This is a common question 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. Catholic Catechism 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.” A couple of scenarios should clarify Purgatory’s need and purpose.
First scenario: If person A commits a crime (crime is simply sin codified in secular law) against person B, person B would demand justice regardless of forgiveness. This is because justice serves three purposes: a) to punish for a crime committed, b) to deter future crime and c) to restore what has been taken from society. We as individuals and society demand justice for crimes committed against us. How much more justice would God demand for sins committed against him and his eternal laws. It seems hypocritical that someone would demand justice when a crime is committed against him / her, but simultaneously believe God should allow them to come straight into heaven without punishment for the countless transgressions against Him. This is truly a double standard. 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 punishment. Forgiveness means to remove hostility or division between two entities. It does not remove the need for punishment. Law without punishment is not law. It is rhetoric and is, thus, unjust. God, who is Justice, punishes and shows mercy, and does so perfectly.
Second scenario: In this life, we accumulate attachments to sin whenever we commit a sin. For example, if I start drinking and become an alcoholic, I have created an attachment to the sin of getting drunk (gluttony). Even if I stop using alcohol, receive God’s forgiveness, and stay in this state until death, there will continue to be an underlying attachment to this sin. 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. From Jesus’ own words and from common sense, “…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. Consequently, there must be some way 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.
1. 2 Sam 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. Heb 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. Rev 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. Mat 5:48 – “You must be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.” This because of principle # 2.
4. Heb 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 Cor 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 envisage a temporary suffering within a state of being saved.
Finally, 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 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.