The Mercy of Purgatory

The Day of the Dead (1859), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

The Day of the Dead (1859), by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

(Today is All Souls’ Day, the commemoration of the holy souls in purgatory. As it happens, I had this post half-brewed already after a recent e-mail conversation with an anti-Catholic.)

One of the most frequent charges I hear from anti-Catholics against the doctrine of purgatory is that it “nullifies the finished work of Christ on the cross” — that somehow, the idea of purgatory implies that Jesus’s atonement was “not enough”; that sinners still have to expiate their own sins. This charge reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what purgatory is.

In fact, as Scripture itself teaches, it is the ultimate mercy:

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation [i.e. you whom I planted, cf. vv. 5–8], and another man is building upon it [i.e. each of us, fellow workers of the Lord, cf. v. 9]. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. 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, straw — 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 3:10–15)

If any man’s work is burned up — even by the fire of judgment — he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Even if a man’s works are merely wood, hay, straw — materials that will not last — if he has squandered his time on this earth, and not stored up treasures in heaven (cf. Matthew 6:20) — then there is still a chance for him to be saved. How merciful is our Lord!

(At this point, I got off track and examined the passage more closely than I intended to, to reject a common Protestant counterargument — after I said I wasn’t going to. If you would like to read that, I will post it separately tomorrow(?).)


This purging fire is not a limitation of Christ’s atonement — it is an even further and deeper extension of it. Christ’s work on the cross was so overpowering, so uncontainable, that it bursts every bond of death, hell, and the grave — that it can reach to us even beyond the grave. Anti-Catholics suppose that purgatory is the application of some other power than the grace of Christ to the soul — usually, they think it is our own works or purchased indulgences or some other such? But that final purification is accomplished by none other than the same grace, the same blood, the same redemption that redeems us in life.

So why, they ask, weren’t we redeemed in life? Doesn’t this idea suppose that His redemption wasn’t enough to save us while we were alive? Here is where Protestants misunderstand. In especially the Evangelical Protestant mind, “salvation” is a one-time event, a one-time regeneration by faith, which imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, such that there is no other work to be done so far as our salvation — we are then “saved.” This tends to conflate a lot of ideas together, even from classical Protestant theology, and lose some in the shuffle. Our terminology and vocabulary is a stumbling block at this point, especially to Catholic–Protestant dialogue.

Catholics agree that in a sense, salvation is a once-and-for-all event: the irrevocable moment of our Baptism in which we are washed with the blood of Christ, our every sin cleansed, and our former self is buried with Christ, and we are raised to new life in Him. Catholics even agree that in a sense, that initial justification is by faith alone — not a “faith” of mere intellectual assent, but of faith on fire with love and raised by hope. And nothing can take away that grace; it is imprinted on our souls. But that isn’t the end of the journey. We then have a road to walk (cf. Matthew 7:13–14), a cross to bear (Luke 9:23). We have to abide in Christ (John 15:1–17) and endure to the end (Matthew 24:13, Luke 21:19). And on that journey, if we abide in His love, we will be sanctified — gradually purified and made holy.

Friendship Sunrise

Sunrise at Friendship, where four generations of my family lie buried.

Sanctification: This is a term that I think many Evangelicals have lost sight of; and many Reformed understand, but have separated it so far from justification that they fail to associate it with salvation. Catholics do not make a clean distinction between the two as Protestants have: because they are both the works of Christ’s grace, and they are both integral parts of the same process of cleansing us from sin and making us holy. But put in Protestant terms: yes, there is an initial justification in which we are saved from our sins and incorporated into Christ. And purgatory has little to do with that. As Paul himself said, one’s perishable works can be burned away and we can be saved through fire — but only if his foundation is Christ. Purgatory is only for those who die in Christ: the holy souls in purgatory are already “saved,” and they will go to heaven, without exception. Put simply, purgatory is the completion of the process of sanctification if we didn’t complete it in life.

There is a difference between the eternal guilt of one’s sins, which is wholly obliterated by Christ’s forgiveness, and the temporal effects of one’s sins, which must be purified by sanctification, that comes into play here. But this post is already too long. The difference in Protestant theology between justification and sanctification is illustrative here: even if we are wholly justified by Christ, the guilt of our sins forgiven, we still must be sanctified — for nothing impure can enter heaven and stand before God (Revelation 21:27).

Evangelical Protestants especially, but Reformed too, make a sharp, ruthless, and binary distinction between those who are saved and those who are unsaved — cleanly defined by that one-time moment of salvation. So often they lament the deaths of those who, in their judgment, were not saved, who had not experienced that salvation. But this leaves no room for the overflowing mercy of our God. It is true that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 6:44). But only God can judge our hearts; only He can know the foundation He lays. And purgatory, rather than a limitation of God’s grace, is its ultimate outpouring in our lives — bringing that final, purifying grace to those of us whose works built on that foundation were imperfect.

15 thoughts on “The Mercy of Purgatory

  1. The other part of this equation is realizing the fact that God does not owe us anything as far as Heaven goes. We don’t deserve it. Only through His Grace and mercy to we get there. He doesn’t owe us ‘jack.’ Same deal with the Limbo. I’ve got a baby there (stating this conservatively as we attempted a conditional baptism after the miscarriage…we just don’t know this side of eternity). God does not even owe us that.

    I attended a solemn Requiem Latin Mass this morning. It was a great reminder of the reality of purgatory.

    • That is true. But we serve a God who is Love and Mercy, who takes notice even when a sparrow falls. And what the Catholic Church offers that so many Protestant communities don’t is hope. We can’t know this side of eternity; but we can always pray. And we trust that somehow, praying helps. We trust that our loved ones are in God’s hands, and that even those who die unbaptized fall into the hands of a merciful God. God bless you!

      • Yep…we have no idea (yet) what happens at the precise point when the soul leaves the body. A lot could happen then! We just need to be careful that we don’t assume heaven either….leave it to God’s mercy.

        • Yes, the trend so much these days in the West is for funerals to be sterile, “celebrations of life,” where if there is any mention of eternity, it’s a shallow and empty “I know he’s in a better place now.” No, we cannot know that! I’ve only been to one Catholic funeral Mass, but I was led to the Church first of all by the Requiem Mass, the musical settings of it in particular. Looking death in the face, no matter who we are or where we stand, we require God’s mercy!

          • I can “hear” the deceased at a “celebration of life” Mass say, “Umm..hey…I’m so glad all y’all feel better, but I could use some prayers NOW!” 🙂

  2. Thank you for your excellent blogpost. I have viewed purgatory from a fairly simple perspective starting with the assumption that a binary outcome (heaven vs. hell) is not an outcome that makes sense intellectually, experientially or from scriptures so purgatory makes a lot of sense. I view one’s entire life as a journey to purify oneself and, with God’s grace, draw closer to union with God and others. As you indicate, purgatory is the finishing of that process.

    On a personal level, I am very cognizant of my deep flaws and the thought of facing the Creator of the Universe in my current state is terrifying. I am comforted to know that the process continues in the dimensions beyond this existence.

    • Thank you so much for the kind comment. Jesus does present a binary view of the “sheep and goats,” etc.; the “wheat and chaff” — so I don’t think purgatory is so much a “third place,” as the fire one pass through on the way to heaven. A harsh and unrelenting view of such a binary — especially one that places us humans in the role of judge — doesn’t leave any room for God’s mercy, however.

    • They especially do when they misunderstand what it is. I think Protestants, in general, have a tendency of making presumptions about salvation that take God’s mercy out of the equation. Many, especially Evangelicals, teach that they can have assurance of their salvation, be absolutely sure that they are “saved” and there’s no undoing that. The standard evangelistic question they ask, putting people on the spot, is, “If you died tonight, are you absolutely sure you will go to heaven?” And then they are aghast when Catholics cannot answer yes! “See, Catholicism is a works-based religion that limits God’s power to save!” But actually it’s just the opposite. There is no limit upon God’s power to save! But if we presume to know for certain that we will be saved, then the logical consequence is that we also know who will not be saved. Only God is our eternal judge. Not even St. Paul could say for certain that he would be saved (1 Corinthians 4:3–5)! If we presume that something we’ve done guarantees that we will be saved (and consequently, if someone hasn’t done that, then they won’t be saved), then it’s that that is “works-based,” putting the power of salvation (and of judgment) in our hands. We all, whether we are Christians or not, whether we go to church or not, depend on God’s mercy! He is faithful to His promises, but we are not always. In the end, His mercy is overflowing. With God as our judge, I think many more will be saved, many more will be forgiven, than the people who presume they can judge themselves suppose. Just as the Pharisees and even the Apostles were frequently aghast at Jesus for associating with sinners, for eating with them, for letting them wash His feet — I think he will welcome many more to His table than anybody imagines, people who were repentant and seeking Him even though no one else could see it.

  3. You’ll have to update me on the current teaching of purgatory. I am more familiar with the way in which it was abused in the past. If I remember correctly, purgatory is no longer a temporal “place”, and there is no longer a defined “time” that one must spend in purgatory, correct?

    • Neither of those definitions was ever official. The “time” that was attached to say, indulgences, was never representative of the time that someone would have to spend in purgatory, but rather the equivalent time in earthly penance that is remitted (see my previous posts on indulgences). Because that was confusing, the Church did away with attaching “times” to indulgences (with Pope Paul VI’s 1967 Indulgentiarum doctrina).

      As for whether it’s a “place” per se, there’s never been a definition one way or another. We don’t really really have many particulars about what purgatory is or is like, only that it’s something some people must go through.

  4. Hey Joseph, nice to talk to you again.


    I understand where you are coming from, and if that were indeed the reality, then that would certainly be an extension of mercy.

    However, I don’t seem to find a basis for this doctrine in God’s Holy Word. Actually, Scripture itself seems to lead us to believe that when we die, we will be with Him immediately. I’m sure you’ve dealt with many objections before, so I’ll let you take it from here.

    But I hope that you will find our discussion to be anything but anti-catholic with regards to my side, since I have a deep respect for the Roman Church. Instead, I hope and pray that we might be mutually edified and brought into catholicity–truly.

    Keep in mind that I do not regard the Fathers as authoritative, but hold them in respect and honor as the Fathers who carried the church through many dark and stormy, or even bright and wondrous times. As with my earthly Father, I respect and honor him, (as I should), but I also acknowledge that his word is fallible–worthy of my listening to him, but not without moderation, and even at times, deliberation. If the whole of the Fathers were put together as one doctrine, discarding the extra stuff where they may disagree or seem to conflict, then we would come up with nothing short of the Scriptures themselves, for the remaining doctrine would be trimmed back and what would remain would be the necessary essentials, as put forth in the Scriptures. The Fathers do well to exegete and tell of the Scripture, but they are authoritative insofar as they confess the truth as held out in the writings of the Apostles and prophets, just as with a Pastor today. (I know you believe that the discernment of truth comes down from the agreement of the council of bishops throughout the church’s history, but anyhow, just bear in mind that they are Fathers, without the authority of the Apostles.) The Apostles agree entirely–the Fathers do not.

    Anyway, just a reminder as you seek to answer. Not that you should exclude the Fathers and stick entirely to the Scriptures…I am definitely interested in what the Fathers have to say, and I believe they add perspective and a strong witness. (Take the custom of infant baptism, for example, that was basically church practice throughout more than a millennium). But I digress…

    Please proceed!

    Chris Jager
    Tillamook, OR

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