Oh my goodness. As a Protestant, Purgatory was the weirdest.
Along with the Mary stuff.
I didn’t think about Purgatory much, but when I did, I had no idea what Catholics were thinking. I thought Purgatory was some sort of bizarre waiting place, like a really long DMV line. Or a bus route that just kept going in circles over and over again. I thought it was either a place where souls somehow had to prove themselves worthy of heaven, or a place where souls waited until God thought it was time to let them in. I knew Purgatory wasn’t supposed to be enjoyable. And I just didn’t see the point.
As I began my journey towards embracing the Catholic faith, I looked into everything I could. At the time, Purgatory was one of the bigger hurdles I had to jump.
I found my original conception of Purgatory was actually, once again, a misconception. And I learned there is a lot that makes sense about believing in Purgatory.
Justification and Sanctification
I know there is quite a bit of hubbub around the definition of Justification between Protestants and Catholics. It was one of the central issues in the Reformation. It seems, however, not many people are aware that Catholics and Lutherans and Methodists, have, for a while now been in agreement on that issue. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a worthwhile thing to know about.
But, in short, and without going into the specifics of how justification is applied, justification means our salvation. It means heaven is our ultimate destination through Jesus’ atoning work. This article is not the place to delve into details. But, a person justified is in God’s grace.
Sanctification is the process by which we are made holy. By which the sinfulness in our life is burned away as we cooperate with God’s grace, and by which we are made into the likeness of our Heavenly Father.
Side note: I don’t buy the idea that once one is a Christian, sin is a non-issue. I’m not walking around like “oh I sin so much I’m depressed all the time,” but I am very, very aware of my tendency to sin even though I have a Christian faith. I think the Christian traditions that have moved in the direction of assuming that Christ’s work means that sin is not really something we need to worry about or think about much is concerning. I, personally, have found that every moment of every day, I have the choice to cooperate with that which God wishes to do inside of me, and be sanctified, or I can reject that work and choose to sin. I am, therefore, writing from the perspective that Sanctification is an active, not a passive, process by which we cooperate with God.
Perhaps this is a layperson’s oversimplification, but it helped me a lot to think about Purgatory as the completion of one’s sanctification.
Here are a couple examples.
1- A person who believes in Christianity from the earliest age possible. They cooperate with God’s grace in their life, and live a long life of faith. By the end of their life, God has worked in them and through them so much, that they are not selfish, or prideful, or seeking their own comfort. They have been entirely conformed to The Father. We might call this person a Saint.
2- The man on the cross next to Jesus. He had lived a life of sin and selfishness. Yet, his heart turned toward God at the last moment.
Are both of these people justified by virtue of their faith in Jesus? Yes! Are both of them sanctified to the same degree upon their death? I’d say definitely not.
And then what? What happens to the sanctification of the man on the cross next to Jesus?
I don’t think it’s possible that people are in heaven only partially sanctified. That would mean there are people in heaven still dealing with sin issues. And that just doesn’t make sense. We won’t struggle with sin in heaven.
How Are We Sanctified?
Well, first of all, God isn’t a liar. He doesn’t declare us righteous and then be like “Well, I’ve said you’re righteous, but I’m not going to actually make you righteous. I’m just going to say it and we can all pretend it’s true.” No. God does what he says, and sanctification is how we are made righteous, or holy. We can only be sanctified through God’s grace. We can’t earn it or work at it in our own power. But, we need to cooperate with that grace. God can’t just drag us kicking and screaming into holiness. We have free will. Sanctification requires we say “Yes” to the work God is doing in us. God can’t force us to be selfless. God can’t force us to be humble. We need to submit to allowing God to do that work inside us, and cooperate with Him. And God isn’t going to be cool with a prideful, sinful person in Heaven with Him.
It was helpful to me to compare sanctification to exercise in this regard. Exercise is good for us! And necessary for our health. But it is not easy. It requires action on our part, and, often, discomfort or pain. We can’t get healthy without exercising. And we can’t exercise effectively and still avoid discomfort.
Sanctification is, in a very real sense, painful. Because through sanctification, we are rejecting the sin in our life.
Whenever we allow God to help us turn away from sin, it hurts. Biting my tongue when I want to say something snarky hurts. Eating a proper portion size of cake when I want to stuff my face with it hurts. Turning off technology for periods of time throughout the day, denying myself that nice little dopamine high from checking Facebook, hurts. Think of any sin you struggle with, and then think of denying yourself that sin… and you quickly realize the pain in sanctification.
That’s the pain people are talking about when they talk about Purgatory. It’s painful, but not arbitrarily so. There is purpose to it, and necessity. Because Purgatory is the end of any sin’s grip on you that you struggled with during your life on Earth. Struggled with pornography? It’s burned off. Struggled with laziness? Burned. Impatience? Burned. Pride? Burned.
Sanctification is good for us, and necessary, even, before entering Heaven. And it hurts because turning away from sin hurts.
Purgatory in the Bible
1 Corinthians 3 states:
10 By the grace of God which was given to me, I laid the foundations like a trained master-builder, and someone else is building on them. Now each one must be careful how he does the building.11 For nobody can lay down any other foundation than the one which is there already, namely Jesus Christ.12 On this foundation, different people may build in gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay or straw 13 but each person’s handiwork will be shown for what it is. The Day which dawns in fire will make it clear and the fire itself will test the quality of each person’s work.14 The one whose work stands up to it will be given his wages; 15 the one whose work is burnt down will suffer the loss of it, though he himself will be saved; he will be saved as someone might expect to be saved from a fire.
JP was at a men’s Bible study one night before we became Catholic. He came home and shared with me the discussion the men had surrounding this verse. It was an odd thing for the men in the group to reconcile… this being saved through fire. I looked at him, and said: “It sounds like Purgatory.” He agreed.
I’ve since heard there is an argument that a person’s works are tested, not the person themselves. But that just doesn’t make sense to me. Works don’t exist apart from the person doing them. There is always a hand feeding the hungry person. There is always an eye looking at someone in judgment. There is always a foot going to dark places to spread the light of Jesus. Whether our works are in cooperation with God, or whether our works are sinful, there is a person attached to the work.
Also, in 2 Maccabees we also learn that Jewish people prayed for the dead. Whether or not one accepts that Maccabees belongs in the Bible, it still gives us a historical reference to know that the Jewish people, of which Jesus was one, prayed for the dead. That’s why we pray for souls in Purgatory. Just as we would pray for a friend in our Bible Study to work through a sin in their own life that they were struggling with, we pray for our fellow Christians in Purgatory that they would cooperate with God, and allow God to work through the sin they still struggle with and are holding on to as well.
C.S. Lewis and Purgatory
Now, just because C.S. Lewis believes something, doesn’t make it true. But, he is a well-respected theologian among Christians everywhere. And, he made some really good points about Purgatory.
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know” — “Even so, sir.”
I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. . . .
(Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964, 107-109)
And, in the acclaimed Mere Christianity, he writes:
“Make no mistake,” He says, “if you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less, or other, than that. You have free will, and if you choose, you can push Me away. But if you do not push Me away, understand that I am going to see this job through. Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life, whatever inconceivable purification it may cost you after death, whatever it costs Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect — until My Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.”
God will conform us to His likeness. He will not leave us half-sanctified. He will do what He says.
The Great Divorce is also awesome book that helps illustrate some of these concepts. A character at the very end, has the ability to enter into Heaven, but has to go through a painful transformation to get there. The book is short, and powerful. I highly recommend it.
Well, suffice it to say I’ve come a long way from believing Purgatory is some weird DMV line with no point. I see it now as the process by which God completes his sanctifying work inside of me.
Purgatory is a really beautiful and life-giving thing for our souls.
It’s the death blow to our own personal struggles with sin.
It’s the final and full cooperation with God’s offer of grace, wherein any bits of sin we’ve stubbornly held onto are burned away by His love.