The belief in a place called Purgatory is one of the Catholic doctrines that kept me from entering into full fellowship with the Catholic Church long before I did in April of 2009. I just could not get my mind wrapped around a place where God would send people to suffer for their sins.
In my mind, Christ paid for my sins upon a cross one very dark day over 2,000 years ago, on a lonely hill called Calvary, outside of the city walls of Jerusalem. He took my punishment upon Himself so I would not have to burn in hell. God is Love, not some sick deity who delights in seeing people suffer! The Blood of Christ saved me. What more was there to discuss?
My view of Purgatory, to say the least, has dramatically changed since coming to understand and embrace Catholic doctrine. I have been asked time and time again, “Why did you decide to join the Catholic Church?” I quickly learned that most of my Protestants friends were not truly interested in learning why, nor did they offer enough time or respect to enter into a reasonable dialog. Their questions were typically rhetorical code for “Are you out of your mind? You joined a cult!” For those of you who are genuinely interested in understanding why I joined the Church, this writing on Purgatory will help in illustrating one part of my journey. I hope you will take the time to join with me in further discussion.
One of my motivations for putting down my thoughts in writing is my desire to have something to pass along to my children. This is my first attempt at creating that. Most of the answers to the questions people ask me are not a 5-minute response, as many are hoping. The greatest challenge I typically face is where to start. How do I explain something that has developed in my mind only through years of studying the Scripture? How do I express over a forty-five-minute lunch what the Holy Spirit has been ministering to me for over twenty years?
Most Cradle Catholics (Catholics from birth) are catechized (taught about their faith) at a young age and continue through life very settled in their faith. They typically trust in what they are taught and do not ask many questions. Conversely, as Protestants, we questioned everything. We were taught to “be eager to present yourself as acceptable to God, a workman who causes no disgrace, imparting the word of truth without deviation” (2 Timothy 2:15).
When a Protestant asks a question of a Catholic, he or she is looking for an answer grounded in Scripture. Scripture is the Protestant benchmark concerning the truth of God’s Kingdom. Most Protestants live, eat, and breathe the Bible and consider the Bible to be their ultimate governing authority, a platform that the Catholic Church refers to as “sola scriptura” (Latin for – “Scripture alone”). Catholics, on the other hand, look at the authority of the Church differently. Catholics believe that the Church is the “pillar and foundation of truth” as stated by the Apostle Paul in his first letter to Timothy, chapter 3, verse 15.
The difficulty herein surfaces when a Protestant asks a question of a Catholic concerning what he or she holds as a certain tenet of his or her faith. In response, a Catholic will most often give a scripted answer that has been taught by the Church.
For example, some time ago I was participating in a small Bible study group when a new convert to Catholicism expressed frustration in understanding the doctrine of Purgatory. A Cradle Catholic in the group answered with intentions of being helpful and explained that, “Purgatory is the place where we go after we die to be cleansed of our sins after the death of our physical bodies.” While this answer is not incorrect, it is, however, incomplete. Additionally, the person providing the answer did not understand the question as it was framed in the mind of the person who asked the question. It would be unrealistic to expect of him to be a mind reader, but we must keep in mind the basic differences as to the way we come to the understanding of biblical truth that, far too often, needlessly divides.
Catholics typically do not have a problem believing what the Church teaches and most often do not understand the Protestant mindset. This is great for Catholics, but if we as Catholics are ever going to communicate to our Protestant brothers and sisters with some understanding of what we believe to be true, and share the beauty of our faith, we need to begin listening to the questions in the ways that they are asked.
What Protestants hear when they receive an answer like the one above is that the person giving the answer is completely ignorant of Scripture. Walls go up, and all communication ends. These types of answers are the reason why the majority of Protestants believe that Catholics do not understand the truth of the Bible. However, this, in reality, is not even close to the truth, when the Catholic Church, as I have so happily learned, embodies the truth of the Scripture.
Catholics understand the truths of the Bible through the teachings of the Church. Unfortunately, though, it is true that the majority of Catholics have a limited understanding of how and where to look in the Bible for the scriptural texts that back up those teachings, and, quite frankly, most don’t feel any need to learn Scripture because they trust the Church. Happily, I can report that there appears to be a movement within the Church for its parishioners to read and learn the Bible.
Fellow Catholics, the burden is ours to reach out to our Protestant brothers and sisters in love. I am not saying that they are wrong, and we are right—to endorse such a mindset is the way walls are built. We do not need to be wall builders; we need to be bridge builders. We have plenty to learn from the Protestant tradition.
Getting back to the question asked by the convert in the small group. What she was actually asking was “Please show me in Scripture where God teaches about Purgatory. Please help me to understand, because if it is true, I really want to know.”
Catholics, I understand that the Church is our authority when it comes to Church doctrine, but, as I have learned, the doctrine that we have been taught is grounded in biblical truth. If for no other reason, please learn how to explain our faith through the Bible out of love for our neighbors, so that when we are asked, we can give a reason for the hope that we carry so precious within our hearts (1 Peter 3: 15).
6. My people are ruined for lack of knowledge!
Hosea 4: 6
It only takes a quick Internet search for “Purgatory” to fill the mind with hundreds of grotesque images of the depravity of humanity. Images depicting naked, suffering, and often burning souls that have been illustrated through paintings and various other forms of disturbing artwork throughout the history of the Church.
Please do not go to the Internet to see these images. These images are nothing that we need to let into our minds, nor do they accurately depict Purgatory. Throughout Church history, there have been misguided people who have felt that creating a picture of God as a mean, nasty, and vindictive being would somehow turn people away from sin, and toward holiness.
I love the Catholic Church, but I would be remiss if I failed to acknowledge that there have been those who have planted some very misleading thoughts in the minds of the faithful that are, in fact, not Church doctrine but have, just the same, become an integral part of Her fabric. The Church is very clear in Her belief in the doctrine of Purgatory, but, unfortunately, not everything taught by Her members, leadership, or lay is official Church Doctrine.
God is the God of Love. He is truly Love, who sent His Son, Jesus, to die on a cross for our sins. Jesus paid the price for our sins that we could not pay in 10,000,000 years in a place called Purgatory.
So what is Purgatory? Purgatory is a place where we go to deal with our past sins, but not as a penalty or punishment. Purgatory is a place of healing. There is a huge difference between the penalty for sin, which the Blood of Christ covered, and the effect that sin has on our souls. Sin leaves scars and pain upon our souls, perceived by us or not, that are in need of the healing touch of Christ. When we enter into God’s Throne Room in Heaven, we will be whole beings free from “spot or wrinkle” (Ephesians 5:27). Jesus is our healer, and He “who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
Pope John Paul II described Purgatory as a “condition of existence” rather than a physical place. The goal of every believer should be to grow as close as possible to the Father, not just simply to enter into Heaven. God is perfect, and Holy, and His habitation is Glory. As we move closer to Him, we become Holy as He is Holy (1 Peter 1:16 & Leviticus 20:26). In this world, we become entangled (Hebrews 12:1) in a web of sin. Our only hope of becoming freed from this web is the healing touch of our Savior (Romans 7:25).
God is most concerned with the “condition” of our “existence” (our souls). We are here on Earth for a reason. None of us is entirely sure of why we are here or the ultimate goal of our existence (1 Corinthians 13:12), but we need to understand that God loves us and that He will not stop until every one of us, who loves Him, is made whole and has reached the goal that He has for us to achieve, the most important of which is to be with Him in Eternity.
In summary, this book has two main goals.
The first is to help our Protestant brothers and sisters gain a better understanding of Purgatory and likewise, perhaps gain a better understanding of our Catholic faith through a few of the rabbit trails that will come up throughout the book.
The second is to give our Catholic brothers and sisters the resources to better explain our faith. Protestant or Catholic, I hope you enjoy this part of our journey together.
The next two chapters cover the subjects of “Holiness” and the “Nature of God.” These two subjects are foundational to understanding the need for this “condition of existence" called Purgatory.