Updated: Jan 21, 2021
It’s hard to find a topic more controversial to Protestants than this notion that between heaven and hell there lies this third thing called Purgatory. I mean, seriously, if one’s sins are forgiven by the blood of Christ, why create a hellish experience for believers? To what end? And if we look at the medieval literary and artistic record, the portrayal of purgatory is something right out of the worst of the medieval torture dungeons. So, how does this make any sense?
Well, to be quite honest with you, it doesn’t, not at all. And that’s quite fortunate, because the actual doctrine of Purgatory entails none of those misnomers. While it is true that these brutal notions have been bandied about within Roman Catholic circles for a long time, the artistic portrayals are just that—artistic—and enjoy no evidential support. But there is an actual doctrine of Purgatory, so let’s look at what it is and why it is in order to get at the truth behind the notion.
Let’s begin with a central misunderstanding about the human approach to God. It is widely and erroneously believed within Christendom that the human problem before God is solely our sins. If our sins are forgiven, it is thought, then we are ready to meet God. But there are a number of huge problems with this idea, so prepare yourself to be shocked.
Even if you never sinned, you would not be ready to meet God.
First, even if you never sinned, you would not be ready to meet God. The problem of approaching God is impacted by three factors, not just one. Clearly, if you deform yourself by your sins, then you are malformed and insufficiently holy to meet God. So, sins definitely are a major contributing factor to divine blockage. But the angels that refused Lucifer’s rebellion never sinned but were still unable to see God. Not sinning is not enough to enable the vision of God. Why? Because God is infinite and every single creature is finite. As such, only by grace is any created being elevated to be fitted to see God as he is. The notion that is it by grace alone that we are saved is truer than most know. Human beings are doubly hindered, then, first by our finitude and second by our sins.
Second, God cannot raise you to see him as he is in himself without your consent. Because God created us as persons, we are inherently free creatures. That freedom means that we must be allowed to choose whether to love God or not. Keep in mind that God did not have to create any persons. But to create a person is to create a being who is free, by definition. Now, if God were to raise you to see him as he truly is—the infinitely desirable perfect Good—then, having seen him, you would be incapable of ever choosing a lesser good over God. It’d be like having seen the ocean and having someone tempt you to think that a muddy puddle is just as great a body of water. Once you have seen the ocean, you’d laugh at the idea. It couldn’t hold any plausibility for you. So, if God raised you to see him as that perfectly desirable and infinite Good without your consent, it would imply that you were not a person at all but a very sophisticated robot who could not but choose to obey God. However, automatic obedience isn’t freely chosen love. Love must be free to be real. As such, God cannot raise us to see himself as he is in himself without our first having chosen him freely.
It’s not far off to say that you aren’t who you are until you have died.
We need to further explore human choice in order to identify the third hindrance to our readiness to see God, because our choices are enacted according to the kinds of creatures we are. We are creatures inhabiting matter, unlike our angelic cousins. Thus, we human beings grow over time and slowly habituate who we truly are, what we call our characters in moral or literary terms. Character is not the function of a single decision or action but the result of many actions made in a multitude of different circumstances. Human choice is thus stretched out across the whole of our lives. It’s not far off to say that you aren’t who you are until you have died (although, even that is not quite true as we will see). This is why we cannot eulogize a person until after he has ceased acting in this world. If more choices are forthcoming, our characterization of who that person is remains tentative. But once he has died, we can talk about who he was as we knew him at his funeral.
Since human beings operate across time and form themselves in that manner, we focus our moral theory on the development of habits, habits that constitute our characters. Good habits we call virtues, and bad habits we call vices. Virtues grow the human character—fulfill the human soul—by enlarging us in love for goodness, for God, and for one another. Vices deprive the human character of its substance, eating away at the human soul, and drive us ever so slowly into increasing self-destruction, as well as indifference and hatred towards goodness, God, and our neighbors. Human choice is thus best understood as the developing combination of the intellect, the will, and the aspirations in these virtues or vices, both intellectual and moral, as we direct ourselves toward or against goodness, God, and neighbor. As such, human choice is not made or completed in a single moment, but is spread out. Today I might decide I don’t want to succumb to alcohol, but then tomorrow I might say, “Screw it all!” and drink heavily and then drive and get my third DUI. Did my decision not to drink yesterday define me? No. It was better that I had chosen to reject alcohol at least that one time, but I then fell back into the habit of my vice. We all know this ethical struggle in the areas in which we are vulnerable. We keep trying to do better, keep trying to choose better, keep trying to desire better. When we look back at our lives over the last five years of really working hard at loving God and neighbor, we can usually see progress, as certain vices that used to haunt us are really driven back. But it’s always a work in progress, because our freedom still allows us to return to those moral vulnerabilities. Strong moral character motivates us to stick to goodness, of course, so it’s not like it’s a fifty-fifty toss up as to what we are going to do, but for all that, we can still go awry.
Now that we have understood human choice in terms of who we are as a whole, we can employ that conception to explore our development into the sorts of persons fit to know God face to face. The greatest commandment identifies exactly what is required in the characters of people fit to love God, namely that we love God with every aspect of every element of who we are. Because God is love, because God is perfect goodness, we cannot possibly love him with all of ourselves unless we love love, unless we love goodness. As such, to choose God with all of our selves across the whole of our lives we must fully choose goodness. That means far more than merely saying “yes” to trying to become good; it requires that we actually inhabit goodness and love.
“Not sinning” is not the same thing as putting on moral goodness and love. You can “not sin” by just standing still.
Therefore, the third hindrance to our being prepared to know God as he is in himself is our need to be fully transformed by love in every aspect of our human characters. Our finitude presented us with the first barrier to knowing God, and our sins presented the second obstacle to being fitted to love God, but “not sinning” is not the same thing as putting on moral goodness and love. You can “not sin” by just standing still in many instances. But love requires that we actually reach out to the man beaten on the side of the road in the Good Samaritan story. And without love, we will never be prepared to know the God who is love. Fortunately, God provided a single wholesale solution to resolve all three of these hindrances to our knowing him: God offers us the free whole-life choice to enter into a relationship of love with him in a way that both puts aside our sins and grows our characters back into love for goodness, God and our neighbors. Because the choice is free, God can count it as justification for raising us to see him as he truly is. Because the choice is to accept a means of atonement for sin as well as loving character formation, God can grow us back into the kinds of beings fit to know and love him, because we actually become good and loving.
Salvation cannot be an “as if you really were fit to know God” system, but instead must actually transform a man into the kind of person fit to love God.
In theology we call this free choice that God offers us the choice of faith. Many Protestants view faith as the action of a single moment, while the historic faith of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy view faith as a habit spread out in time. The Protestant conception only addresses the problem of our finitude, because it doesn’t change who we are. Saying a prayer, getting baptized, being filled with the spirit, accepting Jesus as my Savior, or any of the other Protestant single-moment decision accounts leaves a man entirely free the next day to be as evil and wretched as he was two days before. None of these accounts provide a means of transformation that is built essentially into faith, because on these accounts, faith isn’t a genuine virtue, and only virtue can change who a man is. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy understand faith as the first of three theological virtues infused into us at baptism as seeds that then need to grow—with our daily cooperation—into us and slowly transform us from selfish shadows into lovers of God and neighbor. This is the famous faith of St. James, the faith that necessitates a transformed life of loving works of goodness, but in no wise negates the faith of St. Paul, that of grace apart from the works of the law. For by the law shall no flesh be justified in God’s eyes, because the law cannot overcome the finitude obstacle nor can it justify those who sin against God. Instead, the law exposes our sins and provides us with an impetus to look to God’s role in saving us. Thus, faith is not a single action as is widely believed in Protestantism, but is a habit of the whole of our lives, just as all other virtues are habits. We cannot say that faith is a single act, while hope and love are virtues. All three are the same: full-scale virtues. It follows that salvation is a process, because salvation must address all three of our problems in approaching God: our finitude, our sins, and our need to become the sorts of good people who actually love God. Salvation cannot be an “as if you really were fit to know God” system, but instead must actually transform a man into the kind of person fit to love God. And we must remember that because of the nature of our free choice spread out in time, that transformation must literally be chosen, not enacted by some sort of divine magic at the moment of death.
Nobody “gets into heaven” without loving goodness, so saying a prayer and hating everyone around you the rest of your life cannot possibly work. Only those transformed by love to love are ready for the infinite love of Love himself.
Now, before moving onto Purgatory, let me address the motivation for Protestantism’s endorsement of the single act view of faith: terrifying fear. Protestants want confidence that God loves them and will not toss them into hell for their sins. They are deeply cognizant of how sinful they are, sometimes to the point of obsession, often singing about their perpetual “brokenness” before God. But this is not how we are supposed to see things. First, God means to fix us! You are supposed to be doing better in your life in Christ. You should not remain broken. Second, admitting that you are improving is not presumption against God, because God values your moral improvements. God does not view moral goodness as evil, as is often suggested by Protestants citing the text of Isaiah that even our “righteousness” is as filthy rags to God. If that were a universal indictment of the human condition, then God would not have been impressed with the gentile Cornelius’ charity and good works such that he then directed St. Peter to him. Taking single texts out of context and developing whole theologies on them is an unfortunate effect of Protestant theological modes. We must instead look at the whole of what we received from Jesus in our texts, our liturgies, in apostolic teaching and councils, in our catechisms, as well as our moral philosophy and literature and the arts. They paint a very different picture of human beings as a mixture of good and bad. And that picture is the truth of the matter. None of us possesses within himself the goodness sufficient to fully direct himself toward God’s love, both because we are all finite creatures and because we have to varying degrees sinned. But our goodnesses are nonetheless very real and very important, because our choices for goodness are part of our faith in directing ourselves to the goodness of God. Third, Protestants think that the only two options in the afterlife are heaven—with its requirement for moral perfection, or hell. Since they lack moral perfection, they are convinced that hell is their destiny without a clear and totalizing act by God to blot out all of their sins and magically give them the entry ticket to heaven. They unfortunately forget what heaven is, namely, the place for those who actually love the goodness and persons of God. Nobody “gets into heaven” without loving goodness, so saying a prayer and hating everyone around you the rest of your life cannot possibly work. Only those transformed by love to love are ready for the infinite love of Love himself. Fortunately, there is a third option between heaven and hell that can greatly ease the Protestant terror: Purgatory.
Okay, so, now, let’s talk about what Purgatory really is. We’ve already seen that in our lives in this world, we are expected to form the cardinal habits of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice, as well as the theological habits of faith, hope, and love, so that we will slowly become people who truly are good. For if you love, then you have completed the whole of the Law. Faith is the initiation virtue that begins the process of moving all of our human faculties—intellect, will, aspiration, imagination, etc.—toward love by means of the habit of hope. Each day we are faced with a myriad of choices in our minds, our wills, our desires, our aspirations, and every other human faculty that enable us to gradually put on these virtues and overcome the vices that hitherto had defined our lives. (This is what St. Paul means when he speaks of putting off the old man and now putting on the new man.) In this process of virtue development, God supplies us with a host of allies and supporting elements, because he is aware that our progress is hindered by many factors both spiritual and material. Demons and bad people trick and tempt us. Illness, war, economic loss, divorce, grief from death, and so many other material calamities seriously challenge us and make our growth very difficult. So, God provides us with angelic help, as well as the many sacraments, as well as the full set of graces, prayers, and gifts at work within the Body of Christ, as well as the infused Holy Spirit to help not only balance the scales but actually push them in our favor, giving us far more by way of motivation toward goodness than against—these elements fuel the theological virtue of hope. As we participate in the life of the sacraments, you will notice that we are not only constantly putting off that old man, our sins and former vices, but feeding on the life of Christ and reinforcing ourselves toward the fruitfulness of love.
Many people had a bad lot in life, suffering abuse as children, victimized by crime or neglect, or fractured by the horrors of war—events that dramatically hinder their capacities for full human growth. Because God is just and loves us, he is not going to hold that against us.
Here’s the rub: even if you do all of the above, you are still likely to struggle morally in some areas, as well as face hindrances toward the full development of virtue. Many people had a bad lot in life, suffering abuse as children, victimized by crime or neglect, or fractured by the horrors of war—events that dramatically hinder their capacities for full human growth. Because God is just and loves us, he is not going to hold that against us. The true picture we have of God from Jesus is that of the good shepherd who will do anything possible to save the sheep, even sacrificing his own life. We must reject the Protestant picture of God that Jonathan Edwards offered, of his holding us by a mere thread over the fires of hell, eager, apparently, to toss us into divine judgment. That picture is a stark contrast to the God portrayed by Jesus in the prodigal son story, isn’t it? The real God loves us, every single one, every single sheep. So, he knows what we have been up against in our lives, how who we are is not something that we constituted solely by our choices but is, in addition, something constituted by many factors well outside our control. At the moment of our deaths, we are nearly all still in a process of becoming who we ultimately are choosing to be. When God looks at us, then, he looks at the whole of the direction of our lives, not just the present state of our perfection. Otherwise, the whole thing is a crap shoot, because none of us die at a convenient time! God is not about to let luck and good fortune in human constitution decide matters for him.
God is not about to let luck and good fortune in human constitution decide matters of salvation for him.
So, if the whole of the direction of your life is toward God, then, when you get to the other side and aren’t quite ready for seeing God yet, it follows that though you are not fully prepared for heaven, your whole life of faith means that you aren’t fit for hell either. As such, there must be a third option, a place where we can review those final matters that need improvement and complete the chosen direction of our lives. That process enables us to “purge” from ourselves what needs elimination and then choose love in each case, so that we then genuinely develop the habits of goodness necessary for us to see God and love him.
It is absolutely critical for both Catholics and Protestants to understand that getting into heaven is not some legalistic system, some magical code or process that one can enact, a checklist where if you have all the boxes checked, you get in. Let’s get this straight: no one cheats and slips into heaven.
It is absolutely critical for both Catholics and Protestants to understand that getting into heaven is not some legalistic system, some magical code or process that one can enact, a checklist where if you have all the boxes checked, you get in. Let’s get this straight: no one cheats and slips into heaven. It isn’t a legal matter at all. It’s a metaphysical matter. It’s a matter of who and what you are, whether you truly have the love of goodness that makes you fit to love the infinite goodness of God. If you don’t love people in this life, you won’t want to be in heaven, because heaven just is the place of people maximally loving one another. And if you do love people in this life, then you cannot possibly fit into hell, because hell is a tiny little place, suitable for the small-souled who care only for themselves, whereas people who love have souls far too large to fit. So, the central question for your life is this: are you the sort of person who is habitually aiming your life at goodness through the means of grace that God provided for us to inhabit faith, hope, and love? If so (and that will be evident in your life), then you are the sort of person whose whole life is aimed at God, i.e., you have Faith. If not, then it doesn’t matter how many times you said the Jesus prayer or how many times you went to mass and recited the Rosary; it doesn’t matter a whit. The love of God is the reality of faith, and you either love him or you don’t. And that means that you either love goodness and your neighbor or you don’t. If you don’t, then wake up, because your soul is indeed in mortal danger. If you do, then stop sweating your eternal destiny, because such fear can become obsessive and even inhibit your spiritual growth. Instead, focus yourself on becoming what your eternal destiny actually is, namely loving God with all your heart, strength, and mind. God isn’t out to get you, he’s out to love you! So, lighten the ship by tossing terror overboard and trim your sails for maximum speed toward Love.
Finally, how does Purgatory actually work? Well, here we have a real conundrum, because we have received very little theological data from revelation, as Jesus and the Apostles gave us only a few small clues. St. Paul likens it to trying our deeds by fire and seeing if they burn up (worthless behavior and vices) or they shine like gold and silver (worthy behavior and virtues). This judgment by fire is what appears to have led our medieval ancestors to think that the divine trial by fire was like the medieval trial by fire in which torture was used to prompt confessions. But this identification is entirely arbitrary and confuses the point of Purgatory. Since Purgatory is the completion of choices already made in this life for God, the person in Purgatory does not require coercive force to change his life. He needs deep self-understanding, multiple forms of healing, and time to modify his life and become whole. Thus, Purgatory is less a dungeon and more a hospital.
Can you imagine how it would be if the worst things you have done to others were things that you experienced on the receiving end?
What is really interesting is the empirical Purgatorial data we glean from near death experience (NDE) reports. We’ve all heard about these—and yes, they are very real and shockingly widespread across human experience—and are probably familiar with the floating above the body, the meeting dead relatives or angels, and the tunnel of light. But for those who spend enough time in the NDE, there is an important additional element: the Life Review. Many people who have long NDE’s report that they underwent a process of whole scale moral evaluation in which they saw their choices from the standpoint of the victims of their behavior. Can you imagine how it would be if the worst things you have done to others were things that you experienced on the receiving end? I’ll bet that would prove shockingly raw and devastatingly real by way of drastically altering your moral motivation, wouldn’t it? Well, ND-Experiencers who have undergone the Life Review have just such transformed moral understanding once they return to this world. Since the NDE is a state of being that is never in heaven but rarely ever in hell, it stands to reason that it takes place at some sort of mid-point or pre-point. And since the NDE Life Review sounds exactly like what we would expect to happen in Purgatory—given what Purgatory is designed to accomplish—it isn’t unreasonable for us take the Life Review as evidence of what Purgatory might truly be like.
There’s this phrase in the New Testament that in heaven all tears will be wiped away. Of course, we can understand this promise in the sense that the griefs and losses in this life are finally over, but we might also interpret it in a moral and constitutional sense. Perhaps Purgatory is the locale of our final tears, of our final recognition of who we were in this or that circumstance in our mortal lives and the opportunity to make it right. C. S. Lewis gives us two beautiful literary glimpses of how that process might work, the first in The Great Divorce and the second in Till We Have Faces. In The Great Divorce the people we hurt are the ones—often disguised to us as to their real identities—who walk us through our moral re-imagining of what really went on. As our vision of the truth clarifies, so does our understanding of the one with whom we are learning. (Not unlike Jesus with the Emmaus fellows.) In Till We Have Faces we have a version of Purgatory that totally supplants Dante’s house of horrors. In that book Lewis illustrates how the purging person relives and re-experiences the key moral moments of his life and finally sees the whole of the truth of those moments, for in that land no lies can be spoken. It is a fierce world of searingly heartbreaking recognition of the ways in which we tried to justify things that were really awfully hurtful. But it’s not mere psychotherapy, for Lewis’ character meets each person she had harmed and finds not just forgiveness but full reconciliation. And that is one of the reasons that Purgatory is so wonderful a doctrine: through Purgatory we finally get to do right and make right the many things that we never had the opportunity to accomplish in this world. All the things that should have been said, that should have been unsaid, that should have been done and that should have been undone will in a reality more real than this mortal world finally be possible. And since only those with the direction of faith in their lives inhabit that realm, those possibilities will in the end be realized, for love must triumph where faith is real. How else can we be prepared for the infinite love of God if we have not yet sorted out the finite loves of this life which are our tutelage for our divine Lover? Thus, Purgatory is in actuality a doctrine of hope, the completion of the theological virtue of hope, in transforming every aspect of ourselves by and toward love. The real question is this: where would we be without it?