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Purgatory - Fictional Dialogue

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(Last Updated:  05 Jan 2002 )

This page is a fictional dialogue between a Catholic and a non-denominational Christian.  The dialogue is an adaptation of a presentation I gave recently on this subject, and explores the principles behind the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.  For more on this topic, see my Purgatory links page.  The material here is drawn very liberally on James Akin's excellent article, How to Explain Purgatory to Protestants (which I think is the best article I have seen on the subject).


The Scenario
"The Catholic Church has this Huge Doctrine of Purgatory"
"Purgatory was Invented in the Middle Ages"
"It's Based on Books that Don't Belong in the Bible"
"There's No Pain in the Afterlife, Is There?"
"Why Pray for Someone Whose Purification May Already be Finished?"
"No Bible-Believing Christian Would Believe in Purgatory"

The Scenario

[Two guys at a bus stop in Oklahoma City. One's a Catholic, one's a friendly Protestant.  Sign says bus is heading for San Francisco via Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada.]



C: Gonna be a long bus trip, huh?  Where're you headed?
San Francisco?

P: Nope.  Paradise.

C: Really?  You're going to Paradise?  What are you, a Christian or something?

P: Sure am.  But it's not that Paradise I'm goin' to, at least, not yet anyway.  I'm going to Paradise, Nevada.  It's a town just out of Las Vegas.

C: Well, that's funny.  Why you goin' there?

P: I'm a pastor.  I'm picking up a new position there, a little church on the edge of town.

C: Hey, congratulations.

P: Thanks.  So where are you goin'?

C: Purgatory.

P: Purgatory?  What are you, a Catholic or something?

C: Well, yeah, I am Catholic, since you asked.

P: So Purgatory's not just a myth after all, huh?

C: Nope.  It's a ski resort in Colorado.  But why would you say it's a myth?

P:  Come on, this Catholic Purgatory thing is just a big unbiblical piece of fiction.  I understand that's what you've been taught, but really the Catholic Church has this huge doctrine of purgatory, which they invented in the middle ages, based on books that don't belong in the Bible!  And since Christians go straight to heaven the minute we die, there's no point praying for people in purgatory either.  No Bible-believing Christian could have anything to do with it.

C:  How about we take just one thing at a time here?  I think I could help you understand things a lot better.  Wanna hear it?

P: Sure, we got, what, at least 14 hours here.  Think that'll give you enough time?

C:  We can make a good start. :-)  So what was the first thing you said?

"The Catholic Church has this Huge Doctrine of Purgatory"

P:  The Catholic Church has this huge doctrine of purgatory.

C: OK, we believe in Purgatory, but I wouldn't describe it as a huge doctrine.  Look, do you know what this is? [Holds up Catechism.]

P: It ain't the Bible, is it?

C: Nope, it's the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  But like the Bible, every home should have one.  This is a summary of what the Church believes.  There are 800 pages here, nearly 3000 paragraphs.  How much do you think is devoted to Purgatory?

P: As much as you've got on Mary?

C:  Hey, don't get me started.  We can talk about Mary when we get to Kansas.  Nope, there's exactly three paragraphs on Purgatory.  That's it.  Anyway, there's only really three things the Church insists on about Purgatory:

(1) that there is a purification after death (that's what's Purgatory means, it means being purified);
(2) that this purification involves some kind of pain or discomfort; and
(3) that God helps people in this purification in response to our prayers and stuff.  The Church doesn't insist that purgatory is a place or that it takes time.

P: Oh really.  Well, that's news to me.

C:  Here check it out - nothing on it in here.  There's been speculation about how things work in Purgatory, but no one really knows.  What was the next thing you said?

"Purgatory was Invented in the Middle Ages"

P: Purgatory was invented in the Middle Ages.

C: OK, lots of cool things were invented in the Middle Ages, like universities, parliaments, printing - but purgatory wasn't one of them.  In fact, it's been part of the true religion since before Jesus.  Jews before the time of Jesus prayed for their departed so they would be purified from their sins, the New Testament witnesses to it, and the early Church Fathers believed in it too.  And it's not just Catholics who believe in it either: the Eastern churches do as well (although they don't call it purgatory).  Even Orthodox Jews do today - when a Jewish person dies, his family prays a prayer known as the Mourner's Qaddish for eleven months after the death for his purification.

Because the doctrine of purgatory was held by Jews before the time of Jesus, by Jews after Jesus, by Catholics, and by Eastern Orthodox, Protestants are the only ones who deny it today.

P: You shouldn't look so smug when you say that.  God's truth isn't decided by a vote you know.

C: Yeah, but God's truth shouldn't be cast aside by some Johnny-come-lately either.  That reminds me of something else invented in the Middle Ages.

P: What?

C: Protestants. :-)

P: Very funny.

C: What was your next point?

"It's Based on Books that Don't Belong in the Bible"

P: The idea of Purgatory is based on books that don't belong in the Bible.

C:  OK, I guess you're thinking of 2 Maccabees 12, where Judas Maccabee and his men pray for their friends who had been killed in battle so that they may be "freed from their sins" in the afterlife.  Here's what it says: [Reads from Bible, 2 Macc 12: 43-45] "In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. 44 For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. 45 But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin".

P: Yep, and that ain't in my Bible.  You guys conveniently added some books like that in the 1500s.

C: Actually, you guys ditched them in the 1500s - but that's a whole 'nother story.  Maybe we can talk about that when we get to Colorado.  But while we can see Purgatory in 2nd Maccabees chapter 12, the doctrine's not based on that; we can see it in the New Testament, but the main thing is that we can understand Purgatory just from your Protestant theology alone.

P: Oh really.  This I gotta hear!

C:  OK.  You believe that you're a sinner, right?

P: Yeah, I'm a sinner, saved by grace, but I'm bound for heaven - and that ain't just Paradise Nevada either.

C: But you haven't been totally freed from sin yet, right?  I mean, there's still areas of your life that the Holy Spirit is doing his work in, right?

P: Yeah, I'm not perfect, and I inherited a depraved human nature thanks to Adam - but Jesus is perfect, and it's his righteousness that God looks at when he judges me, not mine.

C: Well, that's kind of another discussion too.  If I wasn't getting off in Colorado, we could talk about that when we go through Utah.

P: Utah?  That's Mormon country.  Maybe we could talk about them!

C:  We could, but I'll be on the slopes at Purgatory by then! Anyway, the point is, and no offense here, but there's still sin of some kind in your life occasionally, right?

P: Yes, there is. But dealing with it is what growing in the Christian life is all about.  It's called sanctification.

C:  Yeah, becoming a saint.  Us Catholics are big on saints and stuff you know.  Anyway, most Christians still have sin of some kind in their lives when they die, yeah?

P: OK...

C:  But we won't be sinning in heaven, will we?

P: No, we won't.

C:  And, in fact, nothing unclean can enter heaven, can it?

P: That's right; Revelation 21:27.

C:   So what we have here is that most of us die with some elements of sin still in our life, but in heaven we'll be perfectly clean and will no longer have to worry about sin.  So between death and heaven there must be some sort of sanctification right?  We get made holy, we get purified, made fit for heaven.  Right?

P: Well, yeah, when you put it like that...

C: Yeah, and you know what we call this purification, don't you?

P: I think I can guess..

C: Good.  And this purification may take no time for all we know, but that's no problem for believing in purgatory. We have no idea how time works in the afterlife anyway.   But you've got the fact that between death and heaven must come purification, and that is purgatory by definition.   If it helps though, don't call it "Purgatory" - call it "the final blast of sanctification" or something like that.

P:  Well, I've never heard it explained like that.  And so you're not saying that Purgatory is a final destination for people who aren't bad enough for hell or good enough for heaven?

C: Nope.  Purgatory is only for people who are saved.  That's one reason why lots of saints have said that the pains of Purgatory are really quite joyful, since you can feel your attachment to sin getting burned away by God's love, and you know that you're being made more and more like Jesus.

"There's No Pain in the Afterlife, Is There?"

P: Why this focus on pain then?  Why should Purgatory be uncomfortable?

C: I don't really know, but that's the way God seems to work.   Jesus was made perfect through suffering, wasn't he?

P: That's Hebrews chapter 5, isn't it?  You Catholics aren't supposed to do that sort of thing.

C:  What, love the Bible?  Sure we are, it's our book!  Hebrews talks a lot about that sort of stuff actually: in chapter 12 it says "the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives."  And think about Isaiah, when he saw the Lord in Isaiah chapter 6: his "unclean lips" were purified by being touched with a burning coal.  And then there's St. Paul, in 1st Corinthians chapter 3: "no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.  Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire."

So when we are judged by the Lord, that judgment won't necessarily be fun, especially if our Christian work has not been very fire-proof.  What this shows is that pain or discomfort is a reality in the afterlife, even for those who are saved.  And since just like in real life we can pray for our brothers and sisters that they might be made holy without having to suffer too much, we can pray for our loved ones who may be in Purgatory, that they can be made holy more easily or more painlessly as well.

"Why Pray for Someone Whose Purification May Already be Finished?"

P: Well, wait a second.  I could kind of buy into the idea of Purgatory being a final blast of sanctification.  But if you don't know when it's over, what's the point of praying for someone when it might have already all happened to them?

C:  It's just like praying for anything else where we don't know what happened.  I mean, if you heard that your family had been in a car crash but you didn't know any details, would you pray "O God, please may they be all right", or would you not pray anything because it's all over and you're prayer couldn't make any difference?

P: I think I get your point.

C: Good.  Your prayers aren't wasted -  God is outside of time so he knows what you're praying from all eternity, and he can apply your request to whenever it is most needed.

"No Bible-Believing Christian Would Believe in Purgatory"

P:  OK.  Well, my last objection was that no Bible-believing Christian would believe in Purgatory.  Got any names for me?

C:  Sure.  Ever heard of C.S. Lewis?

P: Lewis?!  He's my hero!  He wrote Mere Christianity - that's one of the books that helped get me saved!  And he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which my nephews love (though they haven't figured out yet that Aslan the lion is really Jesus).  I know he wasn't Catholic.  You're not gonna tell me he believed in Purgatory are you?

C: Sure am!  I just happen to be reading a book by him.  It was the last one he wrote before he died; it's mostly about prayer,  here's what he says about Purgatory - I think it sums things up nicely for us:

"Of course I pray for the dead...  At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?"

"I believe in Purgatory...  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 cleansed first.' "It may hurt, you know'--"Even so, sir.'"

"I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don't think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation...  The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much."

"My favorite 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. "

So there you go.

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