Purgatory

In the minds of Protestants belief in purgatory is given a place with other odd Catholic practices, like adoration of Mary and prayer to the saints. Purgatory is often closely associated with its abuse, the selling of indulgences and spiritual coercion. While purgatory isn’t mentioned in any canonical books of the Bible, its creation is a natural response to what is found in it. One of our natural responses to our own sinfulness is the desire to pay for it or to somehow make it right by our own effort. There is something about God’s unmerited, unearned, undeserved forgiveness that is unbelievable. We come come up with questions like, “If I can’t do anything to earn my salvation what’s there’s to keep me from continuing to sin?” Paul was aware of this and dealt with it in Romans 6-8. Still, a place like purgatory, where our length of stay before going to heaven is dependent on our our behavior on Earth has its appeals. Protestants have their own purgatory of the mind where they beat themselves up internally for committed sins, thinking that if they make themselves feel bad enough inside it will show God how sorry they are and deserving of forgiveness. There is of course an opposite to this where we don’t take sin seriously enough in our lives. Both extremes are harmful.

Purgatory, rightly understood, is not a place where we pay for our sins. In the theology of purgatory, anyone who is there will go to heaven. The purpose of purgatory is for God to purge and purify us of sin. Many people focus on heaven as a place where we will meet relatives and loved ones who have died. While the Bible doesn’t say much about that, it does make clear that it will be a place free from sin. All those habitual sins we commit, the tendencies we have to hurt people, mis-communication, addiction to lust, self-centeredness, bitterness, quickness to anger, hate, unhealthy emotions, greed, envy, pride, and the like will be gone. They will no longer be part of our characters so that all our inclinations and desires will be good. Purgatory would be a place where those thing we have not purged from our lives on Earth will be forced out of us. Would we really want to live forever if we knew that we would continue with our predisposition to sin, to hurt others and hurt God. Furthermore, who could be in heaven in the presence of a pure and holy God if these were still part of his life. Herein is a part of the glory of salvation.

There is no Biblical basis for the existence of purgatory. What at many times seem like an impossible task on Earth, and a grueling one if continued in the afterlife happens at death. When we die physically all of us dies, when we rise only that which is pure, good, and made holy by God will rise, as 1 Corinthians 15:25-58 says. Death will be the only final purging we need, not a long drawn out struggle in purgatory. Purgatory correctly recognizes the problem, but prescribes the wrong solution.

This is the benefit of looking at systems of Christian belief that are different from our own. We will always have gaps and inconsistencies in our own system of belief that we are blind to. Other Christians will have gaps and inconsistencies too, but hopefully not in the same places. Exploring outside our own patch of truth into the wider world of Christianity can fill up the chinks in the armor.

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