One of the most misunderstood aspects of Catholic theology by Catholics and non-Catholics alike is the concept of Purgatory. Protestants call it folly. Incredibly awesome popular TV shows say it’s where monsters go when they die. . . or maybe it was the Island all along?
I remember when I was a young LCMS Lutheran — attending Lutheran school — the concept of Purgatory was explained as a sort of way for the Catholic Church to guilt trip everybody into paying for stuff, and for feeling really bad about having any sort of fun. “Oh no, you’ll spend an extra 300 years in Purgatory for that!” or “If you give us money, we’ll shave time off of your sentence! Heck, we’ll do it for your dead relatives too!”
And we laughed, rolled our eyes, and said “those silly Catholics. That’s not how it works.”
Now, before I go into the Truth behind Purgatory, I’m going to make a little side note here. I’m not trying to cover up the fact that in Luther’s day, the Church really was selling indulgences. But that was one of the things the reformers helped put in a proper theological context, which I will explain when I write about Alms-Giving in a later post.
So what even is Purgatory? Well, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that:
“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.” (1030-1031)
Ok. That’s fairly straightforward. It’s a place of purification. And it’s not Hell. Fair enough.
But see, here’s the thing about Purgatory that people don’t seem to understand. It is not a place where God sticks His naughty children to suffer because He wants to make them suffer. Purgatory exists because human persons need Purgatory to exist.
Yes. You heard me. We go to Purgatory because, deep down, we know we need to.
See, I don’t know about you (cause I don’t know you and you might be a bit more sociopathic than the average bear), but human persons have this nagging thing called guilt when we know we’ve done a stupid. We’ve had it ever since the Fall, when Adam and Eve realized they were naked and were ashamed, thus ending God’s plan of a perpetual human nudist garden. Shame and guilt are the products of sin, because we have consciences that tell us when we’ve sinned.
And you know what? Guilt’s not really a good thing all the time. Yes, we should feel compunction for our wrongs, and this should motivate us to fix them. But after we’ve done our penance on earth, after we’ve apologized and been forgiven, it becomes a sin in itself to hold on to that guilt. And yet, we do. We all do. We sit there, going “whoops, I’m not wearing any pants,” and we are ashamed.
So what happens when we die? Well, we know God loves us and wants us to be with Him. The people who don’t want to be with Him go to Hell, the only place they can be free from Him (see my post on Hell for more on this). Those who want to be in His presence go to Heaven. Fair enough, right?
But really. Do you feel ready to see God right now? He’s all-powerful and all-just. He’s the most important being in the universe. And you’re still not wearing any metaphorical pants. That’s like going to the White House in a ratty old t-shirt, reeking of booze and filth.
Does God mind that you look like crap? Well, yes. But not really because He hates you now and wants you to suffer. He cares about you being squeaky clean because He knows you would be ashamed to be in His presence like that. He wants you to be absolutely happy in Heaven, and that means you have to be able to let go of your guilt, come out of shame, and get all scrubbed up.
That’s what Purgatory is for. It is a place where we go to do penance, so we can ease our consciences and let go of our guilt, so we can live happily in God’s house for eternity.
So how long does Purgatory last? I think Purgatory lasts for as long as we need it to. I imagine that you only stay in Purgatory until you are personally ready to leave, and then you go to Heaven. Like I said, Purgatory isn’t a prison. It’s not a place of punishment. It’s a place of purification. And just as some of us take 5-minute showers and others of us like to sit in the bath until our fingers are all raisiny, it takes different lengths of time for each soul to decide that they are ready to leave.
See? It’s really not that scary. Purgatory’s a gift, not a curse. Do not fear it.
See you on the Destined Path, my friends.
-E. G. Norton