Fr. Frank Sofie
Purgatory is a doctrine greatly misunderstood. A proper understanding of its meaning is absolutely imperative for a proper analysis of the doctrine. Let me begin by saying what purgatory is not: it is not the belief that we can pray people into heaven from hell. Hell, like heaven, is eternal; neither will ever pass away and those souls there are eternally there. Purgatory, on the other hand, is temporary; it will cease to be after the last person is released. Any soul in purgatory is destined for heaven inevitably. The popular understanding of purgatory, i.e., praying people into heaven from hell, is therefore incorrect. What is it? Purgatory is the state, after death, where souls who are not yet perfected in their love for God, are purified before admittance to the all holy God. What gets purified? If I have any unrepented venial sins, these must be purified since God and sin cannot coexist. If my love is still imperfect, i.e., if I do not love God fully and completely, then my love must be purified since perfect love cannot coexist with imperfect love.
II. Are we perfect in this life?
Our Lord commanded us to be perfect as His heavenly Father is perfect (Mt 5.48). Therefore we have the obligation, with His grace, to seek perfection in this life. We have defined purgatory as the state of purification of imperfect love. With this definition in mind, a question naturally arises: are we not perfected by the blood of Christ in this life? Catholics not only admit that perfection is possible in this life, but we even recognizes certain individuals who had a perfect love of God. We call these persons (canonized) saints. Is this true of each and every Christian? Are all Christian perfected by the blood of Christ in this life? Another way to put this question is as follows: Do all Christians have a perfect love of God? If we answer yes, then obviously there is no need for purgatory, since its very existence is to eradicate a condition that would not obtain. If we answer no, as I believe we must if we are honest about ourselves and honest about the teaching of Scripture, then the teaching on purgatory becomes very reasonable.
Does the blood of Christ not purify us totally when we receive Him as Lord and Savior? A sin is forgiven if, and only if, we are contrite; a sin I am not sorry for having committed is a sin that is not forgiven. Does Christ blood completely purify me? To the degree I am sorry for my sins. But suppose we grant the Protestant notion that when I accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior I am totally and perfectly purified. Such an admission, however, does not necessarily entail a perpetual purification; at the time of my initial encounter with Christ, I might be perfectly and completely purified, but what happens when later that day I commit a sin? Or are we to say that a Christian cannot commit a sin? Surely not. Or are we to believe that the moment he does sin it is instantly washed away regardless of his non-contrition for having committed that sin? Surely not. If Christians do commit sin, then he is not clean. His garments have become soiled. Christ tells us that only those with unsoiled garments can walk with Him (cf. Rv 3.4-5). Christians are constantly in the need for purification; we never reach a point when we no longer need to be bathed in the most precious Blood of our Savior. We always need Jesus! Those that maintain that the act of faith a person made X-number of years ago in the past is sufficient for forgiveness of subsequent sin, grossly misunderstands justification; also implicit in such a belief is a denial of sanctification. If justification did it all, for all times, then sanctification makes absolutely no sense.
We read in Hebrews 12.1 that we, the Christians, should throw off everything that hinders us, especially sin. What happens if we do not? Do we go to hell? Do we go straight to heaven? Surely not. Purgatory is a doctrine of divine mercy. It is a recognition that most Christians are not so evil as to warrant hell and most are not yet perfected as to warrant immediate entrance into heaven. Purgatory makes perfect sense.
Before looking at Scripture, let us look at our own lives first. Do I love God as I should? Do I love Him as He expects me? If I admit that I sin daily, then how could I honestly claim I love God perfectly? Sin is a refusal to love God as I should. When I sin I am saying that I prefer X to God; I am inordinately attached to something that I should not be. Sin manifests an imperfect love. Personal experience shows me that I am far from perfect in my love for God.
Now, consider a teaching I believe we both accept: sanctification. As I understand sanctification, it is the recognition that we grow in holiness by the power of the Holy Spirit. Justification makes us right with God, and it is sufficient for salvation, but God desires to give us more; He desires to perfect what He has begun. Justification made us holy but there is room for growth. An admission of sanctification contains within it an (implicit) admission of the possibility of purgatory. If sanctification is growing in holiness, growing in love with God, then it is reasonable to infer that, if this process is impeded, then, in justice, something else must be done; this is purgatory. It imposes the purification, the perfection in love and holiness that was avoided in this life; justice demands such a state.
III. Scriptural Support.
(A) It is true that the term "purgatory" never appears in the Scripture. But such an observation is in itself insufficient as grounds for its rejection. If we took too fundamentalistic approach to questions of doctrine and the Scripture, then we ought to reject the "Trinity," the "Incarnation," "Original sin" and the divinity of Christ. No where in Scripture are these terms used, yet you and I agree on all of them. The Scripture teaches each, not by name, but by meaning. I suggest purgatory is no different. The name "purgatory" is absent in the Scripture, but the teaching is most assuredly present.
Are we called to grow in holiness, to grow in our love of God? As mentioned earlier, this is essentially the doctrine of sanctification which we both assume; hence, I too will assume it without offering Scriptural support. Paul writes in his second letter to the Corinthians: "Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates the body and the spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God" (2Co 7.1). Paul says again: "Not that I have already obtained all this, or have been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me" (Ph 3.12). What has Paul said? Paul tells us that we must purify whatever contaminates us in order to perfect our holiness for God; Paul tells us that he is not yet perfect, but he presses on. Scripture substantiates our earlier remarks.
What does Scripture say about entering heaven? In Revelation we read that "nothing impure will ever enter it" (Rv 21.27). But are we not all made pure by our justification, by the blood of the Lamb? Again, such a view is incompatible with the doctrine of sanctification. There is no reason for us to believe that the one act that justified me also automatically forgives subsequent sin irrespective of contrition. Such a view is incompatible with Scripture, as well as it serving as a license to commit whatever act we so desire since forgiveness is already received or gotten without contrition. This is dangerously close to the abuses associated with the doctrine of indulgences.
(B) In 2 Corinthians 5.10, we read: "For we all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each may receive what is his due for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad." Do Christians do bad things? Obviously so. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rm 3.23). What will happen to a Christian who appears before the judgment seat of Christ with bad deeds? Paul gives us the answer in his first letter to the Corinthians: "His work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test each man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through flames" (1Co 3.15).
Paul plainly tells us that Christians with bad deeds who approach Christ the Judge will find themselves in a fire, burning away those deeds. Such a place is not hell for Paul is speaking of saved Christians: "he himself will be saved." It cannot be heaven for there is suffering: "he will suffer loss . . . as one escaping through flames." Could it be earth during this life? For Paul "the Day" always refers to the day we are judged. Where is this place where Christians suffer loss as if by fire? It must be purgatory.
(C) In Paul's second letter to Timothy we read in the introduction: "May the Lord grant that [Onesiphorus] will find mercy on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus. . . . Great Priscilla and Aquila and the household of Onesiphorus" (1Tm 1.18; 4.19). From the context, it seems certain that Onesiphorus is dead. (This is also the opinion of the Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible; vol 3; p 603.) Paul praises his Christian friend, Onesiphorus, for his good work, but notice Paul does not presume immediate entrance into heaven for his dear friend. (Even if Onesiphorus is not dead, Paul still asks the Lord to be merciful.) Why be merciful, if all Christians go straight to heaven. We either have Paul praying for a dead person, or we have him interceding for him for mercy on his judgment day. In either case, purgatory alone can explain such thoughts of Paul. If there is no purgatory, then Christians go straight to heaven, which is the popular Protestant belief. If this is so, then Paul's remarks are totally off base; it would be meaningless to ask mercy for Onesiphorus. Purgatory alone makes the passage coherent.
(D) In Matthew 12.32 we read: " . . . but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven either in this age or the age to come." Such a statement clearly implies that there is a state, or "age" in which sins are forgiven. This cannot be heaven or hell for reasons already given. Purgatory alone renders this verse intelligible.
It should be added that Matthew 5.25-26 has been used, not as a proof text for purgatory, but that Jesus' words can be used in an analogous sense for purgatory. I do not say that this passage is a direct reference to purgatory, but that purgatory is like what is illustrated in this passage: "I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny."
(Another classic text in support of purgatory is from Luke's gospel. Mother Angelica uses this text in support of purgatory. I have included it at the end of this paper. The excerpt is taken from Mother Angelica's Answers, Not Promises by Mother Angelica with Christine Allison; New York: Walker and Company, 1987; pp. 347-51).
(E) The last Scripture reference to purgatory is the clearest, but it in 2 Maccabees, a book rejected by the Protestants. Let me quote the pertinent section:
The next day they came to Judas to have the bodies of the fallen taken and laid to rest among the relatives in their ancestral tombs. But when they found on each of the dead men, under their tunics, amulets of the idols taken from Jamnia, which under the Law prohibits to Jews, it became clear to everyone that this was why these men had lost their lives. All then blessed the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings hidden things to light, and gave themselves to prayer, begging that the sin committed might be fully blotted out. Next, the valiant Judas urged the people to keep themselves free from all sin, having seen with their own eyes the effects of the sin of those who had fallen; after this he took up a collection from them individually, amounting to nearly two thousand drachmae, and sent it to Jerusalem to have a sacrifice for sin offered, an altogether fine and noble action, in which he took full account of the resurrection. . . . This was why he had this atonement sacrifice offered for the dead, so that they might be released from their sin.
Whether or not one accepts this book as canonical, it nonetheless is an historical presentation of Jewish belief around 124BC. We see that the sin offering was offered not only for the living but for the dead.
IV. Tradition and History.
Given the Catholic teaching that the Faith is determined, not only by the written Word of God but also His unwritten Word, Tradition, the doctrine of purgatory does not necessarily have to be found in the written Word, as long as it is found in the Tradition. Catholics would argue that it is erroneous to use the Bible as a "handbook of dogma." As I have tried to argue thus far, I believe purgatory has a clear biblical basis. But even if it did not, it would not follow ipso facto that the doctrine must be false. Let us now turn to Sacred Tradition and to history, both of which establish belief in purgatory among the earliest Christians. By the end of the first century Christian prayers for the dead are already found in the catacombs. Graffiti abounds in the Roman catacombs in which the faithful not only pray for their deceased loved ones, but also pray to those who have died for the Faith!
The Fathers of the Church and other contemporary theologians spoke of purgatory quite frequently. See Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chyrsostom, and Ambrose. For the sake of brevity, we shall look at only one Father: St. Augustine. He wrote many things on purgatory, but I shall limit it to these few:
It cannot be denied that the souls of the dead obtain relief through the piety of their living friends when they have the Sacrifice of the Mediator offered for them or when alms are given in the Church on their behalf.
For one who cultivates this field interiorly and gains his bread, albeit with toil, can suffer this toil up to the end of life, but after this life he need not suffer. One who did not cultivate his field and allowed it to be overcome with thorns has in this life the curse of his earth in all his works, and after this life he will have either the fire of purgation or eternal punishment. Thus no one escapes this sentence, but we should act so that we feel its punishment only in this life.
Whether we suffer temporary punishments in this life only, or in the life after death, or in both, the sufferings precede that last, severe judgment. However, not all who suffer temporal punishment after death are doomed to the eternal pains that follow the last judgment. For, as I have said, what is not foreign in this life is pardoned in the life to come in the case of those who are not to suffer eternal punishment.
For the universal Church carries on the tradition which has been handed on by our fathers, that of praying for those who have departed hence in the communion of the body and blood of Christ, by commemorating them at a particular place in the sacrifice itself, and by remembering also to offering for them. Who indeed may doubt that works of mercy which are offered up in their memory relieve them for whose sake prayer is not vainly made to God?
We read in the book of Maccabees that sacrifice was offered for the dead. But even if it were found nowhere in the Old Testament, the authority of the universal Church which is clear on this point is of no small weight, where in the prayers of the priest poured forth to the Lord God at His altar the commendation of the dead has its place.
It is painfully obvious from the above citations that St. Augustine, the great doctor of grace, accepted the teaching of purgatory as something handed down from the fathers. He saw it as a place of purification whereby we are made wholly pure for heaven. St. Augustine also saw the benefit of praying for the dead; our prayers could alleviate the purification process that our loved ones must endure.
Was St. Augustine wrong about purgatory? Were all the others also wrong about praying for the dead? Did the early Church err so early about something so basic and fundamental as purgatory? Why was praying for the dead and belief in purgatory never denied until the Reformation? No dissenting patristic text can be found which denies anything the Catholic Church now teaches about purgatory and the efficacy of prayers for the dead.
IV. Concluding remarks.
We would do well to remember that Scripture speaks of more than just heaven and hell. In 1 Peter 3.19, Peter refers to "Limbo of the Fathers," the abode of the just. This shows that another state other than heaven and hell is not unbiblical. Some will argue that Scripture only speaks of heaven and hell. This is incorrect as we see in 1 Peter; Scripture speaks of another place. The question arises is there, or could there be a fourth place.
Purgatory is not an anti-biblical doctrine; it is not unreasonable. It is a doctrine of comfort and mercy. Nor is Purgatory a late invention of the Church, as many Protestants claim. Evidence for belief is purgatory goes back to Judaism herself with the Maccabees. The earliest Christians believed in this state. As stated earlier, it is not till the Reformation that we find the first denial of purgatory. Scripture commands us to "keep the traditions" that has been handed down to us (2 Th 2.15). If we are to be faithful to the Scripture, then acceptance of purgatory follows since, as St. Augustine shows, purgatory is part of that "tradition."