A reader writes, "I am Jewish, and I had a question. One thing that you and I share in our faiths is a belief in a temporary punishment or "cleansing" for good people not ready for heaven. We call it Gehinom, you call it Purgatory. My question is where does the basis of purgatory come from. Are there places in the Old Testament or New Testament that talk of people being temporarily cleansed for their sins instead of burning forever? I can't find any. Thanks!"
The formal doctrine of Purgatory is one that is held by Roman Catholics. Jews and Eastern Orthodox Christians believe in purgation of sins after death, but do not have a formalized doctrine of it as Roman Catholics do. Most Protestants do not believe in purgatory, although the more generalized idea is gaining credence among some. (In the Anglican tradition, article XXII of the Thirty-Nine Articles reads, "The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory ... is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God. " This has to do more with the polemics between Roman Catholics and Protestants than theology. e.g. OH NO! PAPISTS! HIDE YOUR CHILDREN!!!)
In the formalized Roman Catholic doctrine, there is in addition to Heaven and Hell, a third place where the souls of the faithful departed go after death to be purified from their sins before continuing on to heaven. The amount of time there depends upon the departed's level of sin, and can be lessened by masses, novenas, rosaries and other prayers and indulgences by the person before their death or by others on their behalf after their death which draws on the Treasury of Merit. A lot of this is codified in Dante's Purgatory, from which the illustration above is drawn.
The Jewish purgatory is known as Gehinnom. Judaism 101 states,
The average person descends to a place of punishment and/or purification, generally referred to as Gehinnom (guh-hee-NOHM) (in Yiddish, Gehenna), but sometimes as She'ol or by other names. According to one mystical view, every sin we commit creates an angel of destruction (a demon), and after we die we are punished by the very demons that we created. Some views see Gehinnom as one of severe punishment, a bit like the Christian Hell of fire and brimstone. Other sources merely see it as a time when we can see the actions of our lives objectively, see the harm that we have done and the opportunities we missed, and experience remorse for our actions. The period of time in Gehinnom does not exceed 12 months, and then ascends to take his place on Olam Ha-Ba.
Justification for this position can be found in the Talmud in Sabbath 33b and Rosh HaShanah 16b-17a. The practice of reciting the Kaddish 11 months after the death of a loved one also seems to point towards a belief that prayer is efficacious for the departed.
In the Christian tradition, two primary texts are used. 2 Maccabees 12:45-46 states, "For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin." (NRSV)
This seems to indicate that prayers for the dead are efficacious. Further Biblical passages cited include Dan 12:10; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2-3; 2 Mac 12:42-45; Mt 5:26; Lk 12:47-48; Lk 12:58-59; 1 Cor 3:13-15.
The second text is Revelation 21:27, "But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. " (NRSV)
With these two passages, you can see where the basic framework of Purgatory comes from.
- The faithful dead need to be purified of their sins before they enter heaven and
- Prayers for the dead are effective.
Of course, if you don't accept Second Maccabees as scripture since it is part of the Apocrypha as most Protestants see it, then this argument falls apart. Eastern Orthodox like to refer to a "Condition of Waiting" but are suspicious of the developed doctrine of Purgatory. Anglicans, who are protestants who do accept the Apocrypha as scripture, are beginning to re-evaluate the idea of a time of purgation. I think our writer CS Lewis put it best,
"Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?
I believe in Purgatory.
Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on the 'Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory' as that Romish doctrine had then become.....
The right view returns magnificently in Newman's DREAM. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer 'With its darkness to affront that light'. Religion has claimed Purgatory.
Our souls demand Purgatory, don't they? Would in not break the heart if God said to us, 'It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy'? Should we not reply, 'With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I'd rather be cleaned first.' 'It may hurt, you know' - 'Even so, sir.'
I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don't think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.
My favorite image on this matter comes from the dentist's chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am 'coming round',' a voice will say, 'Rinse your mouth out with this.' This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But . . . it will [not] be disgusting and unhallowed."
- C.S.Lewis, Letters To Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer, chapter 20, paragraphs 7-10, pages 108-109
The whole point in talking about purgation is not about pain - it's about discussing the difference between ourselves as creatures and God as God. It's about recognizing that nothing we can do of our own will can completely reconcile us to God. One way to look at this is that when we stand in the overwhelmingly good presence of God and become aware of the secret, sometimes unknown things that are part of who we have become but not part of God's original plan, it will be difficult as those parts are shriven away - much like a surgeon removes a cancer. I happen to believe God would use anesthetic, but I suspect we would have some awareness of those removed, sinful parts. Only the loving presence of God will make it bearable.
This blog entry is available as an audio item on the AskThePriest Podcast.