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.)
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.