As a Protestant converting to the Catholic faith, I admittedly struggled with the concept of purgatory. It seemed like it was a “third place” for eternity and a “third place”, in addition to heaven and hell, just did not seem Biblical to me. It was not until I realized what purgatory was that it made total sense. In fact, there is no other teaching of eternity that I know which teaches a more accurate and plausible theology of what happens after we die.
We all like to think of our loved ones going to heaven. No one wants to admit the people they love could end up in hell. As a Protestant, those were the only options available to me in my theology. It was heaven or it was hell. Heaven was a place of eternal reward and dwelling with God and Hell was a place of eternal punishment where you are forever out of the presence of God. Heaven, on the other hand, sometimes appeared difficult for me to understand. I understood God was a gracious and forgiving God. I believed He sent His only Son to die for our sins on the cross. It was a struggle to justify our ability to go straight to heaven from this earth and dwell in the presence of the Lord when even Moses was not granted the ability to see God. He was able to catch a glimpse of the back of God, but God told Him that no one could see God and live. Was that because of sin? Sure. An Almighty and perfect God cannot be in the presence of sin. So, how is this situation rectified? Purgatory. But purgatory is not a place of punishment. That is hell’s purpose. Purgatory is all about love.
It is important to remember, contrary to popular and misunderstood believe, that purgatory is not a place. It is not a “third place” or even a middle place between heaven and hell. It is a process, not a place. We see this clearly in the writings of St. Paul to the Corinthians.
“But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.” (I Corinthians 3:15)
St. Paul is speaking of the day of judgment. He is telling the Corinthians that some of their works will be burned up, but they will still be saved. He is speaking about purgatory. God has called us to enter into His life as His children. As the blood bought children of the living God we are asked to enter into an amazing divine life of sacrificial and self-giving love just as God the Father has shown toward us. The reality, on the other hand, is that at the moment of our death we are not ready to love to this depth. We have been hurt, mistreated, judged, mocked, and hated. We are not ready to empty ourselves in love for the sake of those who have caused us pain. It is the love of God which purifies us and makes us ready to an eternal life with Him in heaven through purgatory.
Purgatory is taken from the word that means to ‘purge’ or to cleanse. I once heard a priest explain purgatory as like taking a long, extremely long, shower on the front porch of heaven in order to get the dirt and grime of sin off us before entering heaven. It may not be as comfortable as a shower unless one has the shower turned up so hot that it burns. God is an all-consuming fire and His fire of love will strip away anything that prevents us from loving as He loves.
Purgatory is not a second chance. It’s not a place where one can go when they die and are given a chance to “do it over” and get an opportunity to choose Christ and go to heaven. No. Purgatory is a place where those who believe in and trust the Lord are on their way to heaven, but are not completely ready to love as God loves and therefore, they need a bath.
One last tidbit on purgatory for you to remember. St. Paul is writing to the Corinthians and the early Christians were, in fact, Jews. Jesus Christ was a Jew. We see Jesus reading scripture in the synagogue throughout His life. We know Mary and Joseph fulfilled the custom of the law and presented Him in the temple. We know Jesus lived as a Jew. History also tells us the ancient Jews believed in praying for the dead and believed “Gehenna” (which is often referred to in Sacred Scripture) was, in fact, a temporary place and that is why they prayed for their deceased loved ones.
There is nothing more beautiful that you can do as a follower of Christ than to pray for the dead. Pray for those in purgatory. They need your prayers. Take a moment, right now, to say a prayer for the dead.