By Curtis Martin
Of all the misunderstood Catholic teachings -- and there are a few of them -- purgatory is often seen as the most embarrassing. Thousands of Catholics leave the Church every year. Their faith is questioned and their religious education doesn't rise to the challenge. You've probably heard these questions yourself: "Where in the Bible does it say you have to confess your sins to a priest?" "Where does it say that the pope is infallible?" "That Mary was conceived without original sin?" And, "Where in the world did you Catholics get the teaching on purgatory?"
The typical conversation goes something like this:
Non-Catholic: "So you're a Roman Catholic?"
Roman Catholic: "That's right. I'm even a Notre Dame fan."
NC: "Do you believe everything the Church teaches?"
RC: "Well, yeah, I guess so."
NC: "Even purgatory?"
RC: "I think so."
NC: "Well, let me get this straight. You believe in an all-loving God, don't you?"
NC: "Do you believe that this God sent His only begotten Son to die for you?"
NC: "So let me get this straight: You believe in an all-loving God, who loved you so much that He sent His only begotten Son to die for you, just so you can go to heaven when you die. Yet, this loving God first sticks you in a ‘cosmic oven' and bakes you for a couple hundred years or so until you're done?"
RC: "Well, I've never really thought about it that way."
NC: "Where in the Bible does it say ‘purgatory'?"
About this time, our Catholic friend is looking for someplace to hide! He seems to have three equally unsatisfactory options. Option number one is blind faith: "I don't know why I believe it, but I'm going to keep right on believing it anyway. After all, I'm Catholic, so don't confuse me with the facts!"
Option two is an over-confident triumphalism: "Silly Fundamentalist! Where in the Bible, really!"
The third option is to run for the hills.
Each of these options fails to take the situation seriously. Blind faith ignores the importance of an answer. Triumphalism ignores the importance of the question. And running away fails to see the importance of reality.
There is, however, another way: the way of constructive apologetics, which takes the question and the answer very seriously, and prayerfully begins to search the sacred texts and the storehouses of apostolic Tradition to find the truth about these important issues.
The case against purgatory seems to be based on three major objections. First, the teaching of purgatory seems to contradict the finished work of Christ and offend the basic understanding of God as a loving, all-caring, all-merciful God who has forgiven our sins in Christ Jesus. Second, purgatory seems to offer a "second chance" for those who did not follow Christ in this life. Third, purgatory does not appear to be a biblical teaching. Before examining the truth about purgatory, let's take a look at these objections and see why they should be taken seriously.
Scripture stresses the truth of God's love, and Evangelical Protestants have frequently had a powerful experience of Christ's forgiveness. St. John explains: "In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his son to be the expiation for our sins" (1 Jn. 4:10). Jesus Christ Himself stresses mercy over judgment, stating,
Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life (Jn. 5:24).
Scripture teaches us about a God who "so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (Jn. 3:16). The Christian believer is called to accept the mercy of God as all-powerful, capable of overcoming all sin, and yet the Catholic who holds the teaching of purgatory seems to belittle God's forgiveness. From this perspective, God appears almost schizophrenic, wanting to forgive our sins and yet meticulously hold us accountable for them, at one time cleansing us from all unrighteousness (cf. 1 Jn. 1:9) and then later deciding to "fry us" for displeasing Him. Have we "passed out of judgment" (cf. Jn. 5:24) or haven't we? Has Christ forgiven our sins, or hasn't He?