Purgatory: Our Next Stop?

"Where is this Purgatory stuff in the Bible?" ask my Protestant friends. "As far as I'm concerned, Christians go straight to Heaven, washed in the blood of the Lamb and ready to stand before the Throne. How come you Catholics think you have to work your way to Heaven? Haven't you heard the good news of God's loving grace?"

I can appreciate words like these. As a former Evangelical I said them myself. I regarded Purgatory as a sort of "betwixt and between" place after death; some kind of second chance where you worked off your sins to earn forgiveness if you hadn't been good enough for Heaven. And since I couldn't square that with the biblical proclamation that we are saved by grace, not by works, I ignored what I took to be idle Catholic speculations about Purgatory and focused on walking my daily walk, tending my little Evangelical garden and not bothering about such Catholic notions.

But then one day a funny thing happened: my Evangelical garden began to sprout very Catholic-looking flowers.

You see, Evangelicals take purity in our daily walk before God very seriously. Oh sure, we believe in grace and we know you can't work your way to Heaven, but we also know grace doesn't mean remaining a couch potato and letting Jesus pay the welfare taxes. In short, we know that "receiving grace" means obeying and living according to God's way by grace and faith, not according to the world or the flesh. That's called "discipleship."

Now in Evangelicaldom, when a disciple sins (as we all do), you go into your prayer closet, say you're sorry and, confessing the promise of 1 John 1:9, receive forgiveness by faith and come out swinging against the sin using the grace of God as your boxing glove. If it's a tougher matter (say, a bad old habit, ingrained weakness or addiction), you go to your church or prayer group, share your struggle with trusted believers, and ask for the community's help. This is given gladly and your pastor or friends (or even the whole church) may "covenant together" with you to pray and help you in whatever way possible, financially, spiritually and/or emotionally. The Evangelical attitude to such struggle is: If that's what it takes, then in Jesus' name, that's what it takes. Like Paul, Evangelicals know disciples aren't made like Polaroid photos. Inspired by the seed on good soil in the parable of the sower, they know it takes stick-to-itiveness to see Christ formed in his precious children (Gal. 4:19-20) and they are prepared to make considerable sacrifices to see that happen. As Amy Grant says in one of her songs, "That's what love is for."

Such love, of course, is very demanding. Principally, it demands the sort of faith that strives with tremendous energy to overcome big odds, arm wrestle (and beat) the temptation to despair, and repair the damage we have done to others by our selfishness. But such faith is fired, not by fear, but by the vision of growing into the freedom to live. It is inextricably knit together with hope and love because the strength to struggle onward comes from the hope and love of a God who has already forgiven you and is now in the process of making you into something wonderful. It's light years from "trying to earn God's love" because it's God's love already working in you.

That's why none of this struggle (known technically as "sanctification") is seen by Evangelicals as somehow implying that you "aren't really saved". Instead, it is seen in the light of Hebrews 12:5-8 which tells us:

My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines those he loves,
and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son."

And that was where the Catholic blossom began to bloom. For I suddenly realized one day that all this business about sanctification dovetailed perfectly with the Catholic belief that God's forgiveness does not mean all bad habits are repealed, all back taxes cancelled and the people we hurt are magically restored to perfect physical, emotional and spiritual health just because we are believers. Instead the Catholic Church (just like my own) said, "If you break a friend's window in a hissy fit and repent, you shall certainly be forgiven. But you still have to do something about the window and about that nasty temper of yours. You must, in the words of St. Paul, 'Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do his good pleasure.'" (Philippians 2:12-13)

Now you can call that punishment if you like, but it's obviously a grace-filled punishment unto life (as opposed to damnation unto death). As a matter of fact, it is the sort of tough love we all, Protestant and Catholic, embrace if we really despise our sin and are eager to make it up. Indeed, the process of telling the truth, accepting forgiveness and making it up with the ones we hurt ("reconciliation and penance" to use the old technical term) is exactly way we both heal the damage and allow the Holy Spirit to knead His new life into our very bones so that we are actually changed and don't just stay the same stupid people doing the same stupid things all over again.

But realizing that led inevitably to one final common sense observation: For most people, this process of inner change and healing is not finished by the time we die and therefore must be finished--somehow--between the moment we draw our last breath and the moment we stand before God in the perfection the Scripture promises. (1 John 3:2).

At that point I hazily realized that I (and every Protestant I knew) vaguely believed something similar. But we felt it to be somehow a very substantial difference from Catholic teaching to say such a transformation was "instantaneous" after death. Yet upon inspection, I discovered the Catholic Church says nothing whatsoever about the length of a process which, by definition, occurs outside of time. She only insisted on the reality of it for those who die in grace but are not yet perfected (as would certainly be the case with me if I were squashed by a meteor walking home from work tonight). But, unlike me, instead of laboriously referring to this mysterious completion of sanctification as "What-God-does-to-you-to-make-you-perfect-after-you-die-so-that-you-will-finally-finish-the-process-of-becoming-holy-begun-here-on-earth-and-become-totally-harmonious-with-the-life-and-joy-of-God," the Church, with rather graceful economy, calls the process "Purgatory" because it's shorter.

Very well then, I saw that Purgatory and sanctification are one and the same thing: our cooperation with the purifying fire of the Spirit. But if that is so, then Purgatory no more adds our works to God's grace than sanctification does. Rather, Purgatory is simply the fruition after death of everything God is up to before death: the perfecting of his children, often by trial and struggle (Romans 5:3-5). It is not, in any sense, a "betwixt and between" place but is squarely in the midst of Heaven--a sort of finishing school for the saints where we complete the Master of Fine Arts training we began here when we repented and believed the Gospel on earth: the Fine Art of being lovers. It is the finishing touch, the final suturing on the lifelong process of heart transplantation God has accomplished in a believer's life.

So what's the practical upshot of this? For me, it is found in the old prayer "Lord, send me my Purgatory now." For in so praying, I pray the will of God in the Bible: the same Bible I thought said nothing about Purgatory. When I ask God to conform me to the likeness of His Son (Romans 8:29), when I pray that he create in me a pure heart (Psalm 51:10), when I seek to, in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ (Ephesians 4:15), when I desire to become "like him" (1 John 3:2) and to "appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:4), I am in fact expressing a deeply biblical desire for something more than mere legal acquittal before God's throne. I am following Scripture in seeking total transformation and perfection according to God's promise; a transformation called Purgatory by the Church but known by other Christians as "holiness," "healing," "sanctification" and "glory". Thus I no longer regard Purgatory as something fearful (though it may well be painful). Instead, I see it for what it is: the fulfillment of the Lord's word that "he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6). He won't leave us stuck forever with our lousy tempers or eating disorders. Rather, He will struggle in us and with us until the words of the old hymn (and the Book of Revelation) are fulfilled: "We shall overcome." So in the end, Purgatory is found in Scripture. Only it shyly calls itself by a different name.

It is known there as Hope.

Copyright 2001 - Mark P. Shea