“What Is Purgatory?”
“What’s that purgatory thing all about?”
“What’s that place between heaven and hell called?”
“What do Catholics believe about purgatory?”
“How long do you stay in purgatory?”
“What do you do in purgatory?
These are some of the questions I hear ALL the time from Catholics and non-Catholics regarding purgatory. Most of us think of purgatory as “not quite heaven” and “not quite hell” – but do we know what it actually is? Do you? Purgatory is one of the most misunderstood elements of Catholic theology. Which is a shame, because truly understanding what purgatory is – and what it isn’t – allows Christians to get a firmer grasp on God’s love, mercy and commitment.
There’s one thing I have to say right upfront: Purgatory is not a second chance. It is not a do-over, a free pass or a form of “detention” where you can EARN your way into heaven. You can’t make up for a lifetime of ignoring and disobeying God knowingly by simply doing some time in purgatory. Purgatory is only a place for people who are already going to heaven. This might be different from what you’ve seen portrayed in movies or from non-Catholic sources. Those people just didn’t do their homework or maybe they took some very big artistic liberties.
So, that begs the questions of “who goes to purgatory?” and “why do people go to purgatory?” The simplest way to describe purgatory is to say that it’s a place for people who die in friendship with Jesus, but who are not quite yet “perfected” enough for heaven. We know this because Revelation 21:27 tells us that nothing impure will enter heaven.
Dying without mortal sin, but still struggling with gossip, lust, unforgiveness or a temper could all be causes for spending time in purgatory. We can’t enter into the perfect glory of God dragging these things with us. You see, God is holy – perfectly holy – and we need to be holy to enter heaven and be with Him. Purgatory exists for us to be purged of our sins before we can enter heaven. How long we stay there depends on the type of sins we have, what kind of life we’ve lived, and the state we’re in when we die.
Are you still having a hard time understanding purgatory? It’s okay, it can be a little bit hard to wrap your head around. That is, until you start to picture purgatory as heaven’s front porch. Here’s a good way to visualize purgatory:
Imagine you’ve just been outside all day playing football, or soccer, or whatever your favorite sport is. It just so happens that today was quite rainy and you ended up rolling in the mud and getting covered from head to toe. Yuck! Suddenly, you realize you’re getting hungry and it’s time to go home. You say goodbye to your friends and start to head in the direction of your house, knowing that there’s probably something hot cooking in the oven and some cozy blankets where you can curl up on the couch. You reach home, step on the porch, and just as you are about to turn the handle and walk inside – your mom’s face appears in the door and she puts out her hand and says, “Stop!”
She lovingly reminds you that you’re covered in mud… and that she’s just finished cleaning the floor until it was absolutely spotless…oh, and there’s no way she is going to let you trek mud through her clean house. But don’t worry, your mom’s not going to send you away or deny you entry into her warm house and some dinner. She loves you and she can’t wait to get you inside and feed you dinner. She grabs a bucket and some towels and puts them on the porch next to you. She tells you to clean up while standing on the porch, and when you’re clean you can leave your muddy sneakers outside and enter through the doorway to come on inside.
And so it is with God and purgatory. Purgatory is like the front porch of heaven. God loves you, and wants you to be in heaven with him… he just can’t let you drag your mud through heaven when you come in. Purgatory uses the graces, merits and perfection of Christ to get rid of that last bit of “mud” that’s on your soul. It is not our own doing that gets us through purgatory, it is His completed work on the cross. It is ALL His work.
P.S. Check out our older but longer explanation here. What is Purgatory?