Furnace of Divine Love: The Biblical Roots of Purgatory

To begin anything well, we need to consider the end—where we want to be or what we want to accomplish. This is also true for spiritual goals. As human persons our ultimate end or goal is eternal union with God, and one of the states most of us will pass through to reach that blessed end is called purgatory. Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition—which together make up the one deposit of faith—enlighten us on the reality of purgatory. The formulations of Church councils, especially Florence and Trent, as well as the writings of the saints and scholars throughout history, deepen our understanding.

Boulanger_-_Les_âmes_dans_le_purgatoire

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) defines purgatory as “a state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC, Glossary; see also CCC 1031, 1472). As believers in God’s merciful love, we should want to be purified of our sins and imperfections; in this sense, we should desire purgatory. It is a state of hope, a furnace of divine love that purifies us so that we can be with God forever in heaven. Purgatory makes us perfect in God’s love. As C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist has said, “Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they?”

Here are some helpful ways I have found to talk about purgatory with non-Catholics (and those Catholics who think that purgatory is a relic of the Church’s pre-Vatican II past):

  1. God is perfect; he is all holy. Nothing unclean can enter his presence (see Revelation 21:27).  Therefore, we must be perfectly holy before we can enter heaven (see Hebrews 12:14).
  2. Though we may strive to cooperate with God’s saving grace, most of us will die with imperfections and attachments to sin.
  3. Therefore, there must be an intermediate state between bodily death and heaven that will cleanse us from our imperfections and prepare us to enter into the all-holy presence of God. The Church has defined this state as “purgatory.”

Many Catholic Scripture scholars believe St. Paul is describing purgatory in his first letter to the Corinthians:

Pur_13_dore“According to the grace 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, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the 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 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” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

After speaking about building our lives on the foundation of Christ, Paul turns to our death, when all of our works will be revealed. The term “the Day” speaks of our particular judgment after death (Hebrews 9:27). This purification is described as a fire and our works as different building materials. What is not worthy to be in God’s presence is burned away (like straw or wood), and what is valuable and eternal (like gold or silver) will not be consumed but refined by this purifying fire. You can find similar images in other parts of the New Testament (see 1 Peter 1:7). While there will be a kind of suffering or “fire,” the ultimate end is the person will be saved by it.

Understanding this purification of the soul after death is why we pray for the holy souls. Praying for the dead was a practice we see in the Old Testament (2 Maccabees 12:38-46; Sirach 7:33), one which was confirmed as a belief and practice by the first followers of Jesus (see the writings of St. Ephrem, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, among others).

Let me propose three spiritual exercises that can flow from our reflection on purgatory:

  1. Let us resolve to accept the gift of God’s forgiveness by participating in the sacraments, especially reconciliation, more frequently.
  2. Let us regularly examine our earthly attachments (what has hold of our attentions, affections and energy?). Are they healthy attachments? If not, create a spiritual plan for loosening their grip on your life.
  3. Finally, give the holy souls the gift of your prayers, and grace-filled works that they may be finally and fully united to God. Eternal rest, grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. Amen.

Going Deeper

St. John Paul II offered a brief, but beautiful, reflection on purgatory, during one of his public audiences. You can find it here.


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Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is the co-author of Revelation: The Kingdom Yet to Come and The Prophets: Messengers of God’s Mercy. He is an international presenter for The Great Adventure Bible Timeline. Bringing a wealth of experience and insight on the Word of God to audiences across the U.S., Thomas is a repeat guest on EWTN and Catholic radio as well as a sought after parish mission and conference speaker. Thomas Smith has taught as an adjunct professor at the St. Francis School of Theology in Denver, and is the former Director of the Denver Catholic Biblical School and the Denver Catechetical School. He lives on his family ranch in southeastern Idaho and writes for his website www.gen215.org.

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  • Kristen

    There is ONE way to heaven and that is through the saving grace of Jesus Christ. Jesus said, I am the Way the Truth and the Life and no one comes to the Father but through Me (John 14:6). When you die you either end up in heaven, if you have repented and believe that Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross was sufficient to save, or you go to hell because you remain in your sin and refuse to believe the truth, thereby rejecting Christ.

    The above reference to 1 Cor 1:10-15 is completely wrong. This is what it says:

    1 Corinthians 1:10-15 New International Version (NIV)

    A Church Divided Over Leaders
    10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[a] in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas[b]”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

    13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name.

    Paul is talking about docturnal unity being based on scripture (not man’s traditions) and how it needs to be the foundation of church life.

    The scripture you’re using to back up the idea of a fictitious place called purgatory (1 Peter 1:7) is talking about God allowing troubles to test ones faith to see if it genuine. The thief on the cross went to heaven when he died. Jesus didn’t tell him he needed to participate in (man-made, again) sacraments or that he would have to go to purgatory first. The thief realized his sin and that he deserved to die and repented. Jesus saw his faith and told the thief he’d see him in paradise that night.

    We need to believe the bible and know it is sufficient for all truth. Tradition does not have equal footing with God’s Word and it surely does not trump it. 2 Timothy 3:16 says, All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

    Jesus is all we need. Don’t let man’s tradition get in the way of a life with Christ. We are sinners and without righteousness. We can’t earn it or buy it. We need a savior!!!

    As far as some of the comments on this thread, satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor 11:14). The bible warns us in 1 John 4:1, “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world”. Please don’t put your hope into man or a church but into Jesus. He is the only one who saves!

    • Ken Milifidel Adamson III

      He put the wrong citation in the article … 1 Cor 3:10-15 … so, can you “re-write” your reply to his article, not that you have the right citation, that would have taken you a minute to find had you really wanted to, it seems by “your tone” you wanted confrontation, but my observation from your reply … he is human (as I assume you are and subject to making mistakes, as I am and do acknowledge I am not perfect and make mistakes daily, but I don’t jump someone the way you did without seeing if he may have made a mistake in the citation, and ask before I go on a rant against the author … just sayin’ …

      • David Anthony Kilby

        Thank you, Ken. We have corrected the citation.

  • Dolores

    Purgatory is a doctrine of the Catholic church and we as Catholics must believe in it. Although belief and reality are two different things, purgatory became a reality for me in 1999. My son at 28 was murdered and I felt grief over his lose but i also felt torture over the thought of where he was since i had been fervently pleading to God for years over a drug addiction he battled with. The first night alone in my room, no one knowing, I pleded with God to tell me where he was since i could not bear the thought of him being anywhere else but with him, I did’t feel he had merited Heaven but I also wanted to know what good had become for my years of prayer. Next day my sister-in-law not knowing the question I had imposed on God told me something that didn’t make sense to her but made all the sense in the world to me
    She could not even explain what she dream or invisioned as she put it. Before retiring the night before she had been watering her lawn
    and as she lay down to rest and began to
    pray she either fell asleep or had a vision of herself back outside watering when she
    Heard someone call her as she turned she saw my son, thinking he wanted a ride
    somewhere, she responded and he responded that he did not want a ride but
    wanted her to give me a message and the message was this “Tell my mother not to worry, tell her to pray the rosary every day and I will tell her when to stop.” When I heard those words I knew God had answered my plea and I also knew that my prayers were so still desperately needed. No prayers needed if already in Heaven, your already there, no prayers can get you out of hell but all prayer is needed in Purgatory.

    • sleepy

      I am trying to give as much of my poor indulgences to those in purgatory, too…

  • Dr Ed Hartnett

    I had the unique experience when I was 5 years old to die (1955), and went into GOD’s tunnel of white light. Upon entering GOD’s light, you are given an understanding of many things are, until death, a mystery to us the living. One of the the things you are given is about judgement, and when it occurs. As soon as our souls are lifting from our bodies, we are judged, which is about as long as a blink of your eye. We are judged then so our souls have a direction, and there are 3 directions your soul can go, HIS Kingdom, Purgatory or Hell. Judgement is a cleansing, but as Christ told us about the 2 Commandments (which I have paraphrased), love GOD first and love your neighbor as yourself, as very important to your judgement. As a child of 5, I was in an age of innocence, but still was given the truth. GOD reads your heart and knows if you love HIM beyond all, if you love yourself, love others and if you have repented your sins. These things define whether you enter HIS Kingdom or not. The Bible also teaches us that the gateway into HIS Kingdom is narrow, and I can tell you it is, for the tunnel of white light you enter is only meant for you. Think about how pure GOD’s love is for each that enters HIS Kingdom, HE gives you your own entrance, that’s how special and how loved you are by HIM. So when you come into HIS Kingdom, you have been cleansed and you are pure. The last thing I will share, and I have much more I was given, is there is no religion in HIS Kingdom, because HE is all you need.

    • Beverly Hagar-Schmerse

      I had an out of body experience saw the white light coming toward me, thouhjt it was Jesus, and was filled with love from my feet to the top of my head…….and I “know” the same thing about religion…and am beginning to share other things I “know”…

      • Dr Ed Hartnett

        Hi Beverly:

        I know it can be hard to share experiences with GOD and Christ, but it is important to do so, because GOD gave you a gift to share with all who will listen.
        I have seen the look in some peoples eyes when I have tried to tell them what happened, or they say, how could you remember that at 5 years old. When you experience GOD and the purity of HIS love first hand, it is something you will never forget, no matter how young or old you are.
        I told our Parish Priest about my death experience and told him that GOD reads your heart when you are judged, and what matters is that you love GOD first, love others as yourself (you must love yourself as well) and that you are a repentant person, and GOD doesn’t care if you are Catholic. You would have thought I was going to give our Priest a heart attack, and he said, well, I would think being a Catholic means something. I then told him, there is no religion in Heaven, so what would it mean? Then i said, GOD doesn’t say all you Catholics over here and the rest of you over there. At that point he didn’t know what to say.
        Point is, you have first hand felt and know the purity of HIS love, be careful, but share what you know, and don’t be discouraged by anyone, for you have been gifted.
        May HIS peace and love be with you always,
        Dr. Ed

        • Marianne

          I doubt God would discriminate. But non-Catholic Christians miss out on receiving the actual body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. That realization was a turning point for me.

        • Beverly Hagar-Schmerse

          Thank you…

      • Marianne

        Beverly, I think it’s wonderful that so many people are blessed with these first-hand experiences. Thank you for sharing it. May the Light of Christ fill your heart with love ALWAYS.

  • Marianne

    We must pray for the souls in Purgatory and for ourselves, and remove the earthly attachments which are obstacles to our holiness. We are blessed to have the Church and the Sacraments to help us.

    I did some research on Purgatory last year when Robin Williams died. A coworker was shaken up and she asked me if I thought he was in hell. I wasn’t sure how to answer, but I told her that I believe God is compassionate and merciful. And perhaps there’s opportunity for cleansing in Purgatory. I went home that night and got online and did some research. Whenever I look for information I always look for Catholic resources, and I found a few very good articles, citing the Catechism (CCC 2282-2283). I printed out five pages and gave it to her.

    After discussing this, she said, “Good. A person who commits suicide won’t go to hell.” But I made it clear that it all depends. And God is the judge… (…and by the way, in these moments, I love it when there are other coworkers in the room. They’re silent, but they’re taking it all in… Well, I like to take advantage of opportunities to evangelize!)

    God always gives us the chance to cleanse our hearts and attain purity when we come before Him. This doesn’t mean we don’t have to strive for perfection while here on earth, because I believe He looks at the intentions of our hearts. If our intent is pure, I think we will pass through Purgatory more quickly.

    • kpm

      A Prayer for the Souls in Purgatory – By Saint Gertrude
      Eternal Father,
      I offer Thee the most precious Blood of Thy Divine Son,
      Jesus,
      in union with the Masses said throughout the world today,
      for all the holy souls in Purgatory.

      Amen.

      Release 1000 souls from Purgatory each time prayed

      • Marianne

        Thank you kpm. I just read a prayer request for a young woman who committed suicide. May all those who read this post please pause a moment to pray for the troubled souls that enter Purgatory with such deep despair in their hearts.

        • Barbara Ann Baugh

          Marianne I pray often for those poor souls who live in those States that offer “physician assisted suicide” or “death with dignity” These are truly in sad circumstances as these individules are bullied by their doctors and even friends and loved ones

          • Marianne

            Yes Barbara. There’s a reason why we allow humane euthanasia for our pets but not for humans. There’s too much potential for abuse. Each human, even though they suffer, is a person whose life has tremendous value and purpose. We may not see it. God does. May he bless you in 2015 for your compassion and faith!