What’s Purgatory?

Well, this is one of the sticking points between us Catholics and our Protestant brothers and sisters.  See, we believe in purgatory and for the most part, they don’t. 

We do?  Actually, nowadays, most Catholics don’t know anything about purgatory – and it doesn’t get preached about much either.

So what are we talking about?

Before I begin - the problem with belief in purgatory is that the Bible doesn't really say anything about it - at ALL - certainly not directly. So belief in the existence of purgatory is more a product of logical deduction than it is of scriptural revelation - this leads to the interdenominational dispute on the issue. Basically, Protestants, for the most part only believe what's in the Bible - so they don't believe in purgatory. Personally, I used to be along side with them, but then I started thinking about it, and realized that in order for what's in the Bible to make sense, it might need some kind of a notion of purgatory. So, here goes...

Well, most people are aware that according to Christian doctrine, when we die, our final destination is either heaven or hell.  And there’s lots of Biblical evidence to back this up.

So who goes to heaven and who goes to hell?  Well, we know the REALLY BAD ones go to hell, the REALLY GOOD ones go to heaven, and what about everybody else?  which of course includes just about everybody?  Where do they go, if they aren’t bad enough for eternal damnation, but not quite perfect either?

Well some say if we’re not perfect, we’re damned, and that’s all there is to it.  I don’t know – doesn’t sound much to me like the God in my Bible.

So instead, we resolve this question by concluding that you don’t have to be perfect to get into heaven, just sort of GOOD ENOUGH.  How good is that?  Well, God knows – he’s the one who decides.  According to some parts of the Bible, he’s a pretty merciful judge.

The problem with this, however, is that if God is letting less-than-perfect people into heaven, well, then heaven isn’t going to be perfect anymore.  And that can’t be.  So it stands to reason then that there might be some sort of entrance screening or filtering or remedial work that we might need to do, to clean ourselves up of any lingering imperfections we might have (that we haven’t already taken care of when we were alive).  And that, essentially, is what purgatory is – it’s the cleaning process.

Some people, we believe, reach that state of cleanliness and trust in God and faith and all that kind of stuff while they’re in this world – those are the Mother Teresa types.  And they weren’t PERFECT either – but they did have perfect faith – they endured the struggle, right to the end.

The rest of us, that is who aren’t in a state of MORTAL sin (really serious, rebellion against God type sins), get to go to heaven – it’s just that we have to go through the car wash first – the car wash is purgatory.

What’s purgatory like?  Well, before I get to that, I need to address what its NOT like.  There are traditions and superstitions in our churches history that purgatory is a place, just above hell, of pain and fire and suffering and needles in the eyeballs and beds of razor blades and bagpipes playing all day long and the Calgary Flames winning the Cup every year – yea, all that stuff is bull.  Also wrong is the notion that we have to serve a certain number of days, weeks, months, years, centuries, etc., in purgatory, determined by the frequency and severity of which sins we committed, all to be calculated according to a particular formula – our time for which can be shortened through the purchasing of INDULGENCES by people who are alive.  I’ll explain about indulgences in the FAQ. The point is, presuming to know more about purgatory than we actually know, than we could every POSSIBLY know, has led to some pretty serious abuses in the church's history.

Purgatory is a STATE of being, not a place. What is it like?  We don’t know.  How long do we spend there?  We don’t know.  Is there even TIME in purgatory?  We don’t know.  All we know is that it is that transitional state between this world and the next, that once we have completed, we get to go to heaven.

I think probably the best idea of what purgatory might be comes from the Bible, John 3:18-21:

Whoever believes in him [Jesus] avoids condemnation,
but whoever does not believe is ALREADY condemned
for not believing in the name of God’s only Son.

The JUDGMENT of condemnation is this:
the LIGHT came into the world,
but men loved darkness rather than light
because their deeds were wicked.

Everyone who practices evil hates the light;
he does not come near it
for fear his deeds will be exposed.

But he who acts in truth comes into the light,
to make clear that his deeds are done in God.

The picture Jesus paints for us is that the JUDGMENT is that we have to stand in the LIGHT of God’s love – we see God’s glory, God’s love for us, from the cross, all that good stuff.

The problem with standing in the light is that we can also see OURSELVES – the way we REALLY are – stuff we might not want to see, stuff we might have spent our entire lives avoiding looking at.  In the light of the CROSS, we see the consequences of our bad choices, we see how we fall SHORT of loving the way God loves us, the way we were called to love.

So standing in that light is gonna sting.  That sting – THAT’S PURGATORY.  St. Catherine of Genoa described purgatory as the “fiery love of God.”  Some people choose not to sit in this fire – not to go through the painful process of looking at themselves, so they run away, stay in the dark – that’s hell – hell that we condemn OURSELVES to.

But if we have the guts and the determination to stay in that light, we’ll see that, yes, we’re sinners, but God loves us anyway, even though we’re sinners, God forgives us. 

Purgatory is whatever we need to go through in order to LOSE whatever is keeping us from having true faith in God - from seeing God's presence right now in this world. In my own DAD's case - he is a musical perfectionist, who can't stand it when he hears someone go out of tune, even slightly - he's going to have to sit in purgatory, listening to a junior-high band clarinet section squeeking and squaking until he can listen to them, see the effort and time and energy and love they put into it, and hears the voices of angels. For me, with my task oriented impatience, I imagine I'll be sitting in a traffic jam, not moving, for about a week, until I learn that it isn't that important to get where I'm going, because if it were, God would help me get there.

You might be thinking – hey – that sounds like LIFE, not purgatory.  We go through all that stuff here on earth.  That’s true.  We can experience purgatory in this world.  That’s kinda one of the purposes of life – to get us ready for heaven.  We can also experience bits of hell in this world, and the same goes with bits of heaven, for “the Kingdom of God is in our midst.”  The difference is that those in purgatory ARE GOING TO HEAVEN – whereas we don’t know yet. 

So as for when we pray for the “poor souls in purgatory” – yea, I think we should keep doing that, because praying for someone is a way of loving them, and love never falls to the ground – but I’m not too worried about people in purgatory, nor am I worried about the possibility of spending some time there myself.  All it is is a spiritual bath, to get us ready for heaven – knowing that, maybe purgatory doesn’t seem all that bad after all.

If you want to learn more about the historical development of the Doctrine of Purgatory, you can read the paper I wrote on it in the Seminary - click HERE - the paper only covers development up to the end of the middle ages, not including the HUGE impact that it had on the church in the renaissance period - you can look up Martin Luther to see about that on the net, but I would recommend reading my paper first before doing that.

To learn about indulgences, click HERE.



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