This is the second in a series in which I attempt to address the question, “What is purgatory, and why is it necessary?” by expanding on the simple answer that Purgatory is the state, place, or process by which a soul is purified for entrance into heaven. Part 1 can be found here.
“The doctrine [of purgatory]can be stated briefly. Purgatory is a state of purification, where the soul that has fully repented of its sins but has not fully expiated them has removed from itself the last elements of uncleanliness. In purgatory all remaining love of self is transformed into love love of God. At death one’s soul goes to heaven, if it is completely fit for heaven; to purgatory, if it is not quite fit for heaven, but not worthy of condemnation; or to hell, if it is completely unfit for heaven. Purgatory is a temporary state. Everyone who enters it will get to heaven, and, after the last soul leaves purgatory for heaven, purgatory will cease to exist. There will remain only heaven and hell.” (Karl Keating, Catholicism and Fundamentalism)
In order to understand the point of purgatory, we need to understand the difference between salvation and sanctification on the one hand, and between punishment and atonement on the other. Salvation means being spared from damnation: we are saved from Hellfire. But being saved from Hell is not the same as being worthy of heaven—nor of being “ready” to enter this state. Salvation may come from grace, through faith—but heaven is for the holy. Merely wishing to be good, or indeed even trying to be good, does not make us actually good; we may strive to become pure while yet being sinful.
Moreover, when we wrong another person, we have a need to atone for that wrongdoing. This may be seen by way of how people once apologized: “I am sorry for doing X, how can I make this up to you?” This apology has two parts to it, a confession (I did X), and a first attempt at atonement. What can we do to make the wrong right? The atonement itself may often involve some sacrifice—which generally means some small suffering—on our part. We have, in other words, a sense of justice which kicks in even if the other person forgives us, so that even if they tell us that it is small matter to which we ought give no further thought, we might persist in asking if there is anything we can do for them to “make it better.”
Salvation is a work of God’s Own mercy for us, but true mercy pre-supposes justice. A part of that justice—indeed, the crucial part—was Christ’s own passion, His suffering and death. This satisfied the main requirement of justice, an infinite sacrifice to make reparation for an infinite offense. Mercy is thus extended to us if we will accept it.
However, Christ’s death and victory over death did not remove all suffering from the world. We can be saved from the worst punishment due to sin—spiritual death, that is, Hell; but there are also temporal effects of sin, effects which are only temporary. We can still suffer from injury or sickness or sadness, and we will all die eventually. These sufferings are for us an opportunity to bind our own suffering to Christ’s to “help” atone for our own sins.
Patrick Madrid explains the difference between the eternal punishment of sin, and its temporal effects in his Answer Me This:
“We need to make a distinction between the eternal penalty due to sin, which is eternal separation from God (a.k.a. Hell), and the temporal effects of our sins, which include temporal punishments. These two types of punishments are very different, and this distinction is something one must have clearly in mind to correctly understand all sorts of biblical issues, such as original sin, purgatory, hell, and the Atonement.
The temporal effects of sin are best illustrated in Genesis 3:14-20, where God pronounces a series of maledictions against Adam and Eve, the serpent, and even physical creation itself, all as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience: the original sin. The eternal penalty of their sin—hell—was something Christ atoned for on the cross, and Adam and Eve’s salvation and avoidance of that eternal penalty was due to their faith in God’s promises and their subsequent obedience to His laws, but the temporal effects of their sin remained. Enmity with the rest of nature, having to work to eat, labor pains for women, sickness, and eventually death, were all part of the punishment God permitted to fall on Adam and Eve and all of us, their descendents. So when you, a born-again Christian receive Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, you correctly believe that He will forgive you of your sins and remit the eternal penalty they deserve. But you are still going to have to get up and go to work tomorrow, right? Your wife will still experience pain in childbirth…And in the end, you like me and everyone else, will eventually suffer the greatest temporal punishments outlined in Genesis 3: You are going to die someday. Christ’s atoning sacrifice paid for your sins, but it didn’t wipe out the temporal effects, including the punishments I just mentioned, of your sins.”
So there is still some suffering for us in this world, even if we will be saved in the next.
To use an analogy, a child might do something to upset his father. He looks to atone for this, and part of the atonement might be to accept whatever punishment his father metes out. Perhaps the father tells him as punishment to clean the house, with no other punishment than the time spent at this task, unless this task is refused. The child, being little, is unable to clean the house on his own. He tries to wash the windows, but finds he can’t reach much past their middle, and he often smudges them.
He’s too small to use the vacuum cleaner, and he cannot reach many of the high places with the duster. He has an older brother, taller, stronger, one who has not done anything wrong, who comes along and offers to help him. The older brother is able to reach the high places, and is capable of operating the vacuum, of cleaning the windows. He even cleans some of the lower areas of the windows that were smudged after little brother had wiped them.
In this analogy, the big brother probably did most of the work, and the little brother most certainly could not have cleaned the house on his own. Satisfactory atonement would have been impossible for him, and the older brother certainly didn’t need his help. Yet, it wouldn’t quite be right for the child to sit by and watch his older brother do everything for him, even if he could trust that his brother actually would do it. The wiping of the windows is a grace-filled moment for little brother, even if it doesn’t actually cause the house to be cleaner. The haphazard dusting is a part of the atonement, even if it is not well done. Even if the older brother had told him that he could just sit by and watch, he would still want to try and do something, because he was the one needing to atone.
And, on the other hand, even if he actually did simply sit and watch his brother, he would still be “sacrificing” play time while the house was cleaned. The child may try to make the best of it, by “helping” his older brother, and then the time lost becomes time for atonement. Or, he can sulk and complain that he is not getting to play instead, and then the time lost becomes a sort of suffering, that is, of punishment, in addition to just having to clean the house.
Whether we go to heaven or hell, we have this time spent on earth. We might use it, so to speak, to help clean house, uniting our small sacrifices to Christ’s as atonement for our sins; or we may reject every suffering as a waste our life, and so suffer the more greatly. Whichever may be our decision, we still find some temporal punishments for sin which are allowed to occur—some at random and others (like death) on all—whether we are ultimately saved or not.
Purgatory, then, is a state after death during which we are purified of our sins, and when we might finish our own atonement for them—or during which we might allow Christ’s atonement to take effect in us. Patrick Madrid explains:
“Now, how does all this fit into the doctrine of purgatory? Purgatory is the place, or process, or state (however you’d like to think of it), in which the fire of God’s love purifies us from the temporal effects due to sin, which include any temporal punishments due to our sins. It’s a place where only those who die in the state of friendship with God (i.e., the state of grace) and who are destined for heaven, may pass through.” (Answer Me This)
Purgatory is, in other words, a state during which the need for justice may be fully satisfied whilst still allowing for the mercy which saves us from the torments of Hell. It is not necessary for God, then, but rather for us. Purgatory is the state, place, or process by which a soul is purified for entrance into heaven. This process of purification can begin in this life, e.g. when we are converted to Christ, but it is not always completed before we die. Thus, purgatory is the state into which those who have died in Christ’s friendship, as as recipients of His mercy, enter to be fully cleansed and purified.