Why Is Purgatory Real and Necessary?

Purgatory artwork.

Catholics and non-Catholics alike commonly ask if Purgatory exists and, if so, why it exists. Often, they discuss it without knowing what Purgatory 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. For more about perfect detachment from sin in this life, please click here.

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.

To read about the teachings on sin, guilt, forgiveness, and punishment, please click here. This article will provide a strong foundation for understanding why God punishes forgiven and, therefore, justified sinners.

Justice and Purgatory

Punishment serves four purposes for the for the sinner: a) it serves as retribution for sins committed (retributive justice), b) it deters future sins (reformative justice), c) it restores what has been taken from society (restorative justice), and d) it heals the offender (rehabilitative justice). 

Since we could never repay God for sins we commit, 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 will not sentence us to eternal punishment (retribution) provided we die in His grace. 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. In fact, it makes increases my obligation to do so. Because God has mercy on me, and I become more like God with grace, I should have mercy on those I have wronged (see Matthew 5:21-26 and 18:23-35). 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. Consequently, I need to be deterred from doing so (reformation). Finally, as a result of my sinning, I have developed an attachment to my sin. So, I need God to help me completely detach from it (rehabilitation; see Hebrews 12:4-11).

Satisfaction for Sins

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 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 committed. Accordingly, if they do not satisfy justice during their earthly lives, they will need some way to receive restorative and/or rehabilitative justice in the life to come.

For one who dies in a state of grace but with an imperfectly purified soul, Purgatory is how God applies these two types of justice. 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.

God’s 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. By the way, satisfaction is simply punishment that one willingly undergoes out of love for God and neighbor.

Attachment to Sin and Purgatory

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]” (Revelation 21:27).  Therefore, if I have any attachments or inclinations to sin in my soul upon bodily death, I cannot enter Heaven.  However, if God has forgiven me, then I will enter Heaven, just not immediately. 

Now, if bodily death causes the justified soul to enter Heaven immediately, thus implying the soul’s perfection, why would God punish His children unto perfect holiness (see Hebrews 12:3-11)? The only answer 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.

Also, bodily death does not obliterate blemishes or weaknesses in the soul. For example, someone who loves food inordinately will not experience hunger when their body and soul separate. But their disordered love for food will continue in the soul after death.

Bodily death alone cannot make someone unlove something. If this were the case, we would cease loving God when we die. So, since God will not permit a disordered love to exist in Heaven, He will purge it. This same concept applies to every disordered love for anything.

St. Paul exhorts the justified Corinthians (see 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1) to cleanse themselves “from every defilement of body and spirit, and make holiness perfect in the fear of God” precisely because of the soul’s imperfections and disordered inclinations. The justified Corinthians have sanctifying grace in their souls, but they still need to purge all disordered love from themselves.

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 Peter 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

Therefore, 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 happens 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. Therefore, we must purge all of these things from our lives, or God will purge them in Purgatory.

Heart and Soul

Good and evil desires come from the soul. 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).

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 recesses 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 evil desires to the soul just as Jesus attributes them to the heart. 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….” Micah 7:3 reiterates this, saying, “…the [materially] great man utters the evil desire of his soul.” So, evil desires come from deep within the soul, “the heart.”

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 (see 1 Corinthians 12:31 and Philippians 4:8-9).

Conversely, a soul can desire spiritual evils like putting oneself above God or others (i.e., pride), being spiritually lazy (sloth), wishing others did not have the aforementioned spiritual goods (envy), 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 such as pride and sloth and struggle with attachments to sinful behaviors while simultaneously loving God (see Mark 4:18-19, Hebrews 12:4, and 1 Corinthians 10:12-13). The struggle with these evils out of love for God proves two things: a) that grace is working in the soul and b) that the person is still attached to their sinful behaviors.

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 prelapsarian (before the Fall) nature was not inclined to evil and had no attachments to sin, upon being tempted by another (i.e., Satan), 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.

Next, as I mentioned above, forgiveness removes neither punishment nor the need for it. Although God justifies us when we repent and turn to Him, punishment and the need for it continue to exist.

For example, after God forgives us, He does not take away the punishments described in Genesis 3. These include losing the right to grace, increased pain during childbirth, obtaining food with difficulty, bodily death, and banishment from the Garden. All people in this life, even those with sanctifying grace, continue to exist under these punishments today.

Consequently, some means must exist for one who dies in a state of grace to receive any remaining punishment for sin and 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 much 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 childbearing 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 is 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 anyone 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 – This cleansing 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.

Principles 1-4 tell us that Purgatory exists.

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 to redeem us from all punishment. Rather, He died to redeem us from eternal death. He literally purchased us back from the eternal death 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.