Is Purgatory a Real Place?
1 March 2023 Hits:1691
Whether you’re Roman Catholic or not, you’ve probably heard of a place called Purgatory. It’s a place or state of suffering inhabited by the souls of those who die in grace, in friendship with God, but are compensating for some venial sins before going to heaven. It’s an antechamber of Hell, a place of divine cleansing (purging) from which some will eventually emerge as redeemed and united with God.
According to Roman Catholic theology, the living can hasten the purification process through prayers and charitable works on behalf of the dead.
The doctrine of Purgatory was developed during the Dark Ages in the late 500s. The suffering in Purgatory is twofold: physical pain and separation from God. The ideology was primarily based on one passage in the Apocrypha and one in the New Testament.
The Apocryphal reference is 2 Maccabees (Date: 124 BC) 12:44–45, “For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore, he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.”
Regarding the believers’ judgment, Paul wrote, “It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work…If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”
Add to that Hebrews 12:29, “our God is a consuming fire,” and, according to Catholic interpretation of these verses, the souls of the departed are purged and purified by fire in Purgatory.
Though it is not necessary to interpret the Corinthians text to mean the fire of Purgatory, it was common among the Latin Fathers to understand this fire as a reference to some short-lived punishment and purification before the final salvation. Examples of this explanation can be found in the writings of Augustine and Caesar of Arles.
But Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 3 is symbolic. He writes about building on a foundation already laid, Jesus Christ. The way Jesus’ followers build on that foundation is in view here. Our building material is our good works. Paul says they are like gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw. On the Day (presumably Judgement Day), the quality of people’s works will be brought to light, being “revealed with fire.” His allegory is powerful when considering what fire does to these various materials. Wood, hay and straw are ruined, while gold, silver, and costly stones are refined.
While none of this is literal, Paul’s meaning is clear. What Christians do now has eternal ramifications, but our salvation is never questioned because we are not saved by works but by God’s grace flowing through faith alone: “If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved.” The loss is an absence of reward.
Consider Jesus’ words to the repentant thief on the cross next to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43). This man had done nothing to bring that was any good, but Jesus promised him direct entry to the paradise of God. No purging was necessary to pay for his sins because Jesus forgave him completely.
Scripture frequently uses the symbol of fire when discussing the judgment and reconciliation of all things. Christians hold various views on the nature and purpose of the fire.
Those who believe in eternal conscious torment (ECT) believe fire is punitive. ECT adherents believe Hell is forever, and people will never be able to escape the agony of the flames. It is, in my opinion, a horrendous concept that contradicts the nature of a God who IS love.
Conditional immortality (also known as annihilationism) teaches that fire destroys. Those who believe this do not consider the human soul immortal, which is why Jesus gives eternal life as a gift. On Judgement Day, the unrepentant are sentenced to finite punishment and then cease to exist.
Finally, there’s the teaching of universal salvation and purgatory which view fire as purifying. People suffer a time when their sins are thoroughly cleansed. Eventually, everyone is granted access to paradise to enjoy eternity in God’s presence.
Each of these views has scripture to support them. I’ve written about this in more detail here.
Where to from here? Please do some personal study if this topic interests you. Whatever you believe, never use it to provoke fear in others or as an excuse to live a reckless life. We don’t love God because we want to escape Hell. We love Him because He first loved us.
Four Views on Hell (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Zondervan)