A reader struggles with Purgatory and Mortal/Venial Sin Distinctions

A reader struggles with Purgatory and Mortal/Venial Sin Distinctions July 14, 2014

He writes:

I must admit that I’m struggling with reconciling some things I’m reading about sin and purgatory. I can see the need for a time between death and heaven in terms of finishing the work that Christ has begun before we are fit for heaven. I can embrace the idea of a place were our loving Father finishes his work of gently transforming his children. However, some of the things I’ve read by Catholics present it as something very close to torture. One website said, “Expect it to be brutal”. A number of people also seem to relate it to particular sins we’ve committed, rather than the flaws in us that still need to be healed. They make it sound an awful lot like being punished for sin and that doesn’t feel compatible with the forgiveness that God offers in Christ. It makes me wonder how anyone could face death with anything but sheer terror! That doesn’t resonate well with the hope I read in scripture.

For my take on purgatory, go here. There are a couple of pieces there. As far as the pain of purgatory, I think the analogy of the “runner’s high” is useful. Purgatory, like all change and growth, hurts. But it’s a good hurt. So some saint describe purgatory’s pains as worse than any earthly suffering while other describe purgatory’s pleasures as more exquisite than any early pleasure. This is not different than Paul’s point: suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character, hope . For the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. (Romans 5:1-5) Likewise, Hebrews 12:5-11 speaks of suffering as a form of fatherly discipline: Pain unto life, not pain unto death. Purgatory basically is the teaching that what we experience here in the process of change and growth will be completed after death if not here.

There are also scriptures that seem to present a view that bypasses any idea of purgatory, such as the thief on the cross who is promised paradise that day. Paul’s understanding that absence from the body is present with the Lord, and the image of those who are still alive at Christ’s return being caught up to meet Christ in the sky.

Sure. Purgatory is not a necessary attribute of the afterlife. If we complete the process of being conformed to Christ in this life, no purgatory. But that’s up to us.

Regarding sins, mortal and venial, the list if things described as grave sins and the idea that one goes immediately to hell if you die before confessing it makes salvation sound like a very precarious thing that might be lost eternally if you get hit by a bus at the wrong moment. Again, it doesn’t resonate well with the Rock of Salvation to which I have attached my life.

Mortal and venial sin is just common sense. Not all sins are of equal gravity, so we don’t treat the jaywalker as we treat a serial killer. All sin harms and little sins can be gateway drugs to grave ones, but fibbing about your weight is not the same thing as engineering the Holocaust. It’s why John tells his readers that not all sin leads to death (1 John 5:16-17) and Jesus distinguishes between the slave who does not know his master’s will and fails to do it and the slave who does know his master’s will and fails to do it (Luke 12:47-48). It’s also why Jesus tells Pilate that the one who handed him over to him is guilty of the greater sin (John 19:11).

I’m not sure how your logic works here. If there’s no Purgatory and even the tiniest sin is equal to murder, then why wouldn’t you go straight to hell at death? Conversely, if Jesus guarantees forgiveness from unrepented mortal sin, then why bother repenting? And what difference would timing of death make? I think it’s better to think of sin in living, rather than legal, terms. Venial sin is like a paper cut. But if we swish our finger around in the raw sewage of mortal sin, we can get a life-threatening infection. The point is to avoid all sin. And Jesus helps us do that. Worrying about when you’ll die is beside the point. If you are focused on Jesus, you will avoid mortal sin as a matter of course, just as if you are focused on loving your wife you will not accidentally commit adultery.

By the way, I have a discussion of mortal/venial sin too!

Best wishes!


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