Contrary to what skeptics may say, Scripture directly describes purgatory for us.
Perhaps the most famous text is 1 Corinthians 3:10-15,
According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.
This is not an isolated passage. Instead, St. Paul is drawing upon a pre-existing motif of the refiners’ fire that occurs in several texts throughout the Old Testament. Most often cited is Malachi 3:2-3,
But who can endure the day of his coming?
Who can stand firm when he appears?
For he will be like a refiner’s fire,
like fullers’ lye.
He will sit refining and purifying silver,
and he will purify the Levites,
Refining them like gold or silver,
that they may bring offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
Then there is also Zechariah 13:8-9,
In all the land
two thirds of them will be cut off and perish,
and one third will be left.
I will bring the one third through the fire;
I will refine them as one refines silver,
and I will test them as one tests gold.
They will call upon my name, and I will answer them;
I will say, “They are my people,”
and they will say, “The Lord is my God.”
There are also references to the refiners’ fire in 1 Peter 1:7, Isaiah 48:10, Job 23:10, Proverbs 17:3, and Psalm 66:10—though from the context it is not always clear these verses are explicitly referring to purgatorial fire. Nonetheless, the image of a refiners’ fire is a recurrent one in Scripture and one that is utilized to describe what many of the faithful will experience after death.
Unlike the ‘everlasting’ fire, this fire is of a limited duration. Its purpose is also manifestly different—rather than simple punishment, it aims to ‘test’ those who endure and to ‘refine’ them.
1 Corinthians makes it clear that this ‘testing’ evaluates one’s works in life. Those of value—the good works of charity and mercy—are like the gold and silver that endure, while the bad works are like the chaff that is burned up. Likewise, just as a refining fire removes impurities from precious metals like silver and gold, so also the faithful departed will be purified of any remaining traces of sin.
Most of us get the basic concept of a refiners’ fire. But there was much more to the ancient process.
To take the example of silver, this metal usually appeared in lead ores. One account describes the process this way:
This was freed from the lead by heating in a furnace with a bed of bone ash, which absorbs some of the lead. A blast of air was used, and this causes the rest of the lead to oxidise, forming a cake known technically as litharge. The silver rises to the surface of the semi-liquid slag, or ‘dross’ as it is referred to in the Bible. This was removed, either with a blast of air or a scraper. After all impurities are removed silver will radiate a pure, brilliant light. (Source: Testimony Magazine.)
And then the silver was refined yet once more—this time by sticking it in a clay vessel.
It is also frequently said that the refiner knows when the process is complete when he sees his own image in the silver, a beautiful analogy of our lives. However attractive the idea, it is unfortunately quite incorrect technologically, as anyone will attest who has witnessed the process. The molten silver is brilliant, it is true, but it emits its own light, it cannot act as a mirror. (Testimony Magazine.)
In the ancient world—particularly in the ancient world as depicted in the Bible—silver had a variety of uses. It was, in the first place, currency. (Think of the ‘ten pieces of silver’ in Luke 15:8, for example.) Silver was also used in the construction of the tabernacle under Moses. (See Exodus 26.) Silver furthermore symbolized purity and incorruptibility. (Testimony Magazine.)
The symbolism here is rich with implications for the journey of the faithful departed through purgatory. Here are a few:
■ The purgatorial process: Just as the refinement of silver involves several steps, we can infer that purgatory will likewise be complicated. Perhaps this is why Catholics traditionally assumed purgatory would be of such a long duration. A vision of what that might be like is offered to us by J.R.R. Tolkien in his parable of purgatory, Leaf by Niggle. (Also described here.)
■ Light of our own: The identification of God with light is intimately familiar to us. As we become sons of God the metaphor is extended: we are also to become ‘children of the light.’ Perhaps in purgatory we will advance to a point at which our communion with God is so intense that we radiate light from within rather than simply reflect it.
■ Precious and incorruptible: Just as silver was a precious and incorruptible metal highly valued as currency, so also Christians are precious in the eyes of God. And so also Christians in the next life will become physically and morally incorruptible.
■ Communion with God: Just as silver was used on the construction of the tabernacle—where God was present to Israel—so also we will live up to our calling as temples of God in heaven. Purgatory is what finally enables us to do this.
Scripture does not provide us with all the answers we might want, but it tells us much more about purgatory than we might at first suspect. With the metaphor of the refiners’ fire, Scripture indicates that whatever we might experience in purgatory, at the end we will become something beautiful for God.