It’s all souls day, so it really shouldn’t surprise anyone that the priest on this site wants to publish a defense of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Really, there are many such explanations out there on the interwebs, but none of them are on this site yet, so here it goes. It’s simple really, I want to give your, our readers, two basic arguments for purgatory.
Alright, let’s start with some basic reasoning on why something like purgatory makes sense if you’re going to believe in Heaven and Hell. If you deny those, then I have some other work to do before I can make this argument make any sense to you. For the purpose of clarity, we’ll define Heaven as perfect union with God and Hell and total separation from him. Additionally, Heaven is a place of peace, joy, and perfection while Hell is a place of anguish, isolation, and suffering. Really, the most important thing about heaven for our purposes is that the people in heaven are perfect (as in not sinning and not even wanting to sin, forget any worldly “perfections” like winning the Superbowl or pitching a perfect game). From here, the idea of Purgatory is relatively easy to find. The people in heaven are perfect, but the people on earth clearly aren’t. What’s more, for most people, they aren’t yet perfect at the moment of their death. Even if they have confessed theirs sins and sought reconciliation with God, they often still have some kind of attachment to one form of sin or another. Still further, they may not yet have perfect love for God above all else. But both perfect detachment from sin and perfect love of God are what people in heaven have. Thus, we have a person in one state at the point of departure and in another state at the point of arrival. The only logical conclusion? There must be some kind of change in the person’s soul between the time of death and the time of entering heaven . That change is what we call Purgatory – from the word “purge” because it purges out all remaining attachments to sin and anything preventing a soul from perfectly loving God.
Okay, fine, but if that’s true, why doesn’t Scripture ever just come out and tell us “Oh, by the way, you will go to purgatory before you go to heaven.” After all, it’s pretty clear that Heaven exists and that Hell exists. Why not mention the third part? I have a two-part response. First of all, there is a lot that Scripture doesn’t say by name (like the word “Trinity!”) and secondly that it does in fact refer to purgatory in multiple places. We just miss it because it’s usually indirect or we confuse the passage with those that talk about hell.
First, there is the passage in 2 Maccabees (12:43-46) where a Jewish leader, Judas Maccabeus, takes up a collection to have sacrifices offered for people who are already dead. And scripture speaks directly to the reader to say “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.” Such a claim by scripture means that it is possible for someone to be have their sins atoned for after death. That soul can’t be heaven, because it would have no sins there. It also can’t be in hell, because there is no forgiveness once you end up there. Where would such a soul be? Purgatory.
Secondly, we have Christ’s own words referring to it in at least one place, perhaps in a second, and implying it in a third. The slight implication is found in Matthew 12:32 where Christ says “whoever speaks 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.” The implication is that there are some sins which can be forgiven in the “age to come,” or after death. That place we call purgatory. There is also an iffy reference in Luke 12:35-48. The whole passage is the parable of the vigilant servant. Towards the end, Christ says “That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly.” Now, this reference is iffy because right before it, Christ says that the servant will be assigned a place with the unfaithful. But, in these two verses, he seems to shift from speaking about a specific case to speaking about a general principle, as if enunciating multiple possibilities. Also, the image of being beaten normally conveys the idea of temporary punishment and is usually no permanent. So, this could be a kind his way of listing possibilities: the place of the unfaithful, a severe beating, or only a light beating. The place of beating (if its in fact meant to be temporary) we would call Purgatory.
The more obvious reference by Christ, however, is Matthew 5:25-26 (parallel with Luke 12:58-59) “Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” This is very clearly a temporary punishment. It refers to a time before judgment (life), a judge (Christ), and treats sins against your brother like a debt. That debt can be paid off after judgment (after death) by a limited about of time in prison (purgatory). This cannot be hell because it is temporary and it clearly expresses the idea of being purified over time before being released (allowed into heaven).
Thirdly, there is St. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, especially vv. 12-15 “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.” This one even uses the classic image of purification by fire. What you do in this life will be tested by fire and everything less than perfect (especially sin). The purification happens after death (the reference to the “Day” as in “Day of Judgment”) and it cannot be Heaven or Hell because nothing perfect is in Heaven and no is saved once they are in Hell.
So yes, it is both reasonable and scripturally sound to say that Purgatory exists and that there are people there right now. That is why we have All Souls Day. Please pray, fast, and give alms on behalf of those poor souls. They ended up in Purgatory because of the debt of their own sins, but thanks be to God we can help each other pay those debts.