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Purgatory, when defined by that term, is a concept unique to Roman Catholicism. It has a central role in the structure of salvation and the after-life, as it posits that men undergo a purification of some kind after death but before entrance into Heaven. As with most things related to Christian doctrine, it is particularly defined, yet because of the imperfect nature of human understanding, it is often misunderstood, whether by critics who aim to refute aspects of the theology they mistakenly attribute to it, or proponents who harm the theology by invoking principles unrelated to its defense. The aim of this article, therefore, is to provide a clear Roman Catholic perspective on purgatory founded upon the doctrine of the Church. The intent is not to enter into the particular nature of purgatory, but simply to establish its role within the economy of salvation.
Defining Purgatory and Common Misunderstandings
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a "final purification". It 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 Catholic Encyclopedia states:
Purgatory (Lat., "purgare", to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God's grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.
It is important to note here in order to clarify a common misconception, that the Church does not claim purgatory to be a place or condition, but that it could be either or both. This is not an issue defined by the Church, and it is left up to individual members. Some Catholics even consider that all men undergo purgatory and that no person is condemned (or, at least very few). These kinds of views are considered heterodoxy because they do not conform with orthodoxy, but are not necessarily heretical.
A second misconception which must be addressed is the claim that purgatory is a "second justification". The Catechism makes it clear that purgatory is reserved for the elect. These individuals have already been judged and deemed sufficient, though certainly not proficient, for salvation. In this sense, purgatory is anything but a condemnation, as it is clearly defined as a "purification". Therefore, purgatory should be understood as the complete termination of sin rather than condemnation for it.
As I will illustrate in the next section, if we accept the definition of purgatory with a clear understanding of its terms and implications, there exists Biblical evidence for it. I have purposely decided to focus exclusively on the use of Scripture from universally accepted Biblical books in order to avoid the divisions which arise from citing Tradition and the Deuterocanonical Books.
The Case for Purgatory
Purgatory assumes three important theological concepts: first, that theological doctrines are not always implicit in the Bible, and can exist implicitly; second, that the Communion of the Saints includes all the living and the dead who interact with one another; and third, that justification is a process to be endured, as opposed to an event.
Not all doctrine, even commonly accepted principles, are explicitly defined, or even mentioned in the Bible. This is naturally a major cause of debate, and thus requires intellectual maneuvering since particular concepts cannot always be understood (or even known!) if read simply on face value. To illustrate, consider a few questions about Scripture:
- Which verse states that God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are three subsisting in one persons, equal and separate yet of the same substance?
- Is the "Trinity" mentioned even once in Scripture?
- Where is the nature of Christ as fully man and fully human explicitly defined?
- Is the term "pope" ever said in Scripture?
- Why do most Christian churches reject abortion if it is not explicitly prohibited in Scripture?
- Where is original sin mentioned?
- How many times is "faith alone" or "Bible alone" mentioned?
Many Christians unknowingly accept implicit doctrines, Protestants and Catholics alike. Doctrines such as the Holy Trinity, the Pope and papal infallibility, original sin, faith alone, and the rejection of abortion and other modern moral dilemmas originate from implicit concepts drawn from Scripture. Purgatory is an implicit doctrine not specifically mentioned. Yet it is alluded to by the construction of the after-life presented in Scripture. It cannot be dismissed because it is not explicitly mentioned. Otherwise, we would have to dismiss many concepts that exist at the foundation of Christian theology.
The Communion of Saints
The Bible establishes that the dead continue to live and interact, with one another and with those on Earth. The most clear example of course is when Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus, Peter, James, and John (Matthew 17:1-9). A rich man in the New Testament (Lk 16.19-31) spoke to Abraham after his own death (illustrating that the dead converse with one another), asking for Abraham to send someone "from the dead" to warn his family of the "place of torment" (illustrating that the dead not only concern themselves with earthly affairs, but seek to intervene on our behalf). Paul asks rhetorically why bother doing anything for the dead "if the dead are not raised at all" (1 Cor 15.29). Paul believes in prayer for the dead, as he illustrates in 2 Timothy 1.16-18 when invoking a prayer for a deceased friend. In Revelation 6.9-10, the dead pray to God directly. 1 Samuel 28.12-15 provides another clear example of the dead interacting with the living, with Saul calling upon Samuel (who is dead) to help him. It is clear that the dead are not "dead" at all, but instead live; some in glory with God (such as Moses) and others in torment (such as the rich man). Yet both take an active interest in the affairs on earth.
Several questions arise:
- If we are exhorted to pray for fellow Christians, and the dead not only continue to live and interact, but also intercede on our behalf, why is it absurd to pray for the dead?
- If we are to pray for the dead, and the saved do not require prayer while the condemned are beyond it, then of what profit is prayer for the dead?
- In essence, if we are praying for the dead, why are we doing it?
Without holiness, no one will "see the Lord" (Hebrews 12.14). It is a necessity repeated elsewhere (Rev 21.27; 2 Cor 7.1). Every aspect of man's unholiness is contrasted to God's perfection when in His presence (Isiah 6.5-7). For reasons already known, men require some kind of forgiveness of sins. This forgiveness, however, not only takes place here, but also in the afterlife (Matthew 12.32). Matthew also speaks to the judgment of men after death, where the words and deeds of each man will be measured (Mt. 12:31-36).
Another question arises: how are sins forgiven in the afterlife, especially if men are admitted directly and immediately into Heaven or Hell?
The Role of Purgatory
Purgatory answers the questions raised above. Men will pay for their sins "to the last penny" (Matthew 5.25-26). Those men are in a "prison" (1 Peter 3.19-20). Elsewhere it is referred to as a "waterless pit" (Zec 9.11) Our lives will be tested by "fire" and we will be saved, "but only as through fire" (1 Cor 3.11-15). This is because "God is a consuming fire" (Heb 12.29; see also Exodus 3.2-6). God washes away "filth" with a "spirit of judgment" and a "spirit of burning" (Isiah 4.4). An angel cleansed Isiah with a burning coal (Isiah 6.5-7). God is a "purifier" and "refiner" (Malachi 3.2-4).
Prayer for the dead is made effective because we are guaranteed by divine revelation (e.g. the Bible) that prayer has a purpose.
It is clear from these passages that men undergo some kind of purification after death but before entrance into Heaven. Whether this purification is a particular place, or simply a process, it is not clear. Nevertheless, some kind of "fire" cleanses souls before entrance into heaven, and it is a process that must be endured. The name "purgatory", therefore is aptly applied as it means "to make clean" or "purify". Purgatory does not have to be explicitly stated in Scripture.
1. Claim: Purgatory is a third or intermediary destination. Men will pass directly to Heaven or Hell upon death. Therefore, purgatory is not true.
On the contrary, it is not certain if purgatory is a place at all. Purgatory is, at it's most basic, a process. If it exists as a place, it is the front porch of Heaven as purgatory is reserved for the elect. It is not a third or intermediary destination separate from Heaven.
2. Claim: Christ paid for the sins of all men. The fire of purgatory is a punishment for sins Christ already forgave. Therefore, either Christ did not effect salvation, or purgatory does not exist.
On the contrary, sin still has consequences endured by men even when forgiven (Numbers 20:11-12). God forgives David, but still punishes him(2 Samuel 12:13-14). Christ died for man's entrance into Heaven to be effected by grace. Men are not condemned because of Christ's work, but they are still punished for sins committed.