When Christianity Actually Had a Sensible Idea but Discarded It

When Christianity Actually Had a Sensible Idea but Discarded It February 25, 2021

Actually, the Catholics still have that sensible idea—it’s the Protestants that discarded it. The sensible idea is purgatory, the place where sins are accounted for. Purgatory is temporary, unlike hell, so the punishment can be in proportion to the sins.

Of course, very little of the made-up religion of Christianity is actually sensible. What I mean is: given that you must have hell, a purgatory with fair punishment for the bad done in life is a sensible alternative.

Encounter with purgatory

I was raised Presbyterian, and my first encounter with the idea of purgatory came from reading Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written around 1600. At the end of Act 1, Hamlet is confronted by a ghost who identifies himself as the spirit of his dead father, visiting the earth briefly to convey a message. The ghost explains that he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle and demands revenge.

This depiction of purgatory is odd in several ways: if the ghost had a human shape, why wasn’t he recognizable by Hamlet as his father? How can ghosts get temporary passes out of purgatory? How is the goal of revenge noble enough to get such a pass, especially when (spoiler alert) almost everyone, including Hamlet, dies at the end?

This illustrates how the idea of purgatory has changed through time. But how is this possible? Isn’t purgatory clearly defined in the Bible?

Nope, and that’s where we begin our journey.

Where did purgatory come from?

Jesus tells a parable in Luke 12 about readiness. He uses servants who don’t know when their master will return to parallel Jesus’s followers who don’t know when the Son of Man will arrive. In 12:47–8, Jesus distinguishes between servants who commit greater and lesser misdeeds, saying that they will receive greater and lesser punishments. This parable has been interpreted as referring to the afterlife and a rejection of one-size-fits-all punishment.

Another passage comes from Paul (1 Corinthians 3:12–15). It imagines people building the foundation of their lives out of materials that are precious (gold, silver, and jewels) or cheap (wood or straw). Fire will test these foundations, burning up the wood and straw but leaving the precious materials intact. This trial suggested to the early church fathers a purification process, which gave support to purgatory.

A final passage is 2 Maccabees 12:41–45. (The contents of the Bible varies by denomination, and the first two books of Maccabees are some of the handful of books in the Roman Catholic Bible that are not in the Protestant Bible.) This book was written in the second century BCE and documented the remarkably successful revolt of the Jews against the Seleucid Empire.

At the end of 2 Maccabees 12, the Jews fight a battle. Afterward, the living begin to bury their fallen, but they discover that each dead man was carrying “objects dedicated to the idols of Jamnia.” Clearly these men were hedging their bets, not putting their full support behind Yahweh. Their surviving comrades then prayed for these sins to be forgiven and sent money to Jerusalem for a sacrifice to make amends. This acknowledged both an afterlife and the expectation that prayers and sacrifices from the living will benefit the dead.

But there’s another side to that coin

As we’ve seen many times, including the last post, the context of any Bible passage is the entire Bible. With almost 800,000 words in its English version, the Bible says lots of things, many of which are contradictory. A clear statement in one book often crashes into another clear statement elsewhere.

One passage that argues against purgatory is Luke 23:42–3, in which Jesus is on the cross with two other criminals. The first criminal mocks Jesus, while the other defends him.

Then [the second criminal] said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

This makes no mention of a prolonged period in purgatory.

Here’s another that rejects purgatory as a way station on the path to heaven.

Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24)

In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the king separates the good people from the bad ones. Jesus concludes:

[The bad people] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25:46)

Again, there are just two choices. Purgatory isn’t a third option.

Where do these ideas come from?

Years ago, I listened to a series of Sherlock Holmes radio plays. These didn’t come from the official Conan Doyle stories but were new adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Each would end with an acknowledgement such as, “This story was inspired by an incident in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘A Scandal in Bohemia.’” The details of the mysterious incident that launched each story were never made clear.

That’s how it is with some of these points of Christian dogma like purgatory or the Trinity. The Bible gives no clear explanation of either; there’s little more foundation than “inspired by an incident.”

Why is this Catholic but not Protestant?

If you remember anything about the Reformation (also known as the Protestant Reformation), it’s probably Martin Luther’s publishing his Ninety-five Theses in 1517. One of Luther’s primary complaints was the Church’s sale of indulgences.

So how do indulgence work? The Roman Catholic Church imagines that the aftermath of a sin has a guilt component and a punishment component. If a Catholic is in a good relationship with God (up to date on confessions, for example), the guilt has been forgiven, but there’s still that punishment. If it’s not taken care of in life, it carries over into the afterlife. Living Catholics can reduce the burden of punishment on the dead through indulgences, which include prayers, good works, and financial donations.

Luther’s complaint was the sale of indulgences (though where a donation supporting the good work of the Church becomes a crass sale of a license to sin is not clear). Initially, Luther was merely cautious about indulgences but soon rejected them completely. He argued that the soul was insensate between bodily death and resurrection, and purgatory was an “unbiblical corruption.” This rejection caught on among other Protestant reformers, who argued “salvation by grace alone” rather than salvation by works.

This is what a manmade doctrine from God looks like

What does a doctrine cobbled together from a few cherry-picked Bible verses and wishful thinking look like? Here are some of the issues that theologians have debated about purgatory.

  • Is purgatory a physical place? The earliest notions were of a state of existence rather than a place, then it became a place about a thousand years ago. Lately the pendulum has swung back.
  • What’s the point of Jesus’s sacrificial death if people must be purified through torment in purgatory?
  • Is purification done with actual fire? How long is this process?
  • How much pain is caused? Augustine speculated that it is far greater pain than is possible on earth. Others imagine that those in purgatory are in peace because they are confident in their salvation.
  • Is punishment in purgatory correctly seen as vengeance by God?

Dante’s Inferno was just the most popular of a large number of medieval works in the afterlife-tourism genre that answered these questions with fiction. Trying to use theology instead, purgatory was addressed in three Church Councils. One conclusion that admits the flimsy foundation of purgatory was for the Church to avoid “difficult and subtle questions which tend not to edification.”

Society would be better off if the Church avoided entirely those questions it can’t answer, in particular every supernatural question.

See also:

The difference between education and indoctrination
is whether the person at the front of the room
welcomes questions from the audience.
Try it the next time your minister
is in the middle of a sermon.
— commenter RichardSRussell

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Image from osseous (license CC BY 2.0)
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