The world often misunderstands purgatory. Where did the concept come from? Is it biblical? What do we do about it today?

What is Purgatory?

Purgatory is not a physical place. Rather, it is the state of a soul undergoing purification after death but before heaven.

The Catechism goes into further detail:

“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

All souls in purgatory will make it into heaven. The “fires” of purgatory perfect the souls before heaven instead of punishing them. Purgatory removes any and all lasting defects before entering the perfection of heaven.

Is Purgatory in the Bible?

The Bible does not contain the explicit word “purgatory.” Yet, like the concept of the “Trinity,” purgatory has a biblical basis.

St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians talks about a cleansing fire. If a righteous man’s work fails the test of the Lord, he writes:

“If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.”

There is no salvation in hell and there is no fire in heaven. Purgatory fits as a third option.

In Matthew 12:32, Christ suggests that forgiveness for sins can happen after death:

“Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

In 2 Maccabees 12:44-45, we even get support for praying for the souls of the dead:

“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.”

What Happens in Purgatory?

Revelation says that nothing unclean will enter heaven. In heaven, souls will no longer suffer or sin. Not only will there not be sin, there won’t be any inclination to sin.

St. Catherine of Genoa writes:

“The soul presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God.”

A soul can of course die in a state that still has sin and attachments to sin. Besides, it can still have wounds and damages from its sins.

Christ desires to purify us from these imperfections before entering heaven. Like our fight against sin, it can be a painful process!

Souls of Purgatory by Alonso Cano (1636)
Souls of Purgatory by Alonso Cano (1636)

Christ’s salvation is final. Yet, our sanctification takes place over time. St. Paul writes about this in his letter to the Romans:

“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”

Redemptive suffering perfects us on earth. God also allows us to suffer for our sanctification after death.

What Do We Do Now?

First of all, we should strive for perfection while we’re alive.

This includes:

  • Removing sin from our lives, even venial sins
  • Fighting off the inclination or attachment to sin
  • Atoning for our sins and the sins of others by offering our sufferings

We should always have eternal life in heaven as our primary goal. We shouldn’t try to “sneak into purgatory.”

Second, we should pray for the souls in purgatory.

Woman Praying the Rosary
Woman Praying the Rosary

Our prayers and sacrifices have real meaning for our living brothers and sisters. So too can they help those who have passed away.

The souls in purgatory are not separated from the Church. They, too, are members of the Body of Christ. We should always pray for the dead, especially through the Mass.