What Is Purgatory?

An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory
Ludovico Carracci, circa 1610
The subject of purgatory is a very difficult one for Protestants to grasp, namely because in their view, it just doesn't make any sense.  From the typical Protestant perspective, a person is either saved, or not saved, at the moment of death. If saved, the person's soul should go immediately to heaven, right? If not saved, that soul should go immediately to hell, correct? So what is this deal with purgatory?

Over the centuries, many artists have tried to depict the concept of purgatory in a pictorial way. Such as we see here with Ludovico Carracci's 1610 painting entitled: "An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory." For a Catholic, this is a beautiful (and totally non-literal and symbolic) representation of something that cannot really be accurately envisioned with human eyes. For a Protestant, this is just more confusing than ever. If the painting is to be taken literally, what are we to think?

The typical Protestant misunderstanding of Purgatory goes like this. When a soul dies, the Catholic believes that it goes to one of three places -- heaven, hell or purgatory. Heaven is a place of eternal reward for the saved, while hell is a place of eternal punishment for the damned. Purgatory, on the other hand, is a place of "second chance" for those who were neither saved nor damned, but just sort of in-between. Then, these souls might be freed from this unfortunate place by the prayers and sacrifices of those here on earth. That is, if they are fortunate enough to have people praying for them here on earth. Protestants then, quite correctly, point out that such a concept is totally non-Biblical and foreign to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The truth is, if that's what purgatory was, I wouldn't believe in it either.

The problem arises from two areas. The first involves abuses of the doctrine of purgatory during the 16th century Reformation era, and the visceral Protestant response to those abuses. That response have been dutifully passed down through generations. The second involves artwork such as we see here, and the inability of many Catholics to explain their beliefs to Protestants on this matter. So allow me to try my hand at this. Later this month I will publish an article dealing with salvation and the Reformation doctrine of "Faith Alone." Hopefully, this article on purgatory will serve as a good primer to that.

What is purgatory? Well to answer that question we first have to know what the Catholic Church actually teaches about it.  For all of the speculation that swirls around the topic, the Catholic Church only officially teaches two things.
  1. It exists.
  2. Our prayers help those who go through it. 
Here is the actual teaching on purgatory from the Catechism of the Catholic Church...
III. THE FINAL PURIFICATION, OR PURGATORY 
1030 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. 
1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire: 
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgement 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 offences can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.
1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: "Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends alms giving indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.
There you go.  That's the whole dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church on purgatory.  Pretty much everything else is up to speculation. Now that being said, let me tell you how today's top Catholic theologians are describing it...

The word "purgatory" comes from the word "purge" meaning to purge one of sin. Purgatory is not so much a place as it is a process. If it were to be described as a place, (which is kind of pushing the envelope), then we could describe it as heaven's front door. Imagine, if you will, the pearly gates of heaven before you, and between those gates there exists mighty flames of "fire." Now the "fire" is not real fire mind you, it is rather the "fire" of Christ's burning love for us. It is in effect, God's love we are talking about here, but in his mercy he allows we poor sinners to participate in his work of salvation. He does all the "heavy lifting" of course. We just add little details. Now in order to get to the fullness of heaven, on the other side of the gate, you must pass through the "fire" in between. As you do, this "fire" burns away all of your sinful attachments to this world. Maybe you drank too much, or were lazy, or perhaps you had a short temper in your earthly life. Whatever the case, you died in a state of grace, but your soul was far from perfect. Purgatory is just the process God puts our souls through as he brings us into heaven. Here he applies the full merit of Christ's atonement, as well as the merits of prayers and sacrifices of the saints on earth, to make one's soul fully and completely ready for the joy of heaven.

As I said, describing purgatory as a place is pushing the envelope a bit, but sometimes it helps to give people a mental picture. In reality, it is just something that happens to a saved person's soul on the way to heaven. It is a process of decreasing pain and increasing joy, as the sinful attachments to this world are let go, while the fullness of heaven is gradually embraced. No one goes to purgatory unless one is already saved, and no, purgatory is not a "second chance." The soul in purgatory doesn't need a second chance. He's already on his way to heaven. We could even say the soul in purgatory is already in heaven, but just isn't experiencing the fullness of it yet.

I think Pope Benedict XVI explained it best in December of 2011 when he described purgatory as follows...
"Purgatory is an interior fire. The soul is aware of God's immense love and perfect justice; as a consequence, it suffers for not having responded to that love perfectly, and it is precisely the love of God Himself which purifies the soul from the ravages of sin."
Is there any Biblical support for this? Yes there is. Probably the best description of purgatory comes from Saint Paul...
"According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire." -- 1st Corinthians 3:10-15
This is a word-picture given to us by Saint Paul to describe the process (not necessarily a place) of purgatory. Here, Paul calls it "the Day" and this is a reference to judgement. Purgatory (purgation of purging) is in a very real sense connected to the particular judgement each and every soul receives from God at the moment of death. If we were to imagine the judgement of God as a cleansing fire of love, we might begin to grasp the process of purgatory. Ironically, my first encounter with the concept of purgatory did not come from the Catholic Church. It actually came from a small Evangelical group in Southern California that consisted primarily of small-group house churches. Once a month these house churches from all over the L.A. valley would come to meet in this old chapel in Pomona. It was here I heard their main pastor speak. He instructed the congregation that when we die, we will encounter God face to face. Then a great fire will gush out from his fixed gaze upon us, and immediately all of our sinful attachments to this world will be burned away. We will be transformed, and all that will remain is that which is pure and holy. Now this Evangelical pastor in no way referred to this process as "purgatory," but his teaching was remarkably similar to what many Catholic theologians are saying about purgatory today. This Evangelical pastor seemed to imply that the whole process was rather quick, lasting only a few seconds. While the Catholic Church seems to teach that such a process takes a bit longer. Of course, one has to ask, what is "time" to a dead person? Does the disembodied soul experience time in the same way we do? I have no idea. Nobody knows. Also, the Evangelical pastor did not include the merits of the saints. This is purely a Catholic teaching which comes to us from our spiritual ancestry in ancient Judaism...
"For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin." -- 2nd Maccabees 12:44-46
Of course the Second book of Maccabees is not contained in most Protestant Bibles, and this only further exacerbates the problem Protestants have with purgatory. (I discussed why Protestants removed books from the Bible in a previous article here.) However, if most Protestants read a complete and unabridged Bible, they wouldn't have to struggle so much with the concept of purgatory and indulgences. In the passage above from 2nd Maccabees, we can clearly see that ancient Jews, before and during the time of Jesus, not only believed in the concept of purgatory (though they may not have called it that), but they also believed in the concept of indulgences, referring to them as prayers and "atonement" (meaning animal sacrifices) for the dead. This belief was clearly documented in the Greek version of the Jewish canon (Septuagint), which happened to be the canon of Scripture most commonly quoted by the apostles in their own writings. This Jewish belief transferred into the early Christian communities, dominated almost entirely by Jews in the early years, and later tapered off to predominately Gentiles by the end of the second century. We see that Saint Paul again makes reference to this, in one very obscure passage, that Protestants often find unexplainable....
"Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptised on their behalf?" -- 1st Corinthians 15:29
Okay, this is a funky passage if their ever was one. The language is strikingly familiar to that of 2nd Maccabees cited above, and I think it would be safe to say that Saint Paul was probably thinking about 2nd Maccabees when he wrote it. But what on earth is Saint Paul talking about here!?! Surely, he can't be referring to the "baptism by proxy" tradition that is commonly performed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormonism). Are we to believe Saint Paul was a Mormon?

Okay, before we get carried away here, we need to take in a few contextual things. First, Paul never condones the practise.  Read the verse again. Nowhere does he say this practise is a good thing, and people should do it. Second, he refers to those who practise baptism for the dead in the third-person "those people." He's clearly talking about somebody else here, some other group, not necessarily connect to Paul's ministry or those he is writing to. He doesn't condemn the practise, but then he doesn't condone it either. If anything, he uses it as an example of an indulgence. What was going on here? Apparently, back in the first century, some groups of Christians were engaging in their idea of an indulgence for those Christians who had been killed before they had the opportunity to be baptised. Like the Jewish practise of offering prayers and animal sacrifices for the dead, referenced in 2nd Maccabees above, and the Catholic practise of offering prayers and the sacrifice of the mass for the dead, this particular group of first-century Christians was performing baptisms by proxy as well, for those Christians who died before being baptised. The practise was well-meaning but misguided, and eventually eliminated as the doctrinal teaching of the Church became more cohesive and stabilised over the following century. It wasn't until 1,800 years later that an American Protestant named Joseph Smith read this obscure verse, and formulated a whole new practise for a whole new religion called Mormonism, that would break with both Catholicism and Protestantism on a great many things.

Is there Biblical evidence for purgatory and indulgences? Yes, there most certainly is. It's not plainly spelled out in those words, but then, neither are the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation. Yet no Protestant would dare deny those.

To better understand we have to look at the difference between venial and mortal sin. To simplify, a venial sin (meaning "forgivable sin") is basically a sin of habit. We do this sort of sin all the time, without thinking about it, and often don't even realise we are doing it. I'll make a confession to you here as an example. My father was a sailor -- literally -- and he had the mouth of a sailor. When I was a child I listened to that man work in profanity like an artist works in paint. It was amazing the combinations he would come up with -- some of them really quite imaginative. He's a "born again" Evangelical now, so he's really managed to clean up his mouth since then. I however, bear the scars of his, shall we say, "years of colourful metaphors." I'm not nearly as imaginative as he was, but I do (perhaps a little too often) blurt out some naughty words here and there. Is this a sin? Well, yes I'm afraid it is. Profanity is condemned in Scripture (Colossians 3:8; Ephesians 4:29). So let's say I someday have the misfortune of getting into a car accident that kills me. Just before I die, I blurt out some profanities in terror and pain. Now, that's a sin right? Of course it is. I don't have time to confess it because death comes upon me quickly. So am I going to hell?

Many Evangelicals deal with these tough questions with the consoling words: "Well, God knows your heart." That's very true, God does know my heart, and he knows it's the heart of a sinner, who desires only evil, and all that is good in me only comes from God himself. So I ask again, I've just blurted our a litany of "colourful metaphors" as I gasp my last breaths. Am I going to hell? The way Catholic theology deals with this problem is by pointing out the difference between venial and mortal sin. A venial sin is a little thing that is done habitually or without thinking -- like profanity for example -- which is more or less just the result of our fallen human nature. It's not okay to do. I really should try to clean up my mouth because God doesn't like it. However, if I do it without thinking, in an unintentional way, it really is a venial sin. It's a sin that damages my relationship with God, but it does not break it completely. A sin that breaks my relationship with God would be called a mortal sin. Is there Biblical support for this? There sure is...
"If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal." -- 1st John 5:16-17
Basically the Bible tells us that there is such thing as a mortal sin, and a non-mortal (venial) sin. This means that some sins break out relationship with God, leading to spiritual death, and other do not. A mortal sin is a serious matter, which is a direct violation of one of God's commandments, and is done with full intention and consent. In other words, it is open rebellion against God. Case in point, murder is one such mortal sin. Adultery is another. So is fornication, stealing and lying to hurt another person. There are more, but you get the idea. If mortal sin is not repented of during a person's lifetime, it will lead that person's soul to hell.  No second chances, just straight to hell. Then there is venial sin, such as profanity, laziness, bad tempers, etc. These sins may not lead one to hell, because they do not break one's relationship with God, but they do damage our relationship with God, hindering it, and make things more difficult for us. These sins need to be repented of too, but if a person should fail to master these problems before dying, that does not mean that person is going to hell. It does mean however, that these attachments to sin may have to be taken care of before entering the fullness of joy in heaven. That's what purgatory is all about.

Now we are on to indulgences. As the passage in 2nd Maccabees above clearly demonstrates, Jews believed that their prayers and sacrifices helped those who died in a state of venial sin. This doesn't imply anything mystical or magical going on here. Rather, what this was all about was the mercy and compassion of God. Our Lord loves to see us repent, and when we do, he is inclined to grant us what we ask for at times, especially when such things are non-selfish and for the benefit of another. The ancient Jews held to the belief that if they repented of their sins, and offered prayers and sacrifices for those who had died in venial sin, then God would (totally in his mercy and compassion) upon request, apply the merits of their repentance toward those who had died. It was a way in which loved ones could mediate for their dead relatives. Now we all know that Jesus Christ is the final mediator, and nothing in this diminishes this role. Rather, we see instances in Scripture where one person mediates for another, even in Moses' case, where he mediates for the entire people of Israel. In a lesser sense, below the total mediation of Christ, God does allow us to mediate for one another. He does this purely in his compassion for us, so we are not powerless, and can do something to help others. He makes it possible, not us, but him working through us. In later centuries, the methods of indulgences would be more defined by the Catholic Church, namely to prevent abuse or misapplication. There were times when the Church did a poor job at this, as during the Reformation period for example, but through it all, the Church never officially taught anything that was non-Biblical. Rather it was local pastors and evangelists who did that all by themselves. This was the principle abuse that led to the Reformation in the first place.

I hope this article has been helpful in understanding the Christian teaching on purgatory. The teaching is most defined in the Catholic Church. Eastern Orthodoxy has mixed schools of thought on the matter. Protestantism, almost universally, rejects the Catholic definition of purgatory, but not all Protestants reject the concept of purification after death entirely. Much of the confusion around it comes from artistic depiction and literary descriptions from the Middle Ages, which are no longer applicable to the modern mind. These depictions, whether in art or literature, may have served their purpose at one time. However, since the Protestant Reformation, they have become somewhat antiquated and at times a bit confusing. We have to remember, these artistic and literary depictions are highly symbolic in nature. So long as they are taken that way, we can enjoy them for the beauty they convey. If we start to take them too literally however, we open ourselves up to all sorts of problems.

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Comments

JL said…
This has got to be the most concise and best explanation I have read.

I would make one correction, you stated that it is a "The typical Protestant misunderstanding..." I would omit "Protestant." Ha! Most Catholic sadly think that too because it is part of the popular secular elementary understanding of Catholic teaching.

Well done!
Lindsay Johnson said…
1681 The Christian meaning of death is revealed in the light of the Paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ in whom resides our only hope. The Christian who dies in Christ Jesus is “away from the body and at home with the Lord.”185 (1010-1014)
This is interesting from the Catholic Catechism good for when the discussion of Purgatory arises with non-Catholics.What do you think? Peace be with you,lhj
Shane Schaetzel said…
Lindsay, I think this is an excellent point. Purgatory and the particular judgement seem to be so closely linked that it's hard to distinguish them at times. But it is the love of Christ that is the burning "fire" of purgatory. Those who are in purgatory are already in the presence of Christ. No question about that.
Angela Rigau said…
Purgatory to me has always been the place beside hell that God's people went to before Christ died.Now they go straight to heaven. The funny thing is, I've always prayed for people just before and right after, their death. I do this because of 1 John 5:16,17.
The kjv says except the sin unto death. Which we take to mean-they killed themselves.
I can't wait to read the other books and thank you for explaining this to me! I was raised Assembly of God. God bless you!