Removing Our Sinful Natures
The Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory


Purgatory is one of those subjects, like economics, about which nearly everyone has an opinion but few have in-depth knowledge. Protestants point to it as an example of a pernicious "tradition of men" which Christ wisely condemned. Orthodox Christians, who accept the possibility of an interim state between this life and heaven, are uncomfortable with many traditional depictions of purgatory as well as associated doctrines such as indulgences. And many Catholics today treat purgatory like a persistent rash they cannot get rid of: it comes to their attention now and then, but is better left hidden from public view.

However, the doctrine of purgatory has a long and valued history within the Catholic Church and it would be unfaithful to our predecessors in the faith to ignore or minimize it. So our first necessity is a clear definition of what the Church teaches regarding purgatory. Given all the images and ideas among the faithful about this belief, it may be surprising that the Church's teaching is actually very limited. In a nutshell, here is what is defined:
1) The souls of the just which, in the moment of death, are burdened with venial sins or temporal punishment due to sins, enter Purgatory. (NOTE: No mention of what happens when they enter purgatory, how long they stay, or any other such details).

2) The living Faithful can come to the assistance of the souls in purgatory by their intercessions. (NOTE: no mention of how these intercessions help).
As is the case with heaven and especially hell, the Church teaches that purgatory exists, but makes little comment on exactly what it is like. This is natural, as we simply have no direct knowledge of the afterlife while on this earth.

Of course, there has been much speculation within the Church about purgatory over the centuries. During the middle ages, purgatory was seen as a place of fire and deep suffering; it was "hell lite". Today, the emphasis is more on the purging effects of purgatory which prepare us for heaven. These speculations are important, as they show us how the Church is reflecting on a specific doctrine and might give us important insights into our Faith. However, until the Church formally defines a popular image or belief, it is important to remember that they are speculations and therefore not binding on the faithful.

Essentially then, we are left with this: after death, there are those who die as followers of Christ, but need to be prepared in some fashion to enter into God's presence and therefore go to an intermediate state. Furthermore, our prayers on this earth are fruitful for these people. Let's look into this in more detail.

What happens to someone at death

First of all, Scripture makes it clear that no human on earth, regardless of his relationship with Christ, is incapable of sin (Rom. 3:10). In fact, Scripture and just common sense both tell us that we are drawn toward sin and we continue to commit it our entire life, up until our death. This is true for even the holiest people.

Furthermore, from what little we know about heaven, it is apparent that there is no sin in heaven (cf. Rev. 21:27). In fact, I think it would be safe to say that no one in heaven is drawn toward sin, and in fact, may be incapable of committing sin.

So, from the above two facts, we can deduce that something happens to us between our last breath on earth and our entrance into heaven. In fact, I think we can venture to say that our sinful nature is somehow removed from us at death. In 1 Corinthians 15:50-57, Paul states:
I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory." "O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul tells us that at death, we are changed. He mentions that this will happen in a "twinkling of an eye." How does this reconcile with the common conception of purgatory taking a long time? Two points I'd like to make: (1) when Scripture refers to God's actions in reference to our earthly "time," there is no way to translate it properly. For example, the first chapter of Genesis says that God created the world in six "days," but we don't know if those are 24-hour days, day-ages, or just a reference to "over time." For God, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day, so we can't know how "long" our "twinkling of an eye" is to God; and (2) it is possible that purgatory is instantaneous in our temporal time. Catholics have often speculated that purgatory lasts for a long time, but there is no way to translate the "time" of the after-life with our "time" on earth.

In the final analysis, Scripture is sparse in its discussion about the after-life, and how we are changed at death is no exception. We are not told exactly how our sinful nature is removed, nor do we know what the experience will be like. But we know that we are changed in some way at death before entering heaven.

Overcoming sin in this life

We know from Scripture and from experience that it is a hard process to overcome sin in this life. There are many Biblical verses that speak of being purified, about suffering, about the need to deny oneself, and about the need to "die" in order to live. It is a maxim of the Christian life that suffering makes us holy. As Paul tells the Corinthians:
For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw -- each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)
Through the fire we are tested and become pure. Simply put, the Bible tells us that contending with our sinful nature here on earth is a painful process. Our experience here tells us this as well. If we have a habitual sin we are trying to overcome, it takes much prayer, fasting, and work to overcome it. Ultimately it is due to the grace of God, but we don't receive this grace like a magic potion - we are involved directly in receiving it so as to overcome our sin (in the first place, we have to ask for it).

Christians have contemplated these realities for many years: our sinful nature is removed at death and overcoming sin here on earth is a painful process. For example, Gregory of Nyssa wrote:
"If a man distinguish in himself what is peculiarly human from that which is irrational, and if he be on the watch for a life of greater urbanity for himself, in this present life he will purify himself of any evil contracted, overcoming the irrational by reason. If he has inclined to the irrational pressure of the passions, using for the passions the cooperating hide of things irrational, he may afterward in a quite different manner be very much interested in what is better, when, after his departure out of the body, he gains knowledge of the difference between virtue and vice and finds that he is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by the purifying fire" (Sermon on the Dead)
Many have speculated what this process after death will be like. In the East, the speculation has mostly focused on the end result: deification. In the West, the speculation has mostly focused on the process: purification. Some of this speculation, in both East and West, has gone too far and most likely has distorted what it will be like. But the Church has not accepted this distorted speculation as truth. We don't know exactly what the process of having our sinful nature removed from us will be like: will it be painful? will it last long?, etc. The Catholic Church has wisely not defined it either - she has left most discussion of purgatory to speculation. But always, the fact remains that the Church has taught that it is God who removes our sinful nature - He is responsible for this occurring, not our works. So purgatory is the final cleansing that we receive before we are allowed into God's All-Holy Presence.

Temporal punishment due to sin

One of the key points of dispute between Protestants and Catholics on this issue is the idea that purgatory takes away "the temporal punishment due to sins". The question arises: why should a "saved" person be punished? Didn't Jesus take all the punishment due to sin? What is meant by "temporal punishment". The Catechism of the Catholic Church (entries 1030-1032) does not discuss punishment in regard to purgatory - the focus is on purification. It states: "The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned" (CCC 1031, emphasis added). The Catechism recognizes that the term "punishment" in modern usage is not a good one to describe the Roman Catholic belief of purgatory. Perhaps a better word would be "suffering", or even the phrase "negative consequences".

All suffering, and in fact everything negative, that happens in this world is the result of sin; if we had no sin, we would have no suffering. In one sense, this suffering is a punishment that we all receive for our sin. This suffering is not the ultimate punishment for sin, which is death, but instead the temporal punishment for sin. Even after we are baptized, we still sin, and therefore, we still suffer, or in older language, receive temporal punishment for this sin. This "punishment" is a direct result of our sin - we must receive it; it is the order of the universe: there are consequences for our actions. We will either receive this "punishment" in this world, or we will receive it in purgatory. It is not the case that God sits up in heaven and gives out demerits every time someone tell a fib. Instead, when we do something disordered (such as lie), then we have gone against the nature of how we were originally intended to be, and there are negative consequences to this disordered action, even if we can't see them. These "negative consequences" are what old-time Catholics mean when they say "temporal punishment".

The word "punishment" in this context can have connotations today that often confuse the issue. But it is important to ask: did Christ take away all the punishments, all the suffering, all the negative consequences, due to sin? Or did he simply take away death, which is the ultimate punishment for sin? It seems that if it is the former, then our world would have no suffering after the Ascension. But the effects of sin on our world are just as true today as they were before Christ's work. However, the end result, the ultimate punishment, of sin - death - has been defeated and removed. So whereas talking about taking punishment in purgatory can be misleading in a modern context, it does have some technical accuracy, as long as we differentiate between temporal punishment and "ultimate" punishment (i.e. death).

Unfortunately, it has become more common in modern Christianity to think that if one is a Christian, all will go well. We will be given all we need and there is no need to suffer. This is a dangerous distortion of the Christian Faith. It has been the common belief of the Christian Church for 2,000 years that suffering is a required part of the Christian life. No student is greater than his master, and if our master had to suffer in this world, so will we. Only by embracing suffering and purification in this life can we grow in holiness. Purgatory is simply the completion of this purification that should start on earth.




Order my latest book

Order now!

Invite me to speak

I am available to speak with your group or organization on a variety of topics.

Featured Article

The Nine Levels of Prayer