Sacred Scripture and the constant faith of the Church affirm that heaven and hell, as places, exist. Roman Catholic Christians and other Christians also profess belief in a state of being, not a place, called "purgatory." The term "purgatory" is not found in the Bible; but neither are other such important Christian beliefs such as "Trinity" and "Incarnation."
Purgatory is defined as a state of being, the continuing process of purgation or purification of the soul after human death. It is a state of perfection--begun in baptism and faith-consummated after death, entered into only by those who are saved. In other words, our transformation in Christ (Rom 13:14, "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ"), our perfection in the holiness of the Father (1 Pet 1:16, "Be holy, because I (am) holy") is not ended at our physical death. Purgatory is a sign of God's mercy on those who have honestly sought to know God and to do His will in this life and yet die in some degree of bondage to sin or the effects of sin.
The Church has only two official teachings concerning purgatory:
- it exists, and
- our prayers help the souls in purgatory.
God is revealed as perfect interior holiness.
- Is 6:3
- "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!" they (the Seraphim) cried one to the other.
We are called to that same holiness.
- Lv 19:2
- "Speak to the whole Israelite community and tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy."
- 1 Pet 1:15-16
- As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, "Be holy because I (am) holy."
Who can stand in the face of the holiness of God?
- Ps 15:1
- Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountain?
- Ps 66:18
- Had I cherished evil in my heart, the Lord would not have heard.
- Heb 12:14
- Strive for peace with everyone, and for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
- Eph 5:3
- Immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is fitting among holy ones.
- Ex 33:18-20
- Then Moses said, "Do let me see your glory!" He (Yahweh) answered, "I will make all my beauty pass before you, and in your presence I will pronounce my name, 'Lord'; I who show favors to whom I will, I who grant mercy to whom I will. But my face you cannot see, for no man sees me and still lives."
- Rev 21:27
- ... but nothing unclean will enter it (the City of God), nor any (one) who does abominable things or tells lies. Only those will enter whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life.
- Eph 5:25-27
- Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her (the Church) to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
We are deprived of the vision of God because of our sinfulness. But there is a divine purging fire which can heal us.
- Heb 12:29
- For our God is a consuming fire.
- Heb 12:6,10
- For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. ... but he does so for our benefit, in order that we may share his holiness.
- Is 6:5-7
- Then I (Isaiah) said, "Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. "See," he said, "now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged."
- 1 Cor 3:11-15
- 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 wage. But if someone's work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.
- 1 Pet 1:7
- The genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold that is perishable even though tested by fire, may prove to be for praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Jesus implies that our sins can be forgiven in the next world.
- Mt 12:32
- And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
Scripture from the Greek Septuagint, the Old Testament of Christ, the Evangelists and Paul, and of the councils of Hippo and Carthage, affirm purgatory.
- 2 Mc 12:42-46
- Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.
Experience teaches us that there are people who die so suddenly, they have not had the opportunity to confess their sins, but are not guilty of serious "death dealing" sin and separation from God.
The constant faith of the Church affirms the belief in purgatory.
From the earliest of times, the Fathers of the Church taught the existence of purgatory: Tertullian (Rome, 160 - 220?), Origen (Alexandria, 185 - 254?), Cyprian (Carthage, 200 - 258), Ambrose (Tier, 340 - 397), Augustine (Numidia, 354 - 430), Basil (Caesarea, 329 - 379), Gregory of Nazianzus (in Cappadocia, 329 - 389), John Chrysostom (Antioch, 349 - 407), Gregory the Great (Rome, 540 - 604), and many others.
The teaching Magisterium of the Church also affirms the belief in purgatory.
- Council of Lyons II (1274)
- We believe ... that the souls, by the purifying compensation are purged after death.
- Council of Florence
- Repeated the Council of Lyons II.
- Council of Trent (1545-1563)
- We constantly hold that purgatory exists, and that the souls of the faithful there detained are helped by the prayers of the faithful.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 1031
- The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of cleansing fire.
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 1472
- To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.
The word limbo comes from the Latin word limbus which means a border, a hem, or fringe around the edge of a garment.
The term is associated in common parlance to mean some in-between state of being. It is often associated, in a religious context, with some state of being in neither heaven nor hell, therefore on the fringe of either. It has been used to refer to the abode for the dead who were neither capable of committing deadly sin (1 Jn 5:16) which excluded the soul from hell nor were baptized in water and the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:5)which excluded the soul from heaven.
There never has been nor is there any official Roman Catholic doctrinal position or teaching on the existence of or state of limbo.
It must be stated that the term limbo receives a lot of attention in pastoral practice when pastors had to explain the mind of God to distraught parents whose newborn infant has died without being baptized.
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, Section 1261
- As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them," allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.
By Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl.
Catholic Biblical Apologetics, © Copyright 1985-2004, Paul Flanagan and Robert Schihl
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture texts are taken from the New American Bible with Revised New Testament and Revised Psalms © 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C. and are used by permission of the copyright owner. All Rights Reserved. No part of the New American Bible may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
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Last Updated: July 16, 2004