Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Yes, Virginia, there is a Purgatory.

OK, so the title is corny, but it is true. The basic charge is the shrill cry "PURGATORY ISN"T IN THE BIBLE!!!!!!!!!!" And to a degree that statement is accurate. The word "Purgatory" is nowhere to be found in the Scriptures. That is hardly relevant, because "Trinity," "Rapture," and "Bible" aren't to be found in the Bible either. I will show that the concept of Purgatory is very much in the Bible. Perhaps it is not explicitly in the Bible, but it is implied, and the Scriptures can be interpreted to support the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. I will gather that most Protestants will not find these arguments convincing. The reason is that they interpret these Scriptures in a different fashion than what the Church does. In actuality the dispute over Purgatory is not as much about Purgatory itself, but over authority to interpret the Scriptures. But, alas, I am getting ahead of myself.

Before I get into the Biblical defense of Purgatory, I would like to explain what exactly Purgatory is and what it is not. When i was a Fundamentalist, I was under the impression that Purgatory was kind of a "lesser Hell" that people went to if they didn't receive all of the Sacraments. (I now know that in most cases it is not possible to receive all seven, as no woman can receive Holy Orders, and Holy Orders and Holy Matrimony are mutually exclusive in the West and limited in the East). Now, rather than give a definition of Purgatory off the top of my head, I will copy the teaching of the Church verbatim from the Catechism:

1030 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.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture speaks of a cleansing fire:

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.

1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” From the beginning, the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic Sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, 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.

So what is it exactly that the Catechism tells us about Purgatory?

· It a final purification. It is not punishment or torment, but rather it is a period of cleansing.

· It is temporary. There is no mention of an eternity in Purgatory.

· All who enter Purgatory are saved. Again, Purgatory is the final purification before entrance into heaven.

I have said before that Purgatory is Scriptural, so let us now delve into God’s preserved written Word and see what God tells us about this final phase of purification.

The Old Testament is as good a place to start as any, and I will look at the great prophet, Isaiah. In the book that bears his name, we have an account of the purging of sin:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the LORD sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

And th foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coalwhich he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven.” (Isa. 6:1-7, RSV-CE2)

Here we see the purging of sin. The very holiness of God revealed the guiltiness of Isaiah, and the righteous prophet needed to be cleansed of his sin to be in the presence of God. The need to be pure in the presence of God is a recurring theme in the Scriptures. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve hid from God after they had sinned (Gen 3:8). In Genesis 16, Hagar is in disbelief that she had “seen God and remained alive.” Moses at the burning bush was afraid to look at God (Ex. 3:6). There are those who will reject this idea of the need to be pure in the face of God because this evidence is all from the Old Testament. Well the same idea is brought back in Revelation. We are told, quite plainly, that “nothing unclean shall enter [the New Jerusalem].”

There will still be an objection to all of this. “I am saved. My sins are forgiven. My sin-debt is paid in full!” This objection sounds like a good one. If we persevere to the end we will be saved. It was rightly said of Jesus by John the Baptist, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” (John 1:29) Let us look at the nature of sin. This is best done in an analogy. (This is not my own. This came from of Mother Angelica’s many, many television appearances.):

There was a little boy who was given some brand new clothes to wear to Mass. On the way home from Mass, he asked if he could play outside, as it was such a beautiful day. His mother replied, “Yes, you may, but you need to change your clothes first. I don’t want you to get them dirty.” The little boy agreed, but when they got home, after they had lunch he went straight outside without changing clothes. As luck would have it, he fell down, while running outside and his clothes became covered with mud. He immediately realized that he forgot to change clothes. Sullen and downcast, he went inside. “Mama,” he said, “I’m sorry, but I forgot to change clothes and I got them all muddy.” His mother looked down at him and said “You are forgiven, just go change right now, OK?”

The point of this story is that he sinned through his own fault, he repented, he was forgiven. But only one thing remained: his clothes still needed cleaned. The same is true with us and our sin. We are forgiven, that is true enough, but the soul is still dirty. The sin leaves foul gunk behind that needs to be cleansed. When we are baptized, that is all washed away if we had committed of any personal sin before our baptism, as would be the case of an adult convert. But when we commit sin after our baptism, the remnants of sin are left that need cleansed and purified.

Some of my readers might say, “That is a cute story, but it isn’t Scripture, so has no value for the establishment of a doctrine.” I will concede the point that it isn’t Scripture, so let us find the concept of cleansing in the Scriptures. (I will even stick to the New Testament to keep the dispensationalists happy!) The clearest passage is 1 Corinthians 3:10-15:

According to the commission of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building on it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man‘s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

This passage says that all of our works in our life will be tested. And for those works which are not of God will be burned away, and the key here is that we will suffer loss, though we will be saved. This is the process the Church names Purgatory.

In the beginning of this post I said that the dissension over Purgatory is really about Church authority. That is because the main objection to this last Scripture is not that could not possibly be about Purgatory, but rather that is not how Protestants choose to interpret the passage. To be honest, this passage is murky. There are multiple ways to interpret it. The Church interprets it as an indication of Purgatory. When Jesus gave the power to Peter, and then the Apostles, to “bind and loose,” what he was doing was giving the Church the authority to interpret the Scriptures authoritatively when needed. And that is really the crux of the issue. We need to listen to the authority given to us by Jesus.