The doctrine of Purgatory

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is No. 9 in the series. Please read my introduction and explanation here.

I remember shortly before my father died, standing at the foot of his sickbed as two nuns prayed for him. Around his neck was a simple wooden cross, and he clutched it as they implored God on his behalf. His countenance I recall as well…lips a little tight, eyes held open, a look of readying oneself to meet a painful and significant challenge ahead.

I couldn’t read my dad’s mind, of course, and his body language may have been expressing his bodily pain as much as anything else. But I suspect that, as he must have known his time on earth was short, he was also fearfully anticipating the flames of purgatory.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Catholic Church’s doctrine of Sacred Tradition, an extra-biblical but equally authoritative body of truth, has resulted in the promulgation of various teachings and practices not supported and often contradicted by Scripture. Purgatory is one of the most maddening Catholic inventions, especially when I consider how many millions of Catholics, my father included, must have died in horrific fear instead of joyful anticipation of finally reaching their eternal home.

According to the Catechism (1030), “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfpurgatoryectly 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.” Paragraph 1031 affirms that this takes the form of a “cleansing fire.”

The Church does cite a few Scriptural verses as ostensibly supporting this doctrine of a hellish place of purifying torment. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul is chastising the church in Corinth for their spiritual immaturity, their “jealousy and strife.” Within the context of how the believers are behaving, Paul compares the church to “God’s building” and relates how he laid the foundation, which is Christ, and how others build on that foundation. Contrasting the quality, value, and durability of different building materials – “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw” – he says this, “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.” I Cor 3:13-15

This verse is not saying that we will suffer in flames, as the Catholic Church interprets it. It’s saying that our works will be tested for genuineness and purity. If they pass the test, we will be rewarded. If they don’t, we will lose what rewards we might have gained. We will be saved, but “as” through fire – as one escapes a burning building with nothing but the clothes on his back, and nothing remaining behind him.

1 Peter 1:7 is also used to support the doctrine of Purgatory. Here Peter is acknowledging the “various trials” that his readers have been experiencing, encouraging them that they are a testing of their faith which will “result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” He compares their faith to gold which “perishes though it is tested by fire,” but their faith will remain. The fire is analogous to their trials. That’s it.

Jesus’ warnings in Matthew 12 about the sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, that will not be forgiven even in “the age to come” do not support the notion of Purgatory. Neither do the references to praying for the dead in 2 Maccabees, which is a non-canonical, Apocryphal book.

But what the notion of Purgatory supports is the Church’s teaching on indulgences, a way to earn an early parole for yourself or a loved one. Kind of like paying off someone’s layaway. That will be reason number 10.

So the Church teaches that if we haven’t made sufficient payment for our sins in this life, the balance will be due in Purgatory. And the multiple verses that speak of Christ’s payment for and God’s forgiveness of our sins when we repent? This doctrine has the effect of greatly minimizing the payment that Jesus made to our account.

 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”  – Romans 4:3-8
For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. – 2 Corinthians 5:1-9