The idea of Purgatory is the last of the major doctrinal positions that Christians hold on Hell and the final things. It is almost exclusively held by the Roman Catholic church with very few Protestant theologians finding the position credible. Purgatory refers to a state or condition where souls come to rest between the final destinations of Heaven and Hell. The soul in purgatory endures a purifying suffering necessary to prepare them for the final judgment. After that day, according the the Catholic theology, Purgatory will cease to exist as its mission will be fulfilled.
The idea of an interim state is not unusual in general Christian theology. It answers the question, “what happens when we die?” The popular idea of immediate ascent or descent does not take into account the scriptural references to a day of final judgment in the future in which some are assigned to perdition and others to glory. Purgatory is the Catholic attempt to explain this state, expanded to include the notion of purification.
The symbolism of purgation is not rooted in Christianity but is widespread throughout all religious history. It is bound up in the distance of holiness between gods and men and in the human desire to approach the gods. The perfection of the gods requires that the human affect some measure of holiness themselves in order to stand in the god’s presence. The holiness is gained by a purifying ritual that takes many forms. As it was adopted in Catholic theology, this purifying process included a measure of punishment for the sinner according to their faults in their earthly life. The punishment is sped along by the mortal intercession of the Church and the sinner’s survivors. Catholics understand human nature as not perfect but not perfectly horrible either. Purgatory grants them an extension on their ability to be perfected for the next phase of eternal life.
What do the scriptures say about Purgatory? Very little if anything at all but we need to understand the Roman Catholic approach to the scriptures and theology in order to understand the formulation of the doctrine. In the Apocryphal book, 2 Maccabees contains a passage that supported the historical development of the doctrine. In the context of the text, some of the soldiers of Judas Maccabeus were wearing idolatrous amulets when they were killed in battle. Judas took up a collection as an expiatory sacrifice intended to release the dead from their sin.
They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden.
Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin. (2 Maccabees 12:41-46)
In the New Testament, some will read in Matthew a similar reference:
And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in in this age or in the age to come. (Mt 12:31-32)
The Catholic reading of this passage points to the possibility of being forgiven in the next world. Protestant theologians (cf Eph 1:21) do not generally share this reading. Catholic theologians will admit that the scripture is ambiguous at best and will also readily state that the doctrine is rooted in tradition rather than sola scriptura. Tradition will cause the Catholic reader to understand these and other passages in the light of the Roman Catholic theology of grace and works.
For the Roman Catholic, purgatory is a final opportunity in death to find our love for God. It is a state of His continuing grace and mercy to continue to seek a way in which the human might be restored to holiness and finally to God’s presence. Mortal intercession can aid those who find themselves suffering in a purification process until the day of judgment when Heaven or Hell will be the only choices remaining.