There is perhaps no other Catholic dogma that is more subject to abject scrutiny, and also more misunderstood, than that of purgatory. Detractors will the call the notion an unbiblical or even pagan invention, but that couldn’t be any further from the case. What exactly is purgatory?
What is purgatory?
The name purgatory is derived from the Latin purgare, meaning to purge or to cleanse. Purgatory is colloquially thought of as place or spiritual realm; however this is not the best way to describe it – purgatory is actually a purification. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, purgatory may best be thought of as a process, or state of purification:
“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 …” – CCC 1030-1031
Purgatory is the place children of God go to upon their death, where while they were in a state of grace and free of mortal sins, were guilty of venial sins or failed to do full penance for sins already forgiven. Purgatory is not a last-chance opportunity where unrepentant souls can get a chance at Heaven, instead it is a place where people are purified of any attachment to sin. Following death and after being prepared for Heaven in purgatory, purified souls will enter into enjoy the fullness of the Beatific Vision.
Why is purgatory necessary?
Why is purgatory necessary if Christ died for our sins? If we die in a state of pure grace with no blemishes on our souls, we go to heaven. If we die having not confessed our sins and repented, we go to hell. A majority of us wont fit either extreme when we die, we fall in the middle and cannot go to Heaven or Hell, we must go to purgatory. As we know, nothing impure can enter Heaven. Therefore, Christ dying for our sins is precisely why we need purgatory. How can God have given us His only Son so we may have eternal life, if the majority of us upon death would not be pure enough to enter heaven? The answer is we are purified of our attachment to sin in purgatory as a final step so we may achieve heaven.
“But nothing unclean will enter it, nor any[one] who does abominable things or tells lies. Only those will enter whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” – Revelation 21:27
Support for purgatory
Purgatory, while not explicitly stated in the Bible, is implicitly found and referenced to many times. The first mention comes in the tale of heroic Judas Maccabeus, who following a battle when to collect bodies of his fallen men, discovered some of them had amulets to false idols which was against the law at the time. They prayed for their fallen brothers so their sin may be wiped clean.
“But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had fallen … Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. … Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.” – 2 Maccabees 12:40,42,46
Another reference comes during the famous Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus is very explicit about purgatory. We know that there is no liberation from the torment of Hell, nor does anyone in Heaven have a penny to be paid; therefore, Christ is referencing a third place upon which we die the penny shall be paid and our souls purified.
“Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny” – Matthew 5:25-26
An even more straightforward reference comes Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
“The fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.” 1 Corinthians 3:13-15
Paul clearly speaks the works of the Faithful will be tested after our death, through a figurative fire. Scripturally, fire here is used as a purifying agent. What Paul talks about cannot be Hell, because souls are being saved. However, it cannot be Heaven because there are imperfections of the soul that must be burned up. What exactly is it this place, not of Heaven or Hell, where our imperfections are burned up? Purgatory.
What did early Church Fathers have to say about purgatory?
The concept of purgatory has been part of the true Faith since before even Christ, as seen evident in the tale of Judas Maccabeus. Early Church Fathers supported the doctrine of purgatory.
In Tertullian’s writing on monogamy in 216 A.D., the idea of praying for the dead was prevalent during the early years of the Church.
A woman, after the death of her husband … prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection. – Monogamy 10:1
Saint Augustine more clearly defines the doctrine in his most famous work The City of God, and also describes the difference in judgment for venial versus mortal sin.
“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