Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Dialogue on Purgatory and its Relation to Baptism and Penance

By Dave Armstrong (30 September 2002)

A fellow Catholic wrote to me and asked a few probing, thought-provoking questions about purgatory. His words will be in green.


Let me start off by saying that I agree with the idea of Purgatory, and that I believe in it because of the scriptural evidence, the evidence for it in Tradition, and the Church Teaching. But I am trying to look at Purgatory in a way that I can better explain it to myself and others; a way that is more positive than punitive. You and others have come up with some good ways to understand it but when seen in the light of baptism these reasons don't make rational sense to me.

Okay; fair enough.

Purgatory: Right now, from my reading (and from your books) I see two ways of understanding Purgatory: The old Church way to present Purgatory: punishment/satisfaction for our sins is demanded by God. In this way of thinking, sins require some form of repayment or punishment as well as forgiveness. Hence the example of the boy breaking the window - he is forgiven, but must pay for the damage he caused. Even though our sins have been forgiven completely by Christ's suffering and death (payment of which saves us from damnation), there remains another debt for our sins that God demands punishment for - just as He punished David after he forgave him.

This is not the "old way" in the sense that Catholics no longer believe this. We do. Nothing's changed. Sin has "cosmic consequences." If we smoke or break a bone and it has long-lasting physical consequences to our bodies, don't you think that sin has an equally profound affect on our souls? God has offered a way for us to get rid of the lasting stain, which is an act of mercy, not "retribution." I discuss this aspect in my chapter on penance in my first book.

I used the phrase "old Church way" to describe the first model of Purgatory because that is all I was ever taught as a kid. I never thought it was obsolete.

Alright; thanks for clarifying that.

The positive interpretation: Sin has its long term effects on us. It further separates us from God, separates our will from God's will. If we later accept the grace to live a holy ife and fully align our will to God's, if we totally give our lives to him - saintliness, martyrdom etc., we will be purified and have the holiness with which one needs to see Christ, and we will be in heaven. If we don't make this complete Christian and Spirit-guided transformation we will not be ready for the presence of God. Why not? In many verses is the concept that everything we have done, good or bad, will be "brought to light." These should be difficult words for anybody who denies purgatory. Many of us will be very embarrassed and disappointed by our deeds - "in my thoughts, and in my deeds, what I have done and what I have failed to do." We will realize that many of our priorities are wrong and many of our ideas of happiness are flawed. When these come to light, and as we realize how good our God is and how much we have "missed the mark," I believe we will feel pain. Maybe this "coming to light" will be a fire. In any case, I can only think of this process as a purification of our guilt over our failings and a real and painful alignment of our will to God's as we learn how loving He is and how wrong we are. So in this description of purgatory, the punishment of purgatory comes more from ourselves as we learn what true love and happiness really means and as we give up our attachments. This should be understandable to most Theists even if they don't want to accept it.

This is also true. I don't see that the two are mutually-exclusive, or "either/or." The first perspective looks at it from the viewpoint of God; the second from that of the repentant sinner. They are both true. I do think, however, that the second approach is the better way to present the teaching, especially to Protestants. I have a quote from C.S. Lewis which expresses this second view very well:

Our souls demand Purgatory, don't they? Would it 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" . . . My favourite 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."

(Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1964, 108-109)
In this life, suffering does fit into God's plan for our lives. For many people, suffering is the impetus to transform or to re-prioritize. It can be the starting point to be open to God's will. But here the pain is less from ourselves (rather it may be part of this life and the consequence of Original Sin) and the understanding of God's will is much more difficult.

Much suffering and pain (at least the internal kind) we bring upon ourselves, because of our stupidity and rebellion. Some things flow from the nature of reality (e.g., falling off a ladder onto concrete tends to damage our body because of the combination of gravity, motion, concrete, and relatively soft body parts. Result: broken bone or severe abrasions). God uses difficulties in His Providence for ultimate good.

Before I go on to Baptism, do you have any comments on the above?

That's all that comes to mind for now.

As I re-read the above, I wonder if the punishment of the first model is for our sin and the pain of the second model is for our sinfulness.

Sounds pretty good to me.

What I dislike about the first model, is the idea that God seems to be some miserly old man who demands payment "just because."

No; it's simply the nature of reality. God is holy. Sin is the aberration of the universe; the disruption. So there must be a consequence for it. If there weren't, the universe would be a horrifying place, because there would be no ultimate Justice. Hitler and Stalin would do what they do and there would be no punishment whatever. Obviously, sin has to be punished, lest we have the latter scenario, which anyone would think is unacceptable. We simply have this notion in our heads that all judgment by God is done in a "miserly" sense. It is not. It is done because God knows that we are happiest without sin. He does all He can to help us see that, so we can avoid misery.


God is also love, as well as holy. In Him the two characteristics do not contradict at all. We can see some parallels in human existence. When I punish my children, for example, it is because I love them, and want what's best for them. I don't get some sort of inappropriate "charge" out of it, simply because I am more powerful than they are.

And then if we are saved in the end, by His grace, God gives us the mercy of purgatory so we can still make it into heaven, and not have to be condemned eternally because we have some remaining stain of sin on our souls. Purgatory is necessary in Catholic thought because we believe in infused justification, where souls are actually purified and made righteous, not simply declared so, as in Protestantism. It's easy for the Protestant to simply claim that God doesn't see their sin because now they are "under the blood," etc. Some Protestants have a saying (I know Hal Lindsey has this in his books, that I used to like a lot in the late 70s): "'justified' means 'just as if I'd' never sinned.'"

We have a much more scriptural and realistic view. What God declares, He brings to pass. But note that Protestants, too, have a notion of what they call "the judgment seat of Christ," where sinners undergo some sort of purification after death. So I always say that it is only a matter of degree: the Protestant may think the purging is instantaneous; we think it is more of a process (just as we view salvation during our earthly lives). Both sides agree that it is absolutely necessary to be actually holy and pure to enter heaven. This is precisely what purgatory is about. No more business of simply being "declared" holy then. The "word games" and pretense will be over and we actually will be holy, at long last. And that is when we will truly know what joy and happiness is about, and when we will realize what a horrifying, warped thing sin is, and how it has harmed us all along.

What I like about the second model is that it means that God doesn't want to transform us against our will, he doesn't want to change who we are, he wants us to transform ourselves toward Him - and that process is inherently painful.

This is always the ideal, but if we won't go along, God sometimes has to be more forceful, in mercy, just as most children do not enjoy punishment, and it is not according to their will. Does that mean parents shouldn't discipline them, because they would disagree that it is necessary, if asked? Obviously not. We are much more tiny, unknowing children to God than our children are to us.

This way of looking at the pain of Purgatory is more in keeping with the pope's not-so-official discussion of hell: Hell is not a chastisement from God inflicted from the exterior, but is the ultimate consequence of sin, acting against the person who committed it. It is the situation in which someone definitely rejects the mercy of the Father even at the last instant of life, thus subtracting himself forever from the joyful communion with Him.

Yes. The pope was discussing the internal aspect, as well he should do. He wasn't denying the objective aspects of hell, or its place in the scheme of judgment. I've long cited C.S. Lewis concerning hell in a similar way. He says that "the doors of hell are locked on the inside." Men go to hell of their own free will. God honors that free will to such an extent that He will even allow people to reject Him and go away into eternal misery. Imagine how much that grieves God. It would be, again, like a parent watching a wayward son completely destroy his life, when it doesn't have to happen, and could have been avoided in many ways.

Baptism and Purgatory:

How does baptism affect these above models of purgatory? Well for starters, when one happens to be baptised just prior to death, e.g. Constantine, this effectively removes any need for purgatory. If, as a newly baptised believer, one is a new creation and cleansed (as I believe scripture teaches) there is no need for any temporal punishment immediately after baptism.

Theoretically, yes. It wouldn't happen very often, though.

Moreover, there are no "levels of debt" after baptism. Although this is a relatively uncommon state to die in, it presents a situation that I cannot easily reconcile with the ideas above. Let me elaborate.

If someone is truly without mortal or even venial sin, then they would go straight to heaven. No problem with any of the above.

The Punishment Model. After baptism, I mean right after baptism, the justice of God demands nothing from us. No matter what life a Pol Pot or whoever might have lived, if God calls them to be baptised prior to death and they have repented and are baptised, they will receive no temporal punishment prior to entering heaven. That is just the way it works out if that person is sincere. Or rather maybe I should say that is the way God allowed it to work out... and of course God knows more about this person than I. This is also the way it should work out in Evangelical circles. Heck if Pol Pot put his hand on the TV set, and gave himself over to Christ in his last breath, he would be saved and be a new creation. Catholics would probably agree with this extreme case too.

My problem with this case and the punishment model is that I cannot see the justice of God here. Well big surprise, I often find it hard to understand what God is doing.

Don't we all? :-)

But still it doesn't make sense. After all, if baptism can "magically" make temporal punishment for prior sin go away why can't the blood of Christ do the same for all of us who live less than saintly lives for many years after baptism. This would be the evangelical approach to sin after initial justification.

There is lots going on here. I thank you for these questions. They are very worthwhile, thought-provoking, and important ones. Baptism is indeed a great gift of grace. It's one of the sacraments: physical means of obtaining grace. Grace is involved any way you look at it. We are saved only by God's grace. Catholics accept Grace Alone as fully as Protestants do. We believe that sacraments are a means towards obtaining the grace. Luther believed the same about baptismal regeneration, so this is not strictly a "Catholic thing." It is a biblical and sacramental thing.

Baptism is one way or means that Jesus' death on the cross and the redemption and His work on our behalf is applied to us. The Eucharist is another: the sacrament of reconciliation or confession yet another. Prayer brings down God's graces as well, more so than if a person hadn't prayed for us. It is all of grace, and none of our own doing. We merely cooperate with God and participate in the process, always entirely empowered and enabled by the pure grace of God.

Catholics believe in predestination, too, but in a way that doesn't wipe out our free will. Sometimes the way grace operates seems unfair and inexplicable to us, but God has it all worked out. We have to trust that He knows the purpose of everything and that everyone has the same shot to be saved in the end. It is a matter of faith. We will never figure it all out.

And in this situation it would seem to make very rational sense on a certain level. Take for example Paul's use of the idea of "new creation" here:

2 Corinthians 5:16-19: Consequently, from now on we regard no one according to the flesh; even if we once knew Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know him so no longer. So whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come. And all this is from God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
Paul seems to be describing this Christian community as a new creation long after they have been baptized and long after they are known to be sinning as described in 1 Corinthians.

Yes, but he is speaking generally in this passage about what it means to be a Christian. One has to synthesize this with his teaching elsewhere on baptism as the means of the regeneration which brings about this wonderful status as "new creation."

I wonder if this same theme is also in Colossians 2. Here Paul talks about our freedom from the ceremonial law, but also seems to talk about the effect of baptism on "legal claims" or debt of the law. This also includes actions that the Colossians are doing after baptism:

Colossians 2:12-17: You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. And even when you were dead (in) transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, he brought you to life along with him, having forgiven us all our transgressions; obliterating the bond against us, with its legal claims, which was opposed to us, he also removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross; despoiling the principalities and the powers, he made a public spectacle of them, leading them away in triumph by it. Let no one, then, pass judgment on you in matters of food and drink or with regard to a festival or new moon or sabbath. These are shadows of things to come; the reality belongs to Christ.
I don't think Paul is speaking merely of the ceremonial law, since we know that the effects of baptism apply to all of our sin.

But the primary thrust of the passage is the relationship of law and grace: a huge topic in and of itself. The key is to see how Paul incorporates baptism as a crucial key in the whole story. That is very "un-evangelical" (excepting Lutherans, and some Methodists and Anglicans, who would also agree with baptismal regeneration). The predominant Reformed / Baptist wing of Protestantism rejects this utterly.

Now you answered some of this in your second book by stating that, last time you looked, there was plenty of sin in the Christian community. I agree, but in the end I don't see much difference between the newly baptized alcoholic and alcoholic Catholic who just went to confession after thirty years.

Alcoholism is another complex issue that won't help us resolve our present difficulty! There are matters of addiction and therefore, perhaps lessened culpability. Only God can figure out any individual case.

Both may be equally repentent but when they both happen to get hit that day by the same pie truck only the Catholic will go to purgatory. Are the sins of the faithful more liable to punishment than the sins of the unbaptised?

Probably. "To whom much is given, much is required." An "informed" Protestant who still rejected certain things, would be judged more than an invincibly ignorant Catholic. A Catholic who knew all the right things and rejected them would be judged more harshly than a Protestant or pagan who had never heard them or been properly taught them at all. Romans 2 explains how God judges different categories of folks.

The Positive Model. This is the hardest model to give up.

Who says you have to give it up? It's as biblical as the other one.

Since here I see purgatory as the painful process of seeing who we really are in the light of God's loving presence. But baptism messes up this idea. You see even though we are a new creation at baptism we are not the same as when we were born. (I say "we" even though I received infant baptism.) A 45 yo alcoholic is still an alcoholic after baptism. That person has years and years of mistreatment of his family and himself to deal with after baptism. His attachment to sin is still great and will be, most likely, harder to give up. Or to use my Pol Pot example, a newly baptised despot that immediately dies would surely feel great pain when everything he did would "come to light," and would suffer when he fully realizes how far his will has been from God's will. Unless of course "will" is the answer; maybe our newly baptized despot's will was really and finally aligned to God's will at that moment. But still don't you think he would feel pain when everything he did "came to light?" I don't really understand why a newly baptised person wouldn't be in need of the same type of purging of this second model.

I don't know all the answers to this. Only God knows. I would suspect that there is still some purification left in an extreme example like that. But in any event, just because we can come up with some difficult hypothetical scenarios doesn't mean that the process isn't fair for everyone. We can't "prove" that this is the case, but we must believe it in faith, because of God's nature, as He has revealed it to us in Scripture, nature, and history, and our own spiritual experience with Him.

So it seems I'm having a hard time reconciling my two ways of looking at Purgatory with how we understand baptism, regeneration and its effect on temporal purification upon death. Help me out here. Surely you have an answer to my confusion?

Well, I've done my best. Take a look at my baptism paper, and perhaps other papers and links on penance and purgatory. I hope this was helpful.

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