Some thoughts on Purgatory

In Catholic Theology, the ‘consensus’ is that in the afterlife, there are three realms: Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. I say ‘realm,’ since this can be read more loosely than ‘place.’ This fall I have been writing my master’s thesis on the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist, comparing Lutheran Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg and Catholic theologian Joseph Ratzinger, now known as pope Benedict XVI. I make the point there that if Lutherans were to accept a Catholic view of the sacrificial aspect of the Eucharist, this, although it be ecumenically (and historically) signigicant, wouldn’t in and of itself necessarily lead to unity. There are many other aspects that needs to be considered, including Purgatory. Theology should be marked by coherence, and the same goes for unity.

The last couple of days I have been pondering the concept of Purgatory, and have tried to grasp what the doctrine actually is. We can read about this in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. There it says, in paragraphs 1030-1032:

1030 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.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. the tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire:

As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” 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. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.

The main point is that those “who die in God’s grace and friendship,” that is, those who are already saved, already ‘on their way to heaven’ and “assured of their eternal salvation” can still be “imperfectly purified,” and thus in need of purifying, purgation. It seems to me to be a perfectly Biblical idea, as long as you understand what it means. It doesn’t involve a ‘second chance’ and it doesn’t mean that one ‘earns one’s way to heaven.’ It means nothing else than that we are purified. In 1. Cor. 3:11-15 Paul states (RSV):

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.

Paul starts out here by pointing out that Christ is the center. No other foundation can be laid, no one but Christ can hold up ‘the structure of life.’ But we can build on that foundation, we can live our lives, build our lives, and build upon this foundation both with gold, silver and precious stones, on the one hand, and wood, hay and straw on the other. Then, at some point, this will be tested with fire. What gold, silver and precious stones have in common is that not only can they withstand fire, they are not destroyed but purified and molded by it. So if ‘the structure of your life’ has been made up only by gold, silver and precious stones, your work, a work that in reality is the Lord’s own doing (Phil 2:12-13) will survive. What wood, hay and straw have in common, however, is that they do not withstand fire, they are destroyed by it. So if ‘the structure of your life’ has been made up only by wood, hay and straw, your work, will not survive.

We probably all have a bit of both; both that which endures and that which perishes. The point here, however, is that the fire of the Lord purifies and burns. And this is the core of the doctrine of Purgatory. There are some, it says, who are Christians, who “who die in God’s grace and friendship” (who have laid the foundation of Christ), but who are in need of purgation (because they have built upon this not only with gold, silver and precious stones. but also with wood, hay and straw). This seems to me to be a utterly Biblical doctrine, and I see no reason why a Lutheran should not believe in it. There are many ideas related to this that may need to be removed, but that doesn’t mean that the doctrine is problematic in itself.

A final thought: What is the fire that burns? It seems to me that the Orthodox have a very good answer to this: it is Christ, it is God himself. Heaven is to love being in the presence of the God who loves you. Hell is to hate being in the presence of the God who loves you. Purgatory is to love being in the presence of the God who loves you, and whose love purifies you. Allow me to end with some words from Pope Benedict XVI, from the Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi:

46 … For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “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 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

47 Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).

One thought on “Some thoughts on Purgatory

  1. Here are all the theses (from Luther’s 95 Theses) which deal with Purgatory (emphasis mine):

    10. It is a wrongful act, due to ignorance, when priests retain the canonical penalties on the dead in purgatory.

    11. When canonical penalties were changed and made to apply to purgatory, surely it would seem that tares were sown while the bishops were asleep.

    15. This fear or horror is sufficient in itself, whatever else might be said, to constitute the pain of purgatory, since it approaches very closely to the horror of despair.

    16. There seems to be the same difference between hell, purgatory, and heaven as between despair, uncertainty, and assurance.

    17. Of a truth, the pains of souls in purgatory ought to be abated, and charity ought to be proportionately increased.

    22. Indeed, he [the pope] cannot remit to souls in purgatory any penalty which canon law declares should be suffered in the present life.

    25. The same power as the pope exercises in general over purgatory is exercised in particular by every single bishop in his bishopric and priest in his parish.

    26. The pope does excellently when he grants remission to the souls in purgatory on account of intercessions made on their behalf, and not by the power of the keys (which he cannot exercise for them).

    27. There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.

    29. Who knows whether all souls in purgatory wish to be redeemed in view of what is said of St. Severinus and St. Pascal? (Note: Paschal I, pope 817-24. The legend is that he and Severinus were willing to endure the pains of purgatory for the benefit of the faithful).

    82. They ask, e.g.: Why does not the pope liberate everyone from purgatory for the sake of love (a most holy thing) and because of the supreme necessity of their souls? This would be morally the best of all reasons. Meanwhile he redeems innumerable souls for money, a most perishable thing, with which to build St. Peter’s church, a very minor purpose.

    Luther have criticisms, but it doesn’t seem to be related to the existence of Purgatory, but alleged misuses. In fact, it seems that these theses makes sense only if Purgatory (some kind of purgation) actually exists. It would also seem that Luther was extrapolating his personal experience with (and interpretation of) people like Johann Tetzel to the entire Catholic Church.

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