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Explaining Purgatory to Christians

At the beginning of the Reformation there was some hesitation, especially on the part of Martin Luther, as to whether the doctrine of Purgatory should be retained. As the breach widened, the denial by the reformers became universal. Modern Protestants, though avoiding the name ‘Purgatory’, frequently teach the doctrine of the intermediate state, or what is described as the realm of progressive development in which souls are prepared for the final judgment.

Though the Catholic Church, in ancient and modern times, has insisted on the reality and reliability of Purgatory, many a Christian has argued that the teaching is unbiblical, and therefore unacceptable. The doctrine is seen as not only controversial but difficult to comprehend.

This presentation shall therefore attempt nothing new. It is intended to be a reminder to what has already being laid down by the Church, especially under the following major heads:

  • The Catholic Church and the Teaching on Purgatory

  • Scriptural Evidence in Favor of Purgatory

  • The Evidence of Sacred Tradition

  • The Nature and Duration of Purgatory

  • The Joys of Purgatory

  • Summary and Conclusion


    In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Purgatory, derived from the Latin “Purgatore”, is defined as the “final purification of the elect, which is different from the punishment of the damned”. This was formulated at the Councils of Florence (1439) and Trent (1563), with reference to certain scriptural texts, speaking of a cleansing fire (1Cor. 3:15; 1Pt.1: 7). It is the purification, which occurs at the end of life. Because we still sin in this life, but will not be sinning when we are in glory, between death and glorification must come purification. Purgatory is therefore the final rush of our sanctification. It is our transition into glory.

    That temporal punishment is due to sin, even after God has pardoned the sin itself, is a clear teaching of Scripture. For instance, God indeed brought man out of his first disobedience and gave him power over all things, but still condemned him “to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow, until he returned to dust.” God forgave the incredulity of Moses and Aaron, but in punishment kept them from the “land of promise” (Num.20: 12). The Lord took away the sin of David, but the life of the child was forfeited because David made the enemies blaspheme God’s holy name. God requires satisfaction, and will punish sin, and this doctrine involves as its necessary consequence a belief that the sinner failing to do penance in this life may be punished in another world, and so not be cast off from God.

    The Church also teaches that all sins are not equal before God, and that whosoever comes into God’s presence must be perfectly pure, for in the strictest sense, God’s “eyes are too pure to behold evil” (Hab. 1:13). So deep is this belief that right from the early times, the Jews and even the pagans, long before the advent of Christianity, accepted it. In the middle ages, it was however rejected by the Albigenses, Waldenses and the Hussites. Many great theologians of the time, including St. Bernard and of course St. Thomas, provided sufficient proofs, especially against the errors of the Greeks about Purgatory.

    The doctrine of purgatory supposes that some die with smaller faults for which there was no true repentance and that temporal penalty due to sin is at times not wholly paid in this life. This teaching is also bound up with the practice of praying for the dead. Here, it should be noted that the Church places a sharp distinction between purgatory and hell.


    Purgatory is completely biblical on both implicit and explicit grounds. Implicitly, it is derived from the biblical principles that we still sin till death, but that there will be no sin in glory. Thus between death and eventual glorification must come purification. Explicitly, we have the witness of passages such as 11Macc.12, as well as the witness of passages describing our accounting before Christ in the particular judgment, including the especially vivid depiction of one escaping through flames in 1Cor.3: 11-15.

    Jesus himself speaks in Matt.12: 32 of a sin which will neither be forgiven in this age nor the age to come, implying that some sins (venial sins of which we have not repented before death) will be forgiven when we repent the first moment of our afterlife. Notice also that in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Jesus pictures the dead soul as being carried by angels to his place of rest (Lk. 16:22). Here, some transport time is pictured. Furthermore, in Matt. 5:25-26, we see God as the Judge and will hold us responsible or accountable for the wrong done to our neighbors if we have not reconciled with them before we see Christ. The above Scriptures all point to a process of purification after death in which, according to St. Isidore, “some sins will be forgiven and purged away by a certain purifying fire.” Jesus is known to have said, from the Scripture already cited above, that “--- you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” This means that there is a time when our finite punishment due to the finite, human dimension of our sins will be over.


    The doctrine of Purgatory is part of the very earliest Christian tradition. Tertullian in “De Corona militis” mentions prayers for the dead as an apostolic ordinance, and in “De Monogamis,” he advises a widow “to pray for the soul of her husband, begging repose for him and participation in the first resurrection.” Origen states that if a man departs this life with lighter faults, he is condemned to fire which burns away the lighter materials and prepares the soul for the kingdom of God where nothing defiled may enter.” St. Gregory of Nyssa also states that man’s weaknesses are purged in this life by prayer and wisdom, or are expiated in the next by a cleansing fire. That same fire in others will cancel the corruption and the propensity to evil.

    The teaching of the Fathers and the formularies used in Church liturgy found expression in the early Christian monuments, especially those contained in the catacombs. On the tombs of the faithful were inscribed words of hope, petition for peace and rest, and as the anniversaries came around, the faithful gathered at the graves of the departed to make intercession for those who have gone before.

    In the fourth century in the West, St. Ambrose in his commentary on the existence of Purgatory and at the funeral of Theodosius, prayed for the soul of the departed emperor: “Give, O Lord, rest to Thy servant Theodosius, that rest Thou hast prepared for Thy saints---.” St. Augustine describes two conditions of men as “those who have departed this life, not so bad as to be deemed unworthy of mercy, nor so good as to be entitled to immediate happiness.”

    The idea of purgatory is not a new one but has been part of the true religion since before the time of Christ. We have great witness, not only from Scriptures, but also in the pre-Christian Jewish books, such as “The Life of Adam and Eve,” which speaks of Adam being freed from Purgatory on the Last Day. It has also being part of the true religion ever since Christ’s day. Not only Catholics believe in this final purification, but also the Eastern Orthodox as well as do Orthodox Jews. In fact, when a Jewish person’s loved one dies today, he prays a prayer called the “Mourner’s Qaddish” for eleven months after the death for the loved one’s purification. Until the reformation, nobody thought of denying this doctrine and thus only Protestants deny it today.


    The nature of purgatory is undoubtedly a passing character. We pray and offer sacrifice for souls therein detained that “God in mercy may forgive every fault and receive them into the bosom of Abraham.” The punishment of Purgatory is temporary.

    Let it be noted that time does not work in the same way in the afterlife as it does here. In fact, the great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas had a special term for it, and contrasted three different temporal modalities. The ordinary flow of events we experience here on earth, called “time”, the perpetual present God experiences, called “eternity” and the middle state experienced by those in the afterlife, known as “aeviternity”. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (our present Pope) writes that purgatory may involve “existential" rather than “temporal" duration. It is an experience in a moment, rather than something one endures over time.

    The Church teaches that Purgatory is the final purification, but not that it occurs in any special region in the afterlife. It means that Purgatory may not take place in any special location. The final purification may take place in the immediate presence of God (to the extent that God’s presence may be described in spatial terms). In his book on eschatology, Cardinal Ratzinger describes Purgatory as a fiery, transforming encounter with Christ and his love. According to him, purgatory is not some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishments in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints.

    Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. As we are drawn out of this life and into direct union with Christ, his fiery love and holiness burns away all the dross and iniquities in our souls and makes us fit for life in the glorious, overwhelming light of God’s presence and holiness.

    The idea of Purgatory, even as reflected in Church liturgies, is that the souls for whose peace sacrifice was offered are shut out for the time being, from the sight of God, because they are not so good as to be entitled to eternal happiness.

    But for them, death is the termination not of nature but of sin. It is this inability to sin that makes them secure of final happiness. This is the Catholic position proclaimed by Leo X in the Bull “Exurge Domine” which condemned the errors of Martin Luther.


    In the same Bull “Exurge Domine”, Leo X condemns the proposition that there is no proof from reason or scripture that souls in purgatory cannot merit or increase in charity. Because for them, “The night has come in which no man can labour”. That those on earth are still in communion with the souls in Purgatory is the earliest Christian teaching; and that the living aid the dead by their prayers and works of satisfaction is clear. That souls detained therein are aided by suffrages of the faithful and principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar. Whether our works of satisfaction performed on behalf of the dead avail purely out of God’s benevolence and mercy, or whether God obliges himself in justice to accept our vicarious atonement, is not a settled question. However, it is a common practice of the Church, which joins together the living and the dead without any discrimination.

    It is important to point out that the Church in no way teaches that Purgatory is all pain. In fact, some of the greatest saints and theologians have stressed that since the soul is in closer union with God than it is here on earth, one experiences correspondingly greater joys. St. Catherine of Genoa wrote “God inspires the soul in Purgatory with so ardent a movement of devoted love that it would be sufficient to annihilate her were she not immortal. Illumined and inflamed by this pure charity, the more she loves God, the more she detests the least stain that displeases Him, the least hindrance that prevents her union with Him”. Apart from the happiness of the saints in heaven, there is no joy comparable to that of the souls in purgatory. An incessant communication with God grows more and more intimate, according as the impediments to that union, which exist in the soul, are consumed.

    In fact, the souls in Purgatory have a large number of reasons for joy. These include freedom from the committing of sin, freedom from the desire to sin, closer unity with God and Christ, certainty of one’s final salvation in a way not possible in this life, a final and full appreciation of just how gracious God has been to one, a final and full appreciation of just how much God loves one, partial rewards which may be given in anticipation of one’s entrance into the full glory of heaven at the end of purgatory, etc.

    It is quite likely that the pain of seeing some of one’s works go up in smoke is more than overbalanced by the joy of seeing some of them remain and inwardly hearing “well done, thou good and faithful servant” from the ever-loving and infinitely good source of our redemption, our life, and very existence.


    The position of the Catholic Church on Purgatory can be summarized in three points: that there is a purification after death, that this purification involves some kind of pain or discomfort and that God assists those in this purification in response to the actions of the living.

    Among those things the Church does not insist on are the ideas that purgatory is a place or that it takes time.

    Purgatory is not a middle destiny or middle state between heaven and hell. It must be emphasized that everyone who goes to Purgatory goes to heaven. The reason one goes to Purgatory is so that one can be fitted for life in heaven. Purgatory constitutes the cloakroom of heaven, and the place you go to get spiffed up before being ushered into the “Throne Room”. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “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” (CCC 1030).

    Purgatory is the final stage of sanctification, which can be painful or non-painful. The purpose is to bring you up the level of spiritual excellence to experience the full-force presence of God. It does not matter where you start from, there will be no sinning in heaven, and you have to be brought up to that level during final sanctification, before you are glorified with God in heaven.

    Let us conclude by explaining the fact that purgatory does not infringe on the sufficiency of Christ’s work. The Protestants have insisted that since purgatory involves suffering, it must some how infringe on the sufferings of Christ and imply they were not sufficient.

    Quite on the contrary. Even Scripture states that “The Lord disciplines him whom He loves, and chastises every son whom He receives... and for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant (Heb. 12:6; 11). The fact is that the suffering we experience in sanctification in this life is something we receive because of Christ’s sacrifice for us. His suffering paid the price for us to be sanctified, and His sufferings paid the price for the whole of our sanctification--both the initial and final parts. It is because of Christ’s sacrifice that we receive the final sanctification in the first place. If He had not suffered, we would not be given the final sanctification (or the glorification to which it leads), but would go straight to hell.

    Thus purgatory does not imply Christ’s sufferings were insufficient. Rather it is because of Christ’s suffering that we are given the final sanctification of purgatory in the first place.

    Despite the denials, there are Protestants who believe in Purgatory; they just don’t call it that. They will admit that our sinning in this life does not continue into heaven. In fact, they will be quite insistent that although our sanctification is not complete in this life, it will be complete (instantaneously, they say) as soon as this life is over. But that is exactly what Purgatory is. It is the final sanctification, the final purification. Thus it is permissible to say that many people believe in Purgatory without even realizing it.

    © Emmanuel Ande Ivorgba 2005

    Our thanks to Emmanuel Ande Ivorgba for allowing us to publish this dissertation.
    --The editor

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