The teaching of the Catholic Church on purgatory is: “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” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1030]. Purgatory is not a second chance, it is simply the final phase of sanctification for those who have been justified, but still are not yet perfected. Everyone who enters purgatory is on their way to heaven. It could be described as the cleanup room on the way to the banquet. It has not been defined by the Church as being a distinct place or as having literal fire. It may be instantaneous. But we humans existing in time and space often talk about places and lengths of time. This is not necessary to understand purgatory.
Everyone adds to the ‘finished work’ of Christ!
Christ died for the sins of the world, but that doesn’t mean that everyone automatically goes to heaven. His redemptive work upon the cross must be applied to us. We must believe, we must have faith and we must accept His sacrifice on the cross.
And even Jesus Christ does not consider His work finished since He continues to intercede for us at the right hand of the Father (Rom 8:34, Heb 7:25).
Christians still suffer from the effects of sin.
It is true that Jesus was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification (Rom 4:25), but that doesn’t mean that we don’t suffer from the effects of sin. Jesus died so that we might be freed from the dominion of sin brought about by Adam’s fall (Rom 5:12-5:21), but Christians still must suffer from the effects of Adam’s sin. Christians still suffer pain in child bearing (Gen 3:16), other pain, disease, physical death, and they still toil (Gen 3:7-19).
A Christian must suffer
While the agnostic or the atheist might ask, “If there is a God why does He allow pain and suffering?”, these things have meaning for the Christian. The Christian, being a new creation (2 Cor 5:17) with a new mind (Rom 12:12), thinks differently than the world. Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, told us he who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me (Matt 10:38). St. Paul tells us that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs with Christ, provided that we suffer with Him in order that we might be glorified with Him (Rom 8:17). We must add our sufferings to the sufferings of Christ in order to be children of God and be glorified.
Christians can suffer for others in the Church
St. Paul tells us I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, the church (Col 1:24) and if one member suffers, all suffer together (1 Cor 12:26). He tells the Corinthians the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation (2 Cor 1:5-6). Scripture doesn’t teach that our sufferings take away from Christ’s work on the cross, but rather they join us to it. The righteous Job offered sacrifices for his sons’ sins (Job 1:5).
Christians must be perfect to enter heaven
Jesus Christ commanded, "Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly
Father is perfect" (Matt 5:48). We are warned that without holiness "no man shall see God" (Heb. 12:14). Scripture tells us nothing impure will enter heaven (Rev 21:27) where we find "the spirits of just men made perfect" (Heb 12:23). Not many Christians will achieve perfection in this lifetime although that should be their goal. Most still suffer from selfishness, greed, and other sinful desires.
Christians suffer for all sins, but not all sins condemn them
Christians suffer for all sins since all wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal (deadly) (1 John 5:17). Scripture also tells us that if any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal. I do not say that one is to pray for that (1 John 5:16). Three points can be made here:
Some English Bibles miss the distinctions,
but the New Testament uses a variety of terms describing places, states,
or conditions in the afterlife: the lake of fire, gehenna, tarturus, the
abyss, the pit, prison, hades, paradise, Abraham’s bosom, etc.
Heaven is the eternal abode of the righteous and the vision of the Lord and His eternal glory. In the Old Testament the dead all went to the underworld of sheol. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, sheol is all but once translated as hades (once it is translated thanatos). Sheol or hades contains two compartments, one for the righteous and one for the damned. Paradise and Abraham’s bosom is in the part of hades where the souls of the pious awaited their resurrection. Tarturus is in the abode of the wicked dead. As early as the century after Christ the Latin speaking Christians began calling sheol or hades by the Latin name purgatorio. In English this is purgatory.
Gehenna or the lake of fire is the eternal abode of the wicked prepared for the devil and his angels. Originally the term described a valley where children were sacrificed to Moloch. All manners of refuse including the bodies of animals and criminals were thrown there. Fires were necessary to consume the dead bodies so that the air might not become tainted.
When the “good thief” on the cross asked Jesus to remember him when He comes into His kingdom, Jesus tells the thief today you will be with me in paradise (Luke 23:42-43), not heaven. Jesus did not ascend to heaven for more than forty days after the crucifixion. On Good Friday, Jesus descended into the lower parts of the earth (Eph 4:9) where He spent three days and three nights (Matt 12:40) and preached to the spirits in prison (1 Pet 3:19). After the resurrection Jesus stated I have not yet ascended to the Father (John 20:17).
The book of Hebrews describes how the Old Testament saints such as Abel, Noah, Abraham, etc. all died in faith, not having received what was promised (heaven), but only saw and greeted it from afar (Heb 11:13). The book goes on to say: and all these, though well attested for by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect (Heb 11:39). So Sacred Scripture is clear that these Old Testament saints were perfected in a place or state after their lives on earth were finished. It also makes it clear that we will follow them into this state so that we, as with them, can be made perfect.
St. Paul tells us that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Phil 2:10-11). This describes the Church. Those in hell are not in the Church and surely are not confessing Jesus as Lord. That’s why they are in hell! So those under the earth must be in a different place. Catholics call this place purgatory.
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus says whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…Whoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire (Matt 5:19-20, 22). Then He continues to say make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard and you be put into prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny (Matt 5:25-26). What is this place or state if there is no purgatory? No one ever gets out of hell. And there is no suffering in heaven.
Jesus speaks of heaven, hell and then a temporary place of punishment
Jesus told us a story describing the two compartments of hades (Luke 16). Here He describes Lazarus as being with Father Abraham. There is also a rich man who is separated from them. Abraham tells the rich man between us and you there is a great gulf fixed (Luke 16:26). This is not a parable since parables never mention names.
There can be punishment for sins already forgiven
Suppose a person loses something he borrowed from a friend. The friend might forgive him, but he still must replace the item. God may also require us to pay a price. The prophet Nathan told David, the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because of this deed, you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die (2 Sam 12:13-14). Even though David was forgiven he still was punished for his sin.
Purgatory, including hades and paradise, has not passed away
Hades is mentioned many times in the New Testament. After Christ’s Ascension, Peter quotes David: for Thou will not leave my soul in hades (Acts 2:27). St. Paul shows us that paradise and heaven are still separate (2 Cor 12:2-3). We are still awaiting the time when Death and Hades will be thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:14).
Christians will be tested as through fire on judgment day
Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw--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 (1 Cor 3:14-15). Notice that this verse says that the person shall suffer loss, not just his works. And yet the person will be saved. This purging of a person’s bad works can’t possibly occur in heaven, since a person can’t bring anything unclean into heaven (Rev 21:27).
It is not Church dogma that there is literal fire in purgatory, but it is a perfect analogy since our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29). The angels closest to God are called seraphim, or literally flaming ones. The Holy Spirit came as tongues of fire in the New Testament Pentecost (Acts 2:3).
Scripture nowhere teaches “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.”
One proof for the existence of purgatory is that its critics must fabricate scripture verses to dispute it. Catholics respect the Bible as inspired by the Holy Spirit and are forbidden to tamper with God’s Word (2 Cor 4:2). The common proof text used to deny purgatory, “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”, is not in the Bible! St. Paul really wrote we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord (2 Cor 5:8). He was expressing a preference, not making a statement. This does not mean that everyone goes to heaven immediately after death no matter how much they would prefer it. Some go to heaven, some go to hell, and others have to finish their sanctification process prior to entering heaven. St. Paul died a martyr’s death and devoted his life to the spread of the gospel, so perhaps he did go straight to heaven. But even if he had to be purged of something before entering heaven, he could still make this statement since he stated that I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8:18). St. Paul expressed the same desire to the Philippians when he wrote that his desire is to depart and be with Christ (Phil 1:23). In the same letter he goes on to say that I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the sharing of His sufferings by becoming like Him in His death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus made it His own (Phil 3:10-12). St. Paul knew that through suffering he was being sanctified and conformed to Christ and did not consider this process done in his life yet. He did not consider himself ready to enter heaven yet. Most Christians cannot compare to St. Paul, so how can they consider themselves ready to enter heaven immediately?
Most Christians (including some Protestants) and Jews pray for those whose bodies have died
We have seen that we can pray (1 John 5:16) and suffer for others in the Church. The Church exists on earth, in heaven, and in purgatory. Those in hell are not part of the Church; they have eternally condemned themselves and our prayers will not help them. Those in heaven do not need our prayers. When some of the Jews were slain it was discovered that they were wearing pagan amulets. Judas Maccabeus and his men made atonement for the dead that they may be delivered from their sin. This was called a holy and pious thought (2 Macc 12:45). (Martin Luther removed the two books of Maccabees from his Bible in 1534. They were removed from the King James Bible by the Puritans in 1548). Orthodox Jews to this day pray a Mourner’s Qaddish for eleven months after the death of a loved one. St. Paul prayed for his deceased friend Onesiphorus: may the Lord grant him mercy on that day (2 Tim 1:17). All of the earliest Christian liturgies, without exception, had prayers for the dead. Such prayers are written on the walls of the catacombs where the earliest Christians are buried. Eastern Orthodox Christians have always prayed for the dead. Some Orthodox Christians don’t believe in a literal fire or a separate place, but they still believe sins are purged after this life. This is all that the Catholic dogma requires. C.S. Lewis believed in purgatory and praying for the dead even though he was a Protestant.
Pre-Christian Jews, post-Christian Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and some Protestants believe in the doctrine of purgatory and praying for the dead. The doctrine was never challenged until the “Reformation.” In 1519 Martin Luther stated that the existence of purgatory was “undeniable.” Although he later rejected the doctrine in 1530, he permitted prayers for the dead in his official church directory as late as 1543. All Christians believe in justification, a process of sanctification, and ultimately glorification. Without purgatory how does one explain the completion of the sanctification process for those who die physically without being fully sanctified? Isn’t this what happens to most people? Rather than teaching that Christ’s work is not sufficient, all Catholics must believe that there is superabundant merit in Christ’s work on the cross. Not only is Christ’s sacrifice sufficient for our redemption, but by joining our sufferings to His, we can apply His merit towards the temporal punishment due to our sins.
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