes heaven heavenly is that everyone in heaven loves perfectly. To be heavenly people, we have to learn to love perfectly.
This means that Purgatory is a mercy of God. It allows us to be purified and enter heaven instead of being barred from entering by venial sins.
Imagine your friend tells you he is going to take you to see someone you love and admire, a famous person whose good opinion would mean everything to you. However, he offers to take you when you had just gotten done cleaning up dog poop and mowing the lawn. You are sweaty, smell bad, and obviously in need of a shower.
Then your friend says, “Here, I’ll give you time to shower, and I’ll make sure you have soap and shampoo and hot water so that you can be clean and presentable when you meet the person you admire.” Wouldn’t that be a great mercy? Even if you know that the person you are meeting will love you anyway, wouldn’t you want to present yourself in a way that shows your profound respect for him? Purgatory allows us to be able to stand before God without shame for the continuing effects of our sin.
Thank God for purgatory! If there were no such thing there would be no path for those of us who are neither the holiest of saints nor enemies of God.