Monday, September 18, 2017

Our Purgatory Is Now

It’s always wise to let those who teach error define their own terms, otherwise we end up flailing away at straw men of our own construction. Nothing is gained from such exercises.

In that spirit, from Catholic Answers, a definition:

Purgatory (Lat., purgare, to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.”

Hmm. Let’s chew that one over a bit.

Satisfaction Due to Their Transgressions

The last clause, of course, is something Protestants reject out of hand. We understand our Bibles to teach that Jesus our Lord was “delivered up for our trespasses” and that his resurrection is evidence of our full and complete justification in the eyes of God. No further satisfaction for our transgressions is required, nor will it ever be, least of all anything we might hope to provide through suffering.

That said, there’s a ray of biblical truth peeking through the Stygian darkness of the purgatory doctrine, and that’s in the name itself. The necessity for purification is something scripture teaches in various ways.

Perfected for All Time

In one sense, purification of the sinner has already been fully accomplished. Like the leper in Matthew 8, we look to the Lord to make us clean. That original once-for-all cleansing requires the work of God, not man. It is the blood of Jesus that cleanses us from all sin. It is “by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”

The voice from heaven that spoke to the apostle Peter characterized the coming harvest of Gentile believers as “what God has made clean”. It was up to Peter to accept them as God had, not to make the Gentiles a little spiffier so they might eventually qualify. Later, he tells his fellow Jews in Jerusalem that God “made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith.”

Has made. Having cleansed. Past tense. In that sense, the deal was already done, and faith in Jesus Christ was the mechanism by which it was accomplished.

That’s one way we might look at it. But in another very practical sense, purification is an ongoing project. For the Christian, purgatory is now.

Ongoing Purification

The New Testament describes several ways in which Christians are to cleanse or purify ourselves:
  • Exposure to the word of God has the effect of purifying believers, both corporately and individually. But like James’ man in the mirror, we must practice what we learn in God’s word in order to experience its cleansing benefits.
  • Enjoyment of fellowship with God requires that we “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit”, meaning that we stop willingly identifying ourselves with and exposing ourselves to those things, people and situations we know to be contaminants.
  • Witnessing faithfully purifies those who engage in it. When we preach Jesus as the Christ forthrightly as Paul did, we are “clean” in the sense that we bear no further responsibility for the eternal loss of our audience, having done everything in our power to urge them to obedience.
For the Christian, purification is a regular feature of our lives here and now, not something we anticipate for an indeterminate period in the interval between death and eternal fellowship with Christ.

Purification and Suffering

One more thought: For the Catholic, purification is the outcome of suffering. Men and women are made to suffer, it is thought, until they are “entirely free of venial faults”. But the New Testament teaches the reverse: suffering is the outcome of purification.

No, it is the pure who suffer for Christ here, not the reprobates. Peter says, “Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” Suffering is the price we pay for identifying with our Saviour. He said it himself, “In the world you will have tribulation.” When did the disciples suffer? Not when they ran and hid from their Master’s persecutors, but when they faced them up. Having done with cowardice and denial — in effect, having cleaned up their act — they took their lumps from the enemies of Jesus one after another.

Choosing to suffer for the sake of Christ instead of going along with the world is the clearest evidence purification has already occurred in the believer’s heart and life. “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God,” declares Peter. When would that be? Why, right now. Have a look at the context.

Suffering After Death

The Bible does not teach suffering after death with a view to purification and eventual blessing. For those who reject Christ, there will be suffering all right, but scripture give us no warrant to believe there’s any light at the end of that tunnel.

For the Christian, all purification is either already fully accomplished or in the process of being worked through in this life.

Or to put it another way, our purgatory is now.


  1. The thought of "Our Purgatory Is Now" has of course some complications built in. First, in my opinion, it could well be partially true but not entirely so. Take the Bible story of Job. Since purgatory is assumed to be a just and proportional response to your misdeeds and misshape (of your internal state with the purpose of correcting it) then Job must have had a really poor record for deserving his suffering. But this type of reasoning has of course been explored many times and is considered false. Anybody will tell you that they do not understand why the poorest and least deserving slobs (which might include you or me ;-) nevertheless seem to get hit the hardest while the dishonest and well-off on their luxury yacht are having a lifelong grand old time. So, possibly our suffering here may contribute towards reducing the need for purgatory while, on the other hand, it seems in general to often be out of balance and not fair. The Catholic Church, which has attempted to deal with this issue, does agree that our suffering here can reduce the suffering there but also suggests that the innocent can suffer, and often greatly, because the Church, being the Body of Christ naturally also shares in his innocent suffering. Further, because of that we also share in the fact that our innocent suffering contributes towards the salvation of other souls (possibly even members of our earthly family) or total unknowns but as apportioned by the justice of God. The (perhaps disappointing) insight therefore is that just because you live a good life is no inoculation against suffering, here and there.

  2. The Job problem is one issue: God holds Job up to Satan as exemplary from the beginning (1:8), so Job suffered not because he required purification but because, at least compared with the world in which he lived, he was already righteous in his behaviour.

    Then there's Saul of Tarsus: slated for suffering from even before his baptism (Acts 9:16), not at all on account of his own need for purification but "for the sake of my name".

    So you are correct that living a good life is no inoculation against suffering here. That is the expected lot of the believer.

    However, the question of men God has declared righteous suffering after death is something that remains to be demonstrated, as we do not find it in scripture.