There are few Catholic doctrines that seem to be as misunderstood by other Christians as Purgatory. One of the many false understandings about Purgatory is that it is somehow a “second chance,” or a place God sends if you if you’re not bad enough for hell yet not good enough for heaven.
Catholics believe that at the moment of our death we face Christ. If we are found in God’s friendship, or a state of grace we are judged for heaven. This is determined by whether Christ dwells within us (Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:9, 2 Corinthians 13:5, 1 John 4:4, 1 Corinthians 3:16). If not, we are judged for hell. There are no second chances. Our eternal fate is sealed.
The catechism says this about Purgatory:
CCC1030 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.
CCC1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned
A very common Protestant viewpoint regarding the doctrine of Purgatory:
There are several issues with the idea of purgatory. First, purgatory is not found in Scripture. The problem with purgatory is that it denies the sufficiency of Christ’s blood. Purgatory downplays the severity of the atonement of Jesus Christ. Romans 8:1 teaches that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. However, purgatory teaches us that there is a period of condemnation for the purification of sins. On the cross Jesus said, “it is finished (John:19:30).” Jesus acknowledged that He accomplished what was required by God to atone for sin. Jesus is declaring that His work has been completed. His finished work on the cross is enough for the purification of sins.
The idea of purgatory implies that Christ’s righteousness is not enough and it doesn’t cleanse from all sin. Purgatory teaches that mankind needs something else. We need to add onto His perfect work. There is so much comfort in what the Bible says. 1 John 1:7 says, “the blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 2:2 teaches us that Christ is the propitiation for our sins. There is so much beauty in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. Substitutionary atonement refers to Jesus taking our place and dying as a substitute for sinners. Jesus took the punishment and suffering that we deserve so that we could be delivered. By the wounds of Christ, we are healed (Isaiah 53:5). 2 Corinthians 5:21 reminds us that “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
When I did the series of posts on the difference between the Protestant and Catholic views of the atonement, I mentioned that the Protestant view of penal substitution can often make it difficult for Protestants to understand some Catholic teachings. This is especially true about Purgatory. Consider the above comment, “Jesus took the punishment and suffering that we deserve so that we could be delivered.” In the view of this author, there is therefore no “punishment” due to us for sin – Jesus “accomplished what was required by God to atone for sin,” he “declared that his work was finished,” and “his finished work on the cross is enough for the purification of sins,” so therefore “there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.” Purgatory is seen to be a denial of these truths.
It’s important to remember from the Catholic perspective that the attack against Christ that resulted in his brutal and savage death on the cross was not launched by God in order to punish Jesus for our sins. God cannot attack God after all and remain in eternal unity, and at its core believing so is a denial of the Trinity. In the Catholic understanding, the person who launched the attack against Christ was Satan, and he used sinful men to accomplish his work. The Father received this offering of his life from Christ as an act of supreme love. Therefore the cross was not an act of God “punishing” Christ for our sins at all. But since those who accept a penal substitution atonement theology do believe that God was punishing Christ for our sins, it can be almost impossible to understand the doctrine of Purgatory when you have that perspective.
Another important aspect about the Catholic teaching of Purgatory is to know that we view there is a difference between the “eternal” consequence of sin (eternal separation from God in hell) and the “temporal” consequence of sin. The Catechism expresses that in this way:
CCC1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.
CCC1473 The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man.”
The Evangelical site I often use, gotquestions.org would very much agree that the idea of Purgatory is not Scriptural as expressed above from the Protestant perspective. They have articles that say things like “To say that we must also suffer from our sins to say that Jesus’ suffering was insufficient. To say that we must atone for our sins by cleansing in Purgatory is to deny the sufficiency of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus” http://www.gotquestions.org/purgatory.html#ixzz3OKLdeIrL
And “Purgatory is understood by Catholics as a place of cleansing in preparation for heaven because they do not recognize that because of Jesus’ sacrifice, we are already cleansed, declared righteous, forgiven, redeemed, reconciled and sanctified.” http://www.gotquestions.org/purgatory.html#ixzz3OKMvWvFI
But the same site also recognizes the difference between the eternal and temporal consequences of sin:
Question: “If Jesus paid the price for our sin, why do we still suffer the consequences of our sin?”
Answer: The Bible gives the good news that Jesus paid the price for our sin (Ephesians 1:7), yet in many ways we still suffer the consequences of our sins. For example, a drug dealer may become a Christian in prison, but that doesn’t mean he will be released from prison the next day—he will still experience the consequences of his past sin. A born-again Christian who falls into adultery may lose his family, his career, etc.—even after he confesses and forsakes his sin, the consequences of his sin remain. Coming to Christ does not erase the temporal effects of sin; rather, our salvation guarantees that we will not face the eternal consequences of sin…..
Praise the Lord for His goodness. He allows us to experience the temporal consequences of sin (for our own good). But He has saved us from the eternal consequences of sin. Jesus paid the penalty for our sins so we will never experience the second death, which is the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14). Believers in Christ are promised that the curse and consequences of sin will be completely removed one day, and “nothing will hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11:9, NLT).
So one of the first things to get clear in our heads – Purgatory has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins from the Catholic perspective. Our sins have been forgiven and the eternal consequence of sin, eternal separation from God has been removed. Purgatory is 100% about dealing with the temporal consequences of sin. And as in the quote above, there is at least an acknowledgment by some in the Protestant world that “coming to Christ does not erase the temporal effects of sin.” And this is the essence of the Catholic teaching about Purgatory — it’s about cleaning up the residue and mess left by sins that have already been forgiven. It’s about our sanctification, and preparing us for a life in heaven. And this is accomplished by God’s grace. Always and ever, everything is grace.
My next post will begin to look at the Scriptural justification for this teaching.