Part 3: Are the Fires of Purgatory Real Fires?

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is part 3 of Dr. Robert Stackpole's response to a Protestant student in one of his theology classes who recently asked him to defend the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Read part one and part two.

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD

The Catholic doctrine of purgatory is inseparable from the Catholic understanding of the distinction between the "temporal" and "eternal" punishment that is due to sin. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains this distinction in entry 1472:

To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment" of sin. On the other hand, every sin, even venial sin, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment remains.

Scripture is replete with examples of the Lord leaving a temporal punishment for sin in place even after someone has attained a measure of repentance for their sins. In his book The Salvation Controversy, James Akin gives many clear examples, including the following (p. 44):

When he forgave David for his sin concerning Uriah, he still left David the temporal punishment of having his infant son die and having the sword pass through his house (2 Sam 12:13ff). Similarly, when Moses struck the rock a second time, God forgave him (for Moses was obviously one of the saved, as his appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration illustrates), though he still suffered the temporal penalty of not being allowed to go into the Promised Land (Num 20:12).

We see this distinction between the temporal and eternal penalty for sin also exhibited in the penitential system practiced in the early Church. Jesus had promised his apostles: "Whatever sins you forgive, they are forgiven, and whatever sins you retain, they are retained" (Jn 20:23).

In the first centuries, this meant that when Christians committed grave sins after their baptism, they would have to confess those sins publicly, in the presence of their bishop (a successor of the apostles) before the entire Christian community! (I guess we can all be rather glad that Irish monks propagated private confession in the early Middle Ages, and that this became the norm in the Catholic Church thereafter!).

The bishop would only agree to pronounce the public absolution of such sinners after they had undergone a period of penance, usually in the form of so many days, months, or years of exclusion from Holy Communion, as well as fasting, and the wearing of penitential clothing ("sackcloth and ashes"). This penance was designed to deepen their contrition and remit their remaining moral debt to God, and it could be shortened by the bishop, or removed completely, on evidence of true, deep, and lasting contrition by the sinner. Once the absolution was finally given by the bishop, forgiveness of sins was complete — in other words, no temporal moral debt to God for those sins was considered owing any longer.

In later centuries, with the spread of the tradition of private confession to a priest (who is a delegate of the bishop), the necessary penance or "satisfaction" for sins was projected into the future, so that one either had to complete the purgation of one's soul by accomplishing with a pure intention the penances assigned by the priest, or complete that purification beyond death, in the state of purgatory.

The last sentence of the quote from Catechism, entry 1472 (above) is especially important. It talks about the possibility of a deep "conversion" from sin that "proceeds from a fervent charity," thereby resulting in the "complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment [temporal or eternal] would remain."

First of all, this explains why Jesus could say to the penitent thief crucified alongside him on Calvary: "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in paradise" (Lk 23:43). The good thief evidently had attained such a true faith in Christ, and such complete repentance for sin (see his words in Lk 23:40-42!) that there was no longer any need for purification in the next life.

Second, this passage in the Catechism implies that although there is indeed a penal or judicial aspect of the doctrine of purgatory, there is no such thing as a merely punitive or vengeful response by God to human sin. Rather, all of God's acts of justice express also His merciful love, and serve His merciful purposes.

For example, the Church teaches that the principal way that Jesus Christ loved us was to offer for us, as God incarnate, a life and death of "superabundant merit" before the throne of His heavenly Father. His infinite merits, when applied to us, are the basis in divine justice for all the merciful graces of pardon, renewal, and sanctification that He freely pours out upon us in this present life, and in the life to come. Good Friday especially manifests both the merciful love and the justice of God, for Christ both makes "compensation" for our sins on the Cross, and yet at the same time, He does so on our behalf, for we were incapable of making any such offering ourselves (on divine justice and merciful love expressed in Christ's saving work on the Cross, see Pope John Paul II's encyclical letter, Dives in Misericordia (Rich in Mercy), section 7.3). Similarly, when the Eternal Judge condemns a cold-hearted, unrepentant soul to everlasting damnation, it is certainly an act of divine justice (Rom 12:19: "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."), but it is also an act of merciful love. As Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, wrote in his book Healing the Original Wound (p. 220):

Hell is a place where those who have turned away from God forever hide from Him. ... Hell is the chosen hiding place of those who look into the loving eyes of God and say no. ... Those who have spent their lives running from God are least miserable in hell, not most miserable.

Clearly, the doctrine of purgatory must also be a manifestation of our Savior's justice, and at the same time of His merciful love. Those who die in a state of weak love for Christ and weak faith in Him, and who therefore have attained only a half-hearted and partial repentance for their sins, are just not ready for the selfless love and adoration of God that is involved in joyful communion with Him in heaven. Besides, such souls remain, to some extent, in a state of moral debt to God, because the infinite merits of Christ's sacrificial life and death cannot fully apply to those only partially penitent.

What, then, can our merciful Savior do for them? To cure them of their spiritual defects, pulling them away from their disordered attachments to creatures and from their own pride, is inevitably very painful, just as pulling an infected tooth inevitably involves temporary pain. At the same time, the pain involved in this healing process clears their debt to divine justice for their half-hearted discipleship and repentance. Thus, the merciful Jesus purifies these souls by remitting their punishment in a way that heals them.

Of course, those who attain true and perfect contrition in this earthly life or at the time of death, in other words, deep penitence for their sins out of true love for God and faith in Him, are already purified: Christ's merits cover all the debt to divine justice due to their sins, both temporal and eternal, and they are filled to overflowing with His grace. They go directly to heaven upon their death: such are most of the Saints. But for the rest of us, our repentance is motivated more by fear of the consequences of our sins, and disgust at ourselves, than by fervent charity for God and our neighbors. We are not so much concerned that we have let Him down, who infinitely loved us, and we have not yet fully put our trust in Him. We still need to let go of our improper pride, and our disordered attachments: a "letting-go" and healing process that can be completed beyond death, by the merciful love of God.

Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theologians have sometimes "fallen out" with each other on the nature of purgatorial pain. What does this divine surgery on the soul involve? Is it a "fire" that somehow heals? Father Kenneth Baker, SJ, reflected on this aspect of the mystery of purgatory in volume three of Fundamentals of Catholicism (pp. 375-376):

We are not certain about the nature of the punishment of purgatory. The Church does not teach dogmatically [that is, definitively] that it is a "physical fire," even though many preachers and some catechisms speak of "the fires of purgatory." The official declarations of the Councils speak only of purifying punishments, not purifying fire. Whatever it is, it is painful.

We need to go beyond Fr. Baker's reflections here and say that this "fire" cannot literally be "physical" fire because the souls in purgatory were separated from their bodies at death, and will not receive new and heavenly bodies until the Judgment Day. Nevertheless, while we do not need to take the biblical and traditional language about purgatorial flames literally, we do need to take it seriously. This metaphor of "fire" must refer to some kind of burning spiritual pain. Saint Gregory of Nyssa once wrote in his Sermon about the Dead: "Man will not be able to be a partaker of divinity until a purgatorian fire will have cleansed away any stain found on his soul."

Thus, the fires of purgatory must be painful indeed, but spiritually necessary to our healing, and to the clearing of any remaining moral debt to God's justice for our sins. Saint Theresa of Avila once wrote (Interior Castle, part 6, chapter 11):

The pain of loss, or the privation of the sight of God, exceeds all the most excruciating [spiritual] sufferings we can imagine, because the souls urged on towards God as to the center of their aspiration, are continually repulsed by His justice. Picture to yourself a shipwrecked mariner who, after having battled with the waves, comes at last within the reach of the shore, only to find himself constantly thrust back by an invisible hand.

In fact, many Catholic saints have had private revelations, sometimes in the form of visions, about the nature of the spiritual surgery that souls undergo in purgatory. Although such testimony is not the equivalent of a definitive teaching of the Church's Magisterium, it would surely be rash and imprudent to contradict the concurrent testimony of the saints, given that they were full to overflowing with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth and Love. We can be sure that the reason God unveiled this mystery to His saints was not simply to frighten them, or their readers, about the nature of purgatory, but to move them with compassion for the souls undergoing purification there, and to urge them to come to their aid.

What do these revelations given to the saints tell us about purgatory? How can we come to the aid of the suffering souls there? Why is it also true to say that purgatory is a place of deep joy and peace as well as of purification? This four-part series on purgatory wraps up next week with answers to these questions.

Learn about the efforts of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception to assist the Holy Souls in Purgatory.

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at [email protected].

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