(Author’s Note: This piece is taken, in part, from the Student Workbook I authored for T3: Revelation, The Lion and the Lamb.)
Every year around the Feast of All Souls (November 2nd) my inbox fills with questions regarding the Catholic Church’s teaching on Purgatory. Some questions are from cradle Catholics wanting to better understand what we believe. Some emails are from Protestant Christians wanting to know why the Catholic Church “made Purgatory up?” Still other emails are from people wondering if the Church still teaches the doctrine of Purgatory since they don’t hear much about it anymore.
The quick answer is “yes,” Purgatory is very much a reality. The early Church fathers encouraged praying for the dead from the very beginning – it was seen as an act of Christian charity, a way for those living to assist those dead but not yet in heaven.
St. Augustine (beloved by Christians of all denominations), himself, said, “”If we had no care for the dead, we would not be in the habit of praying for them.”
Still, many non-Catholic Christians do not believe in Purgatory because they believe it has no basis in Scripture. In fact, there are several biblical passages that support the doctrine of Purgatory.
It is true that the word “Purgatory” is not mentioned in Scripture. (Many theological terms that all Christians accept are not found in the Bible, either: “Trinity,” for example.) The verb purge comes from a Latin term meaning “to purify.” So Purgatory is a state of cleansing in which our souls are purified from sin.
In Revelation 21:27 it clearly states that “nothing unclean will enter Heaven.” Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 3:15, St. Paul states that “if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.” Clearly, the “fire” mentioned here by Paul cannot refer to hell because he says that the “person will be saved.” There is no salvation for those in hell.
Jesus Himself teaches us that some sins can be forgiven in the “next world,” as we hear in Matthew 12:32 and elsewhere (1 Pt 3:18-20, 4:6). St. Paul prayed for the dead, too (2 Timothy 1:16-18). In addition, there is a passage in 2 Maccabees 12:44-46 which clearly speaks of the existence of Purgatory. The real question, then, isn’t “Where is Purgatory found in the Bible?” but “Why does there need to be a Purgatory at all?”
God is perfect holiness (Isaiah 6:3). We are called to be perfectly holy (Matthew 5:48, 1 Peter 1:15-16). Without perfect holiness, we cannot see God in Heaven (Hebrews 12:14). Purgatory is meant for our cleansing and sanctification (Hebrews 12:11). All discipline and affliction leads us closer to God, if we let it (Romans 5:3-5, James 1:2).
Christ accomplished our justification by dying on the Cross. But the Bible teaches us that we are made holy over time (the process of sanctification), and this process involves suffering. Purgatory is just the final stage of sanctification for those in need of purification prior to entering the perfect and eternal banquet of Heaven.
Bonus: You might want to take a few minutes and check out these passages in the Catechism, too: CCC 1030-32, 1472.