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On Purgatory – Part I

This article is in response to someone asking about the subject. Also, incidentally, I have yet to come across a person or an article that argues against Purgatory that actually knows what it is. To be blunt, it seems many don’t know what they are on about. And the ones that try to explain Purgatory aren’t particularly good either. Perhaps I will fail too but this is my attempt.

Although I want to keep this as short as possible, short answers can be intellectually and emotionally dissatisfying. So, I will attempt at least the semblance of thoroughness without writing an encyclopedia, breaking this up into five (5) parts. I will avoid the scriptural approach in this first part, reserving this for subsequent parts.

The Trinity with Souls in Purgatory, 1740 (oil on canvas), Corrado Giaquinto
The Trinity with Souls in Purgatory, 1740 (oil on canvas), Corrado Giaquinto

1. Definition of Purgatory

It is necessary to provide a definition or a description, else the discussion will go in circles. Purgatory can be defined as the following:

The balance of temporal remission of sin due to an individual at the time of death who has accepted Jesus Christ as the Savior.

It should be noted that:

  • “temporal remission of sin” is paying the temporal price or punishment due to sin.

  • “penance” can be defined as “temporal remission of sin”; in other words, Purgatory is the outstanding or remaining amount of penance due to the individual at death.

  • “temporal” is that which is related to “time”—that is, this lifetime—so “temporal remission of sin” is required due to our sins in this lifetime.

  • there are (potential) complexities associated with “death” due to particular judgement but for the sake of brevity, this is ignored here.

  • the temporal is by nature finite, not to be confused for nor exclude the infinite.

  • since the temporal is finite, Purgatory is not eternal and it is not a third alternative to Heaven and Hell—it is for those who have accepted Christ as Savior (and therefore the forgiveness of sins) but have an outstanding temporal debt to settle.

  • Purgatory is not directly related to Salvation, at least not in terms of God’s initiative and action in saving us, or our choice to accept or reject Salvation—it is for those who already have accepted Christ as Savior and will go to Heaven so, in that regard, Purgatory can be considered as part of the process.

  • Purgatory is not forgiveness since one has to accept Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and forgiveness does not always imply total remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.

  • since Purgatory is the “balance of” the temporal punishment due to sin, it is possible that an individual does not require Purgatory if they do not have any remaining.

  • good works and prayers can benefit oneself and others, including the souls in Purgatory who can pray for you (“Communion of Saints”).

This article series discusses the above points so if one is satisfied with the above, then there is no need to keep reading.

2. The Need for Christ

The teaching of Purgatory can cause confusion. After all, if Jesus truly died for the sins of humanity, then why is Purgatory necessary?

The above question is deliberately loaded and vague just to prove the point that the issue is not simple. However, it is not that complicated. The complications are a result of inappropriate simplifications that some make. In order to understand Purgatory, we need to first examine the need for Christ (or something like Christ) in regards to achieving Salvation.

Assumption 1: God exists and must be infinitely good, which includes being just, merciful etc.

Assumption 2: If God is good, then there is an objective moral standard that we as the created are subject to. Justice can be simply described as “rewarding good and punishing evil”. And to administer justice justly (properly), everything must be consistently accounted for. It’s not justice when, for example, a judge ignores evidence or attributes more or less value to evidence than is appropriate.

Assumption 3: We have free will and are therefore personally responsible for our actions.

Assumption 4: Humanity is fallen. The doctrine of the Fall is not exactly popular with moderns. Granted, I wasn’t there to record it so I can’t prove it directly but there is a simpler way: look around.

Given the above, how does the infinitely good God respond?

Option 1: Summary Condemnation. It would not be unjust for God to condemn our first parents to Hell right there and then, and that would be the end of it. However, that was obviously not the case. Humanity continues to exist.

Option 2: Ongoing Summary Condemnation. Fallen humanity continues to exist, inheriting (the effects of) original sin. God could automatically condemn everyone just for that but this view is limited and therefore is unjust. We are guilty of our own personal sins, but no one asks to be born and we are not responsible for the condition that we inherit. This does not make the problem less real but justice demands all aspects be accounted for. Both Option 1 and Option 2 are over-simplistic.

Option 3: Ignore It. God can simply ignore sin as if nothing happened. This is indifference, which is unjust. True justice accounts for everything.

Option 4: Waive It. If God is merciful, then forgiveness is a possibility. God could, figuratively, wave His hand and say, “Dude, don’t worry about it. It’s fine.” But this is merely another version of indifference. This is not even mercy as it does not acknowledge what justice is.

Option 5: Justice and Mercy. God’s mercy and justice must both be satisfied without excluding or compromising each other. If salvation is to be possible, then there must be forgiveness and reparation. Justice demands that the price be paid somehow.

The punishment for any wrongdoing should be proportional to the offending act and its consequences. The consequences include the offense suffered by the offended party. Therefore, if God is infinitely good, then it follows that any wrongdoing causes God infinite offense and this demands an infinite price.

Human beings could suffer Hell eternally but this is something a forgiving God is trying to avoid. Also, Hell for an individual is particular to that individual. If humanity is to be saved, whether individually or collectively, then a substitutional sacrifice is required.

A valid substitutional sacrifice must ultimately be in comparable form and innocent, capable of satisfying the infinite price for all of humanity’s sins.

Jesus Christ and the Crucifixion, 8th-century icon, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt
Jesus Christ and the Crucifixion, 8th-century icon, St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt

Since humanity is the offending party and the object to be saved, the substitutional sacrifice must be in human form. But human beings are no longer innocent and by nature are finite, so no one can pay it as a substitution. (And if, hypothetically, human beings were infinite by grace, said grace was lost as a consequence of the Fall anyway.)

Only a being who is innocent and of infinite capability can pay the infinite price. In other words, only God can pay it. But God is obviously not human, so if God pays it, then He must pay it in human form.

If God is just and merciful, then something like Christ is necessary to save humanity. Whether Jesus is Christ is another discussion, but for the remainder of this article series, it is assumed that Jesus Christ is truly the Christ. (And to be blunt, the list of candidates isn’t long.)

3. Temporal Merit and Demerit

Since Christ is the only one who can pay the infinite price due to sin by His infinite merits, He is necessary and indispensable for Salvation.

This is why Christians say things like “All sin deserves Hell” and the Church teaches that Salvation is only possible through Christ.

The above being true does not exclude our actions having temporal merit or demerit, depending on whether it is good or bad. There is the distinction between the infinite merits of Christ and the temporal (finite) merits of man. In case one is confused as to why the infinite simply does not override the finite, think of it in qualitative rather than quantitative terms—that is, value (type) and not amount.

To illustrate with a crude example: Someone drives into your car and it is their fault. Do you expect them to pay for damages? If you are the offending party, do you think God wants you to pay for damages (assuming you are able)? Don’t you think it has to be accounted for whether you do or don’t?

Temporal justice is commonsense. Originally, this section included an examination of some common objections. To reduce the length of this article, I have edited and transferred this content to another article “On the Concept of Penance – Part 4” if one is interested.

4. The Possibility of Purgatory

To reiterate:

  • A – Bad actions have infinite demerit.

  • B – Bad actions have temporal (finite) demerit.

  • C – Good actions have temporal (finite) merit.

  • D – Good actions have infinite merit only under certain conditions.

Only Jesus Christ can obtain forgiveness by paying for A, therefore He is necessary and indispensable in Salvation. This, however, does not exclude B and C. Purgatory is for those who have already accepted Christ and will (eventually) enter Heaven, so it is the temporal that is the issue; that is, B must somehow be balanced by C.

Also, C can and needs to be D—that is, our temporal (finite) merit can and needs to gain infinite value—through Christ. (How this can be effected is another discussion but the short answer is by the Sacraments that Christ instituted.)

It is true that the word “Purgatory” is not found in Scripture but that is a very weak argument. After all, the word “Trinity” is not found in Scripture either. It is the concept that matters and conceptually it is in Scripture.

Purgatory is sometimes described as a process of “purification”. This is correct enough but it is vague. This is why I use economic terms. It may be crude but it does illustrate justice. (Even Jesus used economic terms in the Gospels.)

Suppose, in temporal terms, one did 10 “units” of bad things. If possible, one should directly address the problem and rectify it. Often, that is impossible or sometimes impractical. But doing 10 units of good or at least making the effort will restore the balance in economic terms.

If those 10 units of bad things put one at –10, then 10 units of good effort will bring one back up to 0. And if after that one just happens to get hit by a car and suffers 5 units of pain and inconvenience, then that would put one at +5 assuming they bear it well. It is the effort or “suffering” that matters.

As mentioned before, only Christ can pay for the infinite price so only He can deal with the infinite aspects attached to those 10 (temporal) units of bad things (and all other units of bad things). Nevertheless, the temporal (finite) demerit cannot be ignored. Throughout one’s life, this balance is dynamic, an ongoing aggregate like a +/– sports stat. Imagine a graph where the plot goes up every time one does something good and down every time one does something bad.

Suppose one accepts Christ as Lord and Savior but is in the negative (<0) at the time of their death. God is just and justice demands everything to be accounted for. On the one hand, He has his own word to account for. According to His promise, if one accepts Him as Savior, then one will be forgiven and saved (go to Heaven). On the other hand, if He expects us to behave justly in this life, if we are permitted to suffer in this life, then all that has to be accounted for as well.

So, if such a person is condemned just because they are in the negative, then God is going against His own word—it’s as if He is being vindictive. If, however, God simply lets this person go straight to Heaven, then He is being soft as this is comparable to “It counts but then it sorta doesn’t” or “It’s nice if you do it, but it doesn’t matter in the end”.

The only consistently just option is a process where this person suffers the balance of the temporal debt before they enter Heaven. Can this process be instantaneous? It can be but Scripture suggests that possibility is not to be assumed. The point is that the temporal debt has to be settled somehow.

So, it is not accepting Christ and it doesn’t matter what you do in this life, nor is it earn your way to Heaven on your own without Christ. Both are necessary for different reasons.

The idea of Purgatory is simple if one accepts the reality of temporal (finite) merit and demerit. One doesn’t need Scripture to prove it but I will nonetheless try to address it in the next three parts.

I repeat: I use economic terms as a crude method to illustrate the concept. If one strictly sticks to economics, it follows that anyone who needs to go to Purgatory eventually enters Heaven at 0 and therefore receives no reward beyond getting in. That is over-simplistic since settling a debt based on the general aggregate does not logically exclude the eternal reward based on the overall aggregate as well as each and every specific act.

And on that note, the sentence of Purgatory can be based on qualitative considerations rather than mere quantitative ones. What if one, although repentant, had a reasonable opportunity to directly address a specific sin during this lifetime but did not? Since the material consequences of said sin remain unaddressed, one may have to remain in Purgatory until someone else fixes it. Of course, the intensity and duration of the sentence must still be proportional.

I finish this article with one final argument, another form of the above. It is a question that a child in Sunday school may ask since children can have a very strong sense of justice:

What happens to the bad guy who has been bad all his life but then converts on his deathbed? Does he go straight to Heaven as well? Why should he?

The child asks not because he/she doubts the mercy of Christ. The child is trying to reconcile this with his/her own experiences, as if to say, “This guy has been a scumbag for most of his life and has gotten away with it. Now he converts in his final 30 seconds whilst I get yelled at by my parents for next to nothing (especially if they’re overbearing Asian parents) and everyone who accepts Jesus automatically goes straight to Heaven because…?”

Those who ask this question have obviously found something not quite right with the equation. And they are not wrong.

To answer the child with a dismissive statement that pretends to be a logical answer (even if it happens to be vaguely true) like “That’s just the way it is” or “God works in mysterious ways” will suggest one thing to the child: that most adults and authority figures are full retards.

Click here for Part II.


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