What is the Basis for Belief in Purgatory?

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Straight Answers from Fr. William Saunders

What is the basis for belief in Purgatory since it is not specifically mentioned in the Bible? , A reader in Reston

The Second Vatican Council's "Dogmatic Constitution on the Church" asserted, "This sacred council accepts loyally the venerable faith of our ancestors in the living communion which exists between us and our brothers who are yet being purified after their death; and it proposes again the decrees of the Second Council of Nicea, of the Council of Florence and the Council of Trent" (No. 51). Moreover, the <Catechism> clearly affirms the Church's belief in Purgatory and the purification of the soul after death (cf. No. 1030-32).

As Vatican II states, the Church has consistently believed in a purification of the soul after death. This belief is rooted in the Old Testament. In the Second Book of Maccabees, we read of how Judas Maccabees offered sacrifices and prayers for soldiers who had died wearing amulets, which were forbidden by the law; "Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out," (2 Mc 12:43) and "Thus, (Judas Maccabees) made atonement for the dead that they might be free from sin" (2 Mc 12:46).

This passage gives evidence of the Jewish practice of offering prayers and sacrifices to cleanse the soul of the departed. Rabbinic interpretation of Scripture also attests to the belief. In the Book of the prophet Zechariah, the Lord spoke, "I will bring the one third through fire, and I will refine them as silver is refined, and I will test them as gold is tested" (Zec 13:9). The school of Rabbi Shammai interpreted this passage as a purification of the soul through God's mercy and goodness, preparing it for eternal life. In the Book of Sirach, "Withhold not your kindness from the dead" (Sir 7:33), was interpreted as imploring God to cleanse the soul. In sum, the Old Testament clearly attests to some kind of purification process of the soul of the faithful after death.

The New Testament has few references about purging of the soul or even about heaven for that matter. Rather, the focus is on preaching the gospel and awaiting the second coming of Christ, which only later did the writers of sacred Scripture realize could be after their own deaths. However, in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus' statement that certain sins "will not be forgiven either in this world or in the world to come" (Mt 12:32), at least suggests a purging of the soul after death. Pope St. Gregory (d. 604) stated, "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." The Council of Lyons (1274) likewise affirmed this interpretation of our Lord's teaching.

The early Church preserved the belief in offering prayers for the purification of the soul. Pope St. Gregory said, "Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them." St. Ambrose (d. 397) preached, "We have loved them during life; let us not abandon them in death, until we have conducted them by our prayers into the house of the Lord." Moreover, the Church has affirmed this belief many times, Vatican II stated.

The key to this answer, however, is to see the beauty behind the doctrine of Purgatory. We believe that God gave us a free will so that we could choose between right and wrong, good and evil. Our free will allows us to make the one fundamental choice , to love God. An act of free will also entails responsibility. When we choose not to love God and thereby sin, we are responsible for that sin. God, in His justice, holds us accountable for such sins, but in His love and mercy desires us to be reconciled to Himself and our neighbor. During our life on this earth, if we really love God, we examine our consciences, admit our sins, express contrition for them, confess them and receive absolution for them in the sacrament of penance. We perform penances and other sacrifices to heal the hurt caused by sin. In so doing, we are continually saying "yes" to the Lord.

In a sense our soul is like a lens , when we sin, we cloud the lens; it gets dirty and we lose the focus of God in our lives. Through confession and penance, God cleanses the "lens" of our soul. When we die, if we live this life fundamentally loving God, dying in His grace and friendship, and free of mortal sin, we will have eternal salvation and attain the beatific vision , we will see God for who He is. If we die with venial sins or without having done sufficient penance for our sins, God in His love, mercy and justice will purify our souls, "cleanse the lens" so to speak. After such purification, the soul will then be united with God in heaven and enjoy the beatific vision.

Protestants have difficulty with the doctrine of Purgatory for basically two reasons: First, when Martin Luther translated the Bible into German in 1532, he removed seven books of the Old Testament, including the two Books of Maccabees, where at least implicitly the purification of the soul is found. Second, John Calvin preached that we had lost our free will due to original sin and that God had predetermined whether a soul was saved or damned; therefore, if we cannot choose to sin and if our eternal destiny is predetermined, who needs a Purgatory? In all, the Protestant leaders cast aside centuries of Christian Church teaching when they denied the doctrine of Purgatory.

In <Crossing the Threshold of Hope>, Pope John Paul II related God's "living flame of love," spoken of by St. John of the Cross, with the doctrine of Purgatory: "The 'living flame of love,' of which St. John speaks, is above all a purifying fire. The mystical nights described by this great Doctor of the Church on the basis of his own experience corresponds, in a certain sense, to Purgatory. God makes man pass through such an interior purgatory of his sensual and spiritual nature in order to bring him into union with Himself. Here we do not find ourselves before a mere tribunal. We present ourselves before the power of love itself. Before all else, it is Love that judges. God, who is Love, judges through love. It is love that demands purification, before man can be made ready for that union with God which is his ultimate vocation and destiny."

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the November 16, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald."

Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.