What is Purgatory?

but nothing unclean will enter it, nor any (one) who does abominable things or tells lies.(Revelations 21:27)

…the person will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:15)

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines Purgatory as a place of temporary suffering or misery. Believers of Purgatory consider God to be perfect, and our souls cannot enter into Heaven with God unless they have been cleansed of all sin. The idea of Purgatory is a big part of Catholic belief. However, Purgatory is not reserved only for Catholics. The Jewish faith has believed in a final purification long before Christ, as shown in the Old Testament and other Jewish works. Eastern Orthodox also proclaims the truth of final purification. Praying for the dead has been in practice since the conception of Jewish and Christian faith. It wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century, that the doctrine of Purgatory was denied.

Prayers for the Dead
Christians praying for the dead is rooted in Judaism. It had long been the idea that our prayers can assist the souls of the dead in reaching Heaven. There are two instances in the Old Testament that praying for the dead is mentioned.

(2 Maccabees 12:39-46) On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his companions went to gather up the bodies of the fallen and bury them with their kindred in their ancestral tombs. But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden. Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this, he acted in a very excellent and noble way, since he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.

(Sirach 7:33) Give your gift to all the living, and do not withhold your kindness from the dead.

In the above passages of 2nd Maccabees and Sirach, the authors relate that prayer and sacrifice can help the dead. If the souls of the dead were in Hell, our prayers wouldn’t be able to help them. If the souls were in Heaven, they wouldn’t need our prayers because they’ve already made it to God (which doesn’t apply here since this was before Christ and, therefore, there would have been no human souls in heaven). The transitional abode of the dead for the Jews is called Sheol. Now, since I’ve used 2nd Maccabees and Sirach, I should mention that Protestants ignore the canonicity of both of these books and regard them as ‘apocryphal,’ i.e., not inspired Scripture. See my post on the Deuterocanonical Books for more information about the canonicity of these books.

Some non-Catholics may try to find a contradiction to Catholic doctrine by stating that the fallen soldiers were idolaters since they carried pagan amulets and thus committing a mortal sin making the prayers of Judas ineffective. However, it was unlikely that they were idolaters. It’s more likely the soldiers took the amulets as loot after pillaging Jamnia, but because of the nature of the charms, it was against Jewish law to carry. The argument is moot, however, since it’s not the effectiveness of the prayers, but instead the fact that the prayers were offered at all. Judas believed as other Jews do that prayers help the dead in the afterlife.

Did this belief carry over into Christianity?
Let’s continue in the New Testament and find out. While the Bible doesn’t come out and say “PURGATORY,” it also doesn’t come out and say “TRINITY” or “INCARNATION.” Yet, we know the Bible teaches those doctrines. I’ll show the passages that teach the doctrine of temporal punishment.

(2 Corinthians 5:10) For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.

The key word in that passage is “recompense.” Recompense is payment or wages. We will be repaid for our actions during life, whether those actions are good or bad. This gives the notion that we will somehow pay for the sins we committed in life. In 2 Timothy 1:16-18, we see Paul praying that the Lord grant mercy to the soul of Onesiphorus who had recently died. In multiple parables, we see Christ’s allusions to Purgatory and paying for our sins.

(Luke 12:58-59) “If you are to go with your opponent before a magistrate, make an effort to settle the matter on the way, otherwise your opponent will turn you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the constable, and the constable throw you into prison. I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.”

The same verse can also be found in Matthew 5:25-26. The authors quote Jesus who speaks of atonement for the sins a person has committed on Earth. In the parable, Jesus states that a person should atone for his sins here on Earth because, after death, they will not be released from “prison” until they have “paid” for every sin.

(Matthew 18:23-35) “That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants. When he began the accounting, a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount. Since he had no way of paying it back, his master ordered him to be sold, along with his wife, his children, and all his property, in payment of the debt. At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.’ Moved with compassion, the master of that servant let him go and forgave him the loan. When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a much smaller amount. He seized him and started to choke him, demanding, ‘Pay back what you owe.’ Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’ But he refused. Instead, he had him put in prison until he paid back the debt. Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened, they were deeply disturbed and went to their master and reported the whole affair. His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant! I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to. Should you not have pitied your fellow servant, as I pitied you? Then in anger, his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt. So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”

In the above parable, the allusion to Purgatory is near the end of this passage. “Then, in anger, his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.” This parable applies to us because we are God’s servants. If we fail to refrain from sin, we will need to pay for our sins when we come before God. By use of the word torturers, Jesus implies that we’ll pay for our sins through suffering. These parables bring to question where the punishment takes place. It’s evident that the punishment doesn’t take place in Heaven, and since Hell is permanent, there must be another place.

(Revelation 5:2,3) Then I saw a mighty angel who proclaimed in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” But no one in heaven or on Earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll to examine it.

This passage in Revelation mentions “under the earth,” meaning the dead. It again notes that there are dead somewhere, neither heaven nor Earth. Hell is not mentioned because Hell is void of the presence of God and, therefore, no one in Hell would be asked to open the scroll.

(Matthew 12:32) “And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world nor in the world to come.”

Matthew quotes Jesus in the above passage. In it, Jesus mentions two worlds: This world and the world to come. He notes explicitly that those who speak out against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven in the world to come, thus implying that the world to come is a place where sins can be repaid. Since blasphemy is a mortal sin, the person would not be purified of that sin in Purgatory. See my post on Sin and Confession for more information on mortal sins.

How do we know that we will pay for our sins in Purgatory through suffering?
In Jesus’ parables, we saw the metaphors “prison” and “torturers,” both denoting a temporary place of suffering that pays for sins in the afterlife. I also have more passages that give an idea as to what to expect.

(1 Corinthians 3:10-15) According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.

In this passage, Paul implies that after judgment, our lives will be tested by fire, which both destroys and purifies. It speaks of one foundation, Jesus Christ. This implies that the persons in question have already accepted the truth — the pious build with gold, silver, and precious stones that will stand up to the fire. Wood, hay, and straw represent venial sins. The works of the sinner will burn. That person will still be saved but will suffer through fire for his sins.

(Hebrews 12:6,11) for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. At the time, all discipline seems a cause, not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.

In the same chapter, he speaks of those inhabiting Heaven including:

(Hebrews 12:23) … the spirits of the just MADE perfect.

The spirits of the just were MADE perfect through the purging process of Purgatory before becoming inhabitants of Heaven.

So, in conclusion, what Catholic doctrine teaches is this:

  1. there is purification after death
  2. the process will involve suffering of some sort
  3. we can help the souls in Purgatory with our prayers and offerings