Martin Luther King had such a page turning effect when he spoke of a day where “a man would not be judged by the color of his skin but by the content of his character”. This was accepted as true and right by all of good will but points to a broader reality: we are all going to be judged. One subset of that experience that is pointed to in ancient scripture and tradition is a cleansing of that person when they area already heaven bound as summed up above.
“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, 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” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1030, 1994).
A common objection is that this is a yoke of burden and oppression which undermines the work of Jesus Christ on the cross and is unscriptural. However the term used above is “undergo” meaning Christ is doing the work. Also, supposedly, any interpretation of scripture to support purgatory is woven out of whole cloth. Here I will make a case that purgatory is consistent with the atonement in Christ, scriptural and founded in Christian tradition. We know that God has set a time for one and all of eternal judgment (Hebrews 6:2), but there is his work to do in us along the way.
This Christ-centered context of this post-death purging for those heading to heaven is not an impersonal action of Christ but between his death and resurrection he preached to them. Would it be in his nature to communicate with us while being purified? We know he never changes (Hebrews 13:8).
Look at 1 Peter 3:19–20. These verses show Jesus preaching to “to the spirits in prison.” The “prison” cannot be heaven, because the people there do not need to have the Gospel preached to them. It cannot be hell, because the souls in hell cannot repent. It must be something else…..there is nothing unbiblical about the claim that those who have died might not immediately go to heaven or to hell (Christine Pinheiro, Catholic Answers, www.catholic.com November 1, 2005).
Jesus made a reference of specifying a context of a sin not be forgiven and implied some can be forgiven. Jesus says that some sins “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matthew 12:32).
Where Christians can be at a loss on understanding salvation, soteriology, often one sees only a legal conversion with little room for further grace filled participation under Jesus as savior who forgives and cleanses (1John 1:9). In fact, God works his grace to perfect us as its says, “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Hebrews 12:10).
This may be conceded by critics of purgatory but the objection is that God uses only earthly circumstances to discipline us. However, only a breath of words later a heavenly context is used.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel (Hebrews 12:22-24).
If “just men” means perfect, how are they “made perfect”? Doesn’t this seem like a contradiction? God is judge and acting that way in heaven. This is why there is intercession by the faith for the departed saints precisely to support them sharing in “his holiness.”
This was embedded in Jewish belief a few centuries before Christ. When Jewish rebels died with pagan lucky charms on them, there was a concern for their souls.
He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection (2 Maccabees 12:43).
Paul took this to heart in discussing how the Christian will be judged and keeps a purgative effect centered on an encounter with Jesus Christ. While MLK had the beginning of a point, here we see our works being judged and a purification after death for those who are already Christians.
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).
This belief of interceding for the departed and their post-death purgation continued in the early development of Christian faith and practice. Having a mass said for a loved ones was believed by someone who was pivotal on the word and doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
A woman, after the death of her husband…prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection. And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice” (Tertullian, Monogamy 10:1-2 [post A.D. 213]).
Augustine differentiated between mass said for those whom there was doubt or no doubt that they went straight to heaven. This man is someone who Catholics call a Doctor of the Church and Protestants often see as proto-Protestant.
“There is an ecclesiastical discipline, as the faithful know, when the names of the martyrs are read aloud in that place at the altar of God, where prayer is not offered for them. Prayer, however, is offered for other dead who are remembered.” (Sermons 159:1 [inter A.D. 391-430]).
Augustine specified two points of reckoning other than heaven.
The man who has cultivated that remote land and who has gotten his bread by his very great labor is able to suffer this labor to the end of this life. After this life, however, it is not necessary that he suffer. But the man who perhaps has not cultivated the land and has allowed it to be overrun with brambles has in this life the curse of his land on all his works, and after this life he will have either purgatorial fire or eternal punishment (Genesis Defended Against the Manichaeans 2:20:30 [A.D. 389]).
Augustine described a continuity of the Lord’s discipline that transcended earth into beyond.
Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment (The City of God 21:13 [inter A.D. 413-426]).
Perhaps this was just a fluke in North Africa. Not so according to Augustine who had lived in Italy before he was the bishop of Hippo and corresponded with bishop of Rome.
The universal Church observes this law, handed down from the Fathers, that prayers should be offered for those who have died in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, when they are commemorated in their proper place at the Sacrifice (Augustine, Serm. clxxii, 2, P.L., XXXVIII, 936).
This was not only a universal practice but a common practice of the priests in their parishes. This was clergy and laity in unison and with great vigor according to an early church historian respected by Christians of many different backgrounds.
“[A] vast crowd of people together with the priests of God offered their prayers to God for the Emperor’s soul with tears and great lamentation” (Eusebius, Life of Constantine IV.71).
As someone who used to not believe in purgatory this gives me pause to be both reverent and hopeful. I am reverent because God is consistently holy and just. I am hopeful because I know God neither allows or does anything regarding me without it being something tied back to the essence of who he is: Love. For this covers a multitude of sins. And he disciplines those he loves (Proverbs 3:12).