Souls destined for Heaven must be cleansed before entering Paradise
by Graham Osborne
The whole concept of purgatory is based on the simple idea in Rv 21:27 that “nothing unclean shall enter heaven.” The word purgatory comes from the Latin, purgatorium, meaning to purify or cleanse. It is simply the name the Church has given to describe the merciful process of purification God applies to those who die in his grace and friendship, but are still suffering from some form of imperfection or effect of sin [Catechism 1030-1031, 1472-1473].
Surprisingly to some, the Church has never defined purgatory as a specific place, or as a particular length of time. And it is not a second chance at heaven for someone who has died in a state of mortal sin either. Anyone who dies and “goes to,” or experiences, purgatory, was already destined for the heavenly reward Jesus has won for us on the cross.
Some argue the word “purgatory” is not found in Scripture. But neither are key words like Bible, Trinity, or Incarnation. Yet no Christian would deny any of these things. These are simply words Christianity has adopted over time to describe things Jesus has revealed to us.
Others maintain the concept of purgatory is unscriptural, but this would be an oversight at best. Scripture is filled with exhortations to the holiness required of us by God: “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:43-48). In Heb 12:14, we read that we should “strive for … the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” And again, in 1 Thes 5:23, St. Paul writes, may “God … himself make you perfectly holy and may you … be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
God obviously calls us to perfection in holiness, and Scripture is also clear that it is God who will ultimately do this work in us. But if this perfection in holiness is not achieved during our earthly life, Scripture also teaches that God will mercifully do this for us, after we die. Heb 12:22-23 captures this well: “But you have come to … the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect.”
But it is St. Paul who provides the clearest description of purgatory. In 1 Cor 3:10-17, he writes: “no other foundation can anyone lay than … Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw – each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”
St. Paul is saying that at our death, our works will then be tested by “fire”. The good works we do, represented by the gold, silver and precious stones, will survive (such things are actually purified by fire, but not destroyed), and we will be rewarded for them. The other things we do that lead away from God – represented by the wood, hay and straw, which are destroyed by fire – will be “burned up.” A person will suffer loss in this process, “but he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” This is a perfect Scriptural description of the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.
Scripture also gives a clear sense of places or states after death that are separate from heaven or hell. In 2 Pt 3:18-20, after Jesus dies, he descends to the dead to preach to the souls in prison. And similarly, in Lk 16:22-28, we have Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom. These are not souls in heaven or hell, but souls in some third state, giving clear Scriptural precedence for the concept of purgatory.
Similarly, in 2 Mc 12:44-46, we see Judas Maccabeus encouraging prayers for those who clearly died with sin on their souls. Souls in hell cannot be helped by our prayers, and souls in heaven don’t need them! Yet we read that he made provisions “for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably … it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” Not only do we have souls in a third “place” here, but we have Scriptural testimony that earthly prayers and sacrifices will help atone for their sins after they have died, just as the Catholic Church teaches about purgatory.
Finally, we also see purgatory clearly taught in the writings of the early Church. While the examples are many, no one is clearer than the great St. Augustine: “But by the prayers of the Holy Church, and by the salvific sacrifice [the Mass], and by the alms which are given for their spirits, there is no doubt that the dead are aided, that the Lord might deal more mercifully with them than their sins would deserve. The whole Church observes this practice which was handed down by the Fathers: that it prays for those who have died in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ.” Amen!