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.
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.
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