To the untrained reader of Scriptures, rejecting the doctrine of Purgatory is the easiest thing to do. However, in the 16th century in response to the Protestant rebellion against the Church, the Council of Trent has infallibly declared that “there is a purgatory” (Sess. VI, cap. XXX; Sess. XXII cap.ii, iii), which makes this doctrine an article of faith that cannot be denied, altered or revoked. This, of course, does not mean that those of us who are seeking to understand the doctrine and further investigating its veracity are automatically excommunicated and must not partake of the Eucharist. Rather, it means that we must fervently seek and exhaust all possible venues from whence we might ascertain the truth. After having done all that, when possibilities diverge each according to personal interpretation of Scriptures, we must then yield to the Magiesterium (the Pope in communion with the rest of the bishops around the world) whose authority far surpasses any one single person who feels his personal interpretation is any better than anyone else’s version.
Keeping this mind, let us look at the doctrine in the Scriptures and what basis it has in the Deposit of Faith that is handed down to us by the Apostles.
1-God is Fire
The nature of God is fire. The writer of the epistle to the Hebrews instructs us to “worship” the Lord in “reverence” and “awe” because “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:28-29). This is a direct quote from the Book of Deuteronomy when Moses was exhorting the Israelites to obey the Lord, again, because “the Lord God is a consuming Fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24). The same imagery is also used to describe Our Lord Jesus being a Just and Righteous Judge of mankind. St. Paul tells the Thessalonians that “Our Lord Jesus” will be “revealed from heaven in blazing fire” (2 Thessalonians 1:7). Also, Our Lord says, “I’ve come to bring fire on earth” (Luke 12:49). These are only a few of endless Scriptural indications where God is portrayed as fire. There are many other passages that clearly indicate the nature of God being fire including His appearance to Moses in the bush among many others.
2-The Effect of this Fire
On this earth, there are two extremes, two polar ends of a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum, there are those who are so holy and docile to the Holy Spirit that they have conformed their own will to that of God to an extent that they are constantly rejoicing in His presence. This state is what we know as Heaven. On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who are so depraved of any light and truth that they have completely rejected God in their lives, a condition which we know as Hell. Most of us are somewhere in between these two extremes, travelling on a journey whose end is Christ the Saviour. At times, when we falter (and which one of us does not falter?), we resort to the Sacraments to rise up again and “fight the good fight” (1 Timothy 6:12). We are repentant yet still bearing weaknesses, God-loving yet still contending against sin. We are still being cleansed, purged, and purified. This is the condition that we label as Purgatory, a state of being whereby a human soul is still being purified and undergoing a process of purgation from any self-love remaining and any temporal effects of sins already committed to render God’s fire as a complete source of joy and splendour rather than punitive flames that devour the wicked. The Divine fire has a threefold effect on mankind. Depending on where it fits between the two extremes, the human soul will react differently to God’s presence. God’s threefold effect on human souls is as follows:
i. Divine Fire Makes the Holy Saints Shine.
God is a constant and steady source of joy for those who have reached a high level of holiness by practicing the Sacraments faithfully. The Divine fire makes these holy ones shine. “The sun has one kind of splendour, the moon another and the stars another; and star differs from star in splendour. So will it be with the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:41-42). Take special note of how the “sun,” the “moon,” and each of the “stars” shine differently. They are not all the same. Some shine more glowingly than others. The “sun” shines more than the “stars.” While some “stars” shine more brilliantly than others. Each saint shines at a different level, depending on the soul’s level of holiness. This is indeed Heaven, rejoicing in God constantly and at all times. The danger is to think that it is only in the afterlife, after the resurrection, that we can rejoice in God. This is not true at all. Heaven begins here on earth for the “Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). God’s fire makes the holy saints shine in splendour.
ii. The Divine Fire Torments the Unrepentant Sinners.
To the unrepentant sinner, God is a torment. “At the time of your appearing you will make them like a fiery furnace. In his wrath the Lord will swallow them up and his fire will consume them” (Psalms 21:8-9). This, of course, is nothing other than Hell. God’s burning fire is hell for those who refuse to repent and re-orient their lives according to God. "For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze," (Malachi 4:1). Suffice it to say, that for those who are stubborn and whose heart has hardened, God is definitely not a source of joy, but rather He is a font of wrath and judgment.
iii. The Divine Fire Purifies the Repentant Sinner.
God, in His endless love and mercy understands our weaknesses. While his desire is that “all men to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4), it is still written that “nothing unclean will enter heaven” (Revelations 21:27). This concept is not an alien one to the Scriptures, “I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities (Isaiah 1:25). “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire…He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver (Malachi 3:2,3). God’s fiery blazes purify those who have repented while making every possible attempt not to fall into sin. The adjectives used to describe God are “refiner” and “purifier,” someone who affects a transformation on a dirty object to make it cleaner, purer and more wholesome. The biggest objection one may raise is that this process of purgation only lasts for as long as we are alive on this earth. This is partly true because there are some of us who undergo enough purification on this earth that we no longer need to go through Purgatory. Canonized Saints are among these people. The suffering and pain these Saints go through purges them of any self-love and further satisfies the temporal effect of sins committed prior to their conversion. However, for the majority of us who practice the Sacraments faithfully and resort to Confession every time we fall into Mortal Sin with the honest resolve of not repeating our mistakes again, we end up going through this afterlife purgation. Further reference is made by St. Paul:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).
Our works will be judged after death. They will be “revealed” or tested “by fire.” Some works will be “burned up,” while the person will still be “saved.” The original Greek word for “only as” is ‘houtos,’ which means ‘just as’ or ‘in the same manner as’. The comparison in the simile is between a man who will “suffer loss” yet still be “saved” and a man who goes “through flames.” The common ground these two men share is that they both go through fire. This state cannot be heaven, since there will be no “mourning and pain” in heaven (Revelation 21:4); nor can this state be hell since no man in hell can be saved. This can only refer to a purgative state that a man goes through after death where there will be an expiation of some sins (Venial Sins).
Some objections are constantly being touted and paraded almost in every non-Catholic circle about this doctrine. The truth is that Christians have held this doctrine since the Apostolic years; this doctrine was also known in the Jewish faith previously. The historical testimonies are endless, but we will limit ourselves to three quotes from the earliest centuries of Christianity.
"And after the exhibition, Tryphaena again receives her. For her daughter Falconilla had died, and said to her in a dream: Mother, thou shaft have this stranger Thecla in my place, in order that she may pray concerning me, and that I may be transferred to the place of the just." Acts of Paul and Thecla (A.D. 160).
"Accordingly the believer, through great discipline, divesting himself of the passions, passes to the mansion which is better than the former one, viz., to the greatest torment, taking with him the characteristic of repentance from the sins he has committed after baptism. He is tortured then still more--not yet or not quite attaining what he sees others to have acquired. Besides, he is also ashamed of his transgressions. The greatest torments, indeed, are assigned to the believer. For God's righteousness is good, and His goodness is righteous. And though the punishments cease in the course of the completion of the expiation and purification of each one, yet those have very great and permanent grief who are found worthy of the other fold, on account of not being along with those that have been glorified through righteousness." Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 6:14 (post A.D. 202).
"During the time, moreover, which intervenes between a man's death and the final resurrection, the soul dwells in a hidden retreat, where it enjoys rest or suffers affliction just in proportion to the merit it has earned by the life which it led on earth." Augustine, Enchiridion, 1099 (A.D. 421).
Note the geographical territories to which each of these works attests. Acts of Paul and Thecla is known to have originated in Asia Minor. St. Clement of Alexandria gives an Alexandrian testimony, while St. Augustine offers a western witness to the doctrine of Purgatory. Also, note how there is always an emphasis on prayers for the dead. In fact, the Scriptures give us an account of Judas, a Jewish warrior, who offered sacrifice for the “sins of those who were slain” (2 Maccabbees 12:43). Then, it is written, “It is holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sin” (2 Maccabbees 12:46). Why is there prayer being offered for the dead? If there is no Purgatory, but only heaven and hell exist, then praying for the dead would be useless. If the soul is in Hell, then there is no prayer in the world that can bring it out of there. If the soul is in Heaven, it does not need our prayers. Only souls in Purgatory can make use of our prayers.
Common Objections and Myths
1-Purgatory is a place between Heaven and Hell.
Purgatory is not a place that is a little less tormenting than Hell, nor is it a place a little less joyous than Heaven. It is a state of being. Those who reach this state are already saved. They need further cleansing of the temporal effects of their sins to see the holy face of God. As for the time spent in this state, it is unknown how time is defined in the afterlife. We have a linear conception of time. However, souls that have departed this life do not know time as seconds, minutes or hours. The cleansing will continue until the soul is completely purged of the effects of sin it had committed during its lifetime.
2-Purgatory contradicts God’s justice.
Some complain that since God’s justice was fulfilled by Christ’s blood when it was shed for us, there is no need for further cleansing in the afterlife. If this complaint had any value, why does God punish David even after He forgave him? Sin is a chain reaction that affects everything around it, including the sinner. It has a temporal effect on human soul, which must be undone for the soul to see the face of God. After David commits murder and adultery, Prophet Nathan informs David of God’s plan to punish him for his misdeed. David repents and confesses his sin, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan replies, “the Lord has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt, the son born to you will die” (2 Samuel 12:13, 14). Although David repents, he is still suffers the consequences of his sins. In this passage, it is clear that there is a temporal effect of sin even after the sinner repents and offers sacrifice, which refers to Christ. It is this effect of sin on our soul that must be purged and cleansed. Christ’s blood is lacking when it comes to the effects of sin. The Bible says so, “I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s affliction” (Colossians 1:24). God punishing David even after a sacrifice is offered to appease God’s justice shows that it is part of God’s justice to further purify the sinner before entering Heaven. The idea of Purgatory is not contradicting to God’s justice. Rather, it is part of his loving plan to complete our salvation through purification of fire.
3-If Purgatory Exists, then I’ll Just Continue Sinning
On the contrary, the existence of Purgatory is a further incentive for us to live a holier life. Catechism teaches that it is only those souls who “die in God’s grace and friendship” will make it to Purgatory (CCC 1030). This means that a person cannot be living in Mortal Sin. If a Mortal Sin is committed, then we must repent and have recourse to the Sacrament of Confession.
4-What About the Thief on the Right Side?
Our Lord says to the thief who repents on the cross, “today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). A common misconception with this verse is that Christ transfers this man to Heaven immediately after his death. This is not true because Our Lord was resurrected on the third day, and the gates of heaven were not open prior to the resurrection. The word “today” does not mean a time span of 24 hours. It refers to an unknown period of time since “with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8). While the thief is saved immediately after Christ pronounces his words, he will enter heaven, “today” does not mean that he will forego Purgatory.
Finally, as the Scriptures say, “it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead.” It is important that we always remember our loved ones who have passed on with constant and fervent prayers, knowing that one day, we too will need prayers even after our journey in this earth is expired.