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“If heaven is for clean people, it’s vacant.”
– ‘Load Me Up’ by Matthew Good Band
I remember when I was 21, I was going through a stressful time as a third-year apprentice carpenter. After I quit one construction job to start with a new company, my former boss withheld my paycheque and would continue to call my cell phone during the work hours to harass me for leaving him. My mind was in a constant clutter trying to get through every work day while figuring out how I was going to obtain my outstanding wages.
One Thursday evening while driving in rush-hour traffic, my anxiety was so high that I lost focus and rear-ended my Ford Ranger into a rust-bucket of an 80’s Dodge Ram pickup truck. His bumper barely looked dented compared to the rest of his vehicle, and yet the whole front end of mine was a total write-off. I went from living paycheque to paycheque to being cash-broke, owing a $400 traffic ticket for reckless driving and no vehicle to drive me to work.
Given my situation, my parents had graciously saved me from a dismal financial pothole by finding another vehicle to lend to me under the family loan program, on the condition that I pay it off as I was able to afford to, interest-free. Although I had spent the next year making monthly payments, it was encouraging to know my parents had my back and wanted to help me get back on my feet financially. Having a debt under my parents felt a lot easier than having to be at the mercy of a bank or a loan shark.
One of the most divisive topics in the history of Christian theology is Purgatory. I remember in high school having discussions with my Christian friends about the idea in which one of them exclaimed,
“If Purgatory exists, that means salvation is works-based! It invalidates the sacrifice Jesus made in dying for our sins!”
I’ve always been hesitant to accept the notion of such a place existing, especially Hell. But it was only after my situation with the vehicle accident that I began to wrap my mind around the idea of a post-mortem purification stage. It made me think about how God’s grace is like a ‘debt transfer’ through the death and resurrection of Jesus, similar to how my parents took on my debts to ease my financial burdens.
It is easy to view suffering in such a negative light because nobody likes to suffer. We want to avoid suffering in any way possible – it’s in our nature. This is why it is easy to embrace the idea of being saved by simply believing Jesus died for our sins. But following Christ by merely ‘accepting’ Him in our hearts does not mean we stop sinning, nor does it exempt us from any form of suffering. In fact, there’s something about breaking bad habits that seems torturous in itself – similar to how a caffeine addict like myself finds abstaining from coffee.
If sin does not exist in heaven, I guess walking into a room full of well-mannered, saintly people would be nothing short of a culture-shock for someone like myself who is notorious for cussing like a sailor. It only makes sense that my bad habits would have to be ‘purged’ out before entering a Christlike perfection.
The cross is oftentimes viewed as a symbol of victory over sin, but it is also a reminder of how Jesus endured suffering for us. This is why some crucifixes commonly have an image of the impaled Christ, to remind us to endure our daily struggles just as He endured suffering for us during the crucifixion. Even though Jesus died once for all for our salvation, we are still subject to overcome worldly temptations that hinder our relationship with God. According to Christian belief, salvation is a free gift from God with a condition – we are called to lay down our lives, follow Him, believe in Him, obey His Word and endure until the bitter end. It’s simple, yet it’s difficult. It’s nothing, and it’s everything.
Purgatory is commonly misunderstood to be an extension of Hell, but according to Roman Catholic theology it is defined as the ‘waiting room’ for Heaven. It is not considered to be a place of condemnation, but a transition into Paradise. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:
“All who die in God’s grace, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” – CCC 1030
Some would even argue the word ‘Purgatory’ does not even appear in the Bible, but the truth is many words are nowhere to be found in it – words like Trinity, rapture, Immaculate Conception or even the word Bible itself. These are terms specifically defined by the Early Church Fathers by connecting the dots in Scripture in order to summarize doctrinal beliefs. That being said, one of the biblical references that comes to my mind is Abraham’s bosom described in Luke 16:22-23 (also referred as the Limbo of the Fathers). This place was considered to be where many patriarchs from the Old Testament who died in friendship with God remained until Christ’s redemption. Aside from Heaven and Hell, this reference seems to hint at the possibility of a third condition in the spiritual realm similar to the Catholic description of Purgatory.
Other passages in the Bible that the Catholic Church refers to in support of Purgatory are these,
“Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.”
– Matthew 5:25-26 RSV
“For no other foundation can any one 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, stubble— 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 3:11-15 RSV
“But nothing unclean shall enter it, nor any one who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”
– Revelation 21:27 RSV
C.S. Lewis, one of the most acclaimed Christian apologists of the 20th century once quoted in his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer,
Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know’ – ‘Even so, sir.’
I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don’t think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.
My favourite image on this matter comes from the dentist’s chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am ‘coming round’,’ a voice will say, ‘Rinse your mouth out with this.’ This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But . . . it will [not] be disgusting and unhallowed.”
One of my favorite pieces of literature is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, arguably one of the greatest epic poems in history. In the second book Purgatorio, It is interesting to observe the description of souls enduring a different types of spiritual cleansing, but collectively not the same kind of torment that is experienced by souls in Hell. Unlike the aura of despair present throughout Inferno, there is an eerie ambiance of hope lingering with the souls in Purgatory as though it were all only temporary.
From my perspective, Purgatory does not contradict the Bible nor does it invalidate the death and resurrection of Jesus, but much rather accommodates it. If people in Purgatory are already technically saved by God’s grace, then to me it’s really a blessing rather than a curse. But no matter how many Bible verses I can pull from reference, I can neither prove nor disprove its existence. There are some things we will never really know until we cross that threshold.
These are only my thoughts. I personally don’t believe it’s necessary for all Christians to readily embrace it or try and cram it into their theological think-tanks.
Although if God prepares a place for me in Purgatory, I wouldn’t find it to be the most ideal situation but it wouldn’t be the worst possible scenario. When all is said and done, I would rather wander in the slums of Paradise than reside in the mansions of Hell.
“Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.” – Hebrews 12:28-29 RSV