Mark Hart

Purgatory: Heaven’s Waiting Room

Have you ever wondered whether Catholics still believe in Purgatory, and what exactly it is?

In Brief

Well, the answer is yes, Catholics still very much believe in Purgatory (Catholics who follow the Church, that is and not “their own” set of beliefs). Purgatory is a temporary state of purification where imperfect saints have the effects of their sin purged.

Consider this analogy. Have you ever tried to put a wrinkled dollar bill into a soda machine? You try your best to straighten it out but the machine simply can’t receive it in its wrinkled, tattered state. But if you put in a crisp, new bill, the machine takes it no problem. Purgatory is where all the “wrinkles” are purged and “ironed out.” Remember, the wrinkled dollar is not worth less than the new one it just needs some help.

Put simply, Purgatory means you’ll get to heaven some day, but that you have a few things God has to “iron out” first.

In Depth

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. However, 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 Peter 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 do we need 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.

One final thought – it’s important to note that Purgatory is not a “second chance” for people who die in mortal sin. We must be vigilant in our pursuit for holiness, trying to avoid all sin – especially mortal sin – at all costs. Scripture differentiates between mortal (deadly) and venial sins (1 John 5:16-17, James 1:14-15). While mortal sin brings death to the soul (Romans 6:23), venial sin wounds the soul.

Purgatory is not something to “aim for.” While many might jokingly say “I just want to make the cut for Purgatory” it’s interesting to note that the saints who have been given visions of Purgatory don’t describe it as a picnic, to say the least.

We ought to be grateful to God for His great mercy, but at the same time, set our sights (and souls) on the higher goal of heaven.

Suggested Reading:
CCC 1030-36, 1472, 1861.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Eschatology
Peter Kreeft, Fundamentals of the Faith

Mark Hart

About the Author

My childhood plan was to be a jedi. My teenage plan was to be on Saturday Night Live. God's plan was to have me in ministry. God won - and I'm glad He did.