PURGATORY, AS EXPLAINED BY THE BIBLE
By: Chinaka Justin Mbaeri
Purgatory is a doctrine greatly misunderstood, ranging from non- Catholics to some Catholics. A proper understanding of its meaning is absolutely imperative for a proper analysis of the doctrine.
Let me begin by saying WHAT PURGATORY IS NOT:
It is NOT the belief that we can pray people into heaven from hell. Hell, like heaven, is eternal; neither will ever pass away and those souls therein are consigned eternally. Purgatory, on the other hand, is temporary. Any soul in purgatory is destined for heaven inevitably. The misunderstanding of purgatory, i.e., Praying people into heaven from hell, is therefore INCORRECT.
WHAT THEN IS PURGATORY? IS IT IN THE BIBLE?
Purgatory is a temporary “state” after death, where souls who are not yet perfected in their love for God, are purified by fire before admittance to the ALL HOLY GOD. What gets purified? – “unrepented venial sins”, that is, sins that do not lead to “death” (cf. 1John 5:16-17). How do we know this? According to this first letter of St. John, there are sins that lead to death, and there are sins that do not lead to death. It is important to note that this kind of “death” is the eternal death in hell. Hence, if there are sins that do not lead to hell, where would they lead to? It would not lead to heaven either because God and sin (even the minutest sin) cannot coexist. Just as we understand from the Scripture that “NOTHING UNCLEAN shall enter the kingdom of God” (Rev. 21:27). Hence, those sins that do not lead to death (hell), and do not lead to heaven either, must lead to an intermediary state that necessarily needs purification to achieve heaven. How is this possible? Does the scripture justify this? Yes!
In 2 Corinthians 5:10, we read: “For we all must appear before the judgment-seat of Christ, that each may receive what is his due for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad”. Well then, what will happen to a Christian who appears before the judgment seat of Christ with bad deeds? Paul gives us the answer in his first letter to the Corinthians: “His work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be SAVED by passing through FIRE (as one escaping through flames)” (1Co 3.15). Dear friend, Paul plainly tells us that Christians with bad deeds who approach Christ the Judge will find themselves in a fire, burning away those deeds. Such a place is NOT hell for Paul is speaking of saved Christians: “HE HIMSELF WILL BE SAVED.” It cannot be heaven because it involves suffering by fire: “HE WILL SUFFER LOSS…AS ONE ESCAPING THROUGH FLAMES.” Could it be on earth during this life? According to Paul, “the Day” always refers to the day we are judged. Hence, it would not be on earth. Where is this place where Christians suffer loss by fire? IT MUST BE PURGATORY! Therefore, this becomes the backdrop on which the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory rests. The word purgatory is not explicitly stated in the Bible, however, its meaning is explained clearly; just as the word “TRINITY” is not stated in the Bible, yet the Bible explains it and we believe it. The term Purgatory spring from the Medieval Latin “purgatorium” which indicates a “means of cleansing”; as St. Paul speaks of the purification above. In other words, it could mean “to purge away” (to cleanse, to purify). This is what the Bible teaches, and not a doctrine implanted by men.
Dear friend in Christ, Purgatory is a doctrine of DIVINE MERCY. It portrays the abundant mercy of God, a just God who’s slow to anger and rich in mercy. Little wonder the psalmist says: “if you O Lord should mark our guilt, who will survive? But with you is found forgiveness, for this we revere you” (PS.130:3-4). It is a recognition that most Christians are not so evil as to warrant hell and most are not yet perfected as to warrant immediate entrance into heaven. Purgatory makes perfect sense. Therefore, it is our duty to pray for the souls in purgatory, for they cannot pray for themselves. At least our short prayer “Rest in Peace” goes a long way. This is explicitly taught in the Scripture.
It is quite funny, however, that those who do not believe in purgatory, indirectly affirm it. When someone dies, we tend to say “MAY HIS/HER SOUL REST IN PEACE.” What does this mean? The acronym R.I.P., meaning “rest in peace”, is a direct translation of the Latin words ‘Requiescat in pace’. ‘Requiescat in pace’ was an offered prayer to God, in the hope that the soul of the deceased person would find peace in the next life. It simple terms, it is a prayer for the dead. Its origins are found in Hebrew in the Old Testament, in the Book of Isaiah chapter 57 verse 2: “Those who walk uprightly enter PEACE; they find REST as they lie in death.”
Hence, it was a prayerful request that the souls of those who have died should find peace in the afterlife. It is VERY BIBLICAL to pray for the dead, aside; it is a cultural, holy and wholesome thought. Let us consider the few biblical passages:
– 1 Samuel 31: 8-13: “On the morrow, when the Philistines came to strip the slain, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. And they cut off his head, and stripped off his armour, and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines, to carry the good news to their idols and to the people. They put his armour in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they fastened his body to the wall of Bethshan. But when the inhabitants of Jabesh-Gilead heard what the Philistines had done to Saul, all the valiant men arose, and went all night, and took the body of Saul and the bodies of his sons from the wall of Beth-shan; and they came to Jabesh and burnt them there. And they took their bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and fasted for seven days.”
NOTE- HERE IS A PRIME EXAMPLE WHERE PEOPLE FASTED FOR THE DEAD – NAMELY SAUL AND HIS SONS.
– In 2Timothy 1: 16-18, we read: “May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me; MAY THE LORD GRANT HIM TO FIND MERCY FROM THE LORD ON THAT DAY; AND YOU WELL KNOW ALL THE SERVICE HE RENDERED AT EPHESUS.”
NOTE – HERE PAUL PRAYS FOR HIS DEAD FRIEND ONESIPHORUS. Note the past tense in all of Paul’s references to him, and how Paul prays for his family remaining behind.
Now, if only hell and heaven exist in the afterlife, what is the essence of praying for the dead for God to have mercy on them? For both hell and heaven are eternal and once a soul is consigned to any, it becomes its eternal lot; besides, “it is appointed unto men to die, and after this, comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Nevertheless, there MUST exist an intermediary (temporary) state where some souls whose sins do not lead to hell (as explained above) are consigned to, and thus, our prayers are needed for God to show them his mercy just as the Scripture explains to us.
This is part of the faith that we profess in the Creed (I believe in the communion of saints; a belief in which the saints in heaven are helping us with their prayers and we on earth equally pray for the souls in purgatory).
May this faith bring our hope to fulfillment, through Christ our Lord. Amen.