This question is commonly asked by Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Purgatory is something that is not commonly discussed in Catholic circles and even less commonly discussed in our culture. 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, they are forgiven but have not received justice for their sins and/or are not perfectly detached from them.
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, Satisfaction, and Purification
Justice: Justice in this life serves four purposes: a) to punish for a crime committed (retribution), b) to deter future crime (reformation), c) to restore what has been taken from society (restoration), and d) to heal the offender (rehabilitation).
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, our sins against God are forgiven and we will not incur 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 responsibility to pay the victim what I took from him. 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 need to detach from it (rehabilitation).
Satisfaction: Those in Purgatory are on their way to heaven and will not go to hell. Consequently, they will not receive retributive justice. Since they will not have the opportunity to sin in Purgatory or in heaven, they will not need reformative justice to deter them from future sins. However, their sins take something from society, including the Church, and create within them an attachment to the sins they commit. Accordingly, they need some way to receive restorative and rehabilitative justice.
Purgatory is how these two types of justice are applied to the saved sinner. In Purgatory, temporal satisfaction is made for our sins and our souls are cleansed from all attachment to sin. 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. Forgiveness removes hostility and/or division between two entities. It does not remove the need for justice and satisfaction.
Purification: In this life, we accumulate disordered attachments whenever we sin. For example, if I start drinking alcohol and become an alcoholic, I have created an attachment to drunkenness (falls under the sin of gluttony). Even if I stop getting drunk, receive God’s forgiveness, and remain in a state of grace until death, I will continue to have an underlying attachment to this sin, provided detachment is not accomplished in this life. Apply this to any sin you wish.
Now, when I die, I am still me. Within myself, I retain all things I learned in this life and all things to which I am attached, good and bad. Also, according to Jesus’ own words, which common sense affirms, “…nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]” (Rev 21:27). Therefore, if I have any attachment to sin in my soul upon death, I cannot enter heaven. However, if God has forgiven me, then I will enter heaven.
Also, bodily death (of one who dies in a state of grace) does not remove disordered desires, fears, and attachments to created goods from the soul. If the soul were full of grace, that is to say, perfect, then the soul would have perfect dominion over the body, and the body would no longer have disordered desires. The body would be perfectly subject to the soul because the soul would have perfect power over it due to its perfect subjection to God.
With most of us who are in a state of grace, however, we reject all 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. Even the righteous man falls (venially) seven times a day (Proverbs 24:16), a sure indicator that his soul is not perfect.
Additionally, putting off the body does not remove the soul’s desire for sinful objects. For 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” (Matthew 15:18-19).
And we know from St. Paul that the heart referenced in Scripture is not the muscle responsible for pumping blood throughout our bodies. Rather, it is the 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” (vv. 27-28).
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
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.” God then executed David’s punishment and the child died. Hebrews 12:1-29 (primarily 3-12) states that God punishes his children, those whom he loves, for discipline and to bring about the fruits or righteousness. Therefore, forgiveness is different than punishment and God punishes his children 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. The slightest stain of 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 and some bad. 2nd – Fire will reveal these works after death. 3rd – When the bad works are burned up, the person will suffer. Therefore, the works are part of the person. They are not separated and then burned up. 4th – The person is saved “only as through fire.” 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
Purgatory does not replace Christ’s action on the Cross, as some erroneously charge. Rather, Purgatory is an extension of Christ’s action, which is an act of mercy. God could simply say, “You are forgiven, but you are not perfect/clean. Therefore, depart from me for eternity.” Thankfully, God allows us into his Kingdom via forgiveness and a final purgation that completely purifies our souls.