One of the first objections with which Catholics are hit when we bring up Purgatory is this line:
“Well, I looked all through my Bible, from front to back, and I didn’t see ‘Purgatory’ anywhere in there.”
Ironically, this same objection comes from Christians who usually believe in words and phrases such as the ‘Trinity’, the ‘divinity of Christ’, ‘altar calls’, ‘Easter’ and ‘Christmas’, and ‘personal Lord and Savior’, all of which also appear nowhere in Scripture, from front to back.
Should this bother us? Of course not, because we understand that Scripture doesn’t have to explicitly name a doctrine for it to be true. Some concepts are presented implicitly, which means that Scripture presents clues to which there can be no other conclusion. “Purgatory”, after all, is just a word, but the concept is real enough and undeniably present in Scripture, as well as in the belief system of the early Christians. And not only is compatible with Christian doctrine, it is necessary for Christian doctrine, as we will see through this essay.
To begin, consider a wedding analogy. A new bride and her groom are standing before the priest, and as he is asking the bride for her vows, she seems distracted and distant. After the wedding, the groom asks her what the deal was. “Hank,” she tells him, “You asked me to be your wife and I accepted. I will love you until death do us part … but I just can’t get my old boyfriend Hank off my mind.”
Christ is our bridegroom, and when we become Christians, we accept his proposal of marriage. However, all of us are sinners and know that no matter how much we give ourselves to Christ, we still selfishly cling to earthly things, loving them more than him on occasion. Perhaps we love sleeping in more than we love Mass on some Sunday. Perhaps we love TV more than prayer. Yet, for a marriage to be truly perfect, we must be “purged” of these distractions to the love we have for our spouse.
Purgatory is not some second chance, as many mistakenly believe Catholics understand it to be. When we die, we are on our way to Heaven or to Hell. However, some of us will die still attached to those things of the flesh. While Christ made the perfect sacrifice for our sins, and while we have forgiveness for even the worst transgression, our sins damage our souls and body. If we sin once, say by indulging in pornographic material, it becomes easier to sin in that way again, even after God has forgiven us. If you doubt this (and I don’t think anyone honestly could), talk with someone who has battled with an addiction, and he will tell you how giving in to the temptation once made it easier to do it a second time, and then a third, and then …
Purgatory is the place where God, because he loves us so tremendously, allows us to break from our earthly desires and sinful attachments before entering into his glory. There are many who believe Purgatory to be a place of punishment and torture, which are misunderstandings of the strong Biblical imagery. Will there be suffering in Purgatory? Of course, just as there is suffering any time we break ourselves of something unhealthy. My body aches when I start an exercise routine, but it is a good pain because I know I am toning those muscles and reducing that fat. A drug addict sweats and shakes in a rehabilitation center, but this is a good suffering because it is a sign of the body purging itself of the poison and healing. Any suffering we feel in Purgatory will be the consequence of stripping from ourselves all that is unhealthy to our marriage to Christ.
We see the imagery in Scripture which points to suffering in these verses: Heb 12:5-6 “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.” Peter 4:1 “[W]hoever suffers in the flesh has broken with sin” Prov. 20:30 “Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being.”
Some object that Christ made the perfect sacrifice for our sins, so why should there be anything left to do? Purgatory, they insist, is an insult to his work upon the cross. Yet, the mistake here is in assuming that Purgatory is supplemental to Christ’s work – something in addition. Rather, Purgatory is a manifestation of Christ’s work – it owes its very existence to his redemptive act.
It should be pointed out here that Purgatory does not necessarily have to be a place. While it is a necessary dogma for Catholics (we must believe in it), the Church has never specifically defined its nature. It could be a state of being or an instantaneous process, something through which we pass on the way to Heaven. Remember, time will not mean the same thing in the hereafter as it does in this existence. Another important point is that not all of us will need to experience Purgatory. Surely some of us are working out our suffering here on Earth, such as might have been the case for the good thief who confessed belief in Christ before his crucifixion. Some of us might have completely stripped ourselves of earthly attachments and will have no need for this purging, such as is surely the case for many of our recognized saints.
One point that many non-Catholics make is that we are “clothed in Christ”, and that there is no need for further cleansing after death. While it is true that we are clothed in Christ, Rev. 21:27 tells us that nothing unclean will enter Heaven. Christ doesn’t simply intend to throw a tarp over our dirty bodies; he intends to make us holy and without blemish (Eph. 5).
And, as he is our bridegroom, I truly believe that, for those of us who go to Purgatory, it will be something we desire. Just as a bride wants to be pure and beautiful on her wedding day, we would want nothing less than to present ourselves in such a way to Christ. Just as the groom would be offended if she were still clinging to memories of “Hank”, Christ would be offended if our souls still clung to those things of the flesh that we should have left behind ‚Äì our old “lovers”, so to speak. The word for this process of purification is sanctification, a belief that all Christians share. Even though we are forgiven for our sins, we are made Holy through the course of our lives, and if it is not complete at death, the process is finished in Purgatory.
But don’t take my word for it. C.S. Lewis, the darling of Evangelical Christianity, also believed in Purgatory. In his book, Letters to Malcolm, he writes, “Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would in not break 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 cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.’
While all this is fine, we are ultimately left with the question of what, exactly does Scripture have to say about Purgatory? One of the classic texts can be found in 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, which states, “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they might be loosed from their sins” “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.” Non-Catholics will often object that they do not consider 2 Maccabees to be inspired (though it is), they will surely admit that it is a historical document, which we can trust just as we would trust a non-inspired historical document to give us information about Lincoln’s presidency. Examining this ancient text, we see that it was a practice among Jews to pray for the dead. If the only possibilities after death were Heaven and Hell, this would make no sense. We have no need of prayer in Heaven and cannot be helped by them in Hell, so the prayers must be efficacious in some other place, which only leaves the possibility of Purgatory. For argument’s sake, should our prayers be beneficial for the dead (as instruments of God’s grace) the true tragedy of rejecting Purgatory, as many non-Catholics have done, is that they have missed the opportunity to offer prayers for so many friends and relatives who have already passed.
When we look at the writings of the early Christians, when the religion was at its purest, we see that the practice of praying for the dead was an important part of the early Christian church, which indicates that Purgatory has always been a part of Christian tradition.
That said, the stronger verses can be found in any Bible you may pick up. Take Luke 12:42-48 for example. Here, in the parable of the three types of servants, when master returns on that “unexpected day” and “unknown hour”, servant who obeys is rewarded; servant who disobeys is punished; servant who disobeys out of ignorance is punished, but only lightly. We see three fates here, one that is clearly symbolic of damnation, one of Heaven, and a third (light punishment) signifies a third place, which cannot be Hell because that is surely not a light punishment, nor Heaven where no punishment occurs.
A more powerful verse is 1 Cor 3:15 which is where Paul discusses how we must build on the foundation of Christ. Those who don’t will go to Hell, of course. Of those who do, some will build with valuable materials and precious metals, while others will chose more common materials. Paul writes that each man’s work will be tested with fire, and “If it [each man’s work] is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames”. Now, consider this – we are not saved in Hell, yet we suffer no loss in Heaven, so where is this place (or what is this “process”) in which we suffer loss but are saved? Some non-Catholics argue that this verse simply refers to a glorification through which we pass in judgment. As Catholics, we agree. In fact, based in part on the Biblical evidence, we’ve recognized this all along. So much so that we’ve assigned it a name: Purgatory.
The word isn’t in Scripture, but the concept is. What it finally comes down to is a willingness to admit it.