Why do Catholics Believe in Purgatory? *


The writer of 2 Maccabees praises the offering of prayers and sacrifices for the dead (see 12:38-46). Why do the departed need such assistance from us? So that their sins “might be fully blotted out” (12:42)


The final destiny of the redeemed is to live in heaven eternally with God, where “we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn 3:2). Since God is holy, to be like him, we to, must be holy (see Mt 5:48). Without that holiness, “no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14), for “nothing unclean will enter “the glory of heaven (Rv 21:27).


Nevertheless, few people, even among devout Christians, are fully cleansed of sin and its effects when they die. And God will not reject any penitent sinner; even one who has been notoriously wicked yet repents at the last moment before death (see Lk 23:39-43). How, then can we enter heaven immediately at death if we aren’t yet perfected in holiness?


St. John tells us that everyone who hopes to be holy as God is holy, and to see him at last face-to-face, “makes himself pure, as he is pure” (1 Jn 3:3). That process of purification begins in this life as we submit in faith to the dealings of God that help to make us whole. “Purgatory” is simply the name given to that process of purification as it continues after death. (Like “the Holy Trinity,” “purgatory” is a term not occurring in Scripture; but the reality it refers to is implied by scriptural truths.)


God doesn’t purify us instantly in this life by waving a magic wand, bypassing the cooperation of our free will. So we shouldn’t expect him to do so at our death, either. And since his work to heal us of the effects of sin is usually painful now – just as surgery for our bodily health is painful – the purgatorial process will likely be painful as well.


The traditional image of cleansing purgatorial fire comes from such biblical passages as 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, which speaks of those who “will be saved, but only as through fire” (3:15). The Bible also speaks of God’s holiness in this regard as “a consuming fire” (Heb 12:29). Yet just as the physician’s cauterizing fire burns in order to heal, so does any pain we might experience in purgatory. In the end, it is a work of God’s mercy.


Other related scriptures: Lv 11:44; 19:2; Dt 4:24; Mal 3:2-4; Mt 5:48; 2 Cor 7:11; 1 Pt 1:16.


Catechism of the Catholic Church: 1030-1032; 1472.


*Quoted from The New Catholic Answer Bible. Wichita, Kansas, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005. www.firesidecatholic.com


Additional insights at: www.catholic.com