Once you get over your misconception that purgatory’s pretty much hell, it’s actually kind of a nice idea. We get to imagine that we’re still connected with our deceased loved ones, and while we’re at it, we can pretend that we actually have the ability do something for them. Plus, if we’re kind of jerks, we know we’ve still got purgatory do deal with our mess, so we don’t really have to be good on earth, right? For those who are looking for theological platitudes, purgatory’s a win-win-win.1
But is there any truth to it? Or, as a Jehovah’s Witness I spent the other morning with said, “That’s Catechism! I want Scripture!!”2
Well, we’ll start with Scripture. But as you probably know, we in the Catholic Church use Scripture and Tradition with a healthy sprinkling of good old-fashioned reason. After all, Scripture itself doesn’t say “Scripture alone.” And, of course, there are some pretty essential truths that all Christians3 believe that can’t be found explicitly in Scripture: the Trinity, for one, and the divinity of Christ. But this is a matter for another post.4 Let’s get back to purgatory.
If you’ve been around apologetics circles much, you know that the best defense we have of purgatory comes from 2 Maccabees. It says explicitly that it’s a good thing to pray for the dead. The problem? Protestants don’t use 2 Maccabees. For a long explanation, check out this paper I wrote in grad school.5 The quick version is that 2 Maccabees belongs to that group of 7 books called the Deuterocanon by Catholics and the Apocrypha by Protestants. The Protestant claim is that Jesus didn’t use these books, so they don’t belong in the Bible. The truth is much more complicated than that, but suffice it to say that Luther didn’t say a word about getting rid of Maccabees until Johann Eck brought up this passage in a debate on purgatory at Leipzig in 1519. Basically, Eck read the passage, Luther paused, and then he said (to the shock of everyone present) that it was irrelevant because that wasn’t Scripture. It sure sounds to me like he knew he was beat, so he changed the rules.
Want to see what was so decisively pro-purgatory that Luther had to start removing books of the Bible? Check it out:
On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his companions went to gather up the bodies of the fallen and bury them with their kindred in their ancestral tombs. But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had fallen. They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden. Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection in mind; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin. (2 Mac 12:39-46)
So here we have these men who have died with sin on their souls. Clearly Judas is praying for the dead, and that’s a good thing. Why pray for the dead if not for their salvation? What else could they possibly need? They don’t need anything if they’re in heaven. And what could prayers possibly accomplish if they’re in hell? So they’re dead and not yet saved. Purgatory much?
In fact, Judas doesn’t just pray for them, he offers sacrifices for them after their death in the hopes that these prayers will purify their souls in the afterlife. Sounds a heck of a lot like offering Masses for the souls in purgatory to me.
But while this passage is very helpful for those of us who accept the Deuterocanon, it will accomplish very little with Protestants. If you’re really on your game, you can explain that even if this isn’t Scripture, it demonstrates what the accepted belief at the time of Christ was. If this is what people believed and Jesus said nothing to correct it, it stands to reason that they were right.
Our whole argument from Scripture doesn’t stand or fall on this passage, though. 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 talks about the process of judgment and salvation. Note that there is a process of purifying fire—what is evil will be burned, what is good will remain. And so the dead will be judged and then saved (purified) through fire.
According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.
Or how about Mt 5:25-26:
Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.
Here’s a description of a man who’s been judged and found wanting.6 He’s imprisoned, but not consigned to Gehenna as so often in the Gospels. No, this man is put in jail until he has paid the last penny. It seems that having died and been judged, he’s making up for his failings until he’s “put all the jelly beans back in the jar,” if you will. It seems, then, that there’s potential to make up for your sins after death.
And finally, Revelation 21:27, as we discussed last week. “Nothing unclean shall enter heaven.” If you’re a sinner, you’re unclean. You may have been forgiven and washed in the blood of the Lamb, but anyone who’s attached to his sin is not completely purified. Purgatory purifies you, makes you ready for heaven. Without it, those of us who aren’t as holy as though claimed by Christ ought to be—well, we’d be in a lot of trouble.
So purgatory is at least supported by Scripture, if not exactly proven without 2 Maccabees. But it’s also all over the writings of the early Church. Rather than being a medieval invention, as is often claimed, the idea of praying and even having Masses said for the dead is an ancient one, a core part of the life of the early Church.
The earliest I’ve found is from the account of the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity in 202. Perpetua has a vision of a dead friend suffering. She prays for him earnestly, then has a vision of him in glory. The obvious lesson is that her prayers had some effect on the state of his soul. There must, then, be something that happens after death that brings people from torment to glory.
Here are some quotations from the early Church that I’ll assume you can interpret yourself:7
- Tertullian: “A woman, after the death of her husband . . . prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection. And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice.” (216 AD)
- St. Cyril of Jerusalem: “Then, we pray [in the anaphora] for the holy fathers and bishops who have fallen asleep, and in general for all who have fallen asleep before us, in the belief that it is a great benefit to the souls on whose behalf the supplication is offered, while the holy and tremendous Victim is present. . . . By offering to God our supplications for those who have fallen asleep, if they have sinned, we . . . offer Christ sacrificed for the sins of all, and so render favorable, for them and for us, the God who loves man.” (350 AD)
- St. Monica: “Put this body anywhere! Don’t trouble yourselves about it! I simply ask you to remember me at the Lord’s altar wherever you are.” (late 4th century)
- St. John Chrysostom: “Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice [Job 1:5], why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.” (392 AD)
- St. Augustine: “Temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment.” (419 AD)
- St. Gregory the Great: “As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.” (604 AD, referencing Mt 12:32)
This clearly isn’t some later development—the concept of praying for the salvation of those who have already passed away pervades the writings of the early Church. That individuals believe something clearly doesn’t make it true. But when we see consistent support of an idea from the Church Fathers—particularly from bishops exercising their magisterial authority—it certainly supports the claim that this idea is in fact true, the consistent teaching of the Church.
Generally, I’d finish up with an explanation of the logic behind a doctrine, the reason component, but I think I pretty much covered that in my description of purgatory. Suffice it to say that the grace of God is sufficient and Christ’s sacrifice saves us, but being saved is not the same as being sanctified. If there were no opportunity for final purification, God in his justice would be bound to exclude many from the holiness of heaven. And what about those who aren’t Catholic? Certainly, God will not damn someone because he was never exposed to the Gospel, but a Hindu would be unprepared to worship the Triune God. Perhaps in that case, purgatory is more like an intensive RCIA program. In any event, purgatory is a gift from a merciful God who will stop at nothing when it comes to our salvation.
During November, the month when we commemorate our dead in a particular way, take some time to pray for the souls of the deceased. Today, Veterans Day, is a perfect day to offer a prayer or ten for the souls of those who gave their lives for our freedom, whether they died in the process or not. And while you’re at it, go ahead and ask them for their prayers, too. They’re sure not doing anything else.
P.S. If you’re in the Atlanta area, you should come to the Georgia Tech Catholic Center on Monday at 7. I’ll be speaking about the Reformation roots of the divisions in Christianity and their theological implications. Basically, some history, some apologetics, and some ecumenism to tie it together.
- Everyone’s picking up on the sarcasm, right? [↩]
- He followed this with, “I grew up Catholic and we never opened the Bible–not once!” My students will tell you (with some trace of bitterness, I imagine) that they had to memorize all the books of the Bible in order and at least one verse every week. Hardly a day went by that we didn’t open our Bibles. Trust me, if I believe something, I can support it from Scripture. [↩]
- Although, admittedly, not Jehovah’s Witnesses. [↩]
- And my talk on Monday at Georgia Tech–you should come! [↩]
- Seriously, you should read it. It’s so interesting!! [↩]
- Admittedly, this might not be about judgment and salvation, but every other discussion of judges in the Gospels is, so…. [↩]
- Pretty much any time I list quotations from the Church Fathers, I’m indebted to www.catholic.com, an incredible resource. [↩]