What Catholics get wrong (and Hollywood gets right) about purgatory

There is a new comedy about heaven on NBC this fall. “The Good Place” stars Kristen Bell and Ted Danson. It is not really about heaven because it’s really all about growing toward God. Theologically, its subject matter is what we have always called purgatory. In fact, the show’s title perfectly capture the meaning of purgatory, which is indeed “the good place.”

What do most people, including many Catholics, get wrong about purgatory? They think that it is a lesser version of hell, for those who haven’t yet earned heaven. Everything is wrong in that sentence. Purgatory is not a lesser version of hell. It is “the good place” because everyone there knows that he or she has been claimed by God, that there is no longer any doubt of salvation. That’s why Dante makes his purgatory a place of light and its denizens are smiling. It truer to say that purgatory is a lesser version of heaven than of hell.


RELATED: Jim McDermott, S.J., reviews “The Good Place”

Secondly, nobody earns heaven. Those who respond to the grace of God, given to us in Jesus Christ, are called by God, upon death, into the fellowship of the saints, into a living communion with the Blessed Trinity. You don’t earn heaven on earth, and you don’t earn it in purgatory either. The journey to God is grace, all grace.

What does happen in purgatory? C. S. Lewis named his own take on purgatory The Great Divorce. He explains his title with an opening quotation from the Scottish poet and Protestant minister George MacDonald.

No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it—no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Our Satan must go, every hair and feather.


The good Calvinist had it right, essentially saying the same as our Blessed Lord in the Gospel of St. Matthew. “You, therefore, must be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). There are degrees of holiness in heaven. There is indeed a hierarchy based upon our openness in this life to Christ. During our lives, we carve out the container that God will fill. Someone like St. Francis of Assisi can “hold” more of God than most of us can hope to.

But there are no degrees of imperfection, of sin, in heaven. “There is no heaven with a little of hell in it.” It is purged away by the grace of Christ before we ever enter heaven.

Why must our sins be purged, not simply declared away? Remember, “purge” is an earthly verb, a metaphor, for a heavenly reality, though it is an apt one because sins are imperfections. They are not simply our infractions, carefully recorded by the angels, against God’s laws. They are distortions of our very selves, deformations of our sin-stunted selves. Grace must transform them, not simply retitle them.

Where does purgatory happen? How long does purgatory persist? You might as well give that one to NBC. We know next to nothing about how time and space work in eternity. Our only clue is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Risen Lord, in his glorified body, came back to gather his own, to overwhelm them with his forgiving grace. After our deaths, we call the same action of Christ “purgatory.” That’s “the good place.”

Wisdom 3: 1-9  Romans 5: 5-11  John 6: 37-40

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J Cosgrove
2 years 2 months ago
Secondly, nobody earns heaven
This sounds like a contradiction to the next sentence.
Those who respond to the grace of God, given to us in Jesus Christ, are called by God, upon death, into the fellowship of the saints, into a living communion with the Blessed Trinity.
Isn't the response an act of the will and something one does to get to heaven or "earn heaven." I understand that it is the goodness of God that is allowing us the opportunity to achieve heaven but given that He is doing that does it not depend on us do something to make us worthy. And isn't that a way of earning heaven, once the opportunity has been given to us? Or is the author taking the Calvinist point of view that some are condemned to hell and some to heaven and they have no choice in the matter.
Carl Zaycosky
2 years 2 months ago
J Cosgrove brings up a good point. One I've wondered about on a number of occasions. I'd welcome the author's response.
Crystal Watson
2 years 2 months ago
What some people don't like about purgatory is that it's a construct that has no scriptural basis. It seems like a way for the church to try to control people even after death ... indulgences.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 2 months ago
Hi Crystal, About that “Good Place” called Purgatory. Apart from Scriptural proof, I think the proof of Common Sense would be enough to prove its existence. Most of us will die lacking the commitment to unconditional love, the kind of love which excludes no one, the kind of love which is God, the only kind of love existing in heaven. This gives rise to the following question, where do souls not fully ready for heaven go, opposite of those deserving hell? They go to that place the Catholic Church calls, Purgatory there “purged” not to the other place irreversibly chosen unfortunately by some. Interestingly, Scripture says hell was created for Lucifer and his rebel angels, no mention of humans there. Interesting? So going out now on maybe a shaky limb, speaking personally, I wonder if any human goes to the hell of Satan and the Fallen Angels – maybe “another kind of Hell” called by Jesus, “Everlasting Death,” no resurrection possible, just oblivion, a kind of “merciful hell.” This kind fits into a strand of Franciscan Speculative Theology, I was taught - don’t remember if it came from Scotus or Bonaventure or Another. As I remember it, the creation of Hell was an act of Mercy on the part of God, mindful that after the Fall remaining in the presence of God would have been totally abhorrent to say the least, for the Fallen Angels, so great was their hatred of God. So because God’s Mercy is above all His Works, as Scripture says, God mercifully cast them out to a place less unbearable for them than staying in the presence of God. Something like humans say about their feeling towards another person, “I can’t stand to be in his/her sight!” I’ve drifted off my point, but let it remain as it does have some connection. As far as I know, the best Scriptural proof for the existence of Purgatory is in Maccabees 12:42-46, where we learn there is something called, “praying for the dead.” Obviously souls in heaven need no prayers, devils in hell cannot be helped by them, so a third place must exist in which the dead experience prayerful help. Our Catholic Church calls that place “Purgatory.” Makes sense to me. By the way you may know that the Reformers deleted Maccabees from Scripture, as it went contrary to their notions. Jewish biblical scholars also did so for their own reasons. The question, “What does happen in Purgatory?” intrigues me and I have a personal answer. I see Purgatory as a brief, but intense encounter with Jesus’ teaching, “Grow in love.” In Purgatory we accomplish quickly what we failed to accomplish fully on earth and the intensity of the experience corresponds to how deeply we need to “Grow in love.” The Holy Souls there long for God and that longing is like the pain a lover feels in the absence of the beloved. We know that pain and it can be pretty intense even here on earth! Without question Purgatory is a “Good Place” where we finally accomplish quickly the ability to love as God loves, UNCONDITIONALLY! Hope all of this makes sense to you.

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