“If heaven is for clean people, it’s vacant.”
— ‘Load Me Up’ by Matthew Good Band
I remember when I was 21, I was going through a stressful time as a third-year apprentice carpenter. After leaving one job to start another, my former boss withheld my paycheque and continued to call and harass me for quitting. My mind was in a constant clutter while figuring out how to make ends meet with outstanding wages.
While driving home one evening, I had become so anxious that I lost focus and rear-ended a rusty pickup. His bumper barely looked dented compared to the rest of his vehicle, yet the whole front end of mine was a write-off. I went from living paycheque to paycheque to being cash-broke, owing a $400 fine for reckless driving and no vehicle to travel to work.
Given my situation, my parents had graciously saved me from a dismal financial pothole. They found another vehicle for me, provided that I pay it off as I could afford it, interest-free. Although I had spent the next year making monthly payments, it was encouraging to know my parents had my back and wanted to help me get back on my feet financially. Having a debt under my parents felt a lot easier than being at the mercy of a credit card.
An Interest-Free Debt Transfer
It was only in the aftermath of my accident that I began to understand the meaning of Purgatory. It made me think about how God’s grace is like a ‘debt transfer’ through the death and resurrection of Jesus, similar to how my parents took on my debts to ease my financial burdens. Purgatory is among one the most divisive topics in the history of Christian theology. I remember in high school having discussions with my Christian friends about the idea in which one of them exclaimed,
“If Purgatory exists, that means salvation is works-based! It invalidates the sacrifice Jesus made in dying for our sins!”
I’ve always been hesitant to accept the notion of such a place existing, especially Hell. It is easy to view suffering in such a negative light because nobody likes to suffer. We want to avoid suffering in any way possible – it’s in our nature. This is why it’s easy to embrace the idea of being saved by simply believing Jesus died for our sins. But merely ‘accepting’ Christ into our hearts doesn’t mean we stop sinning, nor does it exempt us from suffering. In fact, there’s something about breaking bad habits that seems torturous in itself – similar to how a caffeine addict like myself finds abstaining from coffee.
Transformation Requires Suffering
If sin doesn’t exist in Heaven, I’d imagine entering a room full of well-mannered, saintly people being quite a culture-shock. Especially for someone like myself who is notorious for cussing like a sailor. It only makes sense that my bad habits would have to be ‘purged’ out before entering a Christlike perfection.
The cross is oftentimes viewed as a symbol of victory over sin. It is also a reminder of how Jesus endured suffering for us. This is why Catholic crucifixes commonly have an image of the impaled Christ. It is to remind us to endure our daily struggles just as He endured suffering for us during the crucifixion. Even though Jesus died once for all for our salvation, we are still subject to overcome worldly temptations that hinder our relationship with God. According to Christian belief, salvation is a free gift from God with a condition. We are called to lay down our lives, follow Him, obey His Word and endure until the bitter end. It’s simple, yet it’s difficult. It’s nothing, and it’s everything.
It is commonly misunderstood that Purgatory is an extension of Hell. Catholic theology actually describes it as the waiting room for Heaven. It is not considered to be a place of condemnation, but a transition into Paradise. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
“All who die in God’s grace, 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.” – CCC 1030
Where Is It In The Bible?
Some would even argue the word ‘Purgatory’ does not even appear in the Bible, but the truth is many words are nowhere to be found in it – words like Trinity, rapture, Immaculate Conception or even the word Bible itself. These are terms specifically defined by the Early Church Fathers by connecting the dots in Scripture to summarize doctrinal beliefs. That being said, one of the biblical references that comes to my mind is Abraham’s bosom described in Luke 16:22-23 (also known as the Limbo of the Fathers). This place was considered where many who died in friendship with God remained until Christ’s redemption at Cavalry. This reference seems to hint at the possibility of a third condition in the spiritual realm, similar to the Catholic description of Purgatory.
“Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.”
— Matthew 5:25-26 RSV
“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, stubble— 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.”
— 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 RSV
“But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
— Revelation 21:27 RSV
C.S. Lewis Believed In Purgatory
C.S. Lewis, one of the most acclaimed Christian apologists of the 20th century quoted in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer,
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.’
I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don’t think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.
My favourite image on this matter comes from the dentist’s chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am ‘coming round’,’ a voice will say, ‘Rinse your mouth out with this.’ This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But . . . it will [not] be disgusting and unhallowed.”
Dante’s Divine Comedy
One of my favourite pieces of classic literature is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. In the second book Purgatorio, the description of souls enduring transformative suffering is not easily forgotten. Collectively, it is not the same kind of torment that is experienced by souls in Hell. Unlike the aura of despair throughout the first book Inferno, there’s an eerie ambiance of hope lingering among the souls in Purgatory as though it were all necessary and worthwhile.
From my perspective, Purgatory does not contradict the Bible nor does it invalidate the death and resurrection of Jesus; but much rather accommodates it. If people in Purgatory are already technically saved by God’s grace, then it’s really a blessing rather than a curse. But no matter how many Bible verses I can pull from reference, I can neither prove nor disprove its existence. There are some things we will never really know until we cross that threshold.
These are only my thoughts. I don’t expect all Christians to readily embrace it. If God prepares a place for me in Purgatory, I wouldn’t find it to be the most ideal situation. Although it wouldn’t be the worst possible scenario. When all is said and done, I would rather wander in the slums of Paradise than reside in the mansions of Hell.
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.”
— Hebrews 12:28-29 RSV