(The Catacombs, where early Christians inscribed on the walls prayers for the dead)
“Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.” (C.S.Lewis, Letters To Malcolm, chapter 20)
“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1030)
Believe it or not, all Christians do in fact believe in Purgatory. Let me show you why. We are told in the Letter to the Hebrews that no one can see the Lord without possessing holiness (Hebrews 12:14). This brings us to Larry and Jane Smith, husband and wife, who unfortunately died together in an automobile accident when Larry fell asleep at the wheel of his brand new Ford Explorer. Little did Larry and Jane know that they would meet the Lord on that fateful day. By way of background, Jane had been a very holy and devout Baptist who walked the straight and narrow path of the Lord. Moved by her love for Christ, she had led a holy and righteous life and had been very kind to the poor. The grace of God had certainly worked wonders in her life. On the other hand, Larry had been a habitual sinner. The three sins which had taken root in his soul were his love for pornography, his dishonest business practices and his hate for certain races. Fortunately for Larry, the one time he went with his wife to church he picked up a tract on the table and followed the directions which told him “How to be saved.” That day in church he repented of his sins and accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior. He was saved.
For two days after being saved Larry actually managed to avoid committing a serious sin. But then the struggle became too much and he reverted back into the pattern of sin which had been routine in his life for many years. Then, as you know, he fell asleep at the wheel and died.
When the moment came for the book of Jane’s life to be laid out in front of the judgment seat of Christ, there was nothing but joy and contentment. Jane was pure and holy and Jesus was very pleased with the state of her soul. He gave to her a white linen garment to put on, representing the righteous deeds she had done during her life (see Revelation 19:81).
The moment for Larry’s judgment was not so joyful. Larry was so full of sin that he could not even look upon the Lord. When asked by Jesus what he had to say in his defense, Larry was smart enough to remind the Lord that he had been saved the day he repented of his sins and accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior (since, for the purpose of this fictional story, Jesus is an Evangelical Protestant, Jesus responded to Larry by letting him know that Larry’s faith, as little as there was of it, had saved him). Jesus told Larry that he was free to walk through the gates of heaven.
But then something happened to Larry. As he started to walk through the gates of heaven, all of the saints and angels in heaven came forward and blocked Larry’s path. They shouted at Larry: “Even though you have been saved, you still stink of sin and our Lord has made it clear that you cannot enter into heaven until you are holy. You must be purified. You must be cleansed of your sin. We cannot have you enter heaven looking at the angels with lustful eyes or still hating races of people who were made in the image and likeness of God. You must be purged from your sin.” Larry said: “How is this to be done?” The angels and saints responded: “You must spend some time outside the gates of heaven doing penance for your sins and transforming your soul, with the aid of God’s grace, from a state of sin to a state of grace. Then, and only then, can you enter into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus has saved you from hell, but you are not worthy yet to enter the kingdom of God. Our God is a consuming fire (Deuteronomy 4:24; Hebrews 12:29), and until the fire of his love destroys all the sin within you, you must wait outside and become purified. Then, and only then, may you look upon the face of our holy God.”
Although to a Catholic Larry’s fate may well have been worse than Purgatory, the circumstances of his life and death underscore the absolute necessity for a state of purification prior to the glory of entering heaven. Even if you believe a person is saved by his faith alone in Jesus – irrespective of the conduct of his life – he cannot enter heaven in a defiled state. He must be purified of his sin. Therefore, unless you believe a person can somehow enter into heaven in an impure state, you do in fact believe in Purgatory.
Historically, it is quite clear that the early Christians believed in a state of purification after death. We know, for example, that the Christians living in the catacombs in Rome inscribed prayers for the dead on the walls. In addition, prayers for the dead are contained in some of the earliest Christian writings.* The key proof text in scripture is 2 Maccabees 12:46, which states: “It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins.” Obviously, we would not pray for the dead if they were already in heaven. Every Catholic Mass offered throughout the world includes prayers for the living and the dead, and there is an extraordinary list of Catholic saints who have experienced private revelations of Purgatory, the most recent of which include Saint Padre Pio and Saint Faustina Kowalska (the saint of the Divine Mercy revelations). Finally, is there not in our hearts a God-given instinct to pray for the souls of the dead? In Letters to Malcolm C.S. Lewis makes mention of this instinct to pray for the dead:
“Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him? I believe in Purgatory.”
In conclusion, scripture, common sense, Sacred Tradition and our natural desire to pray for the dead convince us that some of us may have to undergo a period of purgation before entering heaven, for we are told in the clearest Biblical terms, at Revelation 21:27, that —
“NOTHING UNCLEAN SHALL ENTER [HEAVEN]….”
Tom Mulcahy, M.A.
Image: A Procession in the Catacombs of Callistus by Alberto Pisa, 1905, Public Domain, U.S.A.
References: *See article at catholic.com, *”The Roots of Purgatory,” pertaining to the subject of early Christian writings and Purgatory. See also, Catholicism and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating. Finally, Pope Benedict XVI elaborates profoundly on the New Testament basis for Purgatory in his encyclical, Spe Salvi (sections 45-48), and I will be posting a note on that at some point.
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