Tonight I’m struggling with Purgatory.
I guess I haven’t really thought much about it before. Like Mary did, it came upon me rather suddenly. Father Joe mentioned Purgatory briefly at RCIA on Sunday. I’ve been thinking lately about the nature of salvation, and the differences between the Catholic and evangelical Protestant conceptions of it. I’ve been reading Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism, and today read the chapters on salvation and Purgatory. It’s been a helpful book. It has drawn my attention to Catholic doctrines with which I still have questions and issues, and has helped me through grasping several of them.
The trouble with Keating is that sometimes I’m not sure he understands the fundamentalist position (or evangelical — his “fundamentalists” sound like every Southern evangelical I’ve ever known) any better than fundamentalists understand the Catholic one. For that matter, I’m not sure I understand the evangelical position very well either. I come from a theologically impoverished background; I have my own “feelings” about things, that aren’t always very rational or consistent. I have been saying for years, and still maintain, that theology is only man’s feeble attempt to grasp the mysteries of God that are ultimately beyond his comprehension. Grace and salvation may themselves be mysteries we will never fully understand. Scholasticism (at least, my prejudiced conception of it) deeply bothered me for a long time; I felt that it tried to regiment and reason away even the mysteries of faith. But the further I delve into Catholicism, the more I admire its consistency. The more I study, the more I find that many Protestant doctrines aren’t baked all the way through.
This is an awfully big bear to wrestle with in one post — I know I will be making many — so let me limit myself to the topic at hand: sin and punishment. This, if I’m not careful, multiplies into redemption, justification, salvation, and lots of other things. But what I really want to talk about is Purgatory.
I bought a worship CD a year or two ago, from a band I’d never heard of before called Branch. I bought it specifically because I was looking for a cover of the Gospel hymn “Nothing But the Blood,” and liked theirs. I was struggling with sin and those beautiful, powerful words kept echoing in my head:
O precious is the flow
that makes me white as snow;
no other fount I know;
nothing but the blood of Jesus.
I liked the CD. They had some really moving, impassioned songs about redemption and forgiveness. But one day I was listening to one of them, and it struck me in a way I hadn’t anticipated:
This is redemption written in his blood
This is forgiveness, the guilty go free
This is redemption, sinners get heaven
This is a love song for those who believe
The guilty go free? Unexpectedly, these words troubled me deeply. Is that really what my religion espouses? Murderers, rapists, thieves, liars, and con men, getting off scot-free? Is that right? Is that just? Is that really what Christ’s redemption equates to? Criminals walking out of a courtroom unpunished?
Last night, Isaiah 53 came up in my Bible reading, entirely by random coincidence (though the older I get, the less I believe there’s any such thing). This is one of my dearest, most cherished passages of Scripture in the Bible. He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. Jesus suffered and died so our sins could be forgiven. I’ve always believed as a Protestant that one drop of His blood was enough to atone for a lifetime of my sins; that no matter what I did, His blood had purchased my forgiveness.
Covering. Keating writes of Luther’s conception of grace as a cloak:
[In the fundamentalist view,] accepting Christ accomplishes one thing and one thing only. It makes God cover one’s sinfulness. It makes him turn a blind eye to it. It is as though he hides the soul under a cloak. Any soul under this cloak is admitted to heaven, no matter how putrescent the reality beneath; no one without the cloak, no matter how pristine, can enter the pearly gates (Catholicism and Fundamentalism, 167).
Is this really what I believed? No, I don’t think it is. I have never accepted that I was “putrescent” or “totally depraved.” I have acknowledged that the sinful nature of my flesh was hopelessly sinful and flawed, that I could never be holy through my own power; but I maintained that there was a lot of good in me, by God’s grace. I never believed that I would go to Heaven as a rotting, putrid mass of sin; I had faith that Christ had cleansed me by His blood. There is power in the blood to wash away sins.
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the blood of the Lamb;
There is power, power, wonder working power
In the precious blood of the Lamb.
The blood, I believed, had washed me white as snow. Sometimes, after repenting and asking for God’s forgiveness, I would truly feel in a state of grace. But then I would turn right around and sin again. Was I “white as snow”? What part of me had been washed clean?
The guilty go free. On this earth, it’s a great travesty of justice for the guilty to go free. No matter how contrite the person is; no matter if they ask, and are forgiven, by the people they have wronged; crime demands punishment. I’ve never been a great proponent of the death penalty, but it always bothered me when death row convicts would argue that they deserved to be spared because they had found grace through Christ and changed their lives. Perhaps so; but nonetheless, they committed a crime; Christ may have paid their eternal debt, but they still owed one on this earth.
“Having one’s sins forgiven is not the same thing as having the punishment for them wiped out,” writes Keating (195). Certainly in my case above this holds true. It is not just for the guilty to go free. God is a just God; it was for our guilt that Christ had to suffer. But that wasn’t enough? “It is not contrary to the Redemption to say we must suffer for our sins; it is a matter of justice” (194).
I have believed, as do Catholics, and as do the (Protestant) composers of the hymns above, that Christ washes away our sins; that he washes us clean. Maybe it’s not as instantaneous a process as I thought. But nonetheless, I will be washed clean. Perhaps Christ’s Redemption is analogous to him taking my death penalty for me: he died for my sins so I wouldn’t have to die spiritually; so I wouldn’t have to suffer eternal torment; instead, I only have to go to his prison, where daily I’ll bathe in his cathartic blood, until I really am white as snow.