By Tom Quiner
Who ever knew the word purgatory was so highly charged?
I ran a quote by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on the subject over the weekend. It generated some heat.
One guy was really over the top:
“Purgatory is already an invention … it has already been invented by satan, and the roman catholic so called church propagate that lie, to this day… since it was started as a cash cow for the vatican..along with indulgences.”
The other came from a writer I highly respect with a more balanced query:
“Fascinating. Biblically, we stand before God completely justified by the once-for-all atonement of Christ. The process of being made holy happens on earth and is known as sanctification- being made like Christ. Could you direct me to the scriptural support for purgatory, if you have a chance? Many thanks.”
As a convert to Catholicism, I once embraced a Protestant theology that suggested a ‘once-for-all atonement.’ I certainly am no theologian, but my understanding of Catholic teaching on purgatory is, in fact, based on sacred scripture, which I will touch on momentarily.
I have to be careful when referencing Protestant theology, because there really is no such thing. Protestantism is a conglomeration of some 40,000 different variations, a number that is growing as the non Catholic church continues to splinter.
I don’t say this critically, I say it as a fact. As I have stated repeatedly in this blog, I have great respect for much of Protestantism. Protestant outreach to the needy in the name of Christ is truly impressive.
But the very thing some revile in the Roman Catholic Church, papal authority, is the very thing I have come to appreciate in the Church.
The very thing the secular culture berates about Roman Catholicism, a top-down teaching authority, is one of the most compelling appeals of the Church to me. Catholics know what the Truth is. Methodists, by contrast, hold a meeting every four years where “truth” is determined by a popular vote.
I have a problem with a theology that says, for example, that homosexuality is a sin one year, and something to be applauded the next.
One more thing about some flavors of Protestantism: sola scriptura. Some Protestant teachers claim that ‘scripture alone,’ that is, the Bible, contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness.
Catholics ask, “where does scripture say that?” It doesn’t. In fact, the Bible didn’t even exist for the first few hundred years of Christianity. Catholics believe scripture is the witness of the Church, not the other way around.
So what about purgatory? What is it?
The Catechism of the Catholic (the official teaching of the Church) defines it as a …
“purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC 1030). It notes that “this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (CCC 1031).
Scripture makes it clear that nothing unclean can stand before God in heaven:
“and nothing unclean, and no one who practices abomination and lying, shall ever come into it, but only those [a]whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” [Rev. 21:27]
Some Protestants say that the word “purgatory” is never used in scripture. They are correct, although nor are the words “Trinity” and “incarnation.” Nonetheless, purgatory is suggested in 1 Peter 3:19:
“in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison,”
St. Paul refers to purgatory in 1 Cor 3:15 for those whose work “fails the test:”
“He will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire”
This passage surely doesn’t refer to hell, since one can’t be saved in hell.
This passage surely can’t refer to heaven, since there is no suffering (fire) there.
Catholic teaching says it refers to purgatory.
Some Catholic thinkers liken purgatory to a process, rather than a place. I like the way Catholic radio personality and author, Al Kresta, puts it as he addresses Protestant concerns:
“Someone might object, “But aren’t we forgiven in Christ? What remains to be done?” Forgiven, yes; transformed, not yet. While God loves us the way we are right now, he loves us too much to let us stay that way. He accepts us where we are in order to move us to where he is.
We often die with an unhealthy attachment to sin. At the hour of our death, our souls may not be fully fixed on evil but neither are they fully fixed on the perfections of God. We aren’t unrepentant, just unperfected.
How are we to enter heaven in which can dwell no unclean thing (Rev 21:27)? How are we to dwell with a God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity (Heb, 4:13, Lev 11:44, 1 Pet 1:16)? How are we to enjoy fellowship with a God infinite in perfections when we lack perfection (Mt 5:48)?”