Purgatory And The Bible Essay, Research Paper
Purgatory and the Bible
Some Christians reject the Church’s affirmation of purgatory because the word is not explicitly mentioned in the Bible. For that matter, neither are the words “Trinity” or “Incarnation”. But for all three the teaching is there, as recognized for nearly 2,000 years in the Sacred Tradition of the Church, the very Tradition which Paul places alongside Scripture as the rule of faith (2 Thes. 2:15) and praises adherence to (1 Cor. 11:2). Jesus commands us to listen to the Church (Lk. 10:16), promising that she will never stray from the truth (Jn. 16:13, Mt. 16:18).
We are saved by God’s grace (Eph. 2:5). It is not earned, but a free gift merited by Christ’s sacrifice (Eph. 1:6-8, Rom. 3:24). We receive grace through faith; not through our own works (Eph. 2:9), nor through the legalistic works-righteousness of the Mosaic Law (Rom. 3:28). But true saving faith is more than mere intellectual assent to Gospel facts. God in His love makes us co-workers in our own salvation (1 Cor. 3:9), and our faith must be lived, by the strength of God’s free grace, in obedience (Mt. 7:21, Rom. 1:5, 16:26) and love (1 Cor. 13:2, Matt 25:31-46, Gal. 5:6). Otherwise it is dead faith which cannot justify us (Jas. 2:14-26). When we have true faith, we open ourselves to God’s free grace, and His grace empowers us to obey and love (Eph. 2:10, Phil. 2:13, 4:13) in a way that pleases Him. These pleasing works aren’t our own, but are actually nothing less than Christ’s own work in us (1 Cor. 15:10, Gal. 2:20, Col. 1:29). God, who crowns our works, really only crowns Christ’s own work in us. Without God’s grace we could never do anything to please him. But God gives us the Spirit to strengthen us and work through us, and we give him back the love and obedience of Christ working in us, which He freely chooses to reward based on the underlying merit of Christ’s perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice on the cross.
We are called to be perfect as God is perfect (Mt. 5:48), to imitate Jesus’ perfect sacrificial love (Eph. 5:1-2), to strive “for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb. 12:14). Only by giving ourselves completely to God and fully opening ourselves to His grace can the work of Christ flow through us unhindered and raise us to this perfect holiness. There is nothing we can do on our own to reach this perfection. We are dependent entirely on God. Yet virtually all of us have fallen short of opening ourselves fully to God’s grace so that Christ can reproduce his work in us. Virtually all of us have fallen short of this perfect holiness. Does this mean that we be denied our heavenly inheritance for failing to obey and love with the perfection that Christ did? No, for not all sin is mortal (1 Jn. 5:17), and when we die as adopted children in God’s holy family, repentant of any mortal sin which would disinherit us, we’re assured that we will receive our heavenly homecoming. But not in our imperfect state. Our deeds follow us to heaven (Rev. 14:13), “but nothing unclean shall enter it” (Rev. 21:27). Before we enter heaven, God’s free grace must loosen us from every last vestige of sin and worldly attachment that kept us from perfection. All remaining love of self must be transformed into love of God. God has made perfect the spirits of the just in heaven (Heb. 12:23). How? Through purgatory, the final application of Christ’s loving and totally sufficient work of redemption on the cross. Note that purgatory is not a second chance for the unjustified. If somebody dies without God’s saving grace in their soul, they go to hell, not purgatory.
We know that the next world is not strictly divided between heaven and hell, for Christ “visited the spirits in prison, and preached to them” (1 Pt. 3:19). On earth, Christ identified blashpemy against the Holy Spirit as the one sin for which “there is no forgiveness, either in this world or in the world to come” (Mt. 12:32), implying that for other sins there can be forgiveness in the world to come. Forgiveness for our sins is merited by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. But forgiveness does not mean that we are “off the hook”; we can still incur punishment (e.g., 2 Sam. 12:13-14). It is by Christ’s suffering that we are redeemed. And it is by Christ’s suffering reproduced in us that we are made fit to be resurrected in Christ (Rom. 8:17). If we can be forgiven in the next world, so can we suffer. For suffering is really only discipline — spiritual growth; it is God’s fatherly love preparing us for His glory (Heb. 12:7-11).
Repeatedly in the Bible God revealed His love to His people in the form of fire: in a “fire pot and flaming torch” to Abraham in Genesis 15; in the burning bush to Moses in Exodus 3; in the pillar of fire to Israel in Numbers 9; in the heavenly fire which consumed the altar sacrifices of Solomon and Elijah in 1 Kings 8 and 18; in the “tongues of fire” to the apostles at Pentecost in Acts 2. So when the book of Hebrews describes God as a “consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), the author isn’t necessarily referring to God’s anger, but to His infinite love. No wonder Scripture refers to the angels who are closest to God as the Seraphim, which literally means “the burning ones” in Hebrew. So when we die in grace and approach God, we are approaching a consuming fire. Purgatory is the consuming fire of God’s love, God’s grace, burning away our imperfection so we will be fit to bask in His glory.
Thus St. Paul notes that God will test, with fire, the works of the just (1 Cor. 3:13). Our pure works (which are really Christ’s own work in us, symbolized by gold, silver, and gems) will withstand the fire and will be rewarded (1 Cor. 3:14), but our impure works (i.e., sin and earthly attachments, symbolized by wood, hay, and straw) will be burned away. As they are burned away, we “will suffer loss, yet will be saved, as only men are saved by passing through fire” (1 Cor. 3:15). Purgatory is this state of loving cleansing, this temporary suffering, this firey and purifying grace, this final phase of our sanctification to which Paul refers. As the Lord said, “I will bring the one third through fire, and I will refine them as silver is refined, and I will test them as gold is tested” (Zechariah 13:9). “Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings, he took them to himself”. (Wisdom 3:5-6)
In Luke 16:19-31, we hear of a rich man who is in hades (Luke 16:23), suffering “anguish in this flame” (Luke 16:24), for his lack of charity on earth. He’s obviously not in heaven, where there is no suffering. And he’s probably not in hell, for he shows compassion for his living brothers (Luke 16:28), and still has a kinship with God’s family (see “Father” and “My child”). Where could he be, then? Purgatory is a very plausible explanation. In fact, “hades” is the Greek word for the Hebrew word “sheol”, which in Latin is “purgatorio”. Whenever we see “hades” in the Bible we can think “purgatory”. (Unfortunately many modern Bibles replace “hades” with “hell”, which has a different meaning and a separate Hebrew word, “ghenna”). And the Bible tells us that at the end of the world after Satan is forever bound in the lake of fire, “hades” (purgatory) itself will be done away with, thrown into the lake of fire (hell) as well (Rev. 20:14).
In Luke 13:57-59, Jesus tells us to forgive each other our disputes while we can lest we end up before the judge, who will not let us out of prison until we have “paid the last penny” (Luke 13:59). Who is the judge of judges? God. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray to God to “forgive us our debts as we forgive those our debtors” (Matt 6:12). If we do not forgive our sins against each other in this world, then neither will God forgive us in this world (Matt 6:15). Rather, as the true judge before whom we will stand, He will mercifully purify us in “prison” (purgatory), until we have “paid the last penny” (i.e., been fully purged of our sinful grudges).
The belief in the existence of purgatory is reflected in the ancient practice of praying for the suffering souls therein. Sirach 7:33 implores the Lord, “Withhold not your kindness, O Lord, from the dead”. 2 Maccabees 12:46 states “it is holy and wholesome to pray for the dead, so that they may be loosened from their sins”. And St. Paul prays that the Lord have mercy on the deceased Onesiphorus in light of the compassion he showed Paul when he was still alive (2 Tim. 1:18). Indeed, archeologists have discovered that the earliest Christians routinely inscribed prayers for the dead in their catacombs.
The Church has not defined the nature of Purgatory in terms of space and time. Purgatory is a state of cleansing, a conversion of disordered love of self into perfect love of God. This cleansing involves the joy of knowing we will soon be in heaven, as well as the suffering of being loosened from our sin and earthly attachments as we approach God and realize our shortcoming in holiness. Since those in Purgatory are still members of the Church, the body of Christ, the Communion of Saints, we can offer prayers, supplications, and intercessions on their behalf just as we can for those on earth.