Updated: Dec 4, 2022
The Catholic doctrine of purgatory is a beautiful one if understood correctly. It can also be controversial, particularly with non-Catholic Christians. It is argued that nowhere in Scripture is the word “purgatory” mentioned. However, this could be said of many other theological words such as Trinity, Incarnation, and even the word Bible itself, yet they are matters of faith which all Christians believe and profess. While the word “purgatory” is not in the Bible, the concept is present, both in the Old and New Testaments. The Church has drawn on these scriptural references to formulate her doctrine on purgatory. Here, the Church’s teaching on purgatory will be explained, citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, as well as by laying out some of the Scriptural references as the basis for those teachings.
Purgatory, coming from the Latin “purgare”, meaning to purge or cleanse, is a place where souls are cleansed and purified from the stain of sin before entering the kingdom of heaven. Upon death, it is determined whether a soul will go to heaven or hell. Therefore, while the passion, crucifixion, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ redeemed us from our sin, in order that we might live with him in heaven, we need to be responsible for the stain of sin left on our souls. Purgatory should not be thought of as a second chance to get it right. Rather, purgatory is a place for cleansing the soul before it enters heaven. All souls in purgatory have avoided condemnation and are inevitably destined for heaven.
In her introduction to Dante’s Purgatorio, Dorothy Sayers provides an example to understand this concept. Imagine, in a fit of anger, you throw your friend’s vase and break it. Because you have done wrong to your friend, there is a strain in the relationship. Afterward, you feel extremely remorseful and apologize to your friend with sincerity. Your friend then accepts your apology and forgives you, restoring the relationship. However, it does not end there because the vase is still broken, and you are still prone to the anger that caused you to throw the vase in the first place. You are financially responsible for the vase and you should want to make changes to yourself so as to avoid a similar angry outburst in the future. The forgiveness of your friend, while necessary, does not take away your responsibility for reparation and amendment. The example holds true for our sin and our relationship with God. When we sin, it always harms our relationship with God. When we are truly sorry and repent, He always forgives us, but we still need to make amends and we still need to address our sinful nature. Purgatory is a beautiful gift to us from God because He wants nothing more than for us to live in perfect unity with Him for eternity. After death, purgatory gives us a place to cleanse the stains of sin from our souls, so that we may be made perfectly holy in order to be in the presence of our Lord.
In articles #1030-1031, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that people who die in “God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” will certainly go to heaven. Since heaven is a perfect place, our souls should likewise be made perfectly holy. Purgatory is not a place of punishment like hell, rather it is a place of purification by fire. The Bible contains countless references, both in the Old and New Testaments, to fire. There is a fire of destruction (e.g. - Genesis 19:24, Micah 1:7, 2 Peter 3:10) and there is fire of purification (e.g. - Isaiah 6:7, Isaiah 43:2, 1 Peter 1:7). In Psalms 66:12, David sings that he was led through fire and water into freedom. We receive freedom from the bondage of sin in heaven and we are cleansed from those sins through water in the Sacrament of Baptism and through fire in purgatory. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus himself discusses the two types of fire (Mark 7:43-50). We want to avoid the unquenchable fire – hell – but we will all be “salted with fire” which is good and restores flavor – purgatory. St. Paul also speaks of our works’ quality being tested with fire and that we can be saved from destruction, but only by first getting through the fire. (1 Corinthians 3:13-15) While this passage is often used to argue against the existence of purgatory saying that it only refers to our works as passing through this fire, Catholic teaching holds that our works are reflections of our faith, attached to our faith, and expressions of our very being. James 2:20-24 substantiates the connection between faith and works by using the example of Abraham’s faithful obedience in action as an expression of his faith in God.
It is also argued that various passages in the Bible refer to only two possible destinations after death which are heaven and hell. For instance, Matthew 25:46, Luke 13:24, and John 3:16 are verses that describe condemnation and salvation as the only two options for a soul after death. Therefore, it is argued that based on these, and other similar biblical passages, there is no third place for a soul to go after death. However, purgatory is not a final destination, but a cleansing period through which we must pass on our way to heaven, in which the stains of our sins are washed away. Catholic teaching does not ignore Jesus’ teaching of two destinations – heaven or hell – because Purgatory is not a destination. If a soul reaches Purgatory for purification, it will, in fact, go to Heaven, after purification. (CCC #1030)
The gravity of our sins and the extent of God’s justice and mercy must be taken into account when discussing reparation and amendment. Mortal, or grave sin, is a complete turning away from God by a “grave violation of God’s law”, such as murder. (CCC #1855) Venial sin is not a complete separation from God, but it damages our relationship with God, as that is the very nature of sin. (CCC #1855) Lying is an example of venial sin. God is a merciful and forgiving God, but He is also a just God. We see in the Bible that He allowed for punishments appropriate to different types of sin (e.g. - Genesis 2:17, Psalms 145:20, Matthew 25:46). Given that mortal sin is a complete separation from God, unless the sinner repents, they are subject to the eternal punishment – the eternal separation from God in hell. (CCC #1472-1473, Daniel 12:2)
Venial sin, in damaging our relationship with God, is subject to a punishment that allows for us to repair that relationship which we must do even after the sin is forgiven. The Catechism is quick to point out that “these two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.” (CCC #1472) In Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve commit the first sin, Eve is told she, as punishment, will bring forth children in pain, and they are both told they will toil, suffer, and eventually die. Punishment is painful and full of suffering and must be fulfilled whether in this life or after death. In His infinite mercy, God gave us the gift of purgatory, so that if we die in the state of a damaged relationship with Him, we can continue our redemptive suffering after death as a means of purification, therefore restoring the perfect image in which we were made.
Just as the friend in the example forgave the sin and the relationship was repaired, so too have all of our sins been forgiven through the suffering and ascension of Jesus Christ, and we are saved. However, after our sin is forgiven, in our human nature, we continue to sin, so we are not pure beings. The doctrine of purgatory does not suggest that what Jesus did for us was not enough, it simply says that we must be made pure before we enter the kingdom. We see in Revelation 21:27 and Habakkuk 1:13 that anything impure cannot be in the presence of God and cannot enter heaven. We are, without question, saved through Jesus Christ, but our sinful nature has made our souls impure.
The Catechism also quotes Jesus in scripture with regard to its doctrine on purgatory. When Jesus is explaining the sin of blasphemy against the Spirit, He says it is the only sin which “…will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” (CCC #1031, Matthew 12:31-32) If this sin cannot be forgiven in the age to come, we are to understand that there are other sins that can be forgiven in the age to come. If hell is a place where redemption is no longer a possibility, and heaven is a place of perfect holiness, without sin and nothing left to forgive, there must be another place where sins are forgiven in the age to come. Further biblical evidence of purgatory can be found in Luke 12:58-59 and Philippians 2:10-11. In Luke we hear Jesus talking about a judge throwing you into prison to settle a debt. You cannot be released from prison until every penny of your debt has been paid. You cannot be released from hell, so the prison where you can pay your debts and from which you can be released to freedom (heaven) is purgatory. In Philippians, Paul states that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth…” We know no knee in hell will bend at the name of Jesus because those souls have already turned away from him. Therefore, all knees in heaven, on earth and in another realm which cannot be understood in human terms described as “under the earth” will bend.
The third article in the Catechism that discusses purgatory, #1032, cites Second Maccabees 12:46 as another basis for the doctrine. Here, Judas Maccabeus makes atonement for the sins of his comrades who died in battle and prays for them after their death. If one goes straight to heaven or hell after death, there would be no need to atone for the sins of the dead as they would no longer be in the bondage of sin and praying for them would be pointless. For Catholics, this passage in Scripture provides strong evidence for the case of purgatory, but for non-Catholic Christians, there is some difficulty. Non-Catholic Christians do not recognize the books of Maccabees as a part of their Bible. The differences between Bibles is a topic much too big to address here and is its own separate discussion. For argument’s sake, even if Maccabees was not a divinely inspired text, it is still a historical text showing that Jews, God’s chosen people, prayed for and atoned for the sins of their dead. The Council of Lyons II confirmed in 1274 AD that “From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God”. (CCC #1032)
Also in article #1032 in the Catechism points to the purification of Job’s sons through the sacrifices of their father. (Job 1:5) If we are called to pray and make sacrifices for the dead, as seen in 2 Maccabees, then we can conclude that those sacrifices will benefit those in purgatory just as Job’s sons were purified by his offerings. We therefore offer the Eucharistic sacrifice at every Mass for the souls of purgatory, for their purification and in anticipation of their entrance into heaven. (CCC #1371)
The discussion of Job naturally leads to a discussion of how souls get from purgatory and into heaven within the context of the communion of saints. When we say the Apostle’s Creed, we acknowledge that we are members of the communion of saints. The communion of saints are members of the Body of Christ who are living, in purgatory, or in heaven that are all bound together by the good of its members in Christ, who is at the head of the body. (1 Corinthians 12:27, Romans 12:5) The Church is the communion of saints. (CCC #946-947) In death, you are not separated from the Body of Christ, rather, what is good in you keeps you within the communion of saints. In calling those unified in Christ “saints”, we are acknowledging the final destination of those saints, heaven, because the very definition of a saint is one who is in perfect union with God in heaven. Those in hell are excluded from the communion of saints so those who are living in union with Jesus are destined for sainthood and therefore included. As members of the communion of saints, we are called to pray for one another and offer suffering and sacrifice for our redemption. (Luke 22:32, 1 Thessalonians 5:11, James 5:16, 1 Peter 5:10, 2 Timothy 3:12, Colossians 1:24) We also see in Luke 5:17-20, Jesus heal a paralytic man because of the faith of his friends. Since the dead do not cease to be members of the communion of saints upon their death, we can still pray for them and offer up our sufferings for the salvation of their souls. If the soul is in heaven, then we have done no harm in praying for them, but if the soul is in purgatory, we have assisted in its purification.
Also contained within the communion of saints is “a perennial link of charity” between those in heaven, those in purgatory and those still on earth. (CCC #1475) One member of the body doing good benefits the entire body. All of this good, whether in the form of prayer, or in works of corporal and spiritual mercy are contained within the “Church’s treasury” for all souls to access aiding in their purification. (CCC #1476) Examples of corporal and spiritual works of mercy are: clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, feeding the hungry, consoling, and providing counsel. (CCC #2447) All of these contribute to the binding goodness of the communion of saints and add to the treasury of the Church. The good of one person can be “offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father”. (CCC #1476) Since we are all members of the communion of saints, those of us on earth can offer up our suffering and our works of mercy to help souls in purgatory hasten their purification process leading them to heaven more quickly.
While relying on the Church’s treasury for purification, the souls of purgatory also rely on the prayers of others. They cannot pray for themselves, but only for others. In purgatory, the soul is seeking to obtain perfection in all things, including love. Perfect love is not self-serving, rather it exists only to serve others. Logically, it follows that to pray for oneself in purgatory would be contrary to the selflessness required to achieve perfection. Jesus taught us how to pray in a perfect and self-giving way by teaching us about intercessory prayer. He prays for others and from this St. Paul teaches us to pray for others to the point of praying for those who harm us - “…each looking out not for his own interest, but also everyone for those of others”. (Philippians 2:4, CCC #2635) It would follow that it would be a very natural disposition for the communion of saints, both living and dead, to be in prayer for one another in selfless love, united in Christ. The souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven are likewise contributing to the Church’s treasury by praying for all of the living on earth. The saints in heaven, with their proximity to God and the stain of sin cleansed from their now pure souls, are the best intercessors for us on earth and for the souls in purgatory and we should ask them to pray for us. (CCC #2683)
It would be impossible to discuss purgatory without also discussing the Church’s teaching on indulgences. The topic of indulgences has long been controversial due to misunderstandings about what they are, as well as unfortunate corruption and abuse in the medieval period. The practice of indulgences began in the very early years of the Church. The word “indulgence” comes from the Latin word “indulgentia” which means “to be kind, tender” (New Advent). We know from the Bible and the Catechism that God has allowed for eternal and temporal punishments based on the nature of the sin. An indulgence is a kindness extended to us by God, through the Church, alleviating us of some of the punishment for our sins which have already been forgiven. (CCC #1471) There are two types of indulgences: partial and plenary. A partial indulgence requires that assigned time in prayer or good acts be completed and that you be in a state of grace by receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, confessing, and repenting for your sins. Your heart, which only God can know, must be in a state of right intent. The Church does not define what the measurable parameters of the indulgence are, rather is says that as God sees fit, a portion of your punishment has been fulfilled. A plenary indulgence is much more difficult to receive. There are four requirements to be met, the first three of which are easy enough: to pray for the intentions of the Pope (typically saying an Apostle’s Creed and an Our Father together meet this requirement), to receive the Holy Eucharist and to be in a state of grace through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The fourth condition of a plenary indulgence is that the person’s heart must be in a state of complete detachment from sin, including venial sin. For humans the complete detachment from sin is difficult, meaning plenary indulgences are not easy to attain. In the event that a person, attempting to receive a plenary indulgence, falls short of meeting the conditions, they will receive a partial indulgence. In keeping with the teachings on the communion of saints and the Church’s treasury, all of the good achieved in striving for indulgences can benefit the entire body of Christ. “The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead” which would be an act of selfless love. (CCC #1471)
The controversy surrounding indulgences began with corruption involving money. It was never Church teaching that indulgences could be bought and sold, but they could be tied to the correctly motivated righteous act of almsgiving. Abuses of a well-intended allowance led to corruption, but corrupt men do not make the Church and her teachings corrupt. In response to the Reformation and Martin Luther’s valid outrage regarding the corruption surrounding indulgences, the Church called the Council of Trent in 1545 where any link between money and the granting of indulgences was expressly forbidden. It is also misunderstood that an indulgence could be somehow banked and tracked in a ledger to get a free pass on future sin. This misconception comes from the Church’s attachment of a time period such as 300 days to an indulgence. The reference to time was only intended to express a significant period within our own human concept of time to aid in our understanding. Because God’s time is not our time, and because we do not know what God will grant, it would be impossible to know how long anything lasts in purgatory. In order remove any confusion, the Church did away with the reference to specific time in relationship to indulgences and purgatory in 1967. Finally, indulgences are not a “get out of jail free” card or a means to buy your way out of hell. God’s forgiveness and mercy must be obtained first before one can receive an indulgence.
The beauty of the doctrine of purgatory lies in the realization of the true perfection that awaits us for eternity in heaven. By design, all of the members of the Body of Christ are inter-connected throughout space and time to assist one another to obtain this perfection. Jesus, at the center of salvation history is our ultimate assistance and we can look to His example for how to help our brothers and sisters on their path to salvation. While we are not pure beings on earth, we can recognize opportunities to begin our purification through our suffering and our selfless prayer and be prepared to continue our cleansing after death, so that we may be made perfect for life in heaven. This design is a reflection of God’s infinite love for us as creatures made in His image.