Monday, September 12, 2005

Next Stop: Purgatory

The first stop on your trip to eternity will be the judgment seat of God at the moment of your death. The next stop (if you haven’t been issued a one-way ticket to Brimstone Sulfur Springs), for many if not most of us, will probably be Purgatory. This is the last stop before arriving at Paradise Gardens.

The teaching on Purgatory, especially the details concerning the nature of posthumous purification, has been disputed from time to time. Some hold that we are harassed and accused by demons for 40 days as we pass through “aerial tollhouses” somewhere in the cosmos. This cannot be biblically or theologically justified; once we die we’re done with demons, and we're in the hands of God—unless we received that one-way ticket mentioned above, but that comes after the “particular judgment” at the moment of death. The teaching of the Church, that Purgatory is a place or state for those saved but not wholly purified, where their imperfections are removed, is much more in keeping with what God has revealed about Himself. In any case, all the Apostolic Churches do hold to a belief in some sort of place or state of purification that many souls must pass through to be prepared for Heaven. Otherwise, it would be senseless to pray for the dead, for if they’re in Hell prayer won’t help them, and if they’re in Heaven they don’t need it. I think that most Protestants do say that prayer for the dead is useless, but they have rejected much of what virtually all Christians believed for 1500 years before the "reformation." Sometimes I say that Purgatory is the place where those who don’t believe in Purgatory have to go when they die.

Scripture says that nothing unclean can enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Revelation 21:27), and that would naturally mean that nothing even a little unclean can enter. The various understandings about human nature, justification and salvation can color people’s belief about the existence of or need for Purgatory. Some forms of Protestantism teach that human nature is totally depraved and simply cannot be healed, cleansed, transformed, and that to be saved we can only be acquitted by a kind of legal imputation of the righteousness of Christ. One famous Protestant reformer even offered an analogy of the justified soul as a hill of dung covered with snow, meaning that we aren’t actually transformed by grace in our very being, but we just accept Christ’s imputed righteousness through faith and thus are saved. But I’d rather be a thoroughly cleansed and deified human being (which is what all the Fathers and Saints of the Church have taught) than a snow-covered dunghill for all eternity.

What we need is not only pardon but restoration; not only acquittal but rehabilitation. If we are not perfected in love—and this is what Purgatory is really all about—then we have to become so, if not before death then after, but certainly before we can enter the intimate presence of Love Himself for all eternity.

What turns a lot of people away from belief in Purgatory are hellish images of fire and torture of the saved, who still have to be punished for some reason (but check 1Cor. 3:12-15 all the same: our works will be tested and what is worthless will be burned; we will be saved, but only as through fire). But Purgatory isn’t about torture and punishment; it’s about rehabilitation, about learning the lessons we failed to learn on earth. God treats us with respect and according to the dignity of creatures made in his image, who can think and feel and will and love. He doesn’t just throw snow over the dunghill and say, Come on in! He actually heals us, purifies us, enlightens us, transforms us, so that “we shall be like Him” (1John 3:2). Because of our free will and its occasional resistance to grace, we hinder his work in us during this present life, so it just might not be finished at the moment of our death.

Even if we don’t have to deal with demons or tortures, Purgatory still entails suffering, because the souls there have at last seen and understood clearly who God is, how infinitely desirable He is, that He is all that matters in Heaven or on earth—but their selfishness and other unrepented failures on earth have made it necessary for them to wait. They wouldn’t accept delayed gratification on earth—well, they have to accept it now! Still, they wouldn’t want to be back on earth (say the mystics) because they wouldn’t want to return to their former ignorance of heavenly realities and to the possibility of losing their souls. They’re safe now, but must grow in the love they neglected here below.

Now’s the time, then, to learn to love and to practice it, the time to set our hearts on things of Heaven. It’s possible not to have to get off the Heaven-bound train at the Purgatory station. Love God with your whole heart and soul, mind and strength—consistently—and you can take the express to Heaven.