Clarifying Purgatory

My friend Ryan who blogs over at has written a great article on the various definitions of words that you need to know when discussing Hell. He divides the definitions into four categories: ‘The Purpose of Hell’, ‘Who Goes to Hell’, ‘Who Decides Who Goes to Hell’, and ‘The Nature of the Soul’.

I just wanted to make a quick addition to the discussion to hopefully prevent some confusion surrounding one idea. Under ‘The Purpose of Hell’ Ryan lists three common purposes: “Torture, Extinction, and Purification/Purgatory”.

Under Purification/Purgatory, Ryan provides the following explanation:

Purification/Purgatory: This understanding comes largely from Scripture’s fire metaphor almost always being about purification. It’s painful purification, but the end-result is to be shaped into something better, much like suffering in this life can shape us into something better if we let it.

My main concern here is the notion of equating purgatory with an understanding of hell. I venture to say that when most people hear the word “purgatory” they think of the Catholic Church. In the Catholic understanding purgatory is not a substitute for Hell, nor is it a place per se. It is a process, an intermediate state of being between the now and heaven – the holy car wash. It is where purification takes place, but the only people who are eligible to enter purgatory are those already destined for Heaven. Hell still very much exists but this is not it. Purgatory then is not understood to be a replacement for Hell, nor is it Limbo (a holding place for souls with no known destination – originally conceived of to deal with the question of children who died before they were baptized. This theology was dumped years ago and the word does not appear in the Catechism).

With regards to Purgatory paragraph 1030-1031 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, 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.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.

Does it hurt? As Pope Benedict XVI explains in his Encyclical Spe Salvi, yes, but it’s pain with a purpose:

His gaze, the touch of his heart, heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire.’ But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the interrelation between justice and grace also becomes clear: The way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us forever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth, and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgment we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.

So, in the Catholic understanding it would be untrue to connect purgatory with Hell except that those in purgatory aren’t going there. Hell still very much exists as the place where those who do not die in God’s grace go.

As the Catechism states:

1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.” The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

This is not an argument against Ryan’s fine article (nor an affirmation of purgatory), but a point of clarification. Purgatory is a contentious issue for non-Catholics and is often misunderstood. It is important to know what something is if we are going to discuss it. If you haven’t yet, go read Ryan’s original article, it’s great for giving us a common language from which to have discussion.

4 thoughts on “Clarifying Purgatory

  1. Pingback: Definitions When Discussing Hell

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