What Purgatory Is . . . and Isn’t

2 Nov

Does purgatory offer a second chance to those who rejected Christ in this life?

This question and others like it reflect a widespread Protestant belief that purgatory is one of those “unbiblical” Church teachings that Catholics manufactured. I’m sure most of our Catholic readers have encountered such question about Purgatory at some time in their life.

And today, of course, the Church celebrates All Souls Day, which in a sense gives purgatory center stage.

Three ecumenical councils affirm the Church’s teaching on purgatory, two of which preceded the Protestant Reformation: Lyons II (1274), Florence (1439), and Trent (1563). These councils did not “create” this teaching, but explicated the faith of the Church, found in Scripture and Tradition, and attested by Church leaders throughout the first Christian millennium.

Check out Catechism, nos. 1030-32 and the resources below for more information.

In answer to the question posed at the beginning of this post, purgatory is not a “second chance.” Christ judges each one of us upon our death, and at that time our eternal destination—heaven or hell—is determined. Purgatory does not offer a third way or some sort of end run, as though we could earn our way to heaven after death despite rejecting Christ during our life. It doesn’t work that way. If we reject Christ, we will not be saved (see Jn. 3:18).

Thus, the spiritual purification of purgatory is possible only for those who are reconciled to God through the saving death of Christ.

But what about that? Isn’t Christ’s saving death sufficient? If we died in friendship with Christ, why then do we need this “purification”?

Surely Christ’s death was sufficient to redeem us. Christ sent His Holy Spirit to apply the fruits of this redemption to us through His Church. The work of the Holy Spirit in us is to make us holy, to sanctify us, which includes the ongoing work of purifying us—in this life and in purgatory—so as to prepare us for abundant, eternal life in heaven.

Our faith works through charity (Gal. 5:6), and Our Lord in words and deeds has shown us that Christian love involves complete self-giving. To the extent we cling to our sins, we’re holding back and not quite able to love as Christ loves.

Seen in this light, purgatory is a continuation of the work of the Holy Spirit on us and in us, equipping us for a new way of life that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard” (1 Cor. 2:9).

Recommended resources:

3 Responses to “What Purgatory Is . . . and Isn’t”

  1. Nancy November 2, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    Can you offer any bible passages for my protestant friends who don’t “buy it” ???
    Great article, Leon.

  2. Leon Suprenant November 2, 2011 at 5:54 pm #


    Good question. Unfortunately, the section on purgatory in Catechism, nos. 1030-32 doesn’t have as many Scripture references as it could have. I recommend the resources at the bottom of the post, especially Curtis Martin’s chapter in the Catholic for a Reason book.

    A site that I think you’ll find especially helpful in response to your question is the “Scripture Catholic” site, which provides dozens of Scripure passages that support the Church’s teaching on purgatory. Here is a direct link: http://www.scripturecatholic.com/purgatory.html

    • Nicole November 7, 2011 at 12:47 am #

      Mr. Suprenant,

      There is a great book of treatises written by St. Francis de Sales in which he uses tons of scriptural references for the various “issues” protestants have with Catholicism. He’s a great person to look to for answers being a Doctor of the Church and all:


      While I don’t necessarily support all of the books sold at this outfit TAN or St. Benedict Press, this book is definitely one I would recommend everyone buy at least once…

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