Purgatory: Feel the Burn

The Pope’s recent comments on purgatory were extremely helpful. His statement on purgatory helped to clarify the reality of purgatory not as a place but as a process, but also, simply, any comment on the reality of purgatory is helpful. From a news report on the Pope’s comments we receive the following words:

"The Pope reflected on the saint's writings, saying that "in her mystical experiences, Catherine never received specific revelations on Purgatory or on the souls being purified there." St. Catherine, he underscored, did not see Purgatory "as a place of transit in the depths of the earth" or as "an exterior fire."Rather, she saw it as "an interior fire."Her insights do not "recount the torments of Purgatory and then show the way to purification and conversion," he added. Instead, "she began from the interior experience of man on his journey towards eternity."For St. Catherine, the soul in Purgatory "is aware of God's immense love and perfect justice; as a consequence, it suffers for not having responded to that love perfectly, and it is precisely the love of God Himself which purifies the soul from the ravages of sin," he said."

Purgatory has had an odd history, with many Catholics today no longer having a clear sense of what it is. And while many Protestants have long rejected purgatory as a non-biblical Catholic "thing," many of the Reformers of the 16th century, while they may have had troubles, to put it mildly, with indulgences or ecclesiastical organization did not initially struggle with the reality of purgatory. The basic reason, I think, is that it makes theological sense. In order to be in the presence of God one must be prepared; since God’s being is holy, one must be made ready to be in the presence of holiness. This is the process of purgation, or purification, in which the remnants and effects of our imperfections and sins are burned away. The other reason, I believe, that some early Reformers continued to teach and accept the notion of purgatory, though Protestants do not do so today to my knowledge, is that a process of purgation is noted in a number of New Testament passages. (For an interesting Protestant perspective on purgatory, see the article by Jerry L. Walls, "Purgatory for Everyone" in First Things April 2002.)


One of the key "Catholic" passages supporting a notion of purgatory is found in 2 Maccabees 12, a text which is accepted as Sacred Scripture by Catholics but not by Protestants or Jews. (Some Orthodox Christians do accept the reality of purgatory as a process.) I will cite a large piece of this passage to give it some context:

"On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers. Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." (12:39-45)

In this passage, the fact that Judah Maccabee prays on behalf of the dead and makes atonement for the fallen soldiers, who had died at least due to their sins, so that they would rise again spoke directly to the ability of the living to aid those who had died. This could not be hell, where no aid is possible for the dead, and it could not be heaven, where those who live in perfection do not need our aid, so it must be some other "place." The passage, obviously, not having the weight of Scripture for Protestants did not convince them. This is why I think the New Testament passages are significant and need to be understood more clearly.

Paul, in describing the divisions in the Corinthian community, warns them to come together, right now, over Christ, and not to be lost in identification with Christian leaders. Each teacher lauded by the Corinthian community has something to offer, but, Paul writes, each is answerable to God for their behavior:

"According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. 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, 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 Corinthians 3:10-15)

This seems like an eschatological "process" in this case, but not one which leads to damnation. The "fire" which burns is a purifying, refining fire, which might lead to "loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." This, to my mind, is purgation (cf. CCC 1031). 1 Peter 1:6-7 also speaks of being purified by fire, but in the case of Peter, it seems that the trials are taking place presently: "In this you rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire, may redound to praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ." It is of this, too, that the Pope spoke yesterday, when he spoke of the "interior fire" that St. Catherine felt as a purification for her previous sins. These pangs of torment are familiar to many people, not as a means of "beating oneself up," but as a means of genuine repentance for actions done poorly.

It is this kind of experience of conversion that Paul may be speaking in Romans 12:17-21:

"Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends upon you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." No, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

The Church fathers and scholars today have debated what Paul means by saying that when we forego vengeance "burning coals" are heaped upon someone’s head. Some ancient writers opted for "burning coals" as a sign of God’s punishment, while others suggested they were the burning pangs of conversion. Is it possible that what we have here is the process of purgation, in which the "enemy" is confronted by their own deeds and must make account of them, whether the coals would lead to immediate conversion or later repentance? I see the coals of fire not as eschatological punishment, but as the process of purgation, either now or at the end of time.

Romans 12:17-21 does not appear in the CCC in the discussion of purgatory and neither does this next passage, The Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor, in Matthew 18:21-35. In this passage a King forgives his slave a massive debt, but the same forgiven slave refuses to forgive the much smaller debt of a fellow slave. The unforgiving slave is taken to task: "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart" (Matthew 18:32-35). This passage is significant with respect to a process of purgation. The unforgiving slave is not cast aside eternally, but paying off a debt in torment, which, though it is huge, has an end. This cannot be hell. When Matthew speaks of hell, he uses particular language, in which a person is thrown "into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Matthew uses this language on six occasions in his Gospel; it appears on one occasion in Luke 13:28.

The process of purgation is necessary. Why? For one, because it appears in the scriptural record, and so it is necessary to accept and understand the concept; but more than that because it is necessary for us in our preparation to achieve the goal for which we are all called: to see God face to face. Those of us far from perfection might as well start the process of purification now. I know, I know, it burns, doesn’t it?

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


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Marie Rehbein
7 years 6 months ago
Imagining that someone who had done one wrong will be punished, though not for eternity, should help people forgive, I would think.  Do you think it's possible that St. Paul's description of what seems to be purgatory might have been developed because it appeases people's (maybe inborn?) send of justice, making it easier to forego vengeance?

The article in First Things to which you refer, makes reference to theories where the process is thorough but instantaneous, and therefore more comforting to those who love the deceased despite his or her shortcomings.  What about a process that has the deceased still in our midst unaware of his or her own death, a la "The Sixth Sense", learning first hand the effects of his or her choices? 
Craig McKee
7 years 6 months ago
So I guess the ''BLOOD of the LAMB'' still needs a little help from the ''FIRES of PURGATORY?'' Beware of Popes exegeting Medieval teenage mystics!
Sarah Hennessey
7 years 6 months ago
The first time purgatory made sense to me was when I read about in a historical context, not a theological one.  From what I remember, the idea though scriptural, really took off during the Black Death when people were dying in such massive numbers.  People's lives were obviously being cut short and the ability to normal mourning rituals was made impossible by contagion.  Do you know anything about this?

Yes, purgatory is necessary in our own journey to see God face to face, but it is also helpful in making sense of the chaotic world in which we live... and die.
7 years 6 months ago
Suppose Purgatory is not a species of Hell, but a species of Heaven.

We could then theorize that as a "waiting room" for Heaven, it would be a place where we would have to be forgiven for all of our faults, and forgive all those who have harmed us. One at a time, I should think; face to face.
Once that's done, once we and our world are filled with mercy as the the waters fill the sea, we'd be ready to go to Heaven, where "eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it even occurred to the human mind to imagine the good things God has in store ..."
Chris Sullivan
7 years 5 months ago
What struck me as I read the Maccabees passage was that it contains no indication that the dead soliders ever repented of wearing the idols before they died.

I find this a very consoling insight.

God Bless
7 years 5 months ago
I'm still less than clear on what "process" means outside of space/time.
Thomas Piatak
7 years 5 months ago
An excellent column by Mr. Martens.
Bill Mazzella
7 years 5 months ago
Just because something has a spiritual reference does not mean it is true or factual. If that were true how many things would we say that are true which we know are not. Do I have to give references? Second, remember Jesus stresses mercy over sacrifice. The  notion of purgatory stresses the Anselmian concept of a God who exacts atonement for transgressions. What about this day you will be with me in paradise. Yes Jesus had harsh words for those who persisted in evil but instant mercy for those who had faith. Purgatory may stem more from human's reflecting on revenge having no idea of the mercy of God. But how about: "My ways are not your ways." And do we need the notion of purgatory to know the mercy of God. What kind of reasoning suggests that we need satisfaction to prove the mercy and goodness of God. Certainly, we need to follow Matthew 25. But we get there through the mercy and free gift of God. 

I must admit  I see a lot of circuitious reasoning here. Leading to scruples and muddy thinking. Wo/man does need reconciliation. But the God of Jesus Christ is a welcoming God who just wants us to know that we are coming toward so s/he can run to embrace us and celebrate. The brother of the prodigal son invented purgatory because he thinks he got there by himself rather than from the grace of God. 
Nora McKenna
7 years 5 months ago
Darn, the first time I felt I had the whole Purgatory thing down was after I read Tolkien's Leaf By Niggle, but what do I know?

Sometimes, however, I think we over-complicate things and sometimes I think we see these things from the eyes of the god we have created in our own images...


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