Reflection: Purgatory Makes a Lot of Sense
by Father Don Thomas
Since the Vatican Council in the 1960s, many important changes have been made relevant to our Catholic faith, especially in the areas of laity involvement in church life and in the area of liturgy reform. In an effort to stress the importance and implementation of these changes, I feel that there has been a lack of time and unintentional negligence to remain updated on certain aspects of our faith. One such tenet has been the subject of purgatory. In my opinion this has been a tragic mistake among Catholics, because from reason, sacred tradition, and scripture it is relatively easy to prove that the belief in purgatory is one of the most sound and consoling doctrines of our Catholic Church. I will show why that is true.
To deny the existence of any place does not mean the place does not exist. It would be interesting to see the reaction of thousands of soldiers when they hear me say there is no place called Vietnam, and I say that because I was never there. Seriously, there is all kinds of proof that Vietnam exists and that purgatory also exists. To say that purgatory is not mentioned in the Bible is no argument against its existence. In the last chapter of John we are told that there are many things that Jesus said and did that are not mentioned in the good book. For that matter, why do so many millions of people believe in the Bible when the word Bible is not mentioned in the Bible? The church made up the title because the word “bible” means books, and the Bible is like a little library containing 72 books. The Catholic Church has also made up the word purgatory from the word purgo , which means to cleanse and purify. Long before the Catholic Church came around, people believed in some middle place between heaven and hell.
Look at it this way. Long before America was discovered, the territory existed for thousands of years without a name. Is it not true that we existed for nine months before we were given a name? I would like to think that when we were youngsters our fathers may have taken us into undeveloped areas where we could hunt in the woods and fish in the lakes. Now, fifty or sixty years later we go back to those areas and they are called “Pikeville” and “Carbondale”. We are positive, however, that those places really existed before they were given a name. The same is true of purgatory. Long before the /Catholic Church came along and made up the word purgatory, the place existed without a name. Many people believed it was somewhere between heaven and hell, between the place of reward and the place of punishment.
From reason it is sound to believe in purgatory, for we are told in scripture that no soul stained by sin can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Some sins are more serious than others, and eternal punishment in hell is the consequence of dying in mortal or deadly sin. Millions of people do not die in serious sin, and it is reasonable to think that many who die do not deserve to go straight to heaven, but are not bad enough to go to hell. It makes a lot of sense to think that a soul can be cleansed from the sins and punishment due to their sins. All of us would be truly blessed if we got to purgatory. It is a place of temporal punishment, andthe souls know that heaven is the place of eternal happiness waiting for them after purgation or cleansing.
From sacred scripture we also find logical deductions that would support belief in purgatory. Those who believe in the Bible are aware that God created man and woman as creatures pleasing to Him. They were supposed to live with God for all eternity. However, by falling into their sin of disobedience, Adam and Eve were ejected from Paradise, and the gates of heaven were closed to everyone. God was prompted by His infinite mercy and love to send His Son, Jesus Christ, into the world to redeem us. We know that no one could get into heaven because the gates of heaven were closed. If there is only heaven and hell, logic compels us to ask what happened to the large number of good people who died after Adam and Eve. If they could not get into heaven, are we to conclude that they all went to hell and are still suffering for all eternity? We are talking about people who were very pleasing to God, such as Moses and Abraham, the prophets, and the ancestors of Christ Himself.
That they went to hell makes no sense at all. On the other hand, a place of cleansing and purification and cleansing makes good sense, and when the soul is purified it goes into the Kingdom of Heaven. Backing up this line of reasoning, many millions of Christians, Catholics and non-Catholic alike believe in the Apostles Creed, where it says that Jesus suffered, died, and was buried. It goes on to say that His soul descended to hell and on the third day He came back from the dead. The word hell, as used here, simply means a lower region. Through the years we have entertained some false beliefs and misunderstandings about reality. For example, Columbus was told to be careful with his ships so they would not fall off the end of the earth; all because people thought the world was flat. Look at our idea of heaven. We always point upward, yet if someone in China is pointing upward, he is pointing in the opposite direction of someone in New York.
As we speak of heaven in this reflection we are not talking about the material sky or the heavens as we know them. We are talking about a state of happiness. Hell likewise is a state of eternal punishment, and our conclusion about purgatory is that it is a state between heaven and hell. Therefore it is very important to know that when Jesus descended into hell, it was not the hell of the damned. He would have no reason to go there. His soul descended into the lower region where all the souls were detained since the beginning of mankind, and He informed them that He had saved them, and that they were now free to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. They were there only for a time.
Finally, in one of the books that is not in the Protestant Bible, namely the Book of Macabees, we read an account of a battle and circumstances that would definitely justify the claim that even in those Old Testament days, the people must have believed in an intermediate state between heaven and hell. We read how God told Judas Macabeus that his men would be victorious over the enemy. His men were not to go after the spoils of war, such as gold, silver, and other trinkets. After the battle was waged, Judas, like any good general, went around to check on his men. He found out that those who disobeyed and went after the spoils of war were the ones who had been killed. It was on that occasion that he knelt down and prayed, saying, “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be freed from their sins”. Analyze those words closely! If in those days they only believed in heaven and hell, why would he pray for the dead? If they went to heaven they would not need prayers, and that would be true if they went to hell. The prayers would do no good. Even the thought that they would be freed from their sins would indicate to us that they could not have gotten into heaven because no soul stained by sin can enter the kingdom. If they were in hell, there was no way they could be freed. Logic forces us to believe that they believed in another place from which the souls could be freed.
Another forceful argument can be made from the fact that Judas Macabeus had a collection taken up and he sent the drachmas, or money, up to the temple in Jerusalem so that prayers and sacrifices could be offered up for his fallen men.
Again, putting it briefly and clearly, no prayers or sacrifices are needed if the souls were in heaven, and if they were in hell, they would serve no purpose.
Therefore we conclude that they believed in another state or place where the souls could be purified and eventually released to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This is the place the Catholic Church, in the evolution of her theology thousands of years later, would call purgatory. It is a place of temporal punishment, and after the soul is purified, it enters the Kingdom of Heaven to enjoy eternal happiness.
No one has an idea of how long a soul is in purgatory. We pray for the suffering souls and we have Masses offered up for those souls, and it is completely up to God to apply the merits of the Mass to the individual soul. If any money is offered for the Mass, it is completely ridiculous to think that this is an attempt to buy a soul out of purgatory. The offering is a sacrifice representing the donor's appreciation to the priest for offering the body and blood of Jesus Christ to his eternal father. God himself, in return for the donor's expression of faith, determines the help the soul will receive.
In concluding this reflection, let me say that the suffering in purgatory is the same as in hell. It is twofold. There is real fire involved, and admittedly only God would know how a fire that is material could affect s soul that is spiritual or immaterial. We leave all of that up to God. Jesus talked about hell and everlasting fire thirty-three times in scripture, and we take Him at his word. The other punishment is being separated from God. Knowing that happiness results in the union with God, the suffering in hell is eternal, while in purgatory it is temporal or just for a time. Most of us have experienced the separation from loved ones in various circumstances, like going to war, or putting a loved one in a nursing home, or loved ones moving far away. This can be painful. Separation from God is a thousand times more painful and difficult, because just as iron is attracted to a magnet, so the soul is attracted to God. Knowing that we will never reach Him, or knowing that we will reach Him after an indefinite period of time is what helps us to understand the difference between hell and purgatory.
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