“The gift of salvation is the very life of God. We are to become “partakers of the divine nature” (1 Pt 1:4). This is good news to people overwhelmed by the world’s cares and injustices, drowning in the undertow of theirs and the world’s disordered passions.”
Are Catholics working their way to heaven?
It cannot be said too strongly: we do not earn our salvation. “For the wages of sin [what we earn] is death, but the free gift of God [what we do not earn] is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 6:23). Again, we “inherit the kingdom,” we don’t earn it. An unknown rich uncle may leave me an inheritance, but nothing I have done obligates him to bequeath me a fortune. It is a gift.
This gift, objectively speaking, is the redemption won by Christ’s sacrificial death. The Son of God became man so that men might once again share in the life of God. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).
This is the good news Christ commanded us to preach. “Go into the whole world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved”(Mk 16:15, 16). Christ’s death is sufficient for the sins of the whole world.
Yet subjectively speaking, how is Christ’s sufficient sacrifice made efficient and actual in our lives? St. Paul tells us: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Wait a minute! Is God giving us a free gift in one hand only to snatch it back with the other? Is he like a cruel parent who promises good gifts to his children but then forces them into fearful labor to claim them?
Not at all. Listen to St. Paul again. “Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling. For God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”(Phil 2:12-13).
The gift of salvation is the very life of God. We are to become “partakers of the divine nature” (1 Pt 1:4). This is good news to people overwhelmed by the world’s cares and injustices, drowning in the undertow of theirs and the world’s disordered passions.
The gospel is not God calling from the west bank of the river, “Swim harder, try harder.” The good news is that God himself has jumped into the river, is giving us mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, embracing and guiding us as we swim back to holy ground. God himself is the gift, indwelling us, motivating us by his grace, empowering us by his Spirit so that we may lay claim to all that we have inherited.
Paul, often called “the apostle of God’s Grace”, sees no contradiction between grace-filled human exertion and salvation as a free gift. “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them [the other apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me” (1 Cor 15:10,11).
So the Catholic Church doesn’t teach salvation by works, but rather, to use St. Paul’s phrase, salvation by grace through faith working in love (see Gal 5:6). The faith that brings us into right relationship with God and makes us adopted sons and daughters of God is also a working faith. Paul calls it “the obedience of faith” (Rom 1:5; see also 16:26; Acts 6:7; 1 Thes 1:3).
Rather than recap the swirling centuries-old debate over the relationship between faith and works, let’s just listen carefully to Paul as he describes his own spiritual trajectory towards heaven. How did he live out salvation by faith working in love?
[T]hat I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. … Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us” (Phil 3:10-14, 17).
Does St. Paul in his striving fail to rely on the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning death? He obviously didn’t think so. In one passage he even uses language that some Christians today might regard as a reckless undermining of the adequacy of Jesus’ work on the cross: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh complete what is lacking in the Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24).
Unfazed by the debates to come fifteen hundred years later during the Protestant Reformation, Paul didn’t fear being misunderstood. In being united with Christ’s sufferings he was making Christ visible for the redemption of the world. The same Jesus who suffered on the cross was living his life through St. Paul.
“I have been crucified with Christ,” he declared. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20; see also Rom 8:12-17; 6:3-8; Col. 3:1-4; Eph. 2:5-6). Like a birthing mother, he longs for all Christians to manifest this same Christ: “My little children, with whom I am again in travail until Christ be formed in you! (Gal 4:19).
“Straining forward to what lies ahead … continuing pursuit of the goal … filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions … again in labor until Christ be formed …” God’s grace enables us to exert ourselves in order to actualize full salvation. We are called to become strenuously all that God has called us to be: saints (see Rom 1:7; 16:16; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 2:19).
This should give pause to anyone who claims to possess already fully what is not yet fully realized. We don’t cross the finish line in our race for salvation until we stand face to face with God for all eternity and hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
It’s common for some Christians to profess that we are “justified [that is, made right with God] by faith alone.” Much polemical ink has been spilled in this dispute. But the phrase doesn’t appear in Christian history in its Protestant meaning until the sixteenth century. We should also realize that the only passage of Scripture where the expression “justified by faith alone” appears is James 2:24, in the very passage where we are told that we are “not justified by faith alone” (emphasis added). If our faith doesn’t bring forth good deeds, St. James tell us, then our faith is not saving faith.
But while Christians aren’t saved by works in themselves, they will be judged according to them. At the close of his revelation to St. John, Jesus promises, “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense, to repay every one for what he has done.”
Again, how can this be? How can we be saved by grace but judged by our works? Because the grace to believe in Christ is the grace to obey God. Faith is made complete by expressing itself in action (see Jas 2:14-26; 1 Thes 1:3). Works are crystallized faith. As Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15; see also 1 Jn 2:3). And his commandments are not burdensome (1 Jn 5:3; see also Mt 11:30); we need only pray as St. Augustine prayed: “Command what you will, and give what you command.”
God created us in his image and likeness to rule as co-regents of his creation. We were created for good works (Gn 1:27-28; Eph 2:8-10). His purpose in redeeming us isn’t different from his purpose in creating us. Grace builds on nature.
Consequently, it’s misleading to say that we are working to get to heaven. More accurately, we are given the gift of salvation so that we might fulfill our natures. Thus we are commanded to “not grow weary in well-doing” (Gal 6:9).
People cannot absolutely deserve any rewards from God (see CCC, 2007). But in God’s gracious plan of redemption, he invites us to receive his gift of eternal life and become his friends who love and labor with him freely. If we do anything noble and virtuous it is because he, in his mercy, empowers us to perform such good works.
When we flourish in our efforts, he blesses us with eternal union with him. As the theologian and catechist, Fr. Ronald Lawlor, puts it: “We are said to merit eternal life, then, because we freely do the saving deeds that God makes it possible for us to do. But all is in the context of grace. ‘When God crowns our merits,’ St. Augustine remarks, ‘is he not crowning precisely his own gifts?’”
Why do Catholics believe they can lose their salvation?
Because it is too easy to be a Christian—or even a Hindu or a Muslim or a Jew—in name only. Any “believer” can fail to live a life that corresponds with what he claims to believe. It’s a universal human problem.
We often deceive ourselves about our ultimate commitments and must strive to bring our actions in line with our beliefs. While we all recognize how presumptuous it is to judge another person’s standing with God, it’s equally presumptuous to judge our own final status with God. He is the ultimate Judge; we are not.
Call it the problem of nominal Christianity, minimalism, dead faith, or believing in vain, it has long been a chronic problem for the people of God. Scripture urges us to live in such a way that we’re prepared for the final judgment, for the outcome, even for believers, is not entirely certain.
Jesus warned his disciples:
Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. … Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers” (Mt 7:21-27; see also 1 Cor 4:1-5).
The prophet Malachi also speaks of judgment as a day when “once more you shall distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him” (Mal 3:18). Our salvation isn’t fixed by once “accepting Christ as our personal Savior.” It’s made certain by continuing to obey him lovingly as our Lord. “Faith without works is dead” (Jas 2:26).
Oftentimes the new believer starts off enthusiastically sharing his new-found faith, confessing Jesus before men, doing good works, and uprooting the weeds of sin that have grown up in his life—only, in time, to grow weary and indifferent. Why? Jesus gives us one reason: “As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (Mt 24:37-39; see also Lk 12:8,9).
What is the great wickedness that deadens people to God? We can be lulled into spiritual indifference by the normal rhythms of innocent secular pursuits. “Eating and drinking, marrying and being married,” the basic rituals of everyday life can anesthetize us so we ignore living in light of eternity and the coming judgment.
The people described here weren’t preoccupied with consciously doing evil. They had simply grown tepid toward to God. Sadly, this spiritual numbness afflicts Christians as well. Jesus warns the church at Laodicea: “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” (Rv 3:15).
We must keep the engine of our spiritual life warm to God and continually motor our lives guided by his will. Why do Catholics believe we can lose our salvation? Because even God won’t steer a parked car!
The ongoing work of God in redeeming us requires our ongoing free cooperation. As St. Augustine said: “The God who created us without our participation has not willed to save us without our cooperation.” Until the process of salvation is complete, we can freely opt out of it by refusing God’s grace and sinning mortally.
Some evangelical Protestants deny that salvation can be surrendered. It’s a doctrine commonly called “eternal security.” But most Christians throughout history have believed otherwise: the Eastern Orthodox; the Anglicans and Episcopalians; those in the Wesleyan tradition such as the Methodists, Pentecostals, Nazarenes, and the Holiness churches; many Episcopalians; the descendants of the Anabaptists, such as the Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers, and Amish—all these join Catholics in recognizing the tragic possibility that a person once in right relationship with God can sever and forfeit that relationship.
Even St. Paul, who had as dramatic and undeniable a conversion as can be imagined (see Acts 9: 1-11; 22: 1-11; 26:1-18), did not regard his own ultimate salvation as absolutely assured. Exertion was necessary. Using imagery from the Greek gymnasia and athletic games, he wrote:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 9:24-27).
Even after the divine Word impregnates us, so to speak, it’s still possible that our salvation will be stillborn. “Now I would remind you, brethren” warned the apostle Paul, “in what terms I preached to you the gospel, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain” (1 Cor 15:1-2, emphasis added).
What an awful possibility! To receive the gospel, embark upon the journey of salvation (“being saved”), and yet, ultimately, to have “believed in vain” (see also Heb 6:4-12; 10:26-39; Jas 2:26).
Paul wept over one example of this possibility: his kinsmen, the Jews of the first century. In spite of having received a divine calling and election, the covenants, the law, the oracles of God, the promises, the Temple, they still largely rejected their Messiah (see Rom 9:1-3, 6-9; 11:11-24). Drawing upon the history of ancient Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, Paul illustrated the danger of taking God’s love and mercy for granted, concluding: “Therefore, let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor 10:12; see also Gal 5:19; 6:7-10).
Even after we’re born again through faith and baptism, we retain our free will and an inclination to sin. Thus we can still choose to turn our backs on God. It is not unlike my marriage. I know that I am married and love Sally and am confident of her continuing love for me. However, I can break the relationship through unfaithfulness. I can walk away from her.
Would that mean that we were never really married or that I never really loved her? No, it would mean that I failed to grow in my love. Instead of nurturing the relationship, I let it wither. As the bumper sticker says, “If God seems far away, guess who moved?”
So even though we are presently infused with the life of the age to come, mortal sin can extinguish the flame of divine life (sanctifying grace) within us. Thus the Scripture urges us to endure to the end, vigilantly watching for Christ’s return, diligently stewarding the Master’s resources and caring for the sick, imprisoned, and needy just as did the wise virgins, the faithful servant, and the sheep described in the parables of Matthew 25 (see also Mt 13:40-43; 24:45-51; Mk 13:32-37; Rv 2:10, 25, 26). These exhortations to remain faithful to the end would be meaningless if our ultimate salvation was inevitable.
Advocates of “eternal security” do us a service, however. They magnify those passages that remind us how God protects those who are his: “No one shall snatch them out of my hand” (Jn 10:28).
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of god in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:33-35, 37-39).
It’s impossible to get beyond God’s loving reach. But even though love woos the will, it can be spurned. For God to force himself upon us would not be love; it would be spiritual rape. Love presupposes cooperation.
Do Catholics then perpetually worry and anguish over their spiritual state? No, we live in hope, “the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God”(CCC 2090). Like St. Paul, “we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God” (Rom 5:2) and know that “for in this hope we were saved” (Rom 8:24).
But hope is always directed toward the future. If we fully possess what we hope for, then hope is unnecessary. “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Rom 8:24,25).
We thank St. John for writing so that “our joy may be complete … that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 Jn 1:4; 5:13, emphasis added). We also thank him for telling us how we know: “And by this we may be sure that we know him, if we keep his commandments” (1 Jn 2:3).
Catholics have a moral assurance of salvation, not an absolute assurance. As we “walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7).
As we cooperate with the grace of God we are being transformed into the saints that he created us to be. Jesus’ atonement is the source of our hope, and as he put it: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God (Lk 9:62). We trust that as God enables our hand to grip the plow, he is making us fit for the kingdom of God. Of that Catholics are assured.
Do Catholics still believe in mortal sin?
Mortal sin is a tragic possibility for human beings. It destroys love in our hearts through a serious violation of God’s law. It turns us away from God, who is our ultimate end (see CCC, 1854-1864).
Occasionally, we hear fellow Christians say, “Little sins, big sins, all sins are alike in God’s eyes.” But God doesn’t weigh all moral matters equally. To sin against a greater good is to commit a greater evil. Scripture itself testifies to greater and lesser sins.[i]
When Jesus taught “that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:27-28), he wasn’t suggesting that it is just as bad to think it as to do it. Lust is not adultery. It’s adultery in one’s heart. Sin springs from the heart. To commit it with one’s body is even a worse sin, for it has social consequences that mental lust does not.
As I wrote earlier, the Bible is like a lush garden with a germinating seedbed surrounding it. Some of the vegetation is fully mature and ripe. Some is ready to blossom. Some is just beginning to sprout. As the Catholic Church is guided by the Holy Spirit into all truth (see Jn 16:12,13) it can afford to take seriously those subtle distinctions in Scripture often ignored by other Christian traditions and actually give them theological, even institutional, expression.
So it is with a mysterious passage in 1 John 5:16-17: “If any one sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and god will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is a sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.”
Scripture recognizes at least two different classes of sin. A mortal sin is deadly inasmuch as it destroys the life of God within us. While all sin misses the mark of God’s will, not all sin is mortal. As with our physical bodies, all illness wounds, but not all illness is fatal. So too with sickness of soul: some diseases are lethal, others only maim and scar. All need healing.
To resurrect the soul that’s been strangled by deadly sin requires some special antidote of God’s mercy beyond the prayers of the community. This will lead us to Christ’s constant offer of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance, which we’ll discuss later.
God has revealed to us the nature and destiny of man. He calls us beyond the development of our intelligence, physique, wealth, family, or art. We are called to a supernatural elevation of our being that surpasses all our original created endowments. We are made for more than this world. We are called to be sons of God and to share in the divine life itself. This is the good news.
“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, [Jesus, the true light that has come into the world], he gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man but by God” (Jn 1:12; see also 1:9; 1 Jn 3:2)
“[H]e has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4; see also Heb 12:10).
We are invited to become partakers of the divine nature. For those who have received eternal life, God’s very life is coursing through their souls. He intends and has already begun to raise us to a new sphere of existence where we participate in the intimate love and communication of the Trinity (see Jn 14:15-21; 15:1-17; 26-27; 16:12-15; 17:20-26).
This reality staggers the imagination and begs for illustration.
Have you ever had a dearly beloved pet? Your beautiful black Labrador retriever, Ben, is gentle around the children, faithful to his master, amusing in his chasing of rabbits, and trained to fetch. He loves to lie on your feet as you sit before the fireplace rocking for hours on end.
Ben is ordered to his natural end—that is, he is all that a dog was naturally made to be. You know him and he knows you. Well, we should say that you know him as a master knows a pet, and he knows you as a pet knows a master.
But imagine that one balmy Saturday evening you and a friend are about to enjoy some chess. He opens and plays white pawn to king four. Ben, watching with one sleepy eye open, rises on his haunches from in front of the fireplace, reaches a paw across the board, and plays black knight to king bishop three.
You gasp. You glare. You say, “What are you doing? Bobby Fischer played that gambit in Buenos Aires against Boris Spassky and got his head ripped off.” Ben leans over and whispers, “Yes, but six months later, he psyched Spassky out by playing the same unsound move. Spassky lost his nerve. Match to Fischer.”
You then wake up from your chess coma and realize what’s going on. After you’ve finished doubting your sanity, you would say, “Ben’s entered another order of being; the human life has taken hold of him. He now knows as he has been known.”
This scenario strains credulity. But in a small way it points to the startling kind of change God intends for us mortal creatures. He wants to raise us up and confer his divine life on us so that we know Him as He knows us (1 Cor 13:12).
By turning us away from God, mortal sin breaks our growing intimacy with our Father. Our freedom to spit in God’s face is both our glory and our tragedy. Moral choice and responsibility elevate us above the lower primates. The primates’ apparent choices may be conditioned; we have the power, however, to make choices that set us on a trajectory that can lead to eternal union with God or eternal separation from him.
So what are the mortal sins? The Church doesn’t anywhere keep an exhaustive list. Nor can they be tallied from isolated passages of Scripture. This is because part of what determines a mortal sin is the interior state of the one sinning.
“For a sin to be mortal,” the Catechism declares, “three conditions must together be met: Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent” (CCC, 1857). What is “grave matter?” Those sins that flow out of breaking the Ten Commandments.
If I knowingly and deliberately offend God in a serious matter, I forfeit my share in the divine life and my trajectory to heaven is thrown off course and towards separation from Him. I’m headed for hell. How can I make a course correction and restore the divine life within me? I can’t—but has offered to do it for me in the Sacrament of Penance.
Do Catholics still believe in purgatory?
If by “purgatory” we mean a second chance after death for repentance, or a moneymaking invention of the medieval church, or a failure to believe that Christ truly redeemed us on Calvary, then the Catholic Church never did believe in such a thing. Nor should we uncritically accept the sometimes overly graphic and severe imagery that has been used to illustrate the doctrine of purgatory. The Ecumenical Councils of Lyons (1274), Florence (1439), and Trent (1545-1563) forbade all fanciful elaborations, especially in public sermons. The Catechism of the Catholic Church chastelyrestricts its discussion of purgatory to only four paragraphs (see CCC, 1030-32, 1472).
“All those 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” (CCC, 1030). Purgatory is that temporary state, place, condition, or process after death by which those who are in Christ are purged of disordered self-love and cleansed of remaining moral and spiritual imperfections.
Though most popular conversation and imagery presupposes purgatory as a “place,” it is better to think about it in terms of “process.” Our journey to heaven begins on earth. But if heaven is a place of mutual and unhampered love between God and human beings, then it appears that most of us end our earthly journey as flawed lovers, still inept at deep and sustained love. The purification begun on earth continues until we are rendered completely fit for eternal union with God.
Someone might object: “But aren’t we forgiven in Christ? What remains to be done?” Forgiven, yes; transformed, not yet. While God loves us the way we are right now, he loves us too much to let us stay that way. He accepts us where we are in order to move us to where he is.
We often die, however, with an unhealthy attachment to sin and still love created things above our Creator. At the hour of our death our souls may not be fully fixed on evil, but neither are they fully fixed on the perfections of God. As Romano Guardiniputs it, those who need further purification after death are those “whose intention has not penetrated sufficiently below the surface to reach the settled resistance beneath and the depths filled with evil and impurity … whose whole life is riddled with omissions and bears in itself the ravages of wrongdoing.”
We aren’t unrepentant, just unperfected. The Spirit of Jesus dwells within us, the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts (see Rom 8:9; 5:5). But we fall short of being the lovers that can withstand face-to-face to communion with God, whose love is like a consuming fire (see Heb 12:29).
How are we to enter heaven in which can dwell no unclean thing (see Rv 21:27)? How are we to dwell with a God whose eyes are too pure to behold iniquity (see Heb 1:13; Lv 11:44; 1 Pt. 1:16)? How are we to enjoy fellowship with a God infinite in perfections when we lack perfection (see Mt 5:48)?
After all, heaven isn’t filled with shy souls sporting “I’m Not Perfect Just Forgiven” tee shirts. It’s filled with glorious beings whose perfections move us like the sight of great mountains. Sadly, it appears that most of us die before that great transformation.
Some might ask, “Where is this grounded in Scripture?” For the ancient Hebrews, prayers for the dead were a pious act. “Withhold not your kindness, O Lord, from the dead” (Sir 7:33). “It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead” (2 Mc 12:46;see also Ps 86:13; 113:3; Acts 2:27).
Second-century Christian documents such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla and the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity show us that the early Christians continued the practice. While these documents are not inspired Scripture, they indicate that prayers for the dead were not some outlandish later innovation, but rather an assumed and unquestioned practice.
The logic of this practice seems to demand purgatory. If the deceased are in heaven, they don’t need our prayers. If they are in hell, our prayers won’t do them any good. There must be a post-mortem place or condition that we can affect by our prayers.
Furthermore, Scripture describes a purifying fire some will pass through after death, which purges their souls of corrupt and combustible elements: “But he shall be saved as through fire” (1 Cor 3:10ff).
We must also consider what Jesus meant when he says that “whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Mt 12:32). Certainly some possibility of post-death forgiveness is in view here.
But wasn’t the thief on the cross promised that on the day of his death, he would be with Christ in “paradise” (see Lk 23:43)? Yes. But what is “paradise”?
Christ wouldn’t be in heaven that day. He descended into the realm of the dead and didn’t return to heaven until his ascension, forty days after his resurrection (1 Pet 3:18-20; Eph 4:9, 10). Further still, New Testament scholarship teaches that the term “paradise” in this passage doesn’t refer to heaven. It’s a place of bliss and rest between death and resurrection. As to the conventional language of days, years, or centuries in purgatory, just remember that purgatory has no clock since it occurs outside of time.
We might compare purgatory or the Final Purification, as I like to call it, to the antechamber of heaven. Imagine that you, a lame beggar, have received an invitation to the king’s wedding supper. The invitation specifies that you arrive healthy, properly bathed, and in your best attire. The king’s mansion is distant and can only be reached over perilous terrain. You fear you don’t have the stamina, wardrobe, or courage to present yourself successfully at the supper.
Nevertheless, after all, the king has called you. So you set off for the banquet in this faraway land, growing in anticipation of intimate communion with the king and his guests. Along the way, your travel is full of travail. Yet it strengthens you. The rigorous exercise rids you of a respiratory condition you feared might disqualify you and your atrophied leg begins to regenerate new muscle. The mud and briars, however, ruin your best clothes, and that old body odor that’s clung to you for so long is still pungent enough to bring tears to the eyes of a musk ox.
When you arrive, the king’s steward looks at the invitation and, pleased, says, “I can see you are in the king’s good graces.” He tries to usher you in for inspection before you are seated, but you demur. “Is there a place,” you ask, “where I can shower and wash my clothes?”
The steward says, “Of course. We’ve provided all you need.” He then lays out bathing oils and the robes you are to wear after your shower. Before you know it, you are indeed fit for a king.
Is purgatory then a place of suffering? Yes, but a suffering that refreshes. Suffering conforms us to Christ. “We are…joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:16, 17; 1 Pet 4:1; Heb 2:2). God squeezes us because he loves us. The psychotherapist Victor Frankl endured the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. Drawing from that experience in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he insisted that we can endure any suffering as long as we believe it has a purpose. The soul in purgatory knows he is saved and destined for heaven.
As John Paul II has taught: “Life’s earthly journey has an end which, if a person reaches it in friendship with God, coincides with the first moment of eternal bliss. Even, if in that passage to heaven, the soul must undergo the purification of the last impurities through purgatory, it is already filled with light, certitude, and joy, because the person knows that he belongs forever to God.”
This is not a new teaching. St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) also believed that “no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise. And day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, more and more as the hindrance to his entrance is consumed. Sin’s rust is the hindrance, and the fire burns the rust away so that more and more the souls opens itself up to the divine inflowing.”
Purgatory is not an extra-worldly concentration camp to punish us. Nor is it entirely the bliss of heaven. It better resembles a long awaited surgery that restores our health rather than a tornado that destroys our home.