Few doctrines of the Catholic faith are more misunderstood than purgatory, yet few make more sense—or are more biblical—when rightly understood.
Some people think the Church teaches purgatory is a second chance where deceased souls headed for hell get a shot at working their way to heaven. Others have the notion that Catholics think purgatory is necessary in order for souls to supplement Christ’s grace with their own good deeds. Nearly all who misunderstand the doctrine imagine it was unknown in the time of Christ, is not mentioned in Scripture, and crept into the Church in later centuries due to the influence of superstition.
All these notions are untrue. The Church’s actual teaching is much more surprising, commonsensical, human, and biblical than the various non-Catholic theories about it. Surprising because the whole of the gospel is a surprise. Commonsensical because it dovetails perfectly with what God calls us to be and do. Human because it offers us the opportunity and the grace to become fully human as Christ is. And biblical because the purgatory has solid roots in Scripture.
What is purgatory, anyway?
The word purgatory is derived from the Latin purgatio, which means “cleansing” or “purifying.” Just as gold is purged of dross in the refining process, so Scripture teaches that we are to be purified of all that is sinful or unclean. For instance, Psalm 51:7–10 reads:
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Fill me with joy and gladness;
let the bones which thou hast broken rejoice.
Hide thy face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
Likewise, John writes, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every one who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:2–3).
In this life, the process of purification from sin is called sanctification. Purgatory is the culmination of that process by which a human being who has died in the grace of God is made completely full of the life of the Blessed Trinity and perfectly “conformed to the image of Christ” (Rom. 8:29).
When does sanctification start and end?
Sanctification starts the moment a human being surrenders to Jesus. Jesus welcomes anyone who comes to him by faith (John 3:16). But he welcomes us in order to transform us (Rom. 12:2). Therefore our relationship with Jesus is a cooperative struggle in which his Holy Spirit helps us fulfill the promise of holiness planted in our hearts in baptism. This process is described by Peter, who writes:
“By his great mercy we have been born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 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” (1 Pet. 1:3–7).
Sanctification will continue, according to Paul, until “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). In short, God will not rest until we are completely blessed and happy. If the process is not finished when we die, then God completes it in purgatory. That is why purgatory is not a second chance. All the souls in purgatory are assured of seeing God’s face. They simply do not yet see it fully.
Peter’s mention of suffering sounds ominous. Isn’t the Christian life supposed to be about victory?
That’s a bit like saying the athletic life is supposed to be about trophies instead of training. Trophies, as Paul notes, are awarded at the end of the race (2 Tim. 4:8). Purgatory does indeed involve pain, as does the extensive training that precedes a race. But pain is not the point of purgatory. The healing joy and ecstasy of heaven are.
As Job says, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). Our Lord never promised a painless existence. Rather, he promised a joyful one in which nothing—not even pain and death—is wasted, and everything is redeemed and turned into glory. What is notable about the Christian life is not its lack of suffering but the grace that Christ gives us to suffer pain unto life and even unto joy.
What’s “pain unto life”?
The opposite of damnation unto death. In baptism (and confession), the guilt of sin is forgiven and friendship with God is restored by the grace of Christ. But the fact that sin is forgiven does not mean that sin ceases to have effects on us and on those around us. God’s forgiveness does not mean all bad habits are miraculously repealed, and the people we hurt are suddenly restored to perfect emotional and spiritual health simply because we are believers. Instead the Church says, in effect, “If you break someone’s window in a hissy fit and repent, you shall certainly be forgiven. But you must still pay for the window and do something about that nasty temper.” You must, in the words of Paul, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12–13).
This is why Jesus commended Zacchaeus for paying back the money he stole, even though his sin of theft was forgiven (Luke 19:1–10). This is why repentant murderers must stay in jail, and repentant addicts must go on struggling against their cravings. Forgiven sin continues to have effects both on the sinner and on those against whom he sinned. The difference is that, with grace, these struggles do not have the effect of hardening sinners in their sin, but of liberating them from it. As Paul says, “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation and brings no regret, but worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10).
What’s the point of sanctification and purgatory if you are basically a good person? Wouldn’t a God of love accept us as we are?
Suppose someone said, “Einstein was basically a good scientist” or “Bach was basically a good musician” or “Joe DiMaggio was basically a good ballplayer.” Doesn’t this strike you as weak? When we say that someone is “basically good” we are really saying, “Despite their mediocrity, they have some good qualities.” That is why nobody says Bach or Einstein or DiMaggio was “basically good” at what they did. They were special.
You are special too. Paul tells us “we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” The term “workmanship” is translated from the Greek word poiema (from which we get the word poem). We are literally God’s works of art, created in order to manifest fully the life of Christ in the world. Our destiny in Christ is not to be “basically good” but to be saints and “partakers in the glory that is to be revealed” (1 Pet. 5:1).
This being so, it is not enough to say that God accepts us as we are—though he certainly does that as well. We must recognize that he accepts us for a purpose: namely, to make us participants in his glory. For this to happen, there must be a change, not merely of our address from earth to heaven, but of our hearts from “basically good” to “holy.” We must not merely go to heaven, we must become heavenly to be at home there, just as Christ is.
Isn’t it blasphemous to talk of being “just as Christ is”?
It would be blasphemous to talk that way if we did so on our own. Adam and Eve fell for the serpent’s suggestion that they should try on their own steam to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). The irony is that, had they remained with God in trust, they would have found that God desired to give them what they tried to steal. According to Peter, God desires that we become “participants in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). That is why Jesus tells us we “must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48)—in other words, we should “be like God.”
Indeed, everything Satan tricked our first parents into trying to steal was just a cheap imitation of what God actually wills us to have. Wisdom, knowledge, power, love, true riches, assurance about the future, and even communion with the whole body of Christ both living and dead—these are our proper heritage in Christ (Eph. 1:18–19; 3:14–21). But to inherit these things is not merely to be forgiven, it is to be Christ-like. Desiring forgiveness without desiring inner transformation is like “cleansing the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity” (Matt. 23:25). To be Christlike, we must be changed as well as forgiven.
How on earth can anybody do that?
Nobody on earth can—on his own, that is. If we are to meet God—much less participate in his divine nature—it is necessary for the Author to write himself into the characters’ world, since the characters cannot get into the Author’s world.
That is what God did: He wrote himself into this world by becoming human while remaining God. He became a character in his own story. Because of this, we can now ask for help from the only person who is both fully human and fully God, the only one who is both of heaven and of earth: Jesus Christ (John 3:31). If anyone professes faith in Jesus Christ and is baptized, the Lord promises, “My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).
In short, we are dependent upon the grace and love of God in Christ to enter our souls and change us. That is why Paul tells us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God—not because of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 3:8-9). In faith and baptism our sins are forgiven, and we are given a share in the life of God that we never could have achieved on our own power. And that life, the moment it enters our souls, begins to change us.
If baptism and faith in Christ give us God’s grace, why is sanctification necessary?
Because baptism is grace, not magic. Grace is the “imperishable seed” of God’s life given us by him (1 Pet. 1:23). But the seed must grow, as our Lord taught (Matt. 13:1–32). It does not, as some have claimed, cover our sins like snow on a dunghill. It is rather a means of transforming us in our inner being.
Consider Israel. In Exodus we read the story of how God got Israel out of slavery. But in the book of Numbers we also read about how, in order for the Israelites to be ready for the Promised Land (which is an image of our heavenly destiny), they had to undergo a series of chastisements to heal them of their idolatry and disobedience. They, not just their circumstances, had to be changed.
God does indeed cover and forgive our sins (Rom. 4:7). But that is not the end of the story. The soothing of the salve on a wound is a blessed thing. But more blessed still is the healing the salve promotes. In the same way, God’s grace “covers” our sin, but also gives us the medicine of discipline, to heal our souls and make us more like Christ.
Such discipline respects us by operating through our cooperation with God’s grace. This is why James tells not non-Christians but baptized and faithful believers, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you men of double mind” (Jas. 4:8). James is aware that the forgiveness given in baptism is the beginning, not the end, of sanctification, which is intended by God to turn each and every one of into glorious saints.
How can you die “in God’s grace and friendship” yet be imperfectly purified?
The same way we can live in God’s grace and friendship yet be imperfectly purified. Every day we struggle with the reality of sin in our lives. We do things we are ashamed of and reproach ourselves for. Every day we struggle to overcome not just sinful acts but habits of sin. Yet every day God welcomes us, loves us, and gives us grace to become a little bit more like Jesus than we were before—if we only repent.
This is possible because there is a difference between mortal sin venial sin. The latter can hurt our relationship with God—like a bad cut hurts the body—but not, like the former, kill that relationship, like a bullet to the heart kills the body. To drive that point home, John tells us, “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal” (1 John 5:17). For such “non-mortal” sin John gives us the key to healing: prayer. This is why he says, “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” (1 John 5:16).
It is also important to recognize that not every sin means a person is a monster of evil who has utterly rejected God, nor that every impurity in the soul means that a person who dies impure is bound for hell. Many people go to their graves struggling with sin. This struggling is a pretty good sign that one is still seeking the grace of God and has not severed one’s relationship with him. That is also why the Church prays for those who died without finishing their process of becoming saints. Purgatory is a monument to hope.
But aren’t the dead supposed to go straight to heaven?
If the dead are not fully heavenly, not fully prepared for a life of total love and self-giving at the hour of their death, how could they yet enjoy perfect happiness in heaven any more than the Israelites could love God completely when they were still tainted with the slavish minds and hearts of Egypt?
This is not to say those in purgatory are not sharing in the life of God. On the contrary, the dead in Christ are very much alive. Christ himself taught this when he told the Sadducees, “Have you not read what was said to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Matt. 22:31–32). Further, he demonstrated that the dead in Christ are alive by permitting Moses to appear—alive—to the apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:3).
But not all the dead in Christ are fully ready—solidly built enough, we might say—for the intense, endless, ecstatic joy of heaven, since not all the dead die in perfect union with God. In Christ, we have been given a solid foundation of grace like a house built on rock (Matt. 7:24). But it happens every day that we try to build on the foundation with our own agendas, ideas, fears, and superstitions, often mixed in with the genuine building materials given us by the Divine Contractor. We often don’t know what is wrong with the house of God we are building. We only have the vague sense that it is rather drafty and is not exactly the “mansion” Jesus spoke of.
Paul tells us what will become of the low-grade materials we attempt to use: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—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 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: 12–13, 15). Purgatory is the process whereby we “lose” the last hindrances to perfect happiness with God.
Wasn’t purgatory unheard of in Scripture and only invented in the Dark Ages?
The term purgatory arose after the time of the apostles, as did the terms Trinity, Christianity, Second Coming, and Bible. But the idea of purgatory was already present before Jesus was born. We find a Jewish hero named Judas Maccabeus, about a century and a half before Jesus, praying for the dead and specifically asking they be forgiven their sins after they have died (2 Macc. 12:43–45). This practice, known as the kaddish, was well established among Jews in Jesus’ own time. (Jews have historically believed, and many still believe, that the souls of the faithful departed undergo a period of purification which may be aided by the prayers and charity of the living. The Kaddish Foundation is a modern example of this ancient belief in action.)
Likewise, we find the New Testament frequently assuming the existence of purgatory. Jesus, during his time in the grave, is said by Peter to have “preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly did not obey” (1 Pet. 3: 18–20). Similarly, Jesus teaches that certain sins—notably unforgiveness—will be liable to judgment and imprisonment in the next. But he also implies this punishment is not necessarily eternal: “Truly I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny” (Matt. 5:21–26). Such imagery fits neither heaven—where there are no prisons—nor hell, where there is neither repentance nor “getting out” and therefore no point in preaching. It does, however, fit purgatory.
Jesus also implies the existence of purgatory or “forgiveness in the age to come” when he tells his disciples, “Whoever says a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32). The Church after Jesus did not, therefore, “invent” purgatory. On the contrary, it simply repeated and clarified what Jesus and the apostles had taught them concerning the promise of hope for the afterlife.
What does purgatory mean for us today?
It means what it has always meant: hope. Purgatory is the assurance that there will, in the end, be absolutely nothing to dim the mirror of our lives from reflecting the glory of God. We who have been captive to sin for so long will be released. Moreover, as sharers in the life of Christ, we have an extraordinary promise from him. For he tells us, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father” (John 14:12).
In other words, we not only receive grace from him, we do his works of grace with him, for we are “fellow workers” with Christ (1 Cor. 3:9). This means among other things that, as he prays for us, so we can pray for one another with his power and authority. And such prayers can be made not only for the living but for the dead as well. We can, therefore, help those in purgatory who are still being purified, just as we can help those on earth—by our prayers and offerings of love, especially in the Mass.
As Paul tells us, “We, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:5). That unity with God and with each other is not severed by death. We can continue to pray for those who have died with the hope of Christ that our prayers will be of real help to them as we “bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).