Monday, 10 January 2011

An Alternative View to the Possibility of Purgatory

This was written as a challenge to myself, to explore a viewpoint which I had not looked into and assess it. I ended up convincing myself. My views of the afterlife change more often than any other theological position, as you can read here. By addressing Purgatory as a possibility I found a richer theological view which has changed my understanding of Hell and of universalism. Here is what I wrote, though I present it as an exploration of an idea, rather than my actual view.

An Alternative View to the Possibility of Purgatory


The commonly understood concept of Purgatory is that it is a place (along with Heaven and Hell) which souls of people who are friendly with God but not fully free of sin go to. Much of this common conception is influenced by medieval understandings of Purgatory, such as those in Dante’s Divine Comedy where Purgatory is a mountain. This is a common misconception, as in 1999 Pope John Paul II declared that Purgatory indicates a condition of existence and not a place. At the Reformation Purgatory was rejected as it had become associated with the selling of indulgences and had become the crude, literal view outlined above. They were right to reject this view, also emphasising the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice; this understanding has remained in Protestantism. What I wish to present here is not a reformulation of the Catholic understanding of Purgatory, but an alternative view which also includes the state of purgation. C.S. Lewis saw justification in rejection of the “Romish” doctrine of Purgatory, as it had become a “commercial scandal”, but saw merit in a process of purification akin to that found in John Henry Newman’s Dream of Gerontius, where the angel said to the soul,

When then—if such thy lot—thou seest thy Judge,
The sight of Him will kindle in thy heart
All tender, gracious, reverential thoughts.
Thou wilt be sick with love, and yearn for Him,
And feel as though thou couldst but pity Him,
That one so sweet should e'er have placed Himself
At disadvantage such, as to be used
So vilely by a being so vile as thee.
There is a pleading in His pensive eyes
Will pierce thee to the quick, and trouble thee.
And thou wilt hate and loathe thyself; for, though
Now sinless, thou wilt feel that thou hast sinn'd, {360}
As never thou didst feel; and wilt desire
To slink away, and hide thee from His sight:
And yet wilt have a longing aye to dwell
Within the beauty of His countenance.
And these two pains, so counter and so keen,—
The longing for Him, when thou seest Him not;
The shame of self at thought of seeing Him,—
Will be thy veriest, sharpest purgatory.

Is Purgatory Un-Biblical?

The Bible is not explicitly clear on matters concerning what lies beyond death, Purgatory included. Much in the same way that the Trinity is not mentioned or explained by Scripture, Purgatory is not mentioned either. It is the fruit of hundreds of years of developing theology, an explanation of the data contained within the Bible; one might almost call it a theory. Rejecting Purgatory based on the absence of an explicit description would be hypocritical if done by a Trinitarian; supporting Scripture must be found.

When punishment is mentioned in the first letter to the Corinthians it is described in a purifying sense, "Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." (1 Corinthians 3.12-15) The verses here clearly refer to works (which include sins) yet the sinful one is being saved through fire. To assert that this verse is purely about works is to make works a criterion for Salvation (which Protestants generally oppose).

Similar ideas can be found in the words of Christ, "And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." (Matthew 18:34-35, cf. Matthew 5: 25-26) Clearly the talk of paying debt or being saved “as through fire” should not be ignored.

There are also words of Christ which appear to be highly compatible with the concept of Purgatory, whilst not necessitating it, such as John 5:25, "Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live." Here we read that the dead are able to hear and respond, before they are granted new life.

We also read from Scripture that Jesus descended to the dead and preached to them, "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey" (1 Peter 3:18-20 cf. 1 Peter 4:6) Are we to believe that this is a one-off event?

Although not accepted by Protestants, the Apocrypha contains mentions of prayers for the dead, “Wherefore he made the propitiation for them that had died, that they might be released from their sin.” (2 Maccabes 12:45; see also the rather lovely prayers in Baruch 3, also in the Apocrypha.) This demonstrates that pious Jews did pray for the dead, with belief that this had an effect. The surprising thing is that Paul does not condemn such practises, even though he is clearly aware of them (1 Corinthians 15:29).

Against the concept of Purgatory, verses in support of the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ are often used, demonstrating a clear lack of desire to engage with Purgatory seriously. For example, “Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.” (Hebrews 7:27) The use of this verse in response to belief in Purgatory caricature it as requiring more than just Christ’s sacrifice, but this need not be the case. Indeed, Christ’s sacrifice is so sufficient that it goes beyond death and can save those who were not righteous in God’s eyes! They justly suffer on their way to paradise and it is Christ of the cross who saves them. Purgatory, if anything, should be seen as a declaration of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice!

Another example makes a simple mistake which can easily be made. One such verse is 2 Corinthians 6:8 (cf. Philippians 1:23) where it is often quoted as saying that beyond death we are “away from the body and at home with the Lord.” However, before this it clearly states that “we would rather be away from the body...” This verse, when used against Purgatory, is obviously ripped out of context. If we were, however, to take it as meaning that beyond death we are at home with the Lord, then we still have the possibility that for those still in sin being in the presence of God would be like a purifying fire.

One might have problems with other things which have become attached to the notion of Purgatory, such as the use of indulgences, or an occasional emphasis on works; but this does not mean that the essence of Purgatory needs to be rejected. Scripture supports the idea of a punitive state of purgation where sins are removed and Salvation awaits, so from here on I will refer to it as a state of purgation and not as Purgatory, as I wish to stick to the purging of sins and have none of the attached stigma which comes with this theology.

Early Christian Understanding

Many of the influential early Church Fathers took an approach which contains all the hallmarks of a state of purgation, leading to some Orthodox Christians referring to it as purgatory (though their understanding is not necessarily identical to the Catholic approach). Gregory of Nyssa for example explained it this way, "When, over long periods of time, evil has been removed and those now lying in sin have been restored to their original state, all creation will join in united thanksgiving, both those whose purification has involved punishment and those who never needed purification at all" (Catechetical Oration 26). Gregory believed that this state of purgation required repentance and is not forced on everyone by God.

Maximos the Confessor perceived of the soul moving infinitely towards God, where all souls come to know God as He is and will know the true nature of good and evil. To the Church Fathers evil was not a created thing, but has relative existence which will be annihilated when the end comes. Souls are therefore purified, purged of evil. From this understanding the state of purgation may not be a place, but a state of being, where God’s love purges sins. It also need not be an alternative to Heaven and Hell (as popularly perceived) but an intrinsic part, or link, within the two.

The Character of God

In Scripture we are given the picture of God as not being one to stop when He has a desire, “he will not grow weary or give up” (Isaiah 42:4) and has “weakness... stronger than human strength.” (1 Corinthians 1:25.) To think that He would give up on mankind after death seems to be out of character, but instead, as one who is love, it seems more likely that He would keep His offer of Salvation extended to us, unperturbed by the apparent obstacle of our deaths. As God is love (1 John 4) we might expect Him to continually seek repentance from sinners, rather than give an eternal punishment from which no good can come, for “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

In addition to showing God as loving, a state of purgation also shows God as a just Lord, one with justice as a desire. This is where the punitive aspect of purgation comes in, for it is the consequence of sins but ultimately leads to rehabilitation. This understanding, of both love and justice, is more Biblically consistent than an instantaneous universalism (where all souls are immediately in paradise, with no punishment) and fits God’s character better than condemning unrepentant sinners to infinite suffering for finite sins.

What about Hell?

If a state of purgation is accepted, then there are two key possibilities for how we can understand Hell. It may be that Hell is what is being spoken of in the passages which mention purification, making Hell a temporary place of suffering which ultimately leads one to Heaven. Purgatory and Hell then become synonymous, rather than completely separate states of being.

The second option is that both Hell and purgation can be chosen. One can choose to accept God’s free gift of Salvation post mortem, however, this would then include going through a purging of sins in order to reach salvific completeness. To reject the free gift would leave one in an impure state, which would be referred to as Hell. These two views are not necessarily mutually exclusive, for the states of Hell and of purgation may be the same, but that the former is not purifying whereas the latter is.

The New Creation

The Bible promises a new creation, the new heavens and earth (Revelation 21:1), where God becomes all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28). With this comes the resurrection of all and we learn that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” (Philippians 2:10) where “under the earth” applies to the contemporary understanding of the dead being in the grave below the ground. The grave was often synonymous with Hell, suggesting that even the sinners there have the chance to join in the new creation.

When God is all in all we have the possibility that the righteous and the sinners may both be fully in the presence of God. It might be that Heaven, for humans (as Heaven is God’s place) is the state of being fully in the presence of God’s unrestrained love. However, to be a sinner in this presence leads to a more Orthodox understanding of Hell, where our sins cannot be in this presence and so we would experience them as painful. If we have a will in the new creation and God’s gift remains open, then this purification leads to a paradise on the new earth. T.S. Eliot captured the pain of purgation in the presence of God’s love beautifully in his poem Little Gidding, from the Four Quartets:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.


Without accepting the medieval concept of Purgatory, which was justifiably rejected in the Reformation, Scripture still offers the possibility of a post-death state of purgation where the experience of the fire of God’s love brings self-knowledge which purifies us, purging us of sins. It seems that this fate might not await all as we see the thief on the cross promised paradise, though it may await those who accept God’s free gift beyond death. A state of purgation speaks of a loving God who wills for us all to come to Him, but one who is just, giving punishment where punishment is due and not forcing all to accept His gracious offer. It is a testament to the sheer power of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, going beyond death to bring all sinners to him so that the heavens may rejoice.

References and Links

Harries, R. 2005. Life After Death from a Christian Perspective. In Abraham’s Children. Eds. Solomon, S. Harries, R. And Winter, T. T&T Clark, London. pp 298-306

Ward, K. 2004. What the Bible really teaches. SPCK, London. pp 136-139

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