Purgatory 101

If terms like hell, sin, and judgment have become unpopular in our culture, the idea of purgatory is positively radioactive.

Many people have a hard time grasping how an all-good God could allow people to spend eternity in damnation. It may be even harder to understand how people who are saved from such damnation end up suffering punishment anyways on their way to heaven—which is not an all-together unfair characterization of what purgatory is.

As confounding as it may at first seem, the doctrine of purgatory is actually simple at its core and also has a solid foundation in the Bible. Here are the essentials of what the Church has taught on purgatory.

Wait, does the Church even still teach purgatory?

Contrary to what some people may think purgatory was not consigned to the dustbin of old doctrines at Vatican II. It remains a staple of the Church’s teaching. The new catechism, promulgated in the 1990s, affirms it and so did Pope St. John Paul II in a series of General Audiences on heaven, hell, and purgatory.

OK, so what exactly is the purpose is of purgatory?

It is to purify or ‘purge’ any remaining sin within us before we enter into the presence of God in heaven. As the catechism puts it:

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.

But shouldn’t regular confession have washed away the stain of sin for faithful Catholics?  

There are two reasons purgatory may still be necessary. One could have either died in a state of venial sin or one might not have done sufficient penance to alleviate the temporal penalty for sin. (This is according to traditional theology manuals like this one, the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Baltimore Catechism, and St. Thomas Aquinas.)

Some contemporary accounts (examples here and here) of purgatory emphasize more generally that all traces, vestiges, and attraction towards sin will be purged, further explaining why it might be necessary.

Think about it this way. In heaven, you will be beholding the beauty of the triune God, the Creator of our universe of 10 trillion galaxies and 100 octillion stars. Take the mountain-devouring fire that enveloped Moses at Sinai, the storm-cloud that bellowed at Job, and the glowing, lightning-flecked cloud spied by the prophet Ezekiel, roll them all into one, and you will still fall short of what the beatific vision will be like. As fantastic as their visions were, none of these holy men behold God directly in this life. That’s what happens in heaven.

Who wouldn’t want one more round of purification before that?

But is purgatory necessary?

The doctrine of purgatory comes from the clear teaching of Scripture that nothing impure will enter into the presence of God. This is stated mostly clearly in Revelation 21:27 and Matthew 5:8, but it is also indicated indirectly in other verses such as Isaiah 52:1, Ezekiel 44:9, and Habakkuk 1:13.

Is purgatory a place?

Despite the creative imaginations of poets like Dante, the Church has said very little about the actual physicality of purgatory. John Paul II taught that it was a state or condition, rather than a place, which makes sense given that purgatory is not a final destination but merely a pass-through to heaven, which will be a physical-spatial reality given that there we will then have our resurrected bodies.

While it is true many medieval Catholics thought of purgatory as a place, understanding it as more of a state or condition is not quite the innovation it might seem. As Pope Benedict XVI noted, one of the saints who wrote a treatise on purgatory, St. Catherine of Genoa, also taught that it was more of a process that occurred within one’s soul rather than a place.

How long will believers suffer in purgatory?

In the past it has been assumed—because of the days associated with an indulgence—that there was a fixed time set for the suffering of souls in purgatory that was knowable to us. The Church has since moved away from fixing days to indulgences to avoid this misunderstanding. (For more on that see this article. See also St. Robert Bellarmine’s Small Catechism, Question 132.)

Aquinas doesn’t raise the question in the Summa Theologica (see here and here). And the Catholic Encyclopedia doesn’t mention it.

Here’s what the Baltimore Catechism says on the matter: “We do not know what souls are in Purgatory nor how long they have to remain there; hence we continue to pray for all persons who have died apparently in the true faith and free from mortal sin. They are called the faithful departed.”

Bottom line: we don’t know. But we do know that it will be temporary. Keep in mind that there will be no “time” as we understand it in the afterlife (as this article astutely notes).

Is purgatory in the Bible?

First, there must not be explicit teaching on something in the Bible in order for us to believe it. But, as it turns out with purgatory, the biblical evidence is more substantial that one might suppose. In addition to the above verses cited earlier, there are many others.

A key text is 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:

“For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus. Now if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay stubble: Every man’s work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work burn, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.”

These verses, whose meaning is not immediately transparent, have been interpreted by the Church to refer to the purification souls undergo in purgatory. The ‘work that burns’ is seen as the venial sins that are burned away in purgatory, leaving a clean soul that is ‘saved’ for heaven.

From the Old Testament another commonly cited supporting text is 2 Maccabees 12:43-46, which commends prayers for the dead that they might be “loosed from sins”—though keep in mind that citing this verse will not get you anywhere in discussions with Protestants, who do not accept 2 Maccabees as Scripture.

Verses that refer to a ‘refining fire’ are often understood as referring to purgatory. In all, there are at least 11 such verses. They are: Job 23:10, Psalm 66:10-12, Proverbs 17:3, Isaiah 1:25, Isaiah 48:10, Ezekiel 22:18-22, Jeremiah 9:6, Zechariah 13:9, Malachi 3:1-5, Revelation 3:17-18, and 1 Peter 1:7. (Note that purgatory is not necessarily the primary focus of every single one of those verses, though the ones selected above all are in line with 1 Corinthians 3:11-15.)

There are two other verses that do not fit into this pattern but should be noted as well. In the Old Testament, Isaiah 4:4 depicts a scene very much like the ones above except that the metaphor is one of cleansing rather than refinement by fire.

Then there is Romans 2:6 which discusses how God will “repay everyone according to his works” in a context that is pretty clearly about the end times.

And we have by no means exhausted the list. Two other biblical defenses of purgatory can be found here and here.

Editor’s note: You may read St. Catherine of Genoa’s account of Purgatory in her work, Fire of Lovewhich is available from Sophia Institute Press

image: Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock.com

Stephen Beale

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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  • Gregory

    “Don’t aim for purgatory- you might miss.” – Mother Angelica

  • Michael J. Lichens

    Hahaha. Man, you gotta love her wit and direct way of speaking. That’s a good thing to remember.

  • Peccatori

    Another very enlightening read on this subject is a book called Hungry Souls, published by Tan.
    It presents stories and accounts by people who were visited by souls in purgatory. They can’t pray for themselves, but prayers from others help speed their purgation. It may sound doubtful, but read it and consider the similarity of the accounts from people who didn’t know each other, from different parts of the world.
    Interesting, but, again, not something that would allow the Church to proclaim as dogma.

  • Michael J. Lichens

    I know that one, but haven’t read it yet. I really enjoyed Fr. Faber’s book on Purgatory and can recommend it, as well as the St. Catherine book that Stephen recommended. Susan Tassone’s book is also supposed to be amazing.

    The one I try to use every November (with varying degrees of success) is “Stories About Purgatory and What They Reveal: 30 Days for the Holy Souls” which gives accounts as well as how to pray for the whole month for the souls in purgatory. It’s been a great resource, especially in the wake of the death of several friends.

  • Pete

    Good discussion. In Luke 23:43 Christ promises the criminal next to Him he will be with Him in Paradise that day. I do believe in a purification from sin as we head for Paradise, but I also believe it will happen quick, as it did for the criminal on the cross. I believe God is merciful and loving and would not be separated from his children any longer than necessary.

  • Peccatori

    There was a part in the book, Hungry Souls, where it was described as experiencing the greatest pain and greatest sensation of elation, simultaneously. Could you imagine? It says that souls are more than willing to cast themselves into purgation once they glimpse the reward on the other side. Thinking that if it is that way, the glory and joy of heaven must be far beyond our imaginings.

  • I wrote an article on this last year on my blog. Dad always told us to “offer it up” whenever we scraped a knee or sprained an ankle growing up. I was accident prone, so I had a lot of things to offer up. Mother Teresa had a battalion of “suffering souls” who assisted her in her ministry by offering up their daily pains to accomplish things that were vital here and now. Of course, I passed dad’s recommendation down to my own children. Many other families did, too. To join your aches and pains, tragedies and sufferings with Jesus’ passion is an “honor,” dad used to say. “Don’t waste it,” he cautioned us. Michael, I know it’s kind of late in the day, but I will send you that story if you could use it for All Souls Day.

  • RodH

    Good point Pete but remember, the purging required may have already been accomplished with St Dismas. We need not read into Christ’s statement anything more than what it was; A declaration to one man in extremis.

  • Jerry Rhino

    Without any significant theological education, most of my training was in mathematics and engineering, the following analysis came to mind.

    Consider one who has freely chosen to get a tattoo. The important elements from this example are:

    1 A willing desire to undergo the painful treatment

    2 Acceptance of the discomfort during and after the process

    3 Satisfaction with the results – it was worth it

    In my opinion purgatory is quite similar. Suffering freely chosen and experienced with a joyful expectation of the consequences. Joyful? Yes indeed.

    Any evidence of joy in purgatory? Review the writings of great saint, Saint Catherine of Genoa.

  • pnyikos

    On the subject of indulgences, one of the linked articles makes clear what those “100 days indulgence,” “7 years indulgence,” etc. phrases attached to some prayers were all about:

    “Since there is no time in
    purgatory, as we understand it, it meant instead the remission of temporal
    punishment analogous to a certain amount of penitence as practiced in the
    early Church. This was a very generous standard, since the penitence
    required for sacramental absolution in the early centuries was arduous,
    indeed. However, with Pope Paul VI’s 1968 revision of the Enchiridion
    Indulgentiarum (Collection or Handbook of Indulgences), this confusing
    way of counting partial indulgences was suppressed, and the evaluation of
    a partial indulgence left to God.”

    I see this as a salutary example of the Church coming to treat Jesus’s words to St. Peter, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” with more prudence and humility.

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