What is Purgatory

A fixation on what immediately follows death is common, I think, to people across cultures and faiths. As a child I was very concerned about the continuing existence of some family friends who passed away. I recall having vivid dreams about them, where they gathered together in the afterlife. It gave my childhood self some peace about their circumstances. Death is a curtain, and human beings would really like a peek of what’s on the other side. Recently, the question of life after death came to be in a question about purgatory. So, I have gathered some thoughts on the subject for you this month. Just a warning though, this is an article where the questions are larger than the answers. 

What is purgatory? When people talk about purgatory, they often describe it as a place where people wait for their ultimate destination. It is described as an in-between place before judgment. Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” describes it as a place on earth. It is described as a mountain sitting opposite of Jerusalem but in a different hemisphere.[1] The location of purgatory is much less important than its purpose. The purpose of purgatory is to complete the process of purification of the believer who is bound for heaven. The idea is that many people die before they are ready for heaven but not so evil as to be placed in Hell.

According to the glossary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Purgatory is; “A state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven.”[2]

The doctrine of Purgatory has a long history. Official teaching on the subject comes from three councils, the Second Council of Lyons (1272-74 C.E.), The Council of Florence (1438-45 C.E.), and the Council of Trent (1545-1563). The Council of Lyons and the Council of Florence handled responses to the eastern church while the Council of Trent addressed issues during the Protestant Reformation.

Here is a segment from the Council of Florence on this issue of Purgatory,

“Also, if truly penitent people die in the love of God before they have made satisfaction for acts and omissions by worthy fruits of repentance, their souls are cleansed after death by cleansing pains; and the suffrages of the living faithful avail them in giving relief from such pains, that is, sacrifices of masses, prayers, almsgiving and other acts of devotion which have been customarily performed by some of the faithful for others of the faithful in accordance with the church’s ordinances.”[3]

The roots of this doctrinal tradition appear much earlier in remarks from St. Gregory the Great (594 C.E.) and John Chrysostom (Lived 347-407). According to St. Gregory minor faults remaining on the Christian, must and can, be purged away before Judgment. He looks to Matthew 12:32 for evidence that Christians can be forgiven of minor sins after death. Since Jesus claimed that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would not be forgiven “either in this world or in the world to come” (Matthew 12:32), there must be some sins that are forgiven in the world to come.[4] John Chrysostom argued from Job 1:5 that if Job could consecrate his living children by offering a burnt sacrifice on their behalf, Christians should be able to offer prayers on behalf of the dead.[5]

Support for Chrysostom’s position can also be found in a deuterocanonical book titled, 2 Maccabees. It was written about 124 B.C.E. This book recounts the activities of a warrior family that fought for Israel. In 2 Maccabees 12:39-46, the book describes a post war scene where bodies are being gathered. All the dead warriors carried small images of gods worshipped in Jamia. Carrying these images was forbidden. The remaining soldiers took up a collection of silver from among themselves and sent it to Jerusalem as a sin offering. They did this because of the firm belief in the resurrection and the hope that those who died would be free from sin.

The conflict of 1 & 2 Maccabees is that neither Judaism nor Protestant Christianity include book in their scriptures, though they still may be useful. Without 2 Maccabees, the argument in favor of prayer for the dead would be much more difficult to argue, and in extension purgatory as well.

There is a certain appeal to the concept of purgation after death, in that it gives agency to believers who want to pray for their loved ones who have died. However, there are also some serious concerns with the doctrine. Probably the most significant is that, in purgatory, the human being is divided, and the soul takes on the whole identity of the person. This is significant, because it implies that the body is not a distinctly human part of the self. Human beings are body and soul. It is part of our nature, and for this reason, bodily resurrection is a valued Christian belief.

A second issue is how purgatory undermines the significance of earthly life. In Protestant Christianity death marks the final step before Judgment. This gives great significance to how we live today, since it is by these actions every person must make an account (2 Corinthians 5:6-10). For Protestants however, there is no need for a final purgation since at the day of Judgment, Christ acts as an intercessory agent on our behalf (Romans 8:34).

Finally, the agency of Christ is, in my opinion, the thing that ultimately prepares Christians for life with God. While our actions may demonstrate our failure to live righteously, and we may look unprepared for life with God, we are nevertheless justified in Christ. We look forward to the day of the Parousia when Christ appears.

“And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27-28)

While we have no complete answers as to what happens immediately after death, we can have assurance that those who follow Christ will not be left naked but rather will be clothed with eternity, not by some sense of immortality of the soul, but the power of Christ to save us.

[1] Dante, The Divine Comedy, Purgatory, trans. Mendalbaum, 4:68ff. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/


[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church – 2nd edition, English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: Modifications from the Editio Typica, (United States Catholic Conference, Inc., Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997); Glossary and Index Analyticus, (U.S. Catholic Conference, Inc., 2000) 896.

[3] Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence, 1431-49 A.D. https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/ecum

17.htm (Assessed 7/19/2019).

[4] Pope Saint Gregory the Great, Dialogues, 4:39.

[5] John Chrysostom, Homilies in 1 Corinthians 41, 5.

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