The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire: As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come. (CCC 1031)
In order to understand Purgatory, it’s important to first understand the dual nature of sin and the effects of sin. I have written about sin in the past, but here is a fast review of sin and its effects.
Mortal sin: Mortal, or grave, sin separates us from God; it injures our relationship with Him in a way that our relationship can only be repaired through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, i.e., confession of and absolution of sins. The failure to repair this relationship, unequivocally, damns us for eternity. Mortal sins are simply defined as violations of the Ten Commandments.
Venial sin: Venial sin injures our relationship in a less severe manner. The damage to our relationship with God through venial sin can be repaired through simple prayer or the reception of our Lord in the form of the Eucharist.
In both cases, I like to think about the parable of the spilled milk. Not to be confused with any of Jesus’ parables, this is Tim Staples’ great explanation of the effects of sin, reconciliation, and sanctification.
A child drops a container of milk, spilling it all over the kitchen floor. He cries, says he is sorry and asks for his mother’s forgiveness. She is quick to forgive and there with a hug and comforting words. The child is forgiven, all is well, except…there is still milk all over the floor and it needs to be cleaned up. The mother’s forgiveness does not mean she will not require the child to help clean up the milk, and his refusal to do so could result in punishment despite him being forgiven for the original spillage.
We are forgiven for our sins, but we still need to tidy up the messes we make and we do not always do the best job of cleaning. When we don’t, there is punishment, either eternal or temporal, for grave or venial sins respectively. Purgatory is not a place of judgment. When we reach Purgatory, we have been judged. We do not need to worry of Hell, however we are not quite yet ready for Heaven. Purgatory is how the effects of both remaining eternal or temporal punishment can be removed.
Scriptural evidence of Purgatory
To be quite honest, I am not all that interested in Scriptural proofs, however many Christians demand them and write off anything that doesn’t fit into their interpretations of whatever contradictory Bible passage says about this or that. I am not interested in playing How many Bible passages can you quote? but, for them, here we go.
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. (1 Peter 3:18-20). Exactly what is this prison? It is not Heaven, as Christ wouldn’t need to proclaim to spirits in Heaven. It’s not Hell, as why would he proclaim to them? So what is it?
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. (Matthew 12:32). Don’t get me started on this passage and the contradictions therein, but what is this age to come? The CCC references this passage as I quoted at the beginning of this post. If you’re in Heaven, then you’re forgiven. If it’s Hell, then you’re not. Christ must have been referring to something else, or why even say this?
The Church’s history with Purgatory
As early as the fourth century, the mother of St. Augustine asked her son to remember her in his Masses and he wrote extensively of Purgatory in The City of God and in his sermons. Prayers were found on the catacombs of dead Christians from as early as the first century. In both cases, what is the point of praying for the dead if Purgatory does not exist? Tertullian wrote of prayer for the dead in the second century and there is no evidence that early Christians objected to these practices.
To ignore Purgatory is to believe that we are perfected at death. We cannot sin in Heaven, we cannot even get in with a single bit of stain upon our soul. How do we get to that point? We spend our lives sinning, how are we cleansed? Heaven has a strict dress code, and showing up in shorts and a tee is not acceptable. If I die tomorrow in my metaphorical shorts and tee, where do I buy a nice dress to get by the doorman?