purgatoryToday is the Feast of All Souls. Today we pray for the souls of all the faithful departed in purgatory. It makes sense for us to reflect on the Doctrine of Purgatory and its roots. Please note that the following reflection on Purgatory is also in PDF form if you’d care to print out and share copies. You can get it here: Purgatory – Biblical and Reasonable

The Catholic teaching of Purgatory is one of the teachings of the Church that today many struggle to understand. Non-Catholics have generally rejected this teaching, calling it unbiblical. Actually, it is quite biblical and the biblical roots of the teaching will be shown in this reflection. Many Catholics too, influenced and embarrassed by the protests of non-Catholics have been led to downplay, question or even reject this teaching. The task of this reflection is to set forth the Catholic teaching on Purgatory as both biblical and reasonable. It is perhaps best to begin with a description of the teaching on Purgatory, then show it’s biblical roots. Finally it will be good to show why the teaching makes sense based on what God has said to us about holiness and heaven.

What is Purgatory? The Catechism says the following on purgation and Purgatory: 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 attain 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. (Catechism 1030-1031). Jesus declared that we must be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48, Rev 3:2). Other Scriptures also teach that we are called to ultimate perfection (e.g. 2 Cor 7:1; James 1:4) Further heaven is described in the Bible as a place of those who have been made perfect (Heb 12:23; Rev 21:27). The Church takes these promises of ultimate perfection and of heaven as the place of that perfection very seriously. If that perfection is not attained by the time of death then, before entering heaven, the Church understands from the Word of God that we must undergo a final purification that brings to completion the good work that God has begun in us (cf Phil 1:6). The need for purgation thus flows from the promises of God that we shall one day be perfect.

Exactly how this purgation (or purification) is carried out is not revealed explicitly. Some have used the image of fire based on certain scripture texts (e.g. 1 Cor 3:13-15, Isaiah 6:5-7; Malachi 3:2-3). However, as can be seen in the quote already supplied, the Catechism is careful to point out that the purification of Purgatory is entirely different from the experiences of Hell. Thus to summarize, Purgatory is a place and a process of final purification which the elect undergo after death, if necessary, before entering heaven.

A Biblical Teaching – Some have dismissed the Catholic teaching on Purgatory calling it unbiblical. It is true, the word “Purgatory” does not appear in the Bible, but neither does the word “Trinity.” Despite the fact that the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible every Christian still accepts the teaching since the Scriptures contain the truth of the teaching the word conveys. It is the same with Purgatory. Though the word does not appear in the Bible, the teaching does. We do well then to examine some Bible texts and thereby learn that Purgatory is a Biblical teaching.

Consider the following passage from the Gospel of Luke:

You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky; but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? “And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Settle with your opponent on the way to court, lest he drag you to the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer put you in prison. I tell you, you will not get out till you have paid the very last penny.” (Luke 12:56-59)

The context of this passage seems clearly to be one of judgement, and in particular the judgement we will one day face. We may ask who is the judge? It is Jesus for Scripture says, The Father judges no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son (John 5:22). We may also ask, what is the “prison” referred to in this passage? We may instinctively think of Hell. But that could not be correct in this instance for the text clearly indicates that one will emerge from the prison after the last penny is paid. Hell is a place from which no one emerges (cf Mk 9:48, Lk 16:26 etc). Thus the “prison” cannot be Hell, surely it is not heaven. There must then be some place, after judgement, wherein an individual may be detained for a time and then released, after “paying the last penny.” Our Catholic tradition calls this place Purgatory. Though the Lord in this passage clearly urges us to settle our accounts before facing the judge, there does seem to be a chance to settle accounts later if this be deemed necessary.

Consider another passage from the First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians:

Each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, 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 [of Christ] 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.(1 Cor. 3:13-15).

This is surely a complicated passage but again there seems to be a judgment scene described here. Each person’s work will be judged, his or her works will be tested by fire. Some shall receive reward. Others will suffer loss. Ultimately they are saved but “only as through fire” according to the text. Thus there seems to be a sort of purification accomplished for some. On the day of judgement what is imperfect or unbecoming will be burned away. Now this entry unto salvation “through fire” cannot be in heaven since there is no pain and loss is not suffered there. Nor can it be Hell since that is an eternal fire from which there is no escape (cf Matt 25:41). Hence there must be some place of purifying fire through which some pass in the life to come. Our Catholic tradition calls this Purgatory.

Consider yet another passage. In Matthew 12:32 our Lord says Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. This text implies that there is the forgiveness of some sins to be had in the world to come. But where could this place be? It cannot be heaven since there is no sin to be forgiven there (cf Rev 21:27). It cannot be hell since forgiveness is not granted there and there is no escape (Lk 16:26). Hence there must be some third place in the “age to come” where the forgiveness of sin can be experienced. Catholic Tradition and teaching calls this Purgatory. Here individuals in a state of friendship with God and faith in Him may receive forgiveness for certain sins committed in life and be purged of the injustices and effects of those sins.

There is also a teaching in Scripture from the Book of Maccabees: It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins.(2 Mac 12:43-46) Although most non-Catholics do not accept Maccabees as a Book of the Bible it does give us historical evidence that praying for the dead was a Jewish practice. Christ nowhere condemns such prayers nor does any New Testament text dismiss such practices.

These scriptural texts have been reviewed to show that the Catholic teaching on Purgatory does have Biblical basis. The claim that Catholic teaching on this matter is “unbiblical” is thus unfounded. There is a biblical basis and foundation for the Church to teach that after death a purification is both available and in many cases necessary.

A Reasonable Teaching. - Not only is there a Biblical basis for the teaching on Purgatory, there is a an argument for the fittingness of this teaching based on Biblical teaching. In other words, the teaching makes sense based on the promises contained in scripture to those who have been called to be saints.

  1. Scripture teaches that Heaven is a place of perfect happiness where there is no more sorrow or pain, no more death, no more tears (cf Rev 21:23-24). The saints in heaven are perfectly holy and we are thus exhorted here on earth to Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). And regarding heaven Scripture says, But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Rev 21:27) Christ also teaches us very solemnly, You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48).
  2. Now this raises a question: What happens to those who die in a state of grace and friendship with God but are not yet perfect? Most of us will admit, if we were to die at this very moment, we could not honestly say that we are perfect. Even assuming that we are in a state of grace and friendship with God, we can likely see there are still some rough edges to our personality and that we still struggle with certain habitual sins and shortcomings. Likewise, most of us carry within us certain sorrows, regrets or misunderstandings from the past. Despite effort, we may have not been able to fully let go of these things. It is clear that we cannot take any of this with us to heaven. If we did, it would not be a place of perfect joy and total sinlessness.
  3. Obviously we must be purged of any final imperfections, sins, and sorrows before entering heaven. Every tear must be wiped from our eyes (Rev 21:4), every sorrow left behind, every wound healed. Only then will we be able to experience heaven. Ideally this takes place here on earth as we read in James 1:4 And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. Yet many of us know that this process is seldom complete at death. Thus, presuming that we die in a state of grace and friendship with God, Christ will surely complete his work in us (for he is faithful to his promises) by purging us of whatever imperfections, venial sins, or sorrowful effects of sins that still remain. Further, all punishments due to sin are completed.

Thus, the teaching on Purgatory seems quite fitting based on the promise of Jesus that we would one day be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect, lacking in nothing. If we die before this process is complete, then something must happen after death to transform us into the glory which we have been promised and to which we have been called. Catholic teaching and tradition assigns the term “Purgatory” to this process of completion and transformation.

Perhaps, in this light, it is good to conclude with a prayer and blessing from St. Paul: In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion at the day of Christ Jesus. (Phil 1:4-6)

I’m in the Holy Land this week until November 8th. I have scheduled blogs that will appear each day while I’m away so stay tuned! My participation in the comments however may be a little light since my time with the internet will be sporadic. Comments will be moderated by someone else on the team and I’ll participate when I can. – Msgr Pope.

22 Responses

  1. Mick Tierney says:

    Why is this scripture not put forward as an argument for Purgatory?

    Luke 12:47-48 47) And that servant who knew his master’s will, but did not make ready or act according to his will, shall receive a severe beating. 48) But he who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, shall receive a light beating. Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more.

    It strikes me that if both “severe” and “light” beatings are to be administered, the either/or Heaven/Hell concept fails. I would assume Hell is reserved for severe beatings, Heaven for the perfect, and Purgatory for light beatings delivered to those not irredeemably soiled.

    • Msgr. Pope says:

      I am not sure. I think it surely can be reasoned that sucha text could be used, if one assumes that the punishment in question is in the next life and not in this one. I will make use of it in the future.

  2. Nick says:

    Your Excellency,

    Excellent teaching on Purgatory! I didn’t know you had to be in a state of grace, though. I thought you could have venial sin. But now that I know it is state of grace, I will strive by God’s grace to be as holy as He wants me to be.

    • Msgr. Pope says:

      Well, to be in state of grace means that you do not have mortal sin. Hence, the presence of venial sin is sort of presumed otherwise there would be little need for purgation other than to remove the attachments to sin. However I don’t wish to stifle your zeal, go for broke and eliminate even venial sin too!

  3. Henry J. Peresie says:

    Purgatory is not a “Catholic” teaching but belongs exclusively to the Roman Catholic Church. There are 22 other Catholic Churches (Eastern Catholics.) When the Eastern Byzantine Church was united with the West, acceptance of Purgatory was not a condition of unity. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have encouraged Eastern Catholics to go back to their roots, which do not include Purgatory nor indulgences.
    Eastern Catholics teach that after death all righteous souls are in The Bosom of Abraham on their way to Theosis or Divination. In future blogs, please do not assume that Roman Catholic teahings apply to the Eastern Catholic Churches.

    • Msgr. Pope says:

      Eastern Catholics do not use the word purgatory but they do share the concept. Your conclusion are too simplistic. Also I do not assume what you say I do. That this is a blog of the Roman Catholic Church is plain enough and when I use the word Catholic I think it is clear enough to readers that I refer to the Roman Catholic Church. There are nuances and different words sometimes used in the Eastern Catholic Churches but our doctrine is one.

    • John R.P. Russell says:

      Dr. Peresie,

      You write: “Purgatory is not a ‘Catholic’ teaching but belongs exclusively to the Roman Catholic Church.”

      Are you suggesting that the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings are not Catholic teachings? They are not the only Catholic teachings, but they are Catholic teachings.

      We Eastern Catholics do not teach purgatory – we describe the intermediate stage after death differently – but I don’t think we should declare that Roman Catholic teachings are not Catholic any more than Roman Catholics should declare that our teachings are not Catholic. As fully-united Sister Churches, we owe each other more respect than that.

      • Henry Peresie says:

        The Union of Brest of the Western and Eastern Churches did not require the Eastern Churches to accept the doctrine of Purgartory. The Eastern Christian view stresses prayers for the dead but do not consider them to be suffering in a purgatorial fire. The filioque is another doctrine of the Western Church not required by the Eastern Churches. We respect each other’s doctrines but we interpret certain things differently. Several Roman Caholics often refer to the Caholic Church when they mean the Western Catholic Church. Eastern Catholics do not celebrate All Saint’s day on November 1, yet this is referred to a a holy day of obligation for “Catholics.” Christ is in our midst! Many “catholics” do not even know that Eastern Catholic churches exist.

        • Your key concept is that the Eastern Churches DO pray for the dead. Also do not simplify the teaching by saying they “suffer in purgatorial fire.” cf. my quotes from the Catechism. There is no need for you to drive a wedge between the Eastern Churches and the Western on this. THis may be expressed differently in these traditions but it is clear we should pray for the dead. If they are all in heaven, they don’t need our prayers. If they are in Hell no help from our prayers. Your last line is a bit too sweeping and harsh. TO a certain extent I think you just be argumentative, parsing terms and being a bit too particular. Also, putting “catholic” in quotes and lower case etc. is not helpful to the discussion.

    • John R.P. Russell says:

      Also, an interesting note about Pope John Paul II and his idea of how Eastern Catholics should view purgatory and indulgences:

      from the Handbook of Indulgences, Grant no. 48:

      “4. In the Eastern Churches where recitation of the Marian rosary as a devotional practice is not found, the patriarchs can establish other prayers in honor of the blessed Virgin Mary which will have the same indulgences as those attached to the rosary (e.g. in the Byzantine churches, the Akathist hymn, or the office Paraclisis.)”

      and the following:

      “In an audience granted to the Cardinal Major Penitentiary on 25 May 1991, the Holy Father Pope John Paul II, by his own supreme authority, approved the decree Paenitentiariae Apostolicae and ordered that it be published. The decree grants to the Christian faithful who recite the Akathist hymn the indulgence which for the utterly same reason is attached to the recitation of the Marian Rosary.”

  4. Henry Vanden Brook says:

    How do I get a written copy of the YouTube video? The presenter was way to fast for me to keep up. I need to plod through the information, check the scriptures eluded to, verify the facts, think through the information, and finally make a decision. It sounded plausible, but the rate left me in the dust.

    Could you also communicate to the author/presenter that alot of us are interested but too lazy, or stupid, to work through all the information. It would be apprecitated if he would slow down. The people who really care to know, don’t mind a slow, thorough explanation of his point of view, and if his intent is to convert people to agree with his perspective, that is exactly what he needs to do.

    What the heck? He already did the hard part; all the research. Why not slow down and get the converts. God promised a reward for that. Or maybe I should just take his work the last and easiest step, and get what should have been his reward? It may be what the world calls plagerism, but I think I would still get the end reward.

    • I might recommend you hit the pause button as you watch if that will help and then you can jot down the verses etc. Also I provide my remarks in PDF form on the blog page that you can click, open and print for reference

  5. Mary says:

    I would like to thank you Msgr.Pope for this most interesting article on Pergatory. I have only in the past year been moved to study the Catholic faith and its many concepts and must admit Pergatory has had me most complexed. I knew in my heart it was a right concept however, it’s roots haunted me. Again, thank you for sharing your wisdom and may you be exceedingly blessed in continuation of the same.

  6. Henry Peresie says:

    Msgr. Pope;

    I apologize for what seems to be the harsh tone of my remarks. Limited time and space do not permit me to expound on my interpretations of the teachings of the Eastern and Western Catholic Churches. I do not mean to drive a wedge between them. In the West, you call it Purgatory; in the East we call it waiting for Theosis. My point is that there are two views as to the state of the souls of the righteous after death. They need our prayers and we need theirs. Thank you for your comments.

  7. benon ngorima says:

    thank you for the article on purgatory , i now undrestand it much better. but please can youn help me on the place called Hell . in the creed we say “Jesus descended to hell” .Like Jesus does it mean everyone has to first of all go to hell before proceeding to Heaven or Purgatory.

    • Regarding the “hell” to which Jesus descended we do not mean he went to the place of the damned and of Satan. Rather we mean that he descended to the place of the dead which the Jewish people called Sheol. There, all the dead lay waiting for the messiah to come. Hence we confess that when He died Jesus went down among the dead and stirred them from their coma-like sleep. The righteous were then permitted to accompany him to heaven when he ascended. The unrighteous presumably descended to the hell of the damned. More modern translations of the creed say “He descended to the dead” rather than, “he descended to hell.” The translation tries to clarify what we mean to modern ears.

  8. LIZA says:

    THANKS, THIS IS VERY MUCH CLEAR I JUST WANT TO KNOW WHY JESUS DID NOT ADDRESSED, MOTHER MARY AS MOTHER BUT AS A WOMAN TO HIS APOSTLE.

  9. Ruby Narapareddy says:

    Thank you for the excellent explanation. Finally I am clear about the need for Purgatory. The references from Scripture help. Thank you once again. Will share this with all my Protestant friends.

  10. Bridget says:

    Thank you for this excellent explanation on “purgatory!” I consider myself a Christian concerned with Christian unity. I was raised Protestant and attend a Baptist church; I assume that I probably will continue to do so because my fiance has no interest in leaving the Baptists. However, I have slowly but surely been convinced of the truth of the essence of Catholic theology. To the Eastern Catholics above, shouldn’t focus on Christian unity rather than fighting over small things? It is clear that Scripture teaches of a place where we must be refined before entering Heaven (if indeed we are imperfect at our death); why argue over its nature when we can agree on what we know to be Truth? I can say this from experience: I pray/meditate on the rosary and make the sign of a cross when praying at my Baptist Church because I recognize that the important things are what we agree on, not on what we don’t. Didn’t Paul talk about this 2000 years ago!
    1 Corinthians 1:12-13, 17 Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? … For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.

  11. opara chiwueze says:

    Thank you people for the clear explanation. i was awesome getting this facts. am proud to be a catholic.

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