Saturday, April 18, 2009


Protestants reject out-of-hand the notion of 'purgatory'.  Purgatory is said to be a Roman Catholic conjuring having nothing to do with the economy of God. With the advent of Luther's Reformation (AD 1517 --->), a theological tradition that considers the refining fires believers go through before entrance into heaven was summarily trashed.  In its place was drafted what I call a 'punctuated sanctification'.  That is, the notion that salvation through Christ instantaneously absolves one of all one's sins, that they are 'new creatures' (II Cor. 5:17-18) already fit for eternity in heaven with God.

To be clear, salvation does instantaneously absolve a person of his/her sins.  However, the fact that we continue to experience character challenges, persecutions, tests of faith, temptations, habitual sins, and the need to regularly ask Christ to quicken His forgiveness in our lives speaks against a completed, or 'punctuated' sanctification upon salvation.  Our characters are not fully reformed when we receive Christ's salvation.  We still have to "work out our salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12); we still have to "purify ourselves" from everything in us that expresses itself against God (2 Cor. 7:1).  

And given that we presently live imperfect lives, what makes us think that at the close of our lives, when we see dusk settling over our life-force and the darkness draws near, that we will have somehow suddenly perfected ourselves and worked out our salvation (i.e., completed our sanctification)?  Could it be that classical Roman Catholic theology has been right about purgatory?  That is, perhaps Protestants reacted too quickly to reject the doctrine of purgatory since it was too close to the blasphemy of selling indulgences (a papal device that essentially states you can buy time out of purgatory).  The association was too much like rubbing sandpaper over a fresh wound.  On reflection, almost 600 years later, however, purgatory does seem to make some sense.

Gregory A. Boyd makes a few interesting observations about this issue here, on his blog.

What are your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

My initial response to this is to ask you to watch/listen to Kim Walker's song, "How He Loves Us". It takes just a few minutes and I think it's a good start to this discussion.

sarah said...

Well, I don't know about purgatory, but it seems reasonable and biblically expressed that we must be transformed from our current state to a perfected state before we can stand in the presence of God.

Since that would take place completely outside of time, it may as well happen in a flash as we walk through the gates, or on our way from the last breath to opening our eyes to see Him face to face.

I'm fairly certain that this is not an accepted definition of purgatory, and the whole issue is so odd since we don't know and weren't told about the administration of our death and subsequent resurrection, except that it would happen.

This is another question like "how many angels can dance on the head of a pin" to which I can only respond with "I guess it depends on how many showed up."

Will we undergo a purification? I think scripture and tradition agree that we will, as we do now, but the completion of the work begun during our earthly lives seems to be a must before moving on to the greenest pasture, no?

Anonymous said...

Hmm, why is it, I wonder, that we are always wondering about things that really don't matter.
We are promised an eternity with God, but we want to know if we will have to wait in the "lobby" before meeting Him.
We are promised resurrection from the dead, but wonder if our change will happen instantly or if there we will suffer "jet lag."
It's like being given the gift of a lifetime and wondering if we will have it instantly or if we may have to wait a few minutes, half an hour, or even a month.
Whenever I wonder, I look at the character of God. Sometimes that answers my questions.
I do not like the idea of a purgatory and I'm not willing to consider that. I see no evidence of anything like that.
I am thankful for the gift we have already received.
Oh, and ... what if eternity has already begun?
God put eternity in our hearts and someday we will be resurrected to continue eternity in bodies fit for eternity.

Gregory said...

Chris, nice article.
One comment--since the papacy never approved, and in fact condemned, selling indulgences, calling it a "papal device" is rather a misnomer.

Sarah, nothing in Catholic dogma says that your "instantaneous" version of purgatory is wrong. Since even purgatory exists outside of time, the purification could, in fact, be instantaneous. This is why the Church avoids describing the gaining of indulgences in temporal terms, but rather as "partial" or "plenary."

I would say your last statement sums it up perfectly. The only other thing that the Catholic Church would add is the reality that such purification is a rather painful process (more painful, obviously, the more attached to sin we still are at the time of our death), but that we here on earth can help those undergoing the purgation by our own prayers offered up on their behalf.

To the second Anonymous poster, the question of purgatory is one that does, in fact, matter--personally, because if we take its reality seriously, it will prompt us to try our best to purify ourselves here on earth. It also matters so that we who believe in it can express our love and communion with our predeceased loved ones by our prayers for them.

As to no evidence for purgatory and the subtle suggestion that it is contrary to the character of God, one would do well to remember that God's character is one of holiness, in the presence of which sin cannot abide. If purgatory is nothing more than the remnants of our sinful selves being burned away by the consuming fire of God's love and holiness, then there is nothing inconsistent with the Scriptural understanding of our eternity and God's character. Revelation 21:27 tells us that nothing unclean can enter the New Jerusalem (heaven), and 1 Corinthians 3 describes the purification of those who have followed God, but perhaps half-heartedly (building on the foundation with hay, wood, or straw), who will be saved, but "only as through fire" (v. 15).

Further, the notion of the "communion of the saints" professed by all Christians in the Apostles' Creed indicates to us that we are all still connected to each other despite physical death. Hence Revelation 8:3, 5:9-10, and several other passages indicate that the saints in Heaven pray for us on earth, and passages which exhort us to pray for those who have died, such as 1 Timothy 1:16-18 and 2 Maccabees 12:40-45, demonstrate that there is something other than Heaven (the citizens of which have no need for our prayers) and Hell (the denizens of which cannot be helped by our prayers), and that our prayers can in fact help those who are in that place, or state, or situation--whichever image helps you most.

By the by, Gregory Boyd's thoughts are bang on to why I would think that not believing in purgatory matters in the opposite sense, tending toward apathy in the striving for holiness.

Great thoughts, Chris.
God bless

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your thought-provoking comments.
You are right: just because something doesn't matter to me, personally, doesn't mean that it doesn't matter to others.
I may not agree with another position or belief, but that does not mean it is not valid to that person. Thanks for pointing that out.
I believe that my choices here are part of transformation and that God is responsible for the rest.
Salvation -- past, present, and future -- belongs to Him.
I see no evidence for purgatory. It is a foreign thought to me and not one that I could relate to the Father I know.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

Craig said...

I suddenly imagine myself in purgatory for a long long time. It's probably a similar feeling to working at a homeless shelter.

Anonymous said...

Are you sure you did not mean that it would be like being a homeless person at a homeless shelter? ... not that I would even understand what that would be like.

Gregory said...

I'm not sure how purgatory is incompatible "with the Father [you] know." Perhaps it is your understanding of purgatory that is incompatible.

Purgatory is precisely the loving gesture of God in finishing that work of sanctification that was begun here on earth, and that, for many people who still have an inordinate love for this world or attachment to sin, and yet nevertheless are saved, which is necessary for one to dwell in His Presence for all eternity.

Craig said...

Anonymous - I've never been a homeless person at a shelter, I have worked at a shelter. And, I think you are assuming that I mean it would be like that because of the negativity of it, which I don't. It was more of a train of introspection that came out in a single sentence. There is really more to why I think it could be like that than I can express in a short post. I'd probably write something interesting if I sat here and figured out why I compare the two places, but the point is that I didn't compare it to hell. That would have to be something completely different.

Gregory said...

Craig, I think that's precisely why people like J see such negativity in the notion of Purgatory. It seems to always be viewed in a negative manner. Obviously it's not the ideal situation to end up in Purgatory--the ideal would be to have sanctified oneself completely before death. However, God, by His grace, still allows a chance for those who have not fully cooperated with His grace here and now to be cleaned up.

But when we look at Purgatory as some sort of penalty box, I think we skew the real concept of it, and think of it as "Hell Lite" rather than "A really hot shower before seeing the King".

Anonymous said...

Those are interesting thoughts. I don't see purgatory as negative, I think, but more as unnecessary -- meaning that I have always believed that God can do in an instant what he needs to do.
Eternity begins here, in our hearts, and continues on as we are transformed "from one degree of glory to another".
These are my own thoughts on this ... not that I am not open to changing some of what I think. That is why I enjoy discussions such as the ones on this blog.
Couldn't the transformation from here to eternal life with the Lord, be instantaneous? "In the twinkling of an eye"? Whatever that means.
It is interesting to hear the thoughts and convictions of others on their journey of faith.
However it takes place -- whatever the process is -- it's going to be good.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested in hearing why you think being in purgatory might be like being in a homeless shelter.
I was thinking you might have meant it was like being a homeless person in a homeless shelter because, if you were aware of being in purgatory, I would imagine it to be a place of waiting, a place of loneliness, a place of wondering ... of despair?
But that last thought may be, as Gregory said, simply because of my perceptions of the word and what it would mean -- and not of any faith-based understanding. Obviously, I do not have a faith that has ever taught me about purgatory.
I have never thought about it or heard it discussed until now.
My faith, of course, is on the solid rock of Jesus, who is the cornerstone of all I believe.
It is good to understand what others believe in and why.
If it's possible to truly understand. Perhaps I should say that it is good to accept that others have different beliefs in their faith journey and that that it is good to be in a place of acceptance and have a desire to learn and understand as much as is possible.
This is something I will continue to ponder.

Gregory said...

I wanted to touch on something you mentioned in your question to Craig above, before I address your comment to me. That is, when you asked him about Purgatory as regards a homeless shelter, you described one's possible feeling of being in that state as one "of loneliness, a place of wondering ... of despair?". But it is precisely this that Purgatory (at least as the Catholic Church defines it) is most definitely not. While Purgatory does indeed involve some degree of pain and cost to us (even here and now, our sanctification is not accomplished without bearing our crosses and dying to ourselves--metaphors that very literally involve some sort of cost and some sort of suffering), those who go through this redemptive suffering in Purgatory suffer in hope, and suffer as part of that great "Communion of Saints". They are not alone and experiencing loneliness, for they are still part of the Church, the Body of Christ, and are helped by our prayers and the prayers of those already experiencing the fullness of the Beatific Vision. They are not wondering, for they know they will come out of this to experience the Face of God themselves. And they most certainly do not despair, for they are full of the Hope that does not disappoint. So while Purgatory may be painful, it is more like the pain of childbirth than cancer. For the one experiencing it knows that there is something to it--a great purpose and a wonderful result.

As to your question of time, and whether or not God could simply purify us in an instant, I would say that this may well be the case. We really don't know, since we only have the experience of time to guide us, but Purgatory exists outside of time. Any reference to time is only by analogy. It could, for all objective purposes, take "an instant" but feel like a millennium, or, it could take a millennium and feel like an instant. All I know for sure are these three things: those in Purgatory will leave it to go on to Heaven, always; while in Purgatory, they will experience suffering; my prayers can aid in lessening their suffering, and others' prayers will aid in lessening mine, should I need them.

These things are true if Purgatory does last for a quantifiable period of time, or if indeed it does last only an instant. If the latter, then, how could our prayers help a person who, to our understanding, has already been purified and entered heaven? I defer to a concept of C.S. Lewis: "God has all eternity to listen to and answer the split-second prayer lifted up by the fighter pilot as he crashes." In other words, God listens to our prayers and applies them as He will, when He will, how He will, as being wholly outside of time and master of time.

I hope that makes sense. I just got off the night shift and am just taking a quick purgatorial detour on my way to the beatific bliss of bed ;)

God bless,

Craig said...

It has been 2 years since the 3 years that I worked at a homeless shelter. There are still moments when I find myself deep in frustrated thought about things related to it... and quite often, I actually come out of such thought with a new life lesson or way of thinking about things. I still process and learn from the place.
I also developed both a huge respect and moments of annoyance with everyone else who worked there. It really has more to do with the situation than the people. If we were instead a bowling team, I would never have been annoyed with anyone and never would have found the qualities that I respect. To work with those who are suffering really brings out the best and worst in everyone.
Knowing that God has a sense of humour, I can just imagine the whole same crew of staff stuck in a situation of trying to help those who are suffering for thousands of years.
It would be terrible and yet funny as hell.
I know that I grew and learned from the blessing of that experience. It also could be heavy on the spirit in some ways. I miss many homeless people, but it has been restorative to be away.
Some days at the hostel there was an intense vibe of emptiness coming from the crowds of people trapped by the rhythms of addiction and mental illness and unmeetable need and brokenness and confusion and apathy, with angry and lost tones of self destructive excitement... mountains of resentment, desire and denial pulling everything down... and then someone different would walk in. Strangers who hadn't known what to expect would get pulled into the environment like a giant force of gravity pulling matter into a star. We would try to show people some sort of hope. Often we would be the ones having to ask people to leave who didn't follow through on whatever they were supposed to be doing.
At the end of the day though, you go home thankful for everything that you have and realizing that if just a few things had happened differently, you might have been on the other side of the counter.
It was a song that I haven't really heard sung yet.
You guys mentioned purgatory, the hostel is what I imagined. A space where there is everything to introspect on but you can't because of the pressing needs of those around you and you are forced to work together with a team that seems to become more and more incomprehensible and you learn a lot from it while becoming completely offended and confused by it. knowing that it could be you.

justsomename said...

I think that the experience of hell would be like in the song by Alice in Chains "Like the coldest winter chill, heaven beside me hell within."

I think if purgatory exists, it would be like when Albert Camus said "In the depth of winter, I found inside myself and invincible summer"

Heaven would be summer inside and out.