LIGHT ABOUT THOSE IN THE GREY

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 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). 

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Passing It On

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“Who died and made you….”, insert word into the blank.  This is a common challenge someone makes to someone who assumes authority that is not theirs.  I remember when I was  a kid that sometimes the one being challenged would cite a parent or teacher or some other adult who had indeed given them charge of a situation.   Then the accuser would comply or rebel.  But if the challenged one had no comeback then it was usually assumed that they do the “walk of shame” away from the school yard taunt.

When I was a young adult I was intrigued by the writings of a man named Gene Edwards.  He wrote great Christian historical fiction that still stands up today as worth reading.  But he also had some non-fiction books that had a mixed effect on me.  One hand, it made me hungry to see the continuity of the Christian people living in the first century continued or restored in the 20th.

But secondly he made me hunger for the snapshot of church we get in the book of Acts as the way to go always and that it was definitely not hierarchical.  He saw apostolic authority only as something to be used then and now at a minimum and that most things of consequence were left to the laity.  Being you, almost my definition, made me love what he was saying and easily swayed by rhetoric that was against anything perceived as modern day Pharisees.

There was a central verse for this that I pondered on day and night. “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers” (Acts 2:42).

A cornerstone to that list is with the apostles teaching.  Surely, if God was going to “restore” Christianity to the purity of the apostolic age then he would need to raise up apostles.  But that song and dance has been tried before regarding someone new on the scene with a gift for reformation.  It is a long story but I erred in many movements in my Christian life become a man or group of men were considered “on the cutting edge” and raised up “for such a time as this”.

But Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition do not indicate this.  First, the premise I had was wrong in that since only something evil would make the church drown in error in doctrine and practice then that means Satan in large part got the upper hand.  But this would be a contradiction with the words of Jesus when he said, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  Am I making the connection too strong?  Logically, I do not see how.

For someone to have a conversion and hold on of Jesus they are first met with the choices that he is Lord, Liar, Lunatic or Legend.  For Jesus to be discerned as Lord in ones heart the truths are that he was what he said he was, did what he said he would do and is with us to the end of the age (more on the last one when I write about breaking the bread).  If he said he would build a Church that would never fall, but it did, does that not cast doubt that he rose from the dead?

For it to last, there would have to be safeguards based on Jesus and the ongoing revelation by the Holy Spirit.  An example is where Paul writes to a Timothy who was a bishop under him but meant for others in the church to overhear since at the end of the letter he says, “Grace to you” using the plural form.  “And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well” (2 Timothy 2:2).  Right there is a trust of Sacred Tradition to be passed on at least to a fourth generation.  Now are these just nice sayings?  We can look at Paul earlier in his ministry on this.  “Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).  “Stand firm” is more serious than a handed down recipe.

But not just anyone can carry that weight.  “Do not lay hands too readily on anyone, and do not share in another’s sins. Keep yourself pure” (1 Timothy 5:22).

But can this be passed on with good intentions to the empowerment over all people like Americans think of “We The People”?  Not so easily.  “For this reason, I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God  that you have through the imposition of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6).  This lends to the doctrine of Holy Orders and apostolic succession.  This is a sacrament that part of the guarding of the deposit of faith and its access.  For instance we see it next to the sacrament of baptism which is the baton of salvation in the adding to the number of the church.  Both belong side by side.

Therefore, let us leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity, without laying the foundation all over again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, instruction about baptisms and laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And we shall do this, if only God permits.  (Hebrews 6:1-3).

This is the skeleton of the Church of Jesus Christ as indicated by Scripture and Tradition.  With the truths above she survives.  But with the truths below she thrives.

So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God,  built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred in the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-21)

So is this “teaching of the apostles” still ongoing?  If one reveres the Bible then to be consistent it begs reverence for apostolic authority until at least the 4th century when it was codified.  Objectively speaking, what has been outlined above points to a church that has had a laying of hands, never passed away, never ceased teaching the same doctrines of the early church and definitely has current the Holy Orders.  Long story short, that leaves us with the Coptic, Orthodox or Catholic Church.  I would posit that this deposit of faith rests in its fulness in the Catholic Church.  How it is the Catholic Church and not the others will be explained later.

Recommended reading:

The Fathers Know Best by Jimmy Akin

Crossing The Tiber by Stephen Ray