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On Purgatory – Part IV

This part will examine scriptural reference more directly related to Purgatory.

It is assumed that one has read Part I. Although it is not essential to read Part II and Part III, it does assume one accepts the reality of temporal merit and demerit. If not, then it is recommended that one reads those parts.

Madonna Interceding for Souls in Purgatory, 1762–1769 (oil on canvas), Francesco Fontebasso
Madonna Interceding for Souls in Purgatory, 1762–1769 (oil on canvas), Francesco Fontebasso

13. “Hell”

In Hebrew and Greek, there are multiple words that is translated as or convey the meaning of “hell”.

(1) sheol – This Hebrew word sometimes seems to mean “eternal damnation” but at other times mean something vague like “grave” or “underworld” or “place of the dead”, amongst other meanings.

(2) hades – This Greek word is at least sometimes used to translate the above Hebrew in the Old Testament. It is also used in the New Testament and, like its Hebrew counterpart, the meaning can vary.

(3) gehenna – Although this is Greek, it is of Hebrew origin, a combination of gahee which means “valley”, and Hinnom which is a place and possibly means “lamentation”. This Greek term seems to be referring to some Hebraic expression/image where rubbish and dead animals are disposed of and burnt in the valley of Hinnom. In other words, the term is an image of fire as punishment in a rather permanent way. Unlike the above, this word is used in the New Testament to mean “hell” in an unambiguous manner; that is, eternal damnation. (Matthew 10:28 etc)

It seems the Jews in the ancient world had at least a vague appreciation of the difference between hell (eternal damnation) and some other place.

The below are merely three examples of the use of sheol in the Old Testament. In all three instances, it is translated as “hell” in English.

From Proverbs 5:1–5, a wisdom/moral book:

My son, attend to my wisdom, and incline thy ear to my prudence. That thou mayst keep thoughts, and thy lips may preserve instruction. Mind not the deceit of a woman. For the lips of a harlot are like a honeycomb dropping, and her throat is smoother than oil. But her end is bitter as wormwood, and sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down into death, and her steps go in as far as hell.

In the above, “hell” is presumably “eternal damnation”.

From Amos 9:2, a prophecy and warning to Israel:

Though they go down even to hell, thence shall my hand bring them out: and though they climb up to heaven, thence will I bring them down.

Although figurative, it is a bit strange that God may bring people out of hell. It’s not that He can’t but hell is meant to be eternal. This “hell” is therefore probably not “eternal damnation”. The below from Psalm 85:13 by David is perhaps less figurative:

For thy mercy is great towards me: and thou hast delivered my soul out of the lower hell.

Sometimes, “grave” is used instead of “hell”. In any case, it is some lower place that God can and will (hopefully) get one out of, so Purgatory is probable. Some argue that the text is referring to the hope of resurrection or is figurative for bad life circumstances. Both are possible but neither exclude Purgatory.

The word is ambiguous, so none of these are definitive but they are worth considering as part of the body of evidence.

14. Post-mortem Procedures

From Matthew 12:31–32 where Christ gives the following warning:

Therefore I say to you: Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven. And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come.

It seems that sins can still be forgiven “in the world to come”, except for one. This episode is also recorded in Mark 3 and Luke 12 where “in the world to come” is not mentioned. That being the case, discrepancy is not contradiction. Matthew’s Gospel simply has more information.

Purgatory is not about forgiveness, so this passage is not directly about Purgatory. Nevertheless, it does explicitly disprove the common assumption that physical death (when the soul separates from the body) is followed by instantaneous sentencing. The above passage supports why Particular Judgement is traditionally taught (albeit vaguely) as something that “takes a short amount of time”.

The point is that whilst God can no doubt arrange things to be nice and neat, He allows our free will to play out. And that means the possibility of reaching physical death with unresolved issues. He is just (Deuteronomy 32:4, Daniel 9:14), His “eyes are too pure to behold evil” (Habacuc 1:13) so nothing “defiled” may enter Heaven (Revelations 21:27) and everything has to be accounted for. (Matthew 12:36–37 etc)

But, He is “gracious and merciful” (Psalm 144:8 etc) and also not stupid, so there is the opportunity after physical death to deal with unresolved issues.

In Part I section 1, the definition of Purgatory is “at the time of death”. That is generally true but admittedly simplistic. If forgiveness can still be obtained after physical death, then the temporal remission of sins forgiven after physical death is also possible.

Another clue is given in Hebrews 4:12:

For the word of God is living and effectual, and more piercing than any two-edged sword; and reaching unto the division of the soul and the spirit, of the joints also and the marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

The above makes a distinction between “soul” and “spirit”. With this additional aspect to the human makeup, it follows that there is an additional step in death (“division of the soul and the spirit” after separation from the body). It makes sense then that after physical death (during Particular Judgement) there is still the opportunity to act. When the “soul” and “spirit” separate at the end of Particular Judgement is true death.

In other words, Purgatory is the balance of temporal remission of sin due to a saved individual at the end of Particular Judgement (true death).

15. Prayers for the Dead

One of the arguments against Purgatory is from Ecclesiastes 9:5:

For the living know that they shall die, but the dead know nothing more, neither have they a reward any more: for the memory of them is forgotten.

Generally, this book is primarily a warning about the transient nature of this life, hence “vanity of vanities”. The Hebrew word used is hebel, meaning “vapor”, something that can be barely detectable one moment and then gone the next.

Setting the above emphasis aside, the “dead know nothing more” does not necessarily mean no Purgatory or total unawareness of what else is going on. The parable in Luke 16 tells of a damned rich man who saw the beggar Lazarus saved, the former told to “remember that thou didst receive good things in thy lifetime”. The key to understanding this passage is “neither have they a reward any more”. In other words, the time to merit or demerit ends when the sentence is given at Particular Judgement.

Can one exercise their will after death and “do stuff”? Yes, but there is no personal merit or demerit attached. During this life, there is the opportunity to earn finite merit (at least partly) on our own terms. After that, if one is saved but is also in the negative, then one no longer earns it by choice. Balancing the temporal debt is then an imposition. To put it differently:

  • Those in Hell do not require prayers and, insofar as God permits, act against other parties.

  • Those in Heaven do not require prayers, do not need to pray for themselves but can pray for the living and those in Purgatory. Requests for prayer may be made to those in Heaven.

  • Those in Purgatory require prayers, cannot pray for themselves but can pray for the living. Requests for prayer may be made to those in Purgatory.

  • Those in this life require prayers, can pray for themselves and others, and can pray for those in Purgatory to help mitigate their suffering (duration and/or intensity).

  • The above three points fall under the umbrella of “Communion of Saints” as confessed in the Apostolic Creed. (I omit Children’s Limbo for the sake of brevity but those souls also contribute.)

The passage below is from 2 Machabees 12:43–46 where Judas Machabee had just led the Jewish army to victory. Afterward, it was discovered that some Jewish soldiers who had died in battle had the enemy’s pagan jewelry under their coats/tunics, presumably something they had plundered earlier. This was forbidden.

And making a gathering, he [Judas Machabee] sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection (for if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead). And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.

A comment about the above text: The book 2 Machabees is amongst seven deutero-canonical books found in the Catholic versions of the Old Testament which are typically not found in contemporary protestant versions. This is another discussion but, to be brief, the writers of the New Testament did quote or make allusions to these texts (as if nothing is wrong with them) and the early Church considered these as canon. When Luther first translated the bible into German, he included them even though he changed the order. It was only much later when some protestants began to remove these seven books.

It is irrelevant whether one considers these seven books as canonical since the above passage is historical proof that the Jews in fact prayed for the dead. To conveniently ignore it because one doesn’t consider it canon is not an argument; it’s just snobbery.

From Ecclesiasticus 7:31–40, also one of seven deutero-canonical books, which gives a little advice on how to live. The second paragraph mentions helping the dead.

With all thy soul fear the Lord, and reverence his priests. With all thy strength love him that made thee: and forsake not his ministers. Honor God with all thy soul, and give honor to the priests, and purify thyself with thy arms. Give them their portion, as it is commanded thee, of the firstfruits and of purifications: and for thy negligences purify thyself with a few. Offer to the Lord the gift of thy shoulders, and the sacrifice of sanctification, and the firstfruits of the holy things: And stretch out thy hand to the poor, that thy expiation and thy blessing may be perfected. A gift hath grace in the sight of all the living, and restrain not grace from the dead. Be not wanting in comforting them that weep, and walk with them that mourn. Be not slow to visit the sick: for by these things thou shalt be confirmed in love. In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin.

Perhaps a less controversial source but a stranger practice is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:29–30:

Otherwise what shall they do that are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not again at all? Why are they then baptized for them? Why also are we in danger every hour?

It is uncertain whether the text is referring to a literal baptism for the dead or whether this is a figurative term for certain ceremonies performed for the dead. Either way, it shows that the first-generation Christians were concerned for the dead and thought their efforts could help with no evidence of criticism from St Paul or any other apostle.

16. Saved by Fire

The following passage from 1 Corinthians 3:11–15 is usually cited as proof for Purgatory:

For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid; which is Christ Jesus. Now if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble: Every man’s work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.

The “foundation” (or something similar) is often used to denote Christ, indicating that He is indispensable in Salvation. So, as long as one “build upon this foundation”, one will be saved, which is consistent to John 3:16 etc. But this does not exclude that one will be tested and may “suffer loss” in the process. This is not inconsistent to “refine them as silver.” (Zechariah 13:9, Malachi 3:1–3)

17. Christ’s Warnings

From Matthew 5:25–26:

Be at agreement with thy adversary betimes, whilst thou art in the way with him: lest perhaps the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing.

On the surface, it reads like Jesus is simply urging us to sort out our issues with others before matters escalate. That is, of course, good advice.

Nonetheless, He finishes by saying, “Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing.” It is safe to assume that Jesus knows the administration of justice is far from perfect in this life. Rightly or wrongly, sometimes it may work in one’s favor and sometimes not. But He speaks with authority and the tone is definitive, that everything will be accounted for strictly and properly. Therefore, Jesus is most likely warning us about the possibility of Purgatory (“prison”).

From Luke 16:1-9 is the parable of the unjust/shrewd manager.

And he said also to his disciples: There was a certain rich man who had a steward: and the same was accused unto him, that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said to him: How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship: for now thou canst be steward no longer. And the steward said within himself: What shall I do, because my lord taketh away from me the stewardship? To dig I am not able; to beg I am ashamed. I know what I will do, that when I shall be removed from the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. Therefore calling together every one of his lord’s debtors, he said to the first: How much dost thou owe my lord? But he said: An hundred barrels of oil. And he said to him: Take thy bill and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then he said to another: And how much dost thou owe? Who said: An hundred quarters of wheat. He said to him: Take thy bill, and write eighty. And the lord commended the unjust steward, forasmuch as he had done wisely: for the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. And I say to you: Make unto you friends of the mammon of iniquity; that when you shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.

This is a strange parable because it reads like Jesus is encouraging theft and fraud. Granted, it’s a parable, not to be taken too literally but still… cheating person A in order to benefit person B and person C is not quite right. Unless person A truly deserves it. But there is nothing in the text to suggest that the so-called rich man is dishonest enough to deserve such treatment from his own steward.

Generally, this parable is read as advice to use our gifts, material and spiritual, to benefit others and ourselves. More specifically, the concluding phrase is an important clue: “Make unto you friends of the mammon of iniquity; that when you shall fail, they may receive you into everlasting dwellings.

If one considers the souls in Purgatory, then this parable makes much more sense. In other words, pray for those who are suffering in Purgatory. When they get out and enter Heaven with your help, they will thank you by praying for you. They can pray for you in Purgatory but they will be closer to God in Heaven and can therefore more effectively pray for you from there. In that way, they can help you in life and possibly to avoid Purgatory when you die. But even if you don’t (“when you shall fail”), they can help you when it is your turn.

18. “Descended into hell…”

At least one form of the Apostolic Creed contains the below in the Christological part of the text:

…suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died, and was buried, descended into hell, on the third day He arose from the dead.

If “Hell” is eternal separation from God, then how did Christ descend into it when He is God? Setting aside the joke that Jesus was perhaps “beside Himself”, it can be rightly said that His soul was separated from His body or that He as the Son was separated from the Father temporarily. But the Son is still God.

I am not suggesting that Christ did not manifest Himself to the damned anyway but “descended into” reads somewhat strongly. Since there are different words of “hell” (see section 13), the creed is probably referring to Purgatory.

A passage from 1 Peter 3:17–20 clarifies the matter. The below is taken from the NIV just because it is easier to read.

For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit, in whom He also went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In the ark a few people, only eight souls, were saved through water.

After His death, Christ “preached to the spirits in prison” who died during the flood at the time of Noah. Prison may be nasty but is not used to denote “Hell” in Scripture. This “prison” is the same root word in Greek mentioned by Christ in Matthew 5:25–26 (see section 17). Although it is possible to die in prison or for it to end in an execution, the image is that prison is temporary as opposed to “everlasting fire”.

Also note that Christ “preached” to those spirits. One can joke that in Heaven the saved are preached to for an eternity for their enjoyment whilst those in Hell are preached to for an eternity for their greater torment. There may even be some truth in that. But with that joke out of the way, the primary reason to preach to someone is to help them. And neither the saved nor the damned need help.

Those in this life need help but the text is referring to those who had died during the flood. Therefore, by a process of elimination, this group must be souls in Purgatory. These people must have repented before the water took them out or perhaps during their Particular Judgement, thereby being saved but without implying total remission of the temporal price of sin.

This passage also reveals that Purgatory is not necessarily instantaneous. At the time of Peter writing this epistle, these souls had been in there for… well, just a few thousand years or so.

Some refer to 1 Corinthians 15:50–52 to argue that Purgatory is instantaneous:

Now this I say, brethren, that flesh and blood cannot possess the kingdom of God: neither shall corruption possess incorruption. Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall all indeed rise again: but we shall not all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall rise again incorruptible: and we shall be changed.

It is clear that St Paul is referring to the bodily resurrection at Christ’s Second Coming. Even if, for argument’s sake, that this is figuratively referring to the particular soul, then commonsense suggests that instantaneous Purgatory is a possibility, not a rule, since this passage does not override what is written in 1 Peter 3.

Ultimately, Purgatory is proportional to the personal temporal debt so both duration and intensity can vary according to case.

There is one last episode that I can think of worth mentioning. From Luke 23:42–43 when Christ on the cross addressed the repentant thief Dismas:

And Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.

Based on the text alone, one cannot tell if Dismas had to endure Purgatory. Christ forgave him and promised him that he would be saved. If Dismas did go through Purgatory, then it would have been less than one day. So, avoiding Purgatory or getting a short stint is possible, but not to be presumed. (According to some mystics, Dismas indeed did not go through Purgatory.)

19. Two Analogies

All analogies or illustrations break down eventually but I include two here in case some may find it helpful. The first is a scriptural parallel. Both follow the same line of reasoning as presented in Part I, section 4.

Analogy 1: When God promised the Israelites to take them out of Egypt and to the promised land, there were no explicit conditions attached.

So, when some of the Israelites misbehaved during their trip, how to deal with this justly was not a simple matter.

If God punished them harshly, even wiping them out, then He would be breaking His promise or risked breaking it. If God simply let them off the hook or merely gave them a slap on the wrist, then He would be soft.

No doubt the news of the extraordinary events in Egypt would have made its way to surrounding kingdoms and cities, so news of God treating the Israelites too harshly or too leniently could be a potential PR disaster. No one wants a harsh god. And no one wants a soft god either.

But God is not stupid. He kept His promise. Just made them wait 40 years. I am not suggesting one’s purgatorial sentence will be 40 years or that the average sentence is 40 years, just merely illustrating the concept.

Analogy 2: Some describe accepting Christ as a form of life insurance.

The insurance policy is that Christ covers the infinite price due to sin but there is the premium, which is the temporal price due to sin. This premium is calculated for the individual and must be paid for.

So what if an individual sign up but at true death hasn’t paid the premium?

God is just and everything must be accounted for. On the one hand, the person has signed up. On the other hand, he/she hasn’t paid the premium.

Just because someone hasn’t paid the premium in full doesn’t mean the policy is not in effect. Signing up or even just wanting to sign up is the most important thing. It is better to sign up properly, of course, but God is not inconsiderate or inflexible. Nevertheless, the premium must be paid in full somehow. There may even be a late fee.

Therefore, Purgatory is the opportunity to pay the balance of the premium, an example of God’s justice and mercy.

This concludes the scriptural examination and discussion of the topic. The fifth and final part will simply provide a glimpse of some non-scriptural writings about Purgatory.


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