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Purgatory: What's It All About?

God respects the free will of people on earth. We can consciously choose what to do and how to do it. But since the beginning of time people have used their free will to choose sin. It is the misuse of human free will that leads to moral evil, like greed, envy, lust, lying, gossip, anger, pride, etc., in our world.

Since God respects the free will of people on earth, it seems likely that God also respects the free will of people in heaven. But how can God respect human free will in heaven, yet heaven still be without sin and moral evil? It seems the answer is that the only people in heaven are those who, by the grace of God, are capable of fully aligning their own will with God’s will and doing only the good (not sin).

For as Jesus taught us to pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” By these words, Jesus showed how important it is for us to follow the will of God on earth. He also implied by these words that God’s will is perfectly followed in heaven.

As St. Anselm wrote, “No one will have any other desire in heaven than what God wills; and the desire of one will be the desire of all; and the desire of all and of each one will also be the desire of God.”[i] Thus, we are able and willing to do only the will of God when in heaven.

In order to be with God in heaven, we need to be perfect as God is perfect. For as Jesus said, “You must be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We know this is true because God has predestined us for one thing -heaven- where all is perfect and everyone is without sin. For as Scripture states, “nothing unclean shall enter it [heaven], nor anyone who does abominable things or tells lies” (Revelation 21:27).

Anyone who has not been completely freed from the tendency to sin is, to some extent, “unclean.” Through repentance we gain the grace needed to be worthy of heaven. But while we have been forgiven and our soul is spiritually alive, this alone is not sufficient for gaining entrance into heaven. All Christians agree that we will not sin in heaven. Therefore, we need to be completely cleansed of sin before we can enter heaven. Sin and the final glorification in heaven are utterly incompatible.

In other words, without the gift and grace of perfect holiness, which is possible only when we actively cooperate with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we cannot be with God in heaven. Sanctification is the grace-filled process by which we become holy.

This perfection of holiness is not an option. It is not something that may or may not happen before we get into heaven. It is an absolute requirement. As Hebrews 12:14 states, we must strive “for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

This helps explain why growth in holiness (sanctification) needs to be a primary purpose of our life here on earth. Given this, does it really make sense for us to spend our time on earth primarily seeking fun, fame, and fortune? For as Jesus said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).

Therefore, we need to make a serious effort to deepen our union with God and grow in personal holiness while here on earth. Only when we die to our selfish and sinful desires and achieve perfect union with Christ will we be holy and perfect. Of course, we cannot do this just by ourselves. Rather, we are to humbly act in complete cooperation with the grace and power of God in our lives.

We should prayerfully allow the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to enable us to become less likely to choose sin and more likely to align our own will with God’s will. We should daily make every effort to correctly discern and follow God’s will in our lives. We can do this by fervent prayer, by reading the Bible, by learning and striving to follow the teachings of the Church (e.g., as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church), and by frequently partaking of the sanctifying grace available in the sacraments of the Church, especially the Eucharist (see The Teeter Totter)and Confession . The confessional is the place of man’s death to himself and the defeat of his own sin. The confessional is the room where saints are made.

In this life, sanctification is the grace-filled process of purification from sin and growth in holiness. But what if we do not succeed in fully growing in holiness while here on earth? The Catholic Church has long held that purgatory is an additional opportunity for purification from sin and growth in holiness. The word purgatory comes from the Latin verb “purgatio,” which means “to purify or cleanse.” To undergo “purgation” is to be purified or cleansed.

Just as gold is purged of impurities during the refining process, so too we need to be purified of all that is sinful or unclean before entering heaven. Between the sinfulness of this life and the glories of heaven, we must be made pure. Between death and heaven there is a purification.

If we are not perfect saints by the time we die, which very few of us are, purgatory is how we become fully ready for heaven. Purgatory is a temporary state of purification for imperfect saints. Once the imperfect saints are purified they enter heaven. Everyone in purgatory will go to heaven. It is not a matter of if, but when. For as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 1030-1031) states,

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.

Purgatory is often imagined as a place, but it is actually a condition and a process.[ii] Purgatory is the final process of sanctification that most of us need to undergo before we can enter heaven. The purpose of purgatory is made clear in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, where St. Paul writes,

For no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a reward. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.

In this text, Scripture speaks of the judgment of God when the works of the faithful will be tested after death. It says our works will go through “fire,” figuratively speaking. In Scripture, “fire” is used figuratively in two ways: as that which consumes (see Matthew 3:12 and 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8), and as a purifying agent (see Matthew 3:11 and Mark 9:49).[iii] As such, fire is an appropriate symbol for God’s judgment when some of our “works” are being burned up and some are being purified.

What St. Paul is referring to in the quote above cannot be heaven because there are imperfections that still need to be “burned up.” And it cannot be hell because the souls are being saved. So what is it? Purgatory is that part of God’s judgment of the saved when imperfections are purged and our character is fully cleansed from all sinful tendencies.