Any discussion of Catholic and Protestant relations usually ends up focusing on a short list of issues: the Pope, Mary, justification, and, of course, purgatory.
To many Protestants, purgatory is yet another misguided add-on by the Catholic Church, an extraneous bit of theological speculation designed to part parishioners from their money: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs goes the popular medieval ditty—one that captured so much of what Luther so mightily protested against.
But is the doctrine of purgatory actually as heretical as Protestantism has long held it to be? Or is it, instead, barely any different from the belief of Protestants (of which I am one)? I argue the latter. Here’s why:
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
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.
“Achieving holiness” is another way of describing sanctification. Purgatory, then, at its heart, is about sanctification, about becoming holy so that we can stand pure and unblemished before God. In his book Systematic Theology, conservative evangelical Wayne Grudem defines sanctification as:
a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.
Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., in the Modern Catholic Dictionary, defines sanctification as:
Being made holy. The first sanctification takes place at baptism, by which the love of God is infused by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Newly baptized persons are holy because the Holy Trinity begins to dwell in their souls and they are pleasing to God. The second sanctification is a lifelong process in which a person already in the state of grace grows in the possession of grace and in likeness to God by faithfully corresponding with divine inspirations. [Italics added.] The third sanctification takes place when a person enters heaven and becomes totally and irrevocably united with God in the beatific vision.
Likewise, Bradford A. Mullen in the Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology writes:
Sanctification has a negative and positive orientation. Negatively, sanctification is the cleansing or purifying from sin […] Positively, sanctification is the growth in righteous attitudes and behavior. [Italics added]
Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) sums up his understanding of Purgatory in Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life:
Purgatory is not […] some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishments in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. […] Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy.
Because there is sin that still remains in our hearts even though we have become Christians (Rom 6:12–13; 1 John 1:8), our sanctification will never be completed in this life. But once we die and go to be with the Lord, then our sanctification is completed in one sense, for our souls are set free from indwelling sin and are made perfect. The author of Hebrews says that when we come into the presence of God to worship we come “to the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). This is only appropriate because it is in anticipation of the fact that “nothing unclean shall enter” into the presence of God, the heavenly city (Rev 21:27).
Most Protestants believe that at the moment of death God completes that process of sanctification, purging any remnant of sin from the soul. Catholics believe that the exact same thing happens—but that instead of an instantaneous event, sanctification is a process that continues after death. The Catholic view is that the process of sanctification—the rooting out and healing of our attachment to sin by the Holy Spirit—continues postmortem for as long as it takes one to become fully conformed to Christ’s image.
Both Catholics and Protestants agree that it is a crucial part of the Christian life to grow more Christ-like, more holy, more sanctified. Both also agree that none of us achieves that holy perfection in this life—that we all die unperfected.
The sole difference between the Catholic and Protestant views is in the exact timing of the completion of sanctification.
There exists nothing explicit in Protestant theology that runs counter to the notion of sanctification continuing to take place after death. One can, in fact, fully believe every major Protestant creed and confession, and still have no reason at all to reject the possibility that sanctification is a process that continues postmortem.
There is simply no theological basis for arguing that a belief in purgatory conflicts with Protestantism.
C.S. Lewis, himself a Protestant, and a beloved guiding light to modern evangelicals, in a letter to his friend Malcolm wrote:
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 cleansed first.”
There are, to be sure, points of difference between Protestant and Catholic theologies that are perhaps necessarily divisive. But the doctrine of purgatory should not be counted among them.
And if purgatory is not, in fact, an issue as divisive as so many believe it to be, is it not reasonable to guess that other theological points of contention between Protestants and Catholics might also, through simple examination and reflection, prove to be less substantive than imaginary?
Dan is the Executive Editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians blog. He is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has at least two cats.