Christians generally agree that there are only two eternal possibilities after death: heaven (eternal life) or hell (eternal death). Many believe that each person enters his eternal life or death immediately upon his physical death. But Catholics hold that at least some (if not most) of those destined for heaven must first experience a place or state called purgatory, where one goes through a final cleansing of some sort before entering heaven.
Some non-Catholics find this idea disturbing. Why would God delay heaven for someone destined to spend eternity there? Understood properly, though, purgatory is not some form of extra punishment dished out to some who ought to go straight to heaven. Quite the opposite. It is a merciful act by a loving God for those who alternatively would go straight to hell. Not a second chance, mind you, but an act of love.
Nothing Unclean Shall Enter
In describing his vision of heaven, John tells us that “nothing unclean shall enter it” (Rev. 21:27). Similarly, the author of the letter to the Hebrews tells us to strive for “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Jesus himself tells us, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). From these scriptural passages we see that cleanliness/holiness is a prerequisite for entering heaven.
If a person dies in an unholy state, i.e., in a state of sin, he cannot enter heaven (at least not in his present state). But does this really seem just? If an otherwise good Christian has lived a holy life but then sins just before death, is he doomed to eternity in hell? On the surface it would seem so. But Scripture enlightens us with a more complex answer to this question.
Varying Degrees of Sin
The answer depends, at least in part, on the severity of the sin. There are different degrees of sin, some serious enough to result in eternal death, others not that serious. For example, James describes a kind of sin progression: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin; and sin when it is full-grown brings forth death” (Jas. 1:14–15). Desire and temptation come first, then sin, then deadly sin.
Similarly, Jesus taught his disciples about different consequences for varying degrees of sin: “But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22). Anger results in judgment, insults result in the council, and saying “You fool!” results in the hell of fire.
Additionally, John says, “God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. . . . All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal” (1 John 5:16–17). “Life” for those whose sin is not mortal? Clearly not all sin leads to eternal death.
Truth or Consequences
Also clear, though, is that some sin can lead to eternal death. Even so, most Christians would agree that if such sin is repented before physical death, eternal death is averted, and the person’s final destination is heaven. That being said, Scripture indicates that even after repentance temporal consequences of sin remain.
For example, 2 Samuel tells us of the remaining consequence of David’s adultery and murder even after his repentance: “David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die’” (2 Sam. 12:13–14). David lost his child as a consequence of sins that he had already repented.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains such consequences this way:
Sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified. . . . This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin (CCC 1472).
All Have Sinned and Fall Short
So what about the otherwise holy man who dies in a state of sin? What is his eternal destination? Remember, there are only two options: eternal life (heaven) and eternal death (hell). Because nothing unholy can enter heaven, it would seem that this poor man’s eternal destiny must be hell. And because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), hell would seem to be the destiny of all men.
But God is much more merciful than that. As we have seen, there are different degrees of sin. Some are deadly; some are not. If the man’s sin is not deadly, by definition, his eternal destination must be heaven. Even if his sin is deadly but he repents before death (even though, like David, the consequences remain), his eternal destination still must be heaven.
In either case, it only stands to reason that his sin or its consequences will somehow be dealt with after his death, thereby transforming him from unclean to clean before his entrance into heaven. This cleansing, however it may come about, is what the Catholic Church calls purgatory.
The Catechism teaches:
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. . . . The Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned (CCC 1030–1031).
“It’s Not in the Bible”
The word purgatory cannot be found in the Bible, but the concept of purgatory is clearly implied by the sacred writers. Without it Scripture would seem to contradict itself.
For example, Jesus seems to indicate that some consequences of sin may be remitted after death when he tells us, “Whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32). Why mention “this age” and “the age to come” if some sins cannot be expiated in either age?
The author of 2 Maccabees documents Judas Maccabeus and other Jews praying for the remission of the sins of men who had died in battle: “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. . . . They turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out” (2 Macc. 12:40–42).
Why pray in such a way unless at least some sins or their consequences can be cleansed after death? If the dead men had already reached their eternal destination, then praying for them would be futile—prayer wouldn’t help those in heaven and couldn’t help those in hell.
But if the dead destined for heaven had not yet reached their final destination, prayers for them may help speed up or lighten the severity of their preparation for heaven. The author explains: “For if [Judas Maccabeus] 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” (2 Macc. 12:44–45).
Paul mentions a similar practice of the early Christians that he calls “being baptized on behalf of the dead.” We’re not told exactly what this practice entailed—and Paul does not necessarily condone it—but it provides clear evidence that early Christians believed they could do something helpful for the dead. “What do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?” (1 Cor. 15:29). In other words, if no one who dies in an unholy state can attain eternal life, why act in their behalf?
Paul also prays for Onesiphorus, who seems to be dead: “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me—may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day—and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus” (2 Tim. 1:16–18).
And finally, Paul seems to give us a glimpse of purgatory in his parable of a building:
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 Cor. 3:10–15).
Clearly Paul is talking here about men destined for heaven, because even those whose work is “burned up” will be saved. Gold, silver, and precious stones are analogous to good works, while wood, hay, and straw exemplify those impurities or elements of unholiness that need to be cleansed before we enter into heaven.
So clearly Scripture teaches of the possibility of dealing with at least some kinds of sins or with some of the consequences of sins after death in preparation for heaven. This is purgatory, and it is evidence of the depth of God’s love for us. If we die in his friendship, even though not completely prepared for heaven, God still provides a way for us to live with him forever.