Why Is Purgatory Real and Necessary?

Purgatory artwork.

Catholics and non-Catholics alike commonly ask this question. Often they discuss it without knowing what Purgatory is, much less, knowing why it is. So, before jumping into why Purgatory exists, we should understand precisely what it is. 

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines Purgatory as “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.”  In other words, God has forgiven them but they have not received justice for their sins, and/or they have not perfectly detached themselves from their sins. 

Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1472 adds,

To understand this doctrine [of Purgatory] and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence.  Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin.  On the other hand, every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory.

Justice and Purgatory

Justice serves four purposes in this life: a) it punishes for a crimes committed (retributive punishment), b) it deters future crime (reformative punishment), c) it restores what has been taken from society (restorative punishment), and d) it heals the offender (rehabilitative punishment). 

Since we could never repay God for sins we commit against Him, His Son, who is infinite and whose salvific works have infinite value, offered Himself as the eternal Sacrifice for our sins. Thus, when we are in Christ, that is, in a state of grace, God has forgiven our sins. Therefore, He will not sentence us to eternal punishment (retribution). However, this does not mean that some satisfaction is no longer due.

If I steal $1000 from someone, God’s forgiveness does not remove my obligation to repay the individual. Consequently, I have a moral duty to make some kind of satisfaction for my actions (restoration). By committing sin, I also make it easier to commit more sin and need to be deterred from doing so (reformation). Finally, as a result of my sinning, I have developed an attachment to my sin, and I need God to completely detach me from it (rehabilitation).

Satisfaction in Purgatory

Satisfaction: Those in Purgatory are on their way to Heaven and will not go to Hell. Consequently, they will not receive retributive punishment. Since they will not have the opportunity to sin in Purgatory or in Heaven, they will not need reformative punishment to deter them from future sins.

However, their post-baptismal sins take something from society and the Church, and all sins (post-baptismal or otherwise) create within their persons attachments to the sins they commit. Accordingly, they need some way to receive restorative and rehabilitative punishments, which satisfy justice.

Purgatory is how God applies these two types of punishment to the saved sinner. In Purgatory, we make temporal satisfaction for our sins, and God cleanses our souls from all attachment to them. God’s forgiveness is perfect and absolute provided we come to Him with a sorrowful heart and a sincere desire to change.  His forgiveness, however, in no way precludes our need to make satisfaction for our sins.  Forgiveness removes hostility and/or division between two entities; it does not remove the need for punishment or satisfaction.

Bodily Death

Now, when I die, I am still me.  Within myself, I retain all the things to which I am attached in this life, good and bad.  And, according to Jesus’ own words, which common sense affirms, “…nothing unclean shall enter [Heaven]” (Rev 21:27).  Therefore, if I have any attachments or inclinations to sin in my soul upon death, I cannot enter Heaven.  However, if God has forgiven me, then I will enter Heaven, just not immediately. 

Also, bodily death (of one who dies in a state of grace) does not obliterate blemishes or weaknesses in the soul. We can understand this by simply thinking about a soul that is full of grace.

If a soul were full of grace, that is to say, perfect, then the soul would have perfect dominion over bodily actions, and the body would no longer have disordered inclinations. The body would be perfectly subject to the soul because the soul would have perfect, grace-caused power over it due to the soul’s perfect subjection to God. Jesus’ soul had/has perfect dominion over His body. Therefore, His bodily actions were/are perfectly subject to His grace-filled soul.

In fact, St. Paul exhorts the justified Corinthians (see 1 Cor 6:16-18) to cleanse themselves “from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God” (1 Cor 7:1) precisely because of the soul’s imperfections. And St. Peter writes, “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren, love one another earnestly from the heart” (1 Pt 1:22), for this same reason.

(Note: Peter is acknowledging that obedience to truth can purify souls on earth. The Church acknowledges this as well. See the Catechism paragraph above.)

Cooperation with Grace

Thus, grace does not ordinarily perfect the soul instantaneously, and neither does bodily death. Rather, our cooperation with grace makes the soul perfect. God does not manipulate us with grace even if we ask Him to do so. He never overrides our nature, which He designed to reflect His intellect and free will. (Note: The fewer attachments to sin a person has or the less intensity with which a person desires sin, the quicker grace will fill and perfect the soul. This is because fewer obstacles to grace exist in the person.)

With most of us who are in a state of grace, however, we reject sin but sometimes find ourselves desiring something we should not have, fearing something we should not fear, or committing venial sins we should not commit.

Merely putting off the body does not remove the soul’s desire for sinful objects. Just look at those who are in Hell. And Jesus says, “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander” (Mt 15:18-19).

Heart and Soul

And we know from St. Paul that the heart of which Jesus speaks is not the muscle responsible for pumping blood throughout our bodies, and it is not “the flesh.” Rather, it is a place within deepest recess of the human person, the soul. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes, “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (Rom 2:27-28).

Additionally, Scripture attributes the heart’s desires to the soul. Proverbs 21:10 states, “The soul of the wicked desires evil, and Sirach 18:30 adds, “If you allow your soul to take pleasure in base desire….” Michah 7:3 reiterates this, saying, “…the [materially] great man utters the evil desire of his soul.”

Furthermore, common sense tells us that a soul can desire spiritual goods.  For example, the soul can desire grace, humility, faith, hope, love, magnanimity, an increase in these, and God, who is infinite Goodness. Conversely, a soul can desire spiritual evils like putting oneself above God or others (i.e., pride), increasing in these evils, and rejecting the above-mentioned goods.  And a soul can desire spiritual goods and evils at the same time.  For instance, a justified person can truly desire spiritual evils (e.g., pride and sloth) and struggle with attachments to sinful behaviors while simultaneously loving God. 

Punishment and Perfection in Purgatory

Even Adam and Eve, whom God created full of grace, desired what God told them they could not have. Although their pre-fallen nature was not inclined to evil and had no attachments to sin, upon being tempted, they nevertheless formed a desire to violate God’s command. So, a justified person with a fallen nature can certainly have disordered desires and attachments that need to be purged.  This purgation must happen before one enters Heaven, and bodily death alone cannot accomplish this.

Next, forgiveness does not remove punishment or the need for it. Although God justifies us when we repent and turn to Him, the need for punishment continues to exist. For example, after God forgives us, He does not take away the punishments described in Genesis 3. These include a losing the right to grace, increased pain during childbirth, obtaining food with difficulty, bodily death, and banishment from the Garden.

Further, if bodily death allowed the justified soul to enter Heaven immediately, thus implying the soul’s perfection, why would God punish His children unto perfection (see Heb 12:3-11)? The only answer, according to the Protestant, would be that He punishes us unto bodily perfection. But this makes no sense because the body dies. In other words, why perfect the body alone for it to simply die and decay? Rather, God perfects our souls by giving us the grace to cooperate bodily and spiritually with His will.

Consequently, some means must exist for a forgiven person to have all attachments to sin completely purged before entering Heaven. The Catholic Church calls this place or condition of purgation Purgatory. Scripture also provides plenty of evidence, and I believe proof, for Purgatory’s existence.

Scriptural Proof for Purgatory

I attribute part of the following to John Martignoni at the Bible Christian Society.

1.   2 Samuel 13:18 –David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away (or forgiven) your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.” See also 2 Samuel 24:1, 10-15 in which God punished David and the Israelites after David asked for forgiveness.

God then executed David’s punishment and the child died.  Hebrews 12:1-29 (primarily 3-12) explains that God punishes his children, those whom he loves. He does this for discipline and to bring about the fruits or righteousness. Finally, we are all subject to the punishments (i.e., bodily death, banishment from Eden, pain in child bearing for women, and laborious work for men) of Original Sin even after we are justified (Gen 3:16-24).

Therefore, forgiveness does not negate punishment, and God punishes His children whom He “receives” to discipline and purify them.  Principle # 1 – There is punishment for sin even after one has received forgiveness.

2.   Revelation 21:27 – “But nothing unclean shall enter it” (the New Jerusalem; Heaven).  Principle # 2 is self-explanatory.  A person with the slightest attachment to sin shall not enter Heaven.

3.   Matthew 5:48 – “You must be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.”  This because of principle # 2.

4.   Hebrews 12:22-23 – “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect….”  Principle # 3 – Something happens after bodily death that causes our spirits to be made perfect.

5.   1 Corinthians 3:13-15 – “According to the commission of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation and another man is building upon it.  Let each man take care how he builds upon it.  For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.  Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—Each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day (judgment day) will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.  If the work which any man has built on the foundation (Christ) survives, he will receive a reward.  If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” 

1st – Christ is the foundation upon which we build with works, some good, some less good, and some bad.  2nd – Fire will reveal these works after death.  3rd – When God burns up the bad works, the person will suffer.  Therefore, the works are part of the person.  God does not somehow separate the works and then burn them up.  4th – Fire saves the person.  Principle # 4 – After bodily death, a person’s bad works will be burned away and will cause suffering.  This cannot happen in Heaven because there is no suffering in heaven.  It cannot happen in Hell because Hell is eternal. And the description of events in this passage envisages a temporary suffering within a state of being saved.

Purgatory is God’s Mercy

Protestants unreasonably object to the Church’s teaching on Purgatory. They believe Jesus’ Passion and Death removed all need for punishment for those who are in Him. However, their conclusion is a non sequitur. Jesus did not die for our sins to redeem us from all punishment. Rather, He died to redeem us from eternal death. He literally purchased us back from The Realm of the Just Dead (Sheol) into which Adam and Eve had sold the human race.

So, Purgatory does not replace Christ’s action on the Cross.  Instead, it is an extension of Christ’s action, which is an act of mercy.  God could simply say, I have forgiven you, but you are not perfect/clean. Therefore, depart from me for eternity.  Thankfully, God helps us to enter His Kingdom via forgiveness and a final purgation that completely purifies our souls.