The doctrine of purgatory is a Catholic teaching which was developed by early Christian thinkers such as Origen and Augustine. Pope Gregory in the sixth century developed the idea based upon Jesus saying: “…anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (Matt 12:32)
Pope Gregory saw that this passage refers to the possibility of forgiveness, not only in this age but also ‘in the age to come’. He understood this to mean that forgiveness does not only happen during a person’s earthly life (through the sacrament of reconciliation) but is also a possibility after death, and so, there must be a kind of temporary state after heaven in which sins can be purged, and forgiveness granted. The point of death, therefore, does not have to mark an individual’s last chance to put things right.
Purgatory, as the name suggests, is a place or state in which after death the soul is ‘purged’ or purified before access to heaven may be granted. It is not an individual’s final destination, but an interim state between the moment of death and the Final Judgement. It is believed by Catholics to involve suffering as a punishment for sins, and the imagery of fire is often used, as it is in descriptions of hell. Catholics also believe that prayers for the ‘faithfully departed’ can help this process of purification of the soul. Evidence for this can be found in Job 1:5 which tell us he made burnt offerings to aid the purification of souls.
It is, then, the Catholic belief that purgatory is a state through which everyone goes. Whilst the doctrine of purgatory is held firm in Catholicism, it is generally not a popular idea in the Protestant tradition; Protestants tend to see it as an unnecessary doctrine, and reject it on the grounds that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was total in its defeat of sin, enabling people to go straight into the presence of God if they have accepted Jesus’ saving power. Ideas surrounding prayers to help the departed pass more quickly through purgatory are seen as ‘indulgences’ of the Middle Ages – the mourning family could purchase ‘tokens’ from the Church in the Middle Ages to aid the process of purgatory for their loved ones, and this has subsequently become seen as an abuse of the doctrine of purgatory. Martin Luther, who was vehemently against the idea of ‘selling’ quick passage through purgatory, rejected the doctrine entirely based on an apparent lack of biblical support for it, and that it undermined biblical teachings about God’s saving grace through faith.
However, the Catholic Church maintains that all people die with sin, to a lesser or greater extent, and therefore cannot enter directly into Paradise, which seems logical if paradise is a place of total perfection, free from all sin. There are other biblical passages to that of Matthew above which appear to support that those with sin cannot enter heaven: “I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” (Luke 12:59) It is also supported by St. Paul, who in his letter to the Corinths wrote, “If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire’. Although this interpretation requires some convincing, the idea is that for the person, who at particular judgement has not done enough will enter a state of purging through punishment.” Paul’s thought calls to mind the image of God as the refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap mentioned in Malachi 3:2. Fuller’s soap removed stains from clothing. A refiner’s fire was an oven of intense heat where precious metals were placed in order to purify them of their corrosion and dross. In the same way, purgatory is when a soul is immersed into the fire of God’s love and lifted out of the residue free of its imperfections.
Also, “nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life”, and it seems logical that nothing impure can enter a place of total purity, otherwise there would be a contradiction, and Paradise could no longer be called Paradise because it would contain that which is less than perfect.
John Hick supports the idea of an intermediate state after death based upon this logic, as it is the “gap between the individual’s imperfection at the end of this life and the perfect heavenly state in which he is to participate [which] has to be bridged.” Although Hick rejects the Catholic belief in general judgement at the end of a person’s life, instead viewing the immediate afterlife as a continuation of a person’s spiritual development, or ‘soul-making process’ until all people will finally be reunited in heaven with God. Although this idea undermines personal responsibility in Christianity for the effort required to achieve salvation.
Catholic theologian Karl Rahner hypothesized that reincarnation might be one way that Purgatory operates, especially for those people who (on earth) did not live in a circumstance that allowed them to freely choose God (perhaps because they were not exposed to the gospel, or perhaps because they had to struggle all their lives merely to survive war, hunger, or various types of oppression). Although purgatory as giving room for a post-mortem history of freedom seems only to further undermine the responsibility of individuals’ in the here and now to live according to Christian duties and expectations, faith and deeds, and as such is rejected by many, included those who believe in the traditional view of purgatory.
Dante, who accepted the doctrine of purgatory, described it in such as a way as for it to also provide an allegory of how life should be lived now – seeing life now as a journey in which temptations must be avoided along the ‘journey’ to salvation in heaven. The idea of purgatory as a literal and impermanent form of existence immediately after death is something which, most Christians would agree, is either a state through which all people go, or through which none go. However, Dante’s idea of purgatory as relevant for life in the here and now raises an alternative view of purgatory. The existentialist theologian would argue that talk of purgatory needs to be reinterpreted as psychological and spiritual ideas of human alienation. Purgatory, in this sense, is a symbol of a person’s moral and spiritual life as experienced on this earth, rather than after death. The suffering of this world, alongside the epistemic distance, demonstrate a very real separation from the divine, and can be a ‘taster’ of the life to come, and thus a motivation to seek salvation through faith in Christ.
It seems most logical that, if one is to accept belief in an the afterlife as a possibility to be reunited with God in heaven then if sin still clings to Christians (Heb 12:1), but there is no sin in heaven (Rev. 21:27), there must be a purification that takes place after ones death and before one enters heaven. And if this is the case, it would seem only fair that everyone would go through the state of purgatory (with the exception of Christ who was without the original sin due to his virgin birth).
The strongest argument against purgatory as a state through which everyone goes is the implication that Christ’s sacrifice was not sufficient. But the purification that takes place in purgatory is purely a work of God’s grace, since there is no chance for merit after death, and the judgment of each individual is based solely upon their earthly life. But regardless of where Christ purifies men, it is precisely because his sacrifice was sufficient that each believer can be perfected.
The doctrine of purgatory also seems a natural response in those times of mourning the loss of our loved ones, and since roughly 50 percent of all Christians are Catholics and 25 percent are Orthodox, about three-quarters of all Christians believe it is a state through which everyone goes. As the Protestant thinker, C.S. Lewis, who also held to the truth of the doctrine, said in his Letters to Malcom, “Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me… At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?”
Author: A Meredith