Purgatory Is Something That Happens, Not Somewhere We Go

I was reading an interesting article this morning, titled “5 Myths About Purgatory That Too Many People Still Believe (Maybe Even You!)“. It was a good read, but I got stuck on one point in the article that I feel needs a little clarification, if not minor correction…

Under the first myth, “Purgatory is a second chance at salvation”, the author writes,

Truth: At death, a person’s eternal destiny is sealed: he will either spend eternity in heaven or hell. Purgatory is a temporary place that people who are already assured of heaven may go to in order to prepare for heaven. So, once in purgatory, a person can’t alter their eternal destiny – there are no second chances after death.

The author quotes the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1030-1032, while describing the Catholic Church’s doctrine on Purgatory and is correct that there are no second chances after death, but makes an error when referring to Purgatory as a temporary “place” to be rather than a temporary “state” of being. Some may think these two things are the same, but they are far from being anything alike.

Once a person dies, their fate is sealed. Their eternal destiny is either Heaven or Hell, not Purgatory. Purgatory is not a “place” where someone goes for eternity. We must remember that Heaven and Hell exist outside of time and space, and once we die, so do we. While we all know that Jesus died for our salvation, we also know from Scripture that “nothing unclean can enter Heaven” (Revelation 21:27), so unless we die completely wiped clean of our sin, we must be cleansed before entering Heaven. How many of us can say that we have not sinned since the day we were “saved”? The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which relies on scriptural references, further defines the consequences of sin as well as the punishment and cleansing of those sins in paragraphs 1472-1473, which state:

1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.

1473 The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the “old man” and to put on the “new man.”

The Catechism makes it clear that every sin, even venial sin, carries some amount of dirt that leaves temporal “stains” on our soul that must be cleansed before we are truly clean enough to enter Heaven. This temporal cleansing can occur here on Earth before we die or it may occur after we die when we enter the temporal state we call Purgatory. Purification of our souls is something that begins to happen, as soon as we die, when we enter the state of Purgatory, not the place of Purgatory.

Some may argue that the state of Purgatory does not exist, because it is not mentioned in the Bible, to which I would add that the word “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible either, yet most Christians believe in the Trinity. I would also ask why the thought of such a state for the purification of souls seems so offensive? Scripture clearly indicates that people were praying for the dead just before Christ became incarnate on Earth, as well as after he began his Earthly ministry. 2 Maccabees 12:43-46 states,

“He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin.”

I find great comfort in knowing that Purgatory exists, because I know there is little chance that my soul will be purely, completely, cleansed before I die, and once I make it there I know that I will be spending an eternity with the God who created me. 🙂