E. Daniel Box
The Catholic Church teaches that, when we die, there are only two places we can spend eternity: heaven or hell. So, what’s Purgatory, and where on earth do we get the idea that it exists?
Purgatory is a place where the souls of those who die in friendship with God are purified or “purged” of all unholiness, prior to their entry into heaven. Unlike heaven and hell, Purgatory is not an eternal destination, but a temporary place of transition. Those in Purgatory have already been judged by God, after death, as “saved,” and so are guaranteed heaven…it’s just a question of how long before they get there.
Although the concept of Purgatory will strike most Protestants as entirely un-Christian, it is confirmed both by theology and by Scripture, and was accepted by the Jews of Jesus’ day.
The Bible sets down an important principle, with regard to heaven: "nothing unclean will enter" (Rev. 21:27). Indeed, heaven is so perfectly pristine and full of grace that it is identified as “the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (Rev. 21:9), who is “holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:27), in the same way that Jesus, her Spouse, is spotless and without blemish (Ex. 12:5, 1 Pet. 1:19). “Nothing accursed will be found there,” Scripture says (Rev. 22:3). Sin, therefore, has no home—no place whatsoever—in the heavenly city of God.
We see the total incompatibility of God and sin, on full display, during the exodus, when God informs His people that He cannot dwell among them, because His supreme holiness and goodness would “consume” and “destroy” a sinful, “stiff-necked” people, were He to draw too close to them (Ex. 33:3-5)! “God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29), the New Testament confirms (n.b. the angels nearest to God are called the seraphim, which means “those consumed by fire”)—He obliterates all things sinful when they come into His vicinity.
When Catholics affirm the existence of Purgatory, we do nothing more than uphold this biblical principle. When someone dies who is saved, his or her imperfections—that is, his or her sinful tendencies, unconfessed minor sins, the temporal consequences even of sins already forgiven—are “consumed” or “destroyed” as he or she nears the Lord. With this in mind, we might think of Purgatory simply as the perfectly purifying and piercing gaze of Jesus Christ, which we are blessed to experience as we enter into heaven. Or using a metaphor, I sometimes think of Purgatory as heaven’s atmosphere—as we enter, things are going to get excruciatingly hot. Of course, the more traditional way to imagine Purgatory is as a hospital where agonizingly painful medicine is administered or as a prison cell of fire (which, granted, is the biblical image), but we are free to envision Purgatory in different ways, because the Catholic Church has never infallibly described the specifics of how Purgatory operates or how the place is physically constituted. Instead, the Church says nothing more about Purgatory infallibly, other than: (1) it exists; (2) it is painful; and (3) the souls there can be aided in their journey by the prayers of people on Earth.
Purgatory is not only implied by biblical theology, but it is also expressly confirmed by several biblical passages. For example, St. Augustine liked to point to 1 Corinthians 3:9-15 to prove the existence of a place of purgation after death. In this passage, St. Paul reminds Christians that they are God’s co-workers, building upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. With this in mind, Paul goes on to warn Christians that they must be sure to build wisely (i.e. with quality, rather than cheap, materials), because the work each person builds will undergo a test of fire on Judgment Day. Here’s the exact language:
“If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day [of Judgment] will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work” (emphasis added).
In continuing, Paul notes that those Christians whose work survives the test of fire—those who built well, with quality materials—will receive a reward on Judgment Day. But what happens on Judgment Day to those Christians who have built poorly, with base and unworthy materials? Paul’s answer couldn’t be more Catholic:
“But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire” (emphasis added).
Amazing! So, the Bible says that a Christian who works foolishly during life may still be judged at death to be worthy of salvation, but would only thereafter be saved through a suffering, fiery experience. That’s Purgatory in a nutshell.
Remember, Jesus himself tells us that, for those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, there will be no forgiveness of sins—not “in this life or in the next” (Mt. 12:32) (emphasis added). The implication, of course, is that other sins can be forgiven “in the next [life],” after we have died (n.b. this implication is confirmed expressly in 2 Macc. 12:46). But where does this forgiveness take place, given that it cannot take place in heaven (where no hint of sin whatsoever can enter) or in hell (where there’s no hope for forgiveness, but only eternal punishment)?
Jesus, again, gives us the answer to this question: we “will be thrown into prison…[and we] will not be released until [we] have paid the last penny” of our debts, if we fail to settle all of our scores—to repent of and make amends for all of our sin—before the time we see the judge (Mt. 5:25-26). Most non-Catholics will deny that this reference to “prison” refers to a place after death. But look at the context of this passage—it’s the famous Sermon on the Mount, wherein Jesus preaches not about earthly rewards or punishments, but about eternal ones. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3), and “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy” (v. 7), our Lord proclaims. He also explains that those who commit only minor sins—that is, those who “break one of the least of these commandments”—will still be admitted into the kingdom of heaven (v. 19), but those who sin gravely, for example, by committing murder or adultery, will be “thrown into Gehenna” (v. 21-22, 27-30) (Eng. hell). Given the context of Matthew 5—that our Lord here preaches here about heaven and hell—we can safely interpret His reference to “prison” to describe a place of waiting and debt-paying that exists after death, rather than before it.
In case there remains any doubt, the New Testament later confirms the existence of a “prison” after death that houses the spirits of those who were disobedient to God during life, but who nonetheless retain the hope of salvation. Consider 1 Peter 3:19-20:
“In [death], He also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah” (emphasis added).
In other words, Jesus descended into the underworld, after His crucifixion, but before His resurrection, and, at that time, “the Gospel was preached even to the dead” (1 Pet. 4:6). And even more shocking, Our Lord preached the good news not only to those who had been obedient in life (e.g. Abraham, Moses, Elijah), but even to some souls who had been disobedient—more specifically, to the disobedient who found themselves in a place of “prison” (Gk. phylake) after death, but not to those who had been so gravely disobedient that they had been condemned to hell (Gk. hades; Heb. Gehenna). In short, although all souls—whether holy or unholy—who died before Jesus’ resurrection ended up in the underworld, the Bible distinguishes between different regions of the underworld, such as:
(1) Gehenna (i.e. hell, a place of eternal punishment for the wicked);
(2) Sheol (a.k.a. Abraham’s Bosom) (i.e. a natural—but not supernatural—paradise for the good); and also
(3) a place of “prison” for everyone in between.
After His death, Jesus preached the Gospel to the souls in Abraham’s Bosom and to the souls in prison. And this latter place, Catholics call “Purgatory.”
Praying for the Dead
These different regions of the underworld are detailed throughout Scripture and were already well-established in Jewish tradition, by the time of Jesus’ birth (n.b. our Lord himself acknowledges them in the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Young Man (Lk. 16:19-31)). But what’s more, Jews at the time of Jesus also believed that the living could and should offer sacrifices for the dead, in order to make atonement for the dead’s unforgiven sins, so that the dead might one day be saved. Indeed, the Bible gives us an account of this Jewish practice in 2 Maccabees 12, where idolatrous good-luck charms were found on the bodies of Jewish soldiers who had been slain in battle (v. 40). Once these charms were discovered, Scripture tells us that the Jews “pray[ed] for the dead” (v. 44), so that their “sinful deed might be fully blotted out” (v. 42), and even “took up a collection among all [the living] soldiers…[and] sent [it] to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice” (v. 43).
To a non-Catholic, it might seem outrageous that God’s people on earth would try to “ma[k]e atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin” (v. 46). But given everything that’s already been discussed in this essay, it shouldn’t surprise us that the Bible actually celebrates praying for the dead to atone for their sins in 2 Maccabees 12, by expressly professing that, “[i]n doing this, [the Jews] acted in a very excellent and noble way…[indeed,] it was a holy and pious thought” (v. 43-45).
“Fair enough,” our Protestant brothers and sisters might respond to all this, “praying for the dead to atone for their sins might have been O.K. in the Old Testament, but it is no longer necessary in the New Testament, due to Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice that perfectly atoned for all sin.” This objection requires that we turn our discussion to questions about how a person is saved, which would take too long to address in this essay, but which I have addressed previously. Fortunately, though, a shorter way to answer this objection is to point to two key passages in 2 Timothy—two passages that together demonstrate that Paul himself prayed for the salvation of dead Christians.
In 2 Timothy 1:16-18, Paul mentions a Christian by the name of Onesiphorus, who “often gave [Paul] new heart and was not ashamed of [Paul’s] chains,” and who had “rendered [services] in Ephesus” and had later “c[o]me to Rome, [and] promptly searched for [Paul].” Notice that everything that Paul says about Onesiphorus is in the past tense. And what’s more, at the end of this same letter, Paul asks Timothy to greet a whole list of people, including the family of Onesiphorus, but curiously does not tell Timothy to greet Onesiphorus himself (2 Tim. 4:19-21). In other words, every indication is that this good Christian man, Onesiphorus, has already died when Paul pens this letter. And yet, given this fact, Paul does something that only makes sense under Catholic theology on salvation, on prayer for the dead, and on Purgatory: he prays for the salvation of Onesiphorus’ soul. “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day [of Judgment]” (2 Tim. 1:18), writes the apostle. And in doing this, Paul reveals to us that the Jewish practice of praying for souls who might be in “prison” is one that also belongs to Christians.
The famous Anglican writer, C.S. Lewis conceded, “Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they?” Despite having remained a Protestant to his death, Lewis came to this Catholic conclusion, by reasoning that God loves us too much (and we should love God too much) to allow us to be anything but the most radiant and splendid versions of ourselves, when we present ourselves before His heavenly throne and table. When considered this way, Purgatory can be exemplified in the Old Testament image of the Burning Bush: as observed by Bishop Robert Barron, as God moves more into our lives, we become “on fire, but not consumed…[T]he closer the true God comes to a creature, the more radiant and beautiful that creature becomes.”
In sum, salvation and the entirety of the Gospel message can be paraphrased in this way: “God became man, so that man might become like God.” For this reason, St. John explains that, in heaven, “we shall be like Him,” which means that we must “make [ourselves] pure, as He is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2-3). Total or perfect purification is necessary for our total or perfect communion with the Divine (which is why all steps in the Christian life—the sacraments, prayer, penance, and suffering—aim at precisely this goal, the goal of cleansing and purging). Non-Catholics run the risk of making too much of an obstacle out of the doctrine of Purgatory, when in reality Purgatory is nothing more than the Christian affirmation of this perfect purification principle. Moreover, Purgatory is nothing more than the Christian conviction that, even if we die without having achieved the perfect holiness to which we are called, then “the One who began a good work in [us] will continue to complete it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). After all, in heaven, “we shall see [God] as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2); and yet, as the Bible itself confirms, without holiness, “no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).
 Expositions on the Psalms, 38, 2 (also The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, 2:20 [388-89]; and The City of God, 21:13 [413-27])
 N.B. St. Augustine also cited this passage in 2 Maccabees in support of Christians praying for the dead (On the Care of the Dead, 3 [420-22])
 Protestants deny that 2 Maccabees is an inspired book that belongs in the Bible, despite the fact that they are the first and only Christians to object to the book, since the bishops set down the official canon of Scripture in 419 A.D. Regardless, even if 2 Maccabees is said to be uninspired, it cannot be said to be unhistorical. In other words, all Christians—Catholic and Protestant alike—agree that the book paints an accurate, historical picture of Jewish belief and practices, with regard to praying for the dead, at the time of Jesus.
 Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer, 20
 St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei, 54, 3
Daniel Box lives in Chicago with his wife, but is a proud Texan (Fort Worth native) and Mexican-American. He is a practicing real estate and zoning attorney, after having clerked with the Thomas More Society and served as the Board Chairman of the Chicago chapter of Young Catholic Professionals in 2015 and 2016. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Politics from the University of Dallas in 2012.