Purgatory 101: Part 1

This is the first in a three-part series on purgatory. This article discusses the purpose of purgatory and addresses some common objections to it. Next time, we’ll learn about the experience of purgatory through the visions of the saints. Our last article will include ways to help the suffering souls in purgatory, as well as how to minimize our own need for this after-death purification. 

purgatory_carracciWhenever I talk about purgatory around Catholics, I find people hold some very strange ideas about it. Most (erroneously) think it’s a second chance for hardened sinners. Others that it’s a sort of limbo, in which souls not “good enough” for heaven but not deserving of hell hang out until Christ gets around to figuring out what to do with them at the end of time. More than one person has told me it’s one of those “archaic” ideas the Church got rid of during Vatican II, along with veils and sexual ethics.

But the doctrine of purgatory, or the final purification, has been the faith of God’s people since before Christ. The Jews believed in purification after death long before Jesus, as evidenced by the Old Testament (2 Macc. 12:41-45) and other early Jewish works. The writings of Church fathers, as well as Scripture (1 Corinthians 3:11-15; Matthew 5:25-26, 12:31-32), also show that the earliest Christians believed in purgatory, too. And contrary to popular belief, the Church still teaches as true that we will be purified after death.

So we believe in it, but what exactly is purgatory? First, let’s confirm what it isn’t–purgatory is NOT a second chance for unrepentant sinners. It’s not really a place at all, but a process—the process by which we who die in friendship with God are purified of all our imperfections (CCC 1030-1031). It’s the process, too, by which we make amends for our sins, even our forgiven sins, that aren’t adequately expiated during our lifetime (CCC 1475).

That we need to be purified after death isn’t really so difficult to understand. Few people die completely and absolutely perfect when they leave this world. Most die still hanging onto prejudices, pride, and a regrettable amount of self love. God gives us many opportunities in this life to learn to love selflessly, to embrace humility over pride, to put the needs of others above our own as Christ always did, but we don’t always avail ourselves of those spiritual opportunities.

So we die, and we still are not perfect, and the fact is that until you are perfect, you are not capable of experiencing the full glory of our all-holy God. The overwhelming holiness of God is something I think escapes most modern-day believers, but it consumed the thoughts of ancient Jews, who believed God’s holiness was so overwhelming that no living (and thus, sinful) person could be exposed to it without dying. In Isaiah 6, the prophet is only able to stand before God after he is purified of his sin by an angel. “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord,” we’re told in Hebrews 12:14 and numerous other places in Scripture.

God desires to actually purify us of all sin, to make us perfectly loving people. That process of becoming purified, of becoming holier and thus, closer to God, is called sanctification in this life and it’s the whole point of being Catholic. So we die as God’s friend, yet we’re still not perfect. And in his mercy, God gives us one last opportunity to prepare ourselves for heaven. As C.S. Lewis, in his Letters to Malcolm, put it,

“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy.’?

Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first.’

‘It may hurt, you know’—

“Even so, sir.’”

Purgatory simply finishes the process of sanctification we begin here on earth. As another Catholic sista put it so beautifully in her own article on purgatory: “I would indeed be prideful to think I can just march into heaven immediately upon death and expect to be seated at the wedding feast of the Lamb without so much as washing my hands.”

But getting “cleaned up” spiritually isn’t the only thing purgatory accomplishes; we also expiate our sins. Expiation is just a fancy word that means we make amends for our offenses…we fulfill justice. Why is this necessary? As the Catechism explains, sin has a double effect. First, it offends God and interferes in our relationship with him. If the sin is serious enough, it completely severs our relationship with him and casts out divine life from our soul. That’s why we call such sins mortal sins, because they bring death to the soul.

But lesser sins, or venial sins, still offend God and harm our relationship with Him. Often, those sins also harm others, too, and even if God forgives us the guilt of our sin, there are still consequences not wiped away by absolution. And we must make amends for those consequences.

Most people (even Catholics) tend to balk at the idea that God requires us to atone even for forgiven sins. This undercuts Christ’s redemptive sacrifice on the cross, some say. God is too merciful to require us to atone for sins after death, others say. But neither is true.

Certainly when it comes to the eternal effects of our sins, only Christ can make amends or reparation, as I explain in my article, Why the Cross. Only Jesus was able to make infinite amends for our sins that offend an infinite God. As Scott Hahn said, “Christ paid a debt he didn’t owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.”

But that Christ paid the eternal penalty for our sins doesn’t mean we can’t make amends or reparation for the temporal (read: temporary, earthly) effects of our sins. If you steal a car, you can return it. If you damage someone’s reputation, you can publicly correct the slander. You destroy property, you can repay the owner. In most cases, you can make at least partial amends (or “expiation”) for what you’ve done.

Even non-Catholic Christians realize that, while Jesus paid the price for our sins before God, he did not relieve our obligation to make amends. They acknowledge that if you steal a car, you have to give it back; repenting doesn’t mean you get to keep the car! Expiation despite forgiveness is why Jesus commended Zacchaeus for paying back the money he stole, though his theft was forgiven (Luke 19:1–10).

What of the accusation that expiation goes against God’s loving and merciful nature? I appeal to you parents for this one. Imagine that your son, after being told not to play baseball in the house, does so anyway and breaks a window. He comes to you contrite and seeks forgiveness. As his merciful and loving parent, you forgive him and your relationship is restored. But wouldn’t you also still require him to pay for the broken window? Maybe he’ll have to mow lawns for a few Saturdays or clean out the garage or sacrifice his allowance to repair the glass. If you want to change your child’s heart…to teach him obedience, respect for your authority, and the value of things, then the loving thing to do is to make him pay for the window.

God, who revealed himself to us as our Father, is the perfect parent and we are his imperfect children. If good earthly parents expect their kids to make amends for their mistakes—for the good of the child’s soul—why is it “unloving” and “unmerciful” of our heavenly Father to have that same expectation of us? Expiation of sin is, in fact, a natural and logical part of our loving relationship with God the Father.

Next time: What can we learn from the saints who have seen purgatory by a special vision of God? 

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