To a life-long friend — my thoughts and collected writings regarding the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory
Why Catholics Believe In Purgatory
First off, the Catholic Church in America doesn’t teach that believing in Purgatory is a dogma. Rather, we hold it as a pious belief, and that it was well attested to by the Church Fathers in the first half of the first Millenia. Like other doctrine that the church holds dear, such as the “Trinity” it is not specifically named in scripture. It appears to have been developed in response to scripture passages that state “no sin shall enter heaven.” Knowing full well that many faithful Christians die without fully repenting of their sins, the doctrinal theory of Purgatory emerged.
I am often perplexed by my well-meaning Christian friends disparage the Catholic Church as somehow un-Christian. Protestantism began back in 1517, when the priest Martin Luther approaches the door of a Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nails a piece of paper to it containing the 95 revolutionary opinions that would begin the Protestant Reformation. In this hubris, modern Christians somehow think that the early church got it all wrong for 1,500 years.
In my understanding, this all seems quite simple. It should be common sense. Scripture is very clear when it says, “But nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]” (Rev. 21:27). Hab. 1:13 says, “You [God]… are of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look on wrong…” How many of us will be perfectly sanctified at the time of our deaths? I dare say most of us will be in need of further purification in order to enter the gates of heaven after we die, if, please God, we die in a state of grace.
In light of this, the truth about Purgatory is almost self-evident to Catholics. However, too many Protestants, this is one of the most repugnant of all Catholic teachings. Too many, this teaching represents “a medieval invention nowhere to be found in the Bible.” It’s often called “a denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice.” It is said to represent “a second-chance theology that is abominable.” I get these and much more such charges when it comes to discussions regarding Purgatory. Quite often the inquiries come from Catholics who are asking for help to explain Purgatory to a friend, family member, or co-worker. Lack of understanding of Catholic teachings, in general, is one of the main reasons why I wrote my eBook “Authentic Faith, Radical Transformation, and Contemplative Prayer (available on Amazon.)
As a Catholic bishop, I for one happen to side with the early Church for a more authentic perspective on what it truly means to be Christian. Personally, I would rather stand on the shoulders of those who were much closer to the time of Christ than revisionist theologians, who basically created a new belief system our of whole cloth.
The Early Church Fathers believed in prayers for the dead. Contrary to popular opinion, the Catholic theological perspective on Purgatory simply did not begin in the 13th century, or at Trent, but is ancient, biblical and Apostolic in its origins.
All Christians agree that we won’t be sinning in heaven. Sin and final glorification are utterly incompatible. Therefore, between the sinfulness of this life and the glories of heaven, we must be made pure. Between death and glory, there is a purification.
Thus, the Catholic Church teaches: “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 Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.”
The concept of an after-death purification from sin and the consequences of sin is also stated in the New Testament in passages such as 1 Corinthians 3:11–15 and Matthew 5:25–26, 12:31–32.
The idea, or doctrine of purgatory, or the final purification, has been part of the faith since before the time of Christ. The Jews already believed it before the coming of the Messiah, as revealed in the Old Testament (2 Macc. 12:41–45) as well as in other pre-Christian Jewish works, such as one which records that Adam will be in mourning “until the day of dispensing punishment in the last years, when I will turn his sorrow into joy” (The Life of Adam and Eve 46–7). Orthodox Jews to this day believe in the final purification, and for eleven months after the death of a loved one, they pray a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish for their loved one’s purification.
Jews, Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox have always historically proclaimed the reality of the final purification. It was not until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century that anyone denied this doctrine. As the quotes below from the early Church Fathers show, purgatory has been part of the Christian faith from the very beginning.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the most overt reference to a “Purgatory” of sorts in the Old Testament. I say a “Purgatory of sorts” because Purgatory is a teaching fully revealed in the New Testament and defined by the Catholic Church. The Old Testament people of God would not have called it “Purgatory,” but they did clearly believe that the sins of the dead could be atoned for by the living as I will now prove. This is a constitutive element of what Catholics call “Purgatory.”
In II Maccabees 12:39-46, we discover Judas Maccabeus and members of his Jewish military forces collecting the bodies of some fallen comrades who had been killed in battle. When they discovered these men were carrying “sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear” (vs. 40), Judas and his companions discerned they had died as a punishment for sin. Therefore, Judas and his men “turned to prayer beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out… He also took up a collection… and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably… Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.”
There are usually two immediate objections to the use of this text when talking with Protestants. First, they will dismiss any evidence presented therein because they do not accept the inspiration of Maccabees. And second, they will claim these men in Maccabees committed the sin of idolatry, which would be a mortal sin in Catholic theology. According to the Catholic Church, they would be in Hell where there is no possibility of atonement. Thus, and ironically so, they will say, Purgatory must be eliminated as a possible interpretation of this text if you’re Catholic.
The Catholic Response:
Rejecting the inspiration and canonicity of II Maccabees does not negate its historical value. Maccabees aids us in knowing, purely from a historical perspective at the very least, the Jews believed in praying and making atonement for the dead shortly before the advent of Christ. This is the faith in which Jesus and the apostles were raised. And it is in this context Jesus declares in the New Testament:
And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come (Matthew 12:32, emphasis added).
This declaration of our Lord implies there are at least some sins that can be forgiven in the next life to a people who already believed it. If Jesus wanted to condemn this teaching commonly taught in Israel, he was not doing a very good job of it according to St. Matthew’s Gospel.
The next objection presents a more complex problem. The punishment for mortal sin is, in fact, definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed in Hell according to Catholic teaching (see CCC 1030). But it is a non-sequitur to conclude from this teaching that II Maccabees could not be referring to a type of Purgatory.
First of all, a careful reading of the text reveals the sin of these men to be carrying small amulets “or sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia” under their tunics as they were going into battle. This would be closer to a Christian baseball player believing there is some kind of power in his performing superstitious rituals before going to bat than it would be to the mortal sin of idolatry. This was, most likely, a venial sin for them. But even if what they did would have been objectively grave matter, good Jews in ancient times—just like good Catholics today—believed they should always pray for the souls of those who have died “for thou [O Lord], thou only knowest the hearts of the children of men” (II Chr. 6:30). God alone knows the degree of culpability of these “sinners.” Moreover, some or all of them may have repented before they died. Both Jews and Catholic Christians always retain hope for the salvation of the deceased this side of heaven; thus, we always pray for those who have died.
A Plainer Text
In Matthew 5:24-25, Jesus is even more explicit about Purgatory.
Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser’s hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny (Matthew 5:25-26).
For Catholics, Tertullian for example, in De Anima 58, written in ca. AD 208, this teaching is parabolic, using the well-known example of “prison” and the necessary penitence it represents, as a metaphor for the Purgatorial suffering that will be required for lesser transgressions, represented by the “kodrantes” or “penny” of verse 26. But for many Protestants, our Lord is here giving simple instructions to his followers concerning this life exclusively. This has nothing to do with Purgatory.
This traditional Protestant interpretation is very weak contextually. These verses are found in the midst of the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” where our Lord teaches about heaven (vs. 20), hell (vs. 29-30), and both mortal (vs. 22) and venial sins (vs. 19), in a context that presents “the Kingdom of Heaven” as the ultimate goal (see verses 3-12). Our Lord goes on to say if you do not love your enemies, “what reward have you” (verse 46)? And he makes very clear these “rewards” are not of this world. They are “rewards from your Father who is in heaven” (6:1) or “treasures in heaven” (6:19).
Further, as St. John points out in John 20:31, all Scripture is written “that believing, you may have [eternal] life in his name.” Scripture must always be viewed in the context of our full realization of the divine life in the world to come. Our present life is presented “as a vapor which appears for a little while, and afterward shall vanish away” (James 1:17). It would seem odd to see the deeper and even “otherworldly” emphasis throughout the Sermon on the Mount, excepting these two verses.
When we add to this the fact that the Greek word for prison, phulake, is the same word used by St. Peter, in I Peter 3:19, to describe the “holding place” into which Jesus descended after his death to liberate the detained spirits of Old Testament believers, the Catholic position makes even more sense. Phulake is demonstrably used in the New Testament to refer to a temporary holding place and not exclusively in this life.
The Plainest Text
I Corinthians 3:11-15 may well be the most straightforward text in all of Sacred Scripture when it comes to Purgatory:
For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
No Christian sect I know of even attempts to deny this text speaks of the judgment of God where the works of the faithful will be tested after death. It says our works will go through “fire,” figuratively speaking. In Scripture, “fire” is used metaphorically in two ways: as a purifying agent (Mal. 3:2-3; Matt. 3:11; Mark 9:49); and as that which consumes (Matt. 3:12; 2 Thess. 1:7-8). So it is a fitting symbol here for God’s judgment. Some of the “works” represented are being burned up and some are being purified. These works survive or burn according to their essential “quality” (Gr. hopoiov – of what sort).
What is being referred to cannot be heaven because there are imperfections that need to be “burned up” (see again, Rev. 21:27, Hab. 1:13). It cannot be hell because souls are being saved. So what is it? The Protestant calls it “the Judgment” and we Catholics agree. We Catholics simply specify the part of the judgment of the saved where imperfections are purged as “Purgatory.”
The Protestant respondent will immediately spotlight the fact that there is no mention, at least explicitly, of “the cleansing of sin” anywhere in the text. There is only the testing of works. The focus is on the rewards believers will receive for their service, not on how their character is cleansed from sin or imperfection. And the believers here watch their works go through the fire, but they escape it!
First, what are sins, but bad or wicked works (see Matthew 7:21-23, John 8:40, Galatians 5:19-21)? If these “works” do not represent sins and imperfections, why would they need to be eliminated? Second, it is impossible for a “work” to be cleansed apart from the human being who performed it. We are, in a certain sense, what we do when it comes to our moral choices. There is no such thing as a “work” floating around somewhere detached from a human being that could be cleansed apart from that human being. The idea of works being separate from persons does not make sense.
Most importantly, however, this idea of “works” being “burned up” apart from the soul that performed the work contradicts the text itself. The text does say the works will be tested by fire, but “if the work survives… he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss.” And, “he will be saved, but only as through fire” (Gr. dia puros). The truth is: both the works of the individual and the individual will go through the cleansing “fire” described by St. Paul in order that “he” might finally be saved and enter into the joy of the Lord. Sounds an awful lot like Purgatory.
Catholic teachings on the doctrine of Purgatory are best understood in light of our teachings on faith, salvation, and justification.
The Early Church on Purgatory:
Clement of Alexandria
The believer through discipline divests himself of his passions and passes to the mansion which is better than the former one, passes to the greatest torment, taking with him the characteristic of repentance for the faults he may have committed after baptism. He is tortured then still more, not yet attaining what he sees others have acquired. The greatest torments are assigned to the believer, for God’s righteousness is good, and His goodness righteous, and though these punishments cease in the course of the expiation and purification of each one, “yet” etc. (Patres Groeci. IX, col. 332 [A.D. 150-215]).
If a man departs this life with lighter faults, he is condemned to fire which burns away the lighter materials and prepares the soul for the kingdom of God, where nothing defiled may enter. For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones (I Cor., 3); but also wood and hay and stubble, what do you expect when the soul shall be separated from the body? Would you enter into heaven with your wood and hay and stubble and thus defile the kingdom of God; or on account of these hindrances would you remain without and receive no reward for your gold and silver and precious stones? Neither is this just. It remains then that you be committed to the fire which will burn the light materials; for our God to those who can comprehend heavenly things is called a cleansing fire. But this fire consumes not the creature, but what the creature has himself built, wood, and hay and stubble. It is manifest that the fire destroys the wood of our transgressions and then returns to us the reward of our great works. (Patres Groeci. XIII, col. 445, 448 [A.D. 185-232]).
“As John stood near the Jordan among those who came to be baptized, accepting those who confessed their vices and their sins and rejecting the rest … so will the Lord Jesus Christ stand in a river of fire next to a flaming sword and Baptize all those who should go to Paradise after they die, but who lack purgation… But those who do not bear the mark of the first Baptism will not be baptized in the bath of fire. One must first be Baptized in water and Spirit so that, when the river of fire is reached, the marks of the baths of water and Spirit will remain as signs that one is worthy of receiving the Baptism of fire in Jesus Christ.” (Origen, Commentary on Luke, 24th Homily, before 253 A.D)
The citizen of a prominent city, I erected this while I lived, that I might have a resting place for my body. Abercius is my name, a disciple of the chaste shepherd who feeds his sheep on the mountains and in the fields, who has great eyes surveying everywhere, who taught me the faithful writings of life. Standing by, I, Abercius, ordered this to be inscribed; truly I was in my seventy-second year. May everyone who is in accord with this and who understands it pray for Abercius (Epitaph of Abercius [A.D. 190]).
That allegory of the Lord [Matt. 5:25-26] . . . is extremely clear and simple in its meaning . . . [beware lest as] a transgressor of your agreement, before God the judge . . . and lest this Judge deliver you over to the angel who is to execute the sentence, and he commits you to the prison of hell, out of which there will be no dismissal until the smallest even of your delinquencies be paid off in the period before the resurrection. What can be a more fitting sense than this? What a truer interpretation? (The Soul 35 [A.D. 210]).
“This place, the Bosom of Abraham, though not in Heaven, and yet above hell, offers the souls of the righteous an interim refreshment until the end of all things brings about the general resurrection and the final reward.” (Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4:34, before 220 A.D.)
“Indeed she [a widow] prays for his [her husband’s] soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection [Heaven]. And each year, on the anniversity of his death, she offers the Sacrifice [i.e., has a Mass said for him].” (Tertullian, On Monagomy, 212 A.D.)
It is one thing to stand for pardon, another thing to attain to glory; it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire; another to have purged all sins by suffering. It is one thing, in fine, to be in suspense till the sentence of God at the Day of judgment; another to be at once crowned by the Lord (Letters 51:20 [A.D. 253]).
Cyril of Jerusalem
Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition, next, we make mention also of the holy fathers and bishops who have already fallen asleep, and, to put it simply, of all among us who have already fallen asleep. For We believe that it will be of very great benefit to the souls of those for whom the petition is carried up, while this holy and most solemn sacrifice is laid out (Catechetical Lectures 23:5:9 [A.D. 350]).
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice [Job l:5), 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 (Homilies on First Corinthians 41:5 (A.D. 392)).
Not in vain was it decreed by the apostles that in the awesome mysteries remembrance should be made of the departed. They knew that here there was much gain for them, much benefit. When the entire people stands with hands uplifted, a priestly assembly, and that awesome sacrificial victim is laid out, how, when we are calling upon God, should we not succeed in their defense? But this is done for those who have departed in the faith, while even the catechumens are not reckoned .is worthy of this consolation, but are deprived of every means of assistance except one. And what is that? We may give alms to the poor on their behalf (Homilies on Philippians 3:9-10 [A.D. 402]).
Ambrose of Milan
Give perfect rest to thy servant Theodosius, that rest which thou hast prepared for thy saints… I have loved him, and therefore will I follow him into the land of the living; nor will I leave him until by tears and prayers I shall lead him wither his merits summon him, unto the holy mountain of the Lord (Funeral Sermon of Theodosius 36-37 [A.D. 395]).
There is an ecclesiastical discipline, as the faithful know, when the names of the martyrs are read aloud in that place at the altar of God, where prayer is not offered for them. Prayer, however, is offered for other dead who are remembered. It is wrong to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we ought ourselves be commended (Sermons 159:1 [A.D. 411]).
Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment (The City of God 21:13 [A.D. 419]).
That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible, and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Charity l8:69 [A.D. 421])
St. Perpetua – 3rd century martyr
An African Latin-speaker like Tertullian, her memoirs were documented during her incarceration. At about A.D. 203 she writes …
“I saw a vision of Dinocrates going out from a gloomy place, where also there were several others. He was parched and very thirsty, with a filthy countenance and pallid color; the wound on his face that he had when he died. This Dinocrates had been my brother after the flesh, seven years of age, who died miserably with disease. For him I had made my prayer; and between him and me there was a large interval, so that neither of us could approach to the other. And I knew that my brother was in suffering, but I trusted that my prayer would bring help to his suffering; and I prayed for him every day until we passed over into the prison of the camp, for we were to fight in a camp show. Then I made my prayer for my brother day and night, groaning and weeping, that he might be granted to me. Then, on the day that we remained in fetters, this was shown to me: I saw that that place which I had formerly observed to be in gloom was now bright; and Dinocrates, with a clean body, well clad, was finding refreshment. He went away from the water to play joyously, after the manner of children; and I woke from this vision. Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment.” (Acts of the Martyrdom of Felicity and Perpetua, Chapters iii-x)
Origin’s fellow Alexandrian, St. Clement
“In the other life there will be two fires, a ‘devouring and consuming’ one for the incorrigible, and for the rest, a fire that ‘sanctifies’ and ‘does not consume, like the fire of the forge,’ a ‘prudent, intelligent’ fire which penetrates the soul that passes through it.” (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 8.6, c. before 215 A.D.)
St. Basil the Great …
“…and if they [i.e., Christians who die] are found to have any wounds from their wrestling, any stains or effects of sin, they are detained. If, however, they are found unwounded and without stain, they are, as unconquered, brought by Christ into their rest.” (Basil, Homilies and Psalms, 370 A.D.)
And St. Basil’s own brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa declares …
“…he [the departed soul] is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by purifying fire.” (Sermon on the Dead)