In my last post I looked at the Scriptures that support the idea that as Christians even though our sins have been forgiven, we still must endure “discipline” or “punishment” for our sins. As Catholics we understand this has nothing to do with some “need” that God has. This discipline is in order to bring us fully to holiness. In many ways we can see an analogy of how any good parent would treat a child. For example, a parent may have a rule of no playing ball in the house. What happens if a child ignores that rule, and breaks a lamp? A good parent will easily forgive a child for this transgression. But does that mean that no punishment or consequence ensues? A good parent would not work out of anger or satisfying some “need” they have for retribution. But they would know that if the child is to grow in goodness, some discipline is in order. Such it is with God. He gives us the moral law for our own benefit, not His. And when we fail to live up to that moral law, He forgives us without question. But in order to help strengthen us in holiness, He also will allow for discipline unto holiness (Hebrews 12:10). “Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:19)
While not a Catholic, CS Lewis had a very Catholic understanding of Purgatory in his writings. “Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.‘” We should all desire this discipline in order to become who God created us to be.
The question regarding Purgatory now becomes whether or not this discipline towards holiness continues after death. Consider this view from an Evangelical source:
In the final analysis, there is nothing in Scripture that teaches that believers will become perfect in this life. Entire sanctification will take place when we reach heaven, but not until. The expectation is that believers on earth will continue to sin and need to be cleansed (1 John 1:9)…. At any given moment, a believer may be cooperating with the Holy Spirit’s leading rather than actively rebelling against it, but, even in our best moments, we have not reached sinless perfection.
As Catholics, we actually do not agree with the idea that it’s not possible to reach a state of sinless perfection in this world. We do hold fast to the understanding that “I can do all things in him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13). Our process of sanctification occurs more quickly when we seek it and actively yield to it. Frequent reception of the sacraments of Eucharist and Confession, prayer, allowing Sacred Scripture to form us, and actively seeking to allow our faith to work in charity are our greatest sources of grace in this battle. What remains to be accomplished in us after death is largely dependent upon how diligently we seek holiness in this life. The Church does not teach that Purgatory is required of every person.
The Evangelical view above says that “Entire sanctification will take place when we reach heaven, but not until.” This recognizes that there is still a change that occurs within our soul after death that brings forth complete sanctification. As Catholics we would simply disagree with the idea that occurs in heaven. After all, Sacred Scripture tells us about heaven that “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.” (Revelation 21:27)
One of the more common objections given to Purgatory is that St. Paul says in Sacred Scripture that “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” This is said to support the view that immediately after death the believer is in heaven with Christ. This would be a paraphrase of that passage, which in context is actually about judgment:
“So we are always of good courage; we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. We are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.” (2 Corinthians 5:6-10).
From the Catholic view, this passage does not indicate an immediate entry into heaven after our death. While we may rather be away from the body and home with the Lord, that doesn’t mean there is no “transition” that has to occur. (I may say I would rather be at home than at work, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a drive to get from one place to the other). Aside from that, this speaks to an encounter with Christ whereby we will receive “good or evil” according to what we have done in the body. Is receiving “evil” from Christ anyone’s real idea of heaven? Or is it as St. John Paul II taught about Purgatory, “Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected. Purification must be complete, and indeed this is precisely what is meant by the Church’s teaching on purgatory. The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection.”
Traditionally images of Purgatory are associated with fire. The Catechism is clear that the fires of Purgatory are entirely different in kind and purpose from those of hell (CCC1031). There are many images of fire in Sacred Scripture that are not associated with hell:
- God manifested in the burning bush (Exodus Chapter 3)
- God descending on Mt. Sinai as fire (Exodus Chapter 19)
- God as a pillar of fire leading the Israelites across the desert (Exodus Chapter 13)
- Elijah taken to heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings Chapter 2)
- Tongues of fire at Pentecost (Acts Chapter 2)
- Hebrews 12:29 says “for our God is a consuming fire”
- Revelation 1:14 say of Christ that “his eyes were like a flame of fire”
And we see one of the clearest passages in Sacred Scripture that Catholics believe speaks to Purgatory using an image of fire. St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 “For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble— each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because 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 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.”
“The Day” as used by St. Paul is a reference to our judgment day. This day was referred to by Christ in Luke 12:2-3 when he said “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed upon the housetops.” The most common Protestant objection I’ve seen to the 1 Corinthians passage indicates that a believers “works” will pass through the fire not believers themselves. But the passage says that “he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” For Catholics this is a clear indication of Purgatory. As Pope Benedict XVI taught, “Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-wordly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishments in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of full unity with Christ……Encounter with the Lord IS this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy.”
It is also important to note in the passage from 1 Corinthians this verse — “If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.” This tells us that Purgatory is not only focused on that which needs to be corrected to complete our sanctification. We will also recognize and clearly see the good that we chose to do in this life and its impact.
St. Catherine of Genoa gives us this insight “The obstacles that keep us from complete and perfect union with God – These obstacles are the rust and the remains of sin; and the fire continues to consume them, and thus the soul gradually expands under the divine influence. Thus, according as the rust diminishes and the soul is laid bare to divine rays, happiness is augmented. The one grows and the other wanes until the trial is done.” While not always a pleasant process, what a joyful one to have every residue of sin that is limiting our capacity to love removed and to encounter full union with Christ.
And since as Catholics we believe we are to pray about all things (Philippians 4:6), we believe that our prayers can assist those who are experiencing this final time of purgation prior to their entry into heaven, just as our prayers can assist those on earth who are suffering in some way. Simple enough.
The bottom line for Catholics regarding Purgatory is the understanding that sanctification is not an optional aspect of our salvation – it’s at the very heart of what it means to be saved. Once that sanctification is completed, we will truly be one of those in heaven that Sacred Scripture refers to as the “spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). And for many of us, that means that after our death Christ will yet have some work to do with us before we are prepared for a life in heaven.