Saturday, June 20, 2009

Purging Misconceptions of Purgatory


Dealing with a non-Catholic Christian’s objections to the Church’s doctrine of purgatory can be incredibly intimidating. The average Evangelical or Protestant is well versed in Scripture which can present a formidable challenge to the average Catholic who is typically not as well versed in the details of Scripture. While we may be quick to speak of scriptural stories, the scriptural precision of the non-Catholic appears to override the Catholic’s own Scriptural acumen pressuring the faithful Catholic to back away from the sacred text and turn to the rather impotent phrase, “Well, that is what we believe!” Such a response only vindicates the non-Catholic’s belief that the Catholic Church is deeply erroneous in doctrine AND that she is “clearly” anti-Scriptural. While both beliefs are unequivocally false, one can sympathize with the non-Catholic in light of the Catholic’s lack of intellectual ability to answer objections to their faith.

How easy it is for each of us to conclude something about an organization simply based upon a nearly universal observation about each of its members. If we want to heal the rift that was created by the Protestant Reformation, if we want peace, if we want justice, if we want Jesus Christ to be visibly and powerfully manifested in this world then the buck begins and ends with each one of us in a sense. While ultimately peace, salvation and reconciliation come from Jesus Christ, it is in God’s loving will that He asks us to participate in this mission (cf. Mt. 28.18-20). In light of this truth, we are being asked by God to love Him with our entire mind (cf. Mat. 22.37) so it is our duty and privilege to prepare ourselves to be able to give a defense for what we believe (cf. 1 Ptr. 3.15). To this end, let us examine and critique the objections to the Church’s teaching on purgatory.

The two common objections made by non-Catholic Christians are that the doctrine is nowhere found in Sacred Scripture and that the concept of purgatory makes a mockery of the of cross since the belief implies a second safety net for salvation which lay outside the meritorious act of Jesus Christ. In other words, the accusation being made is that purgatory implicitly states that Jesus Christ was not sufficient for salvation and so purgatory exists for the sake of the deficiencies in Christ. The second objection is a strong accusation which explains the hostility many non-Catholic Christians have toward purgatory; their hostility comes from a deep love for Jesus Christ and what He has done. Fortunately, the accusation is entirely wrong and based upon distortions of the Church’s teaching.

To begin, the Church teaches that Jesus Christ is the sole mediator for salvation (for the distinction between Christ's role as mediator for salvation and the Christian's role as mediator of salvation, see article on intercession of the saints). Purgatory is not a second chance for salvation because it is exists exclusively for those who have already been saved in the blood of Jesus Christ. At this point, purgatory may appear to be a superfluous teaching. After all, if we are already saved, what is the need for purgatory? The answer to this question articulates the necessity of this teaching! In fact, whether one believes in imputed or infused righteousness the logical and theological necessity of purgatory still holds.

For the sake of the argument, let us say that justification is simply through declaration (cf. God says you are righteous but it doesn’t mean you actually are). This is different from Catholic theology which states that justification is both declarative and transformative (cf. Rom. 5.19). If life lived in justification on earth is one of declaration but not necessarily transformation, what then about heaven? Is heaven simply an eternal life of “declaration” not necessarily tied to transformation? Of course not! Heaven is not a place where fornicators continue to fornicate or even feel tempted to fornicate while simply being declared righteous. Nothing unclean can ever enter into heaven whether that is in thought or deed (cf. Rev. 21.27). If I were to die today, while being fully redeemed in the blood of Christ, I would die with a tendency toward sinful desires which often times concretize in the form of selfishness. What is God to do with a dead man redeemed in Christ yet not perfectly virtuous which is the exclusive criteria for a life lived in heaven? Purgatory is a logical necessity if we are to understand heaven as that which is completely free from sin, the direct beatific vision of God. For the overwhelming majority of us, purgatory serves as a state of loving purification for those who have been saved in Jesus Christ. We are sanctified and made perfectly holy in purgatory through the blood of Christ so that we may enter into the marriage banquet in heaven without spot or wrinkle (cf. Eph. 5.25-27).

After having understood purgatory’s theological and logical necessity, and recognizing purgatory’s intrinsic relationship to Christ’s meritorious act rather than seeing it as something outside or in addition to the cross, what does Scripture have to say about this teaching? While Scripture never explicitly mentions the world purgatory (which simply means “a place of purification”), there are a number of passages that speak of a state of purification after death. This should be no cause for concern as there are many things that both Catholics and non-Catholics alike believe in that are not explicitly stated in Scripture (i.e. hypostatic union of Christ, divinity of Christ, Trinity, Infant Baptism, etc).

One of the clearest attestations of purgatory in Scripture can be found in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In chapter three of his letter, St. Paul speaks about a day of judgment which has a particular three pronged judgment. There are those whose works will be tested and be seen as worthy of a reward which contextually refers to heaven (cf. 1 Cor. 3.14). On the other hand, there are those whose works are destructive and so are worthy of damnation (cf. 1 Cor. 3.16-17). However, there is a third peculiar judgment where a person’s works are judged and neither found to be universally accepted nor condemned. This person’s bad works will be “burned up” and “will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3.15). St. Paul’s explanation fits very well with the Church’s teaching on purgatory as a state of purification for those who have been saved in the blood of Christ yet must undergo a cleansing from the residual effects of sin.

We also know that Judaism believed in a type of purgatory which urged them to pray for their fellow dead (cf. 2 Macc. 12.46). This places the Church’s teaching in integrity with the teachings of God’s chosen people of the Old Covenant. This is all the more important when we understand that the New Covenant did not come to abolish the Old Covenant, but to fulfill it (cf. Mat. 5.17)! Finally, Christ Himself appears to allude to a sense of purification in the life to come (cf. Mat. 5.25-26; 12:31-32).

This is clearly far from an exhaustive treatment of the Church’s teaching on purgatory, but I pray it has better equipped you to be able to give a defense for the love you have for Christ and His Church! May you love Him more with all your soul, body, strength, and mind. May God be Praised!

1 comment:

Lisa said...

Yes. Christians are judged in heaven to reward us for what we have done right. God does not need to have a process of purification. When we enter Heaven, we will sin no more and we won't need to be purified.