I’ve often used what I call the “nutshell” argument for Purgatory: we must be without sin to enter into God’s presence (Eph 5:5; Heb 12:14; Rev 21:27; 22:3, 14-15). Therefore, God must purge or wash away our sin to make us fit to be in heaven with Him. All agree so far. The only disagreement is whether this “divine cleansing” takes place in an instant or is more of a process. It’s merely a quantitative difference; not an essential one.
Purgatory is indicated most directly in 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 (RSV): “. . . the fire will test what sort of work each one has done . . .”
I’d like to examine, however (appropriately during this Lenten season), the notion that this same purging process takes place before we die, and not just after: the very common biblical theme of God’s chastising or purifying His people.
A Purging Fire
St. Catherine of Genoa wrote: “how much better is it to be cleansed here than in the other life! For whoever suffers purgation in this life pays but a small portion of what is due, by reason of the liberty of his free-will cooperating with infused grace” (Spiritual Dialogue, Pt. II, ch. 2). Her point was that we receive graces and merit during life that are no longer available in purgatory itself. Therefore, it is preferable to undergo the necessary purification before death rather than after. This is a great and helpful insight for the Christian life, and it’s massively supported in the Bible.
Scripture refers to a purging fire: whatever “shall pass through the fire” will be made “clean” (Num 31:23); “we went through fire” (Ps 66:12); “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29).
The Bible makes frequent use also of the metaphor of various metals being refined (in a fire):
- “when he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10)
- “thou, O God, hast tested us; thou hast tried us as silver is tried” (Ps 66:10)
- “The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold, and the LORD tries hearts” (Prov 17:3)
- “I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy” (Is 1:25)
- “I have refined you, . . . I have tried you in the furnace of affliction” (Is 48:10)
- “I will refine them and test them” (Jer 9:7)
- “I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested” (Zech 13:9)
- “he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them like gold and silver” (Mal 3:2-3)
- “. . . your faith, more precious than gold which though perishable is tested by fire” (1 Pet 1:6-7)
God cleansing or washing us is another common biblical theme:
- “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! . . . Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean” (Ps 51:2, 7)
- “Blows that wound cleanse away evil; strokes make clean the innermost parts” (Prov 20:30)
- “the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning” (Is 4:4)
- “I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me” (Jer 33:8); “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses” (Ezek 36:25)
- “our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb 10:22); “he was cleansed from his old sins” (2 Pet 1:9)
- “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7)
Discipline and Testing
Divine “chastisement” is taught clearly in many passages: “as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you” (Dt 8:5)
- “do not despise the LORD’s discipline or be weary of his reproof,” (Prov 3:11); “For thou didst test them as a father does in warning” (Wis 11:10)
- “God who tests our hearts” (1 Thess 2:4)
- “For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? . . . he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness” (Heb 12:6-7, 10).
We are subject to God’s indignation or wrath, insofar as we sin:
- “God will bring every deed into judgment” (Ecc 12:14)
- “I will bear the indignation of the Lord because I have sinned against him, . . . He will bring me forth to the light” (Mic 7:9)
Purgatory is “written all over” the passages above. I once didn’t make the connection of what seems so obvious to me now. I think there are many who (like myself) may be able to be persuaded to see that the Bible is far more “Catholic” than they had ever imagined.
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