Purgatory Explained

What is Purgatory exactly?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this about Purgatory:

“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.”

Purgatory is the process of the final purification that the soul must undergo before entering Heaven. It is where we go to be cleansed of any stain of sin that remains on our soul at the time of our death. Purgatory is not a place that one can earn their salvation after death but is reserved for those that still need some final purification that has already been judged for eternal salvation.

Why Do We need Purgatory?

Revelation 21:27 states:

But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Here we see the primary need for Purgatory. As I stated earlier Purgatory is the state of final purification before one can enter Heaven. We know from the verse quoted above that nothing unclean can enter into Heaven. When we die we may still be guilty of some venial sin or have the stain of sin still on our soul. If we die in a state of grace and friendship with God and are granted Heaven but still have the stain of sin on our soul then it follows that we must be purified before we enter Heaven. Afterall we must pay the price of our sin to the last penny. (Luke 12:59) .

Where Is Purgatory In Scripture?

One of the primary arguments you will hear from opponents of Purgatory is that nowhere in the Bible is the word “Purgatory” mentioned. While this is true it is not a sound reasoning for not believing in the existence of Purgatory.  The word “Trinity” for example is not found in the bible but yet a very vast majority of professing Christians still believe in this doctrine. Also, the word “Bible” is not found in the Bible. It does not then follow that since “Bible” is not found in the pages of the Bible itself that we should not believe in a Bible. What we do find is verses in the Bible which speak to the concept of Purgatory.  Here are a few of my favorites.

1 Corinthians 3:14-15:

14 If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

These verses from 1 Corinthians are my favorite “pro purgatory” verses. Essentially what Saint Paul is saying here is after death we are tested. If our foundation is in Christ we will receive our reward but if some of our foundation is somewhat shaky and not in Christ then we must suffer to burn off the excess. We will still be saved but it will be like escaping through fire! Or by the skin of our teeth, you might say. This is a very good breakdown of Purgatory by Saint Paul and fairly direct. When we die our soul is judged. If we are grounded in Christ and die in his friendship we are saved but we may still have some stains of our sin on our soul. We must be cleansed of these sins once and for all and suffer for those sins (remember Luke 12:59) but in the end, we are still saved and join up with Christ in Heaven. It is also worthy to note that this verse cannot be talking about strictly Heaven because we know we will not “suffer” in Heaven but it cannot be Hell because we know once someone is damned to Hell they cannot be saved.

2 Maccabees 12:40-45

40 Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jam′nia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. 41 So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; 42 and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out. And 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. 43 He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. 44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.[a]

Here we see in scripture an example of an offering being made for the sin of soldiers who have already passed away. One could reason that there is no point in trying to atone for the sin committed if the person is already in Hell but here we see that these people died in friendship with God but still had a stain of sin on their soul. A lot of non-Catholics will scoff at these verses since a very vast majority of Protestants will not accept 2 Maccabees as God inspired scripture but they may be used to help with the idea of Purgatory anyway. Some opponents of Purgatory will contend that Purgatory is a made up Catholic doctrine that came along some time after Christ and his Apostles (more on that later) however, even if you do not accept 2 Maccabees as God inspired scripture, you must recognize that this is an ancient Jewish document that predates Christ and the Apostles and clearly outlines some of the basic truths of Purgatory. It is clear that at the very least the basis for Purgatory can be found BEFORE Christ.

Matthew 12:32

32 And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

“either in this age or in the age to come” would indicate that sins “in the age to come” could possibly be forgiven but not all sins have that trait. We know that there is no sin in Heaven and thus no need for sin to be forgiven there and we know that sin cannot be forgiven once a person is in Hell. So what does it mean? There must be a 3rd state in which sins can be forgiven. That state is Purgatory.

1 Peter 3:19-20

19 in which he went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

Here we see a concept of Christ preaching to the spirits in “prison”. Again we know that Heaven could not be described as a prison and there is no reason for Christ to have preached to spirits in Hell. So where is this prison? It must be a state between Heaven and Hell. While not direct proof for Purgatory it is yet another weight on the side of evidence for an existing third state other than Heaven and Hell.

What Do the Church Fathers Have to Say?

While the doctrine of Purgatory was not specifically defined until the Council of Florence in the 1400’s we have a wealth of information from the early Church that points to a definite belief in the concept of Purgatory. Here are a few examples.

“And after the exhibition, Tryphaena again received her [Thecla]. For her daughter Falconilla had died, and said to her in a dream: ‘Mother, you shall 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 righteous’” (Acts of Paul and Thecla [A.D. 160]).

“A woman, after the death of her husband . . . prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection. And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice” (Monogamy 10:1–2 [A.D. 216]).

You can read more references at this link on the Catholic Answers website.

If the Church has always believed in Purgatory, why did it take 1400 years to define it?

This is a common argument for a lot of Catholic teachings that have been defined over the years. What needs to be realized by the person making the argument is that Catholic councils do not invent doctrine, on the contrary, they define doctrine that is already believed when a question arises about said doctrine. It is a testament to the rock solid foundation Purgatory has had in the Church that it was not defined until the 1400’s. That means that Christianity went 1400 years without raising a significant question about the teaching of Purgatory that needed to be cleared up.

Want to learn more?

If you want to dig deeper into the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory I suggest visiting Catholic Answers. Just go to their website and in the search bar type in Purgatory. They have a wealth of information on the subject.