Purgatory, Forgiveness, Consequences

… or, What the Heck is Purgatory?

Consequences? There Are Always Consequences!

Image of the Last Judgment by Segna di BuonaventurePurgatory is not an alternative to heaven or hell. It is a temporary state through which some souls must pass to receive a final purification before entering heaven (See the Book of Revelation 21:27). As the Second Vatican Council taught, purgatory exists because “even when the guilt of sin has been taken away, punishment for it or the consequences of it may remain to be expiated or cleansed” (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 3).

Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “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” (1030, p. 268). “In purgatory,” writes apologist Karl Keating, “all remaining love of self is transformed into love of God” (Catholicism, p. 190).

The Church takes seriously Jesus’ command in Matthew 5:48 to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” and holds fast to The Letter to the Hebrews’12:14 that teaches, “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

Moreover, the Church accepts the biblical truth that spiritual perfection is required for admittance into heaven, for per our above reference to the Book the Revelation (21:27), “nothing unclean shall enter it.”

In fact, God’s refusal to allow Moses to cross into the Promised Land as punishment for his infidelity is consistent with this belief (see Deuteronomy 32:48).

Similarly, one of the more stinging stories in scripture well illustrates this notion forgiveness and consequences. It is the story of Kind David and the prophet Nathan as they discuss David’s misdeed with Bathsheba in the Second Book of Samuel, 12:1-14:

2 Samuel 12

12:1 Then the Lord sent Nathan to David. And when he had come to him, he said to him: “Two men were in one city: one wealthy, and the other poor.
12:2 The wealthy man had very many sheep and oxen.
12:3 But the poor man had nothing at all, except one little sheep, which he had bought and nourished. And she had grown up before him, together with his children, eating from his bread, and drinking from his cup, and sleeping in his bosom. And she was like a daughter to him.
12:4 But when a certain traveler had come to the wealthy man, neglecting to take from his own sheep and oxen, so that he might present a feast for that traveler, who had come to him, he took the sheep of the poor man, and he prepared a meal for the man who had come to him.”
12:5 Then David’s indignation was enraged exceedingly against that man, and he said to Nathan: “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this is a son of death.
12:6 He shall restore the sheep fourfold, because he did this word, and he did not take pity.”
12:7 But Nathan said to David: “You are that man. Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘I anointed you as king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul.
12:8 And I gave the house of your lord to you, and the wives of your lord into your bosom. And I gave the house of Israel and of Judah to you. And as if these things were small, I shall add much greater things to you.
12:9 Therefore, why have you despised the word of the Lord, so that you did evil in my sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword. And you have taken his wife as a wife for yourself. And you have put him to death with the sword of the sons of Ammon.
12:10 For this reason, the sword shall not withdraw from your house, even perpetually, because you have despised me, and you have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite, so that she may be your wife.’
12:11 And so, thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I will raise up over you an evil from your own house. And I will take your wives away before your eyes, and I will give them to your neighbor. And he will sleep with your wives in the sight of this sun.
12:12 For you acted secretly. But I will do this word in the sight of all of Israel, and in the sight of the sun.’ ”
12:13 And David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David: “The Lord has also taken away your sin. You shall not die.
12:14 Yet truly, because you have given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, because of this word, the son who was born to you: dying he shall die.”

Forgiveness and Consequences

The story of Bathsheba and David and Nathan tells us a great deal about the nature of sin and the mercy of God. David, who is the Lord’s beloved king and could seemingly do no wrong, committed a horrible sin. God was eager and willing to forgive and restore, but there had to be consequences.

Consequences for sin and the effects of sin are often debated among Christians. We may wonder, what exactly are the effects and consequences if, in fact, all sin was atoned on the cross?  Every sin that has ever been committed by humans was atoned by the sacrifice of Christ himself, but that doesn’t mean that the effects of sin are negated–certainly not in this life.  Think of any number of sins (and crimes) like murder, arson and assault. They all have very long-lasting earthly implications. So, forgiveness then, does not necessarily mean that the consequences are removed.

Forgiveness, yet Punishment

To understand how punishment could remain even after one’s sins have been forgiven, it is necessary to distinguish between eternal and temporal punishment.

The eternal punishment for sin is hell. One is saved from this punishment by God when he–the sinner–repents and confesses those sins. Yet even after a person is forgiven, temporal punishment may remain which also must be expiated.

Consider, for example, the husband who is unfaithful to his wife. Feeling remorse, he resolves to change his ways and confess what he has done. His wife, in her goodness, forgives him, however, it may be a long time before she will trust him again. He will need to regain her trust, to heal the wound he has caused in their relationship. When we sin we hurt our relationship with God and others.

These wounds must be healed before one enters into heaven. Of course, this healing occurs by the grace of God through the merits of Jesus Christ’s death on the Cross. Purgatory, though, as well as the penances we do on earth, are God’s ways of allowing us to participate in the healing process as we take responsibility for the wrong we have done.

To be clear, Purgatory has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sin because the sins of the souls in purgatory have already been forgiven. So, it is false to claim the Church’s teaching on purgatory involves earning God’s forgiveness. Again, these souls are saved, but their entry into heaven is delayed. As Saint Paul noted in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “When we are judged by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned along with the world.” “For the Lord disciplines him who he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (see the Letter to the Hebrews 12:5-6 and 5:8-9).

Carl Adam perhaps gave the most succient description of purgatory as follows;

The poor soul, having failed to make use of the easier and happier penance of this world, must now endure all the bitterness and all the dire penalties which are necessarily attached by the inviolable law of God’s justice to even the least sin, until she has tasted the wretchedness of sin to its dregs and has lost even the smallest attachment to it, until the perfection of the love of Christ. It is a long and painful process, “so as by fire.” Is it real fire?  We cannot tell; it’s true nature will certainly always remain hidden from us in this world.  But we know this: that no penalty presses so hard upon the “poor souls” as the consciousness that they are by their own fault long debarred from the blessed Vision of God.  The more they are disengaged gradually in the whole compass of their being from their narrow selves, and the more freely and completely their hearts are open to God, so much the more is the bitterness of their separation spiritualized and transfigured.  It is homesickness for their Father; and the further their purification proceeds, the more painfully are their souls scourged with its rods of fire…

Purification and Cleansing

While every Christian considers himself a sinner, at the same time he believes he will be free of sin (and even the inclination to sin) in Heaven. Therefore, a purification process must exist after death, by which the soul prone to sin is transformed into a soul impervious to it.

There are many Scripture passages that allude to a form of expiation of sin after death.

The Notion of Purgatory in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament there is the account of Judas Maccabeus who “made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (see the Second Book of Maccabees 12:46).

The Book of Sirach, 7:33, states, “Give graciously to all the living, and withhold not kindness from the dead.” Both the Second Book of Maccabees and Sirach are included among the seven deuterocanonical books, which many non-Catholics reject. Yet even if one does not believe these books to be inspired by God, he should at least consider the historical witness they provide. They affirm the ancient Israelites’ practice of praying for the souls of the deceased. This is substantiated by Second Book of Samuel 1:12, which tells us David and his men “mourned and wept and fasted until evening for (the soldiers of the Lord) because they had fallen by the sword.”

In the New Testament

Paul utters a prayer for the dead in his Second Letter to Timothy, saying of his deceased friend Onesiphorus, “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord that Day” (1:18).

The most explicit Scriptural reference to purgatory also comes from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:

3:11 For no one is able to lay any other foundation, in place of that which has been laid, which is Christ Jesus.
3:12 But if anyone builds upon this foundation, whether gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or stubble,
3:13 each one’s work shall be made manifest. For the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it will be revealed by fire. And this fire will test each one’s work, as to what kind it is.
3:14 If anyone’s work, which he has built upon it, remains, then he will receive a reward.
3:15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer its loss, but he himself will still be saved, but only as through fire.

Verse 13 refers to Judgment Day, when our works will be made known. The gold, silver, and precious stones in verse 12 represent meritorious works; the wood, hay, and stubble, imperfect works.

Both cases involve a Christian building upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. In the first case, the work the Christian has carried out in life survives judgment and he goes directly to his heavenly reward, i.e., verse 14. In the latter case, the Christian’s work does not survive and he “suffer(s) loss,” though, by God’s mercy, is not himself lost but saved “as through fire” in verse 15.

In Matthew 12:32 Jesus seems to imply there is reparation for sin beyond death: “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (emphasis added). See Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Dialogues 4:40 and Saint Augustine, The City of God 21:24 for related material.

Elsewhere, Jesus implies that some of the deceased shall undergo varying degrees of temporal punishment (see Luke 12:47-48).

Early Christian References to Purgatory

Inscriptions found at ancient gravesites such as the Epitaph of Abercius Marcellus (ca. 190), for example, beg the faithful to pray for the deceased.

Awaiting martyrdom in a dungeon in Carthage in the year 203, Vibia Perpetua prayed daily for her deceased brother, Dinocrates, having received a vision of him in a state of suffering.

Shortly before her death, it was revealed to her that he had entered into paradise. “I knew,” she remarked, “that he had been released from punishment” (The Martyrdom of Perpetual and Felicitas 2:4).

Most profoundly, we see the early Christian practice of offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice on behalf of the dead. Tertullian (d. ca. 240), for instance, revealed how the devout widow prays for the repose of her husband’s soul, and how “each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice” (Monogamy 10:4).

In his Sacramentary, dating to the mid-fourth century, Serapion, the Bishop of Thmuis, beseeched God, “on behalf of all the departed,” to “sanctify all who have fallen asleep in the Lord (Apoc. 14:13) and count them all among the ranks of Your saints and given them a place and abode (John 14:2) in Your kingdom” (The Sacramentary, Anaphora or Prayer of the Eucharistic Sacrifice 13:5).

So Where Does that Leave Us?

Some might ask, “If one must be perfect to enter Heaven, who then can be saved?” When the Apostles posed the same question to Jesus, He responded, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (see Matthew 19:25-26).

As Catholics, we would argue that possibility exists through Purgatory.