Understanding Purgatory

“I don’t believe in purgatory, because it is not mentioned in the Bible! There exists only heaven and hell!”

The Catholic Church teaches that purgatory is a temporary place of purification where those who have died undergo a period of expiation to remove all stain of mortal sin duly forgiven or all stain of unrepentant venial sin. Souls are sent to purgatory as “nothing unclean” (Rev. 21, 27) can enter heaven. All souls that are sent to purgatory are destined to ultimately enter heaven once all stain of sin has been removed by its purifying fires. Once the last soul leaves purgatory at the General Resurrection and Judgment, it will be extinguished and only heaven and hell will remain.

For Catholics the strongest argument for the existence of purgatory is the constant and universal writings of the early Church Fathers, the ancient liturgies of the East and West, the numerous inscriptions on the walls of the Catacombs, and in the pronouncements of the Councils of Florence (1438-45) and Trent (1545-63).

“Sure, but all this means nothing, for the Bible still says nothing about purgatory.”

2 Macc. 12, 43-46 shows that the Jews in the Old Testament certainly believed in a middle state where the dead could profit from the sacrifices and prayers of the living:

“And making a gathering, (Judas Maccabeus) sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead…It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” (Douai).

Protestants deny the canonicity of the Maccabean books, nevertheless, their historical value cannot be denied, and even Jewish prayer books today contain such prayers. If the doctrine of purgatory had been invented by the Jews, undoubtedly, it would have been condemned by Jesus Christ, as He condemned them for a long list of changes in doctrine and discipline in St. Matt. 23.

On the contrary, the doctrine of purgatory is actually implied in the Gospels: “I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny” (St. Luke 12, 59); “Whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the World to come” (St. Matt. 12, 32 [Douai]). According to Pope St. Gregory the Great the words of Christ in St. Matthew infer that sins can be forgiven in the next life. Now this cannot be done in heaven or hell, but only in another state which the Church calls purgatory.

Further, St. Paul writing his first letter to the Corinthians (3, 13-15) says that “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.” His soul will be saved, but only after spending time in the purifying flames of purgatory.

“But purgatory is unnecessary, for Christ’s death on the Cross has paid all debt of punishment for sin.”

Christ’s death on the Cross sufficed to redeem humanity and free us from the eternal damnation of hell, but it did not free us from the need to undergo temporal punishments for sin. For example, humanity is still subject to the temporal punishments of labor, pain, sickness and death even though we have now been redeemed. St. Paul makes this point clear when writing to the Colossians: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (1, 24).

The essential reason why Protestants reject the doctrine of purgatory is due to their belief in the un-Scriptural doctrines of total depravity and non-imputation of sin concocted by Luther and Calvin. They taught that the sin of Adam so damaged humanity that we were now nothing more than wild beasts whose every actions, no matter how good, were sinful. Since we are incapable of good actions there is nothing we can do to remit our temporal punishments either for ourselves or for anyone else. Only Christ is therefore capable of achieving this and this He did on the Cross. Further, as our souls are already totally depraved any additional sin on our part cannot leave a “stain of sin” which needs to be purified in purgatory. By accepting Christ as our “personal Lord and Savior” God “covers up” our sinful natures, in this way making us fit to enter the Kingdom of heaven.

Finally, the Bible makes it clear that in the past there has existed more than just the two places of heaven and hell in the next world. St. Peter tells us (1 Pet. 3, 19) that after His death Jesus preached His redemption “to the spirits in prison.” Therefore, the concept of another temporary, intermediate place such as purgatory is not totally out of the question.

The Fathers:

Tertullian, The Soul (Inter 208-212 A.D.):

“In short, if we understand that prison of which the Gospel speaks to be Hades, and if we interpret the last farthing to be the light offense which is to be expiated there before the resurrection, no one will doubt that the soul undergoes some punishments in Hades, without prejudice to the fullness of the resurrection, after which recompense will be made through the flesh also.”

Tertullian, Monogamy (Post 213 A.D.):

“A woman, after the death of her husband, is bound not less firmly but even more so, not to marry another husband…Indeed, she prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection. And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice.”

St. Cyprian of Carthage, Letter to His Clergy and to All His People (250 A.D.):

“Lawrence and Ignatius, though they fought betimes in worldly camps, were true and spiritual soldiers of God; and while they laid the Devil on his back with their confession of Christ, they merited the palms and crowns of the Lord by their illustrious passion. We always offer sacrifices for them, as you will recall, as often as we celebrate the passions of the martyrs by commemorating their anniversary day.”

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures (C. 350 A.D.):

“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.”

St. Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon on the Dead (383 A.D.):

After his departure out of the body, he gains knowledge of the difference between virtue and vice, and finds that he is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by the purifying fire.”

St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God Against the Pagans (Inter 413 – 426 A.D.):

“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.”

St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions Bk. IX Ch. II (400 A.D.):

St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, on her death-bed said to him: “This one request I make of you, that, wherever you be, you remember me at the Lord’s altar.”

Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566):

Prayers for the dead, that they may be liberated from the fire of purgatory, are derived from Apostolic teaching…

(The Eucharist)..its benefits extend not only to the celebrant and communicant, but to all the faithful, whether living with us on earth, or already numbered with those who are dead in the Lord, but whose sins have not yet been fully expiated. For, according to the most authentic Apostolic tradition, it is not less available when offered for them, than when offered for the sins of the living, their punishments, satisfactions, calamities and difficulties of every sort.

Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992):

No. 1030: 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.

No. 1031: The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come (St. Gregory the Great,Dial. 4, 39: PL 77, 396)

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No. 1032: This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12, 46). From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why should 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 (St. John Chrysostom,Hom. in 1 Cor. 41, 5: PG 61, 361).

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