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Purgatory: They Shall Be Saved, but Only So as by Fire

When Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ instituted the Holy Mass as a perpetual sacrifice of His Body and His Blood for the remission of our sins (Mt. 26:26–28; Mk. 14:22–24; Lk. 22:19–20; 1 Cor. 10:16–18; etc.), it is clear that He intended in a special way that the New Testament Sacrifice of the Holy Mass be the perfect fulfilment of the Old Covenant sacrifices. Now, if even these were offered up for the remission of the sins of the faithful departed (2 Macc. 12:43–46) — for it is written,“And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection[.] … It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.” — it follows that Holy Mass is the greatest sacrifice to alleviate the terrifying sufferings of the faithful departed that God has ever given to man.

Since Protestants do not accept the Book of Maccabees (although they should; the 4th-century canons of Carthage, of Hippo, and the decrees of Pope St. Damasus’s Council of Rome all contain it as canonical), they often ask Catholics:“All right. Maccabees teaches Purgatory. But where is Purgatory in the New Testament? Wouldn’t Our Lord Jesus Christ or one of His apostles have mentioned it?”

The First Proof: Direct Proof from 1 Corinthians 3:13–15

Chapter 3 of St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians is perhaps the most direct proof in Sacred Scripture of purgatorial fire and merits. According to Catholic doctrine, bad works are penalized by God; bad Christians, whose works are burned up, will therefore suffer loss and be saved only through fire. This is Purgatory and their bad works or sins are why Purgatory is necessary. This doctrine is plainly taught by St. Paul the Apostle.

Every man’s work shall be manifest; for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work burn, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.

St. Basil the Great teaches:

I think that the noble athletes of God, who have wrestled all their lives with the invisible enemies, after they have escaped all of their persecutions and have come to the end of life, are examined by the prince of this world; and if they are found to have any wounds from their wrestling, any stains or effects of sin, they are detained. If, however they are found unwounded and without stain, they are, as unconquered, brought by Christ into their rest. (Homilies on the Psalms 7:2)

What could possibly be clearer? The bad Christian is saved only through fire because of his bad works. The good Christian receives a reward from the Lord on that day because of his good works. This text clearly shows that good works done with faith in Christ are necessary post-justification and contribute to the soul’s sanctification. If performed, they entitle us by God’s grace to a heavenly reward, because God is so good. If neglected, they demand punishment, because God is holy.

The Second Proof: The Prison of Spirits St. Peter speaks of

St. Peter the Apostle twice proves Purgatory when he speaks of a mysterious Prison of Spirits, in which the Gospel was preached, and from which souls can be delivered. Now, this cannot refer to Heaven, for Heaven is not a prison. But neither on the other hand can it refer to Hell, for there is no deliverance from Hell. It necessarily follows that this constitutes proof of some third intermediate state between Heaven and Hell, which Holy Mother Church aptly calls Purgatory.

1 Pet. 3: “Because Christ also died once for our sins, the just for the unjust: that he might offer us to God, being put to death indeed in the flesh, but enlivened in the spirit, In which also coming he preached to those spirits that were in prison[.]”

1 Pet. 4: “For, for this cause was the gospel preached also to the dead: that they might be judged indeed according to men, in the flesh; but may live according to God, in the Spirit.”

Bp. Challoner justly comments on 1 Pet. 3:19:

See here a proof of a third place, or middle state of souls: for these spirits in prison, to whom Christ went to preach, after his death, were not in heaven; nor yet in the hell of the damned: because heaven is no prison: and Christ did not go to preach to the damned.

The Third Proof: The Lord Jesus mentions the same prison

Mt. 5: “If therefore thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath any thing against thee; Leave there thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother: and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift. Be at agreement with thy adversary betimes, whilst thou art in the way with him: lest perhaps the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison[.] Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence till thou repay the last farthing.”

St. Cyprian eloquently argues based on this prison:

It is one thing to stand for pardon, another thing to attain to glory: it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire; another to have purged all sins by suffering. It is one thing, in fine, to be in suspense till the sentence of God at the day of judgment; another to be at once crowned by the Lord. (Letter 51)

Tertullian interprets:

Now the friendly understanding you will have to carry out must arise from your observance of the compact: you must never think of getting back any of the things which you have abjured, and have restored to him, lest he should summon you as a fraudulent man, and a transgressor of your agreement, before God the Judge (for in this light do we read of him, in another passage, as ‘the accuser of the brethren,’ or saints, where reference is made to the actual practice of legal prosecution); and lest this Judge deliver you over to the angel who is to execute the sentence, and he commit you to the prison of hell, out of which there will be no dismissal until the smallest even of your delinquencies be paid off in the period before the resurrection. What can be a more fitting sense than this? What a truer interpretation? (A Treatise on the Soul, 35)

Once more: a prison from which souls can be delivered is neither Heaven nor Hell proper. But a spiritual prison from which prisoners depart when they have paid the last farthing is precisely such an imprisonment in an intermediate state.

The Fourth Proof: Our Lord speaks of lesser stripes in punishment

Lk. 12: “The lord of that servant will come in the day that he hopeth not, and at the hour that he knoweth not, and shall separate him, and shall appoint him his portion with unbelievers.  And that servant who knew the will of his lord, and prepared not himself, and did not according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. And unto whomsoever much is given, of him much shall be required: and to whom they have committed much, of him they will demand the more.”

This follows the Old Testament requirement:

Deut. 25: “And if they see that the offender be worthy of stripes: they shall lay him down, and shall cause him to be beaten before them. According to the measure of the sin shall the measure also of the stripes be[.]”

Now, those who are beaten eternally have their lot with the unbelievers. But those who sinned in ignorance will deserve lesser stripes — i.e., non-eternal or only temporal punishment. It follows that these souls will ultimately be liberated.

St. Augustine persuasively says:

But temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But of those who suffer temporary punishments after death, all are not doomed to those everlasting pains which are to follow that judgment; for to some, as we have already said, what is not remitted in this world is remitted in the next, that is, they are not punished with the eternal punishment of the world to come. (City of God 21:13)

Another related proof comes from Our Lord saying some sins are forgiven in this world, implying some others could be forgiven in the world to come (Mt. 12:32). As the Catholic Encyclopedia shows, St. Augustine was one to make this argument. And Pope St. Gregory, the Great Dialogist, was another. We will quote the latter here. To the question “Whether there be any Fire of Purgatory in the next life,” the saintly pope answers in the affirmative, saying, “We must believe that before the day of judgment there is a Purgatory fire for certain small sins: because our Saviour saith, that he which speaketh blasphemy against the holy Ghost, that it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, nor in the world to come. Out of which sentence we learn, that some sins are forgiven in this world, and some other may be pardoned in the next: for that which is denied concerning one sin, is consequently understood to be granted touching some other. But yet this, as I said, we have not to believe but only concerning little and very small sins, as, for example, daily idle talk, immoderate laughter, negligence in the care of our family (which kind of offences scarce can they avoid, that know in what sort sin is to be shunned), ignorant errors in matters of no great weight: all which sins be punished after death, if men procured not pardon and remission for them in their lifetime” (Dialogues, Book 4, Chapter 39: Whether there be any Purgatory etc?).

The Fifth Proof: St. Paul prays for his departed Christian friend Onesiphorus

St. Paul offers a final simple proof: “The Lord give mercy to the house of Onesiphorus: because he hath often refreshed me, and hath not been ashamed of my chain” (2 Tim. 1:16). Now, it is manifest in the text, and not infrequently admitted even by Protestant commentators, that Onesiphorus was a departed Christian, whose works of mercy St. Paul calls to mind.

St. Thomas admirably argues: “Now there is no need to pray for the dead who are in heaven, for they are in no need; nor again for those who are in hell, because they cannot be loosed from sins.” This magnificent proof of St. Thomas is a final proof of Purgatory.

St. Chrysostom comments:

Let us weep for these; let us assist them according to our power; let us think of some assistance for them, small though it be, yet still let us assist them. How and in what way? By praying and entreating others to make prayers for them, by continually giving to the poor on their behalf. (St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Philippians, 3)

Conclusion: Purgatory is real. Good news: You can avoid it!

When Our Lord spoke of His Sacred Body and Precious Blood being offered up for the “remission of sins,” the promised remission applies in an exemplary manner to the Church Suffering, the faithful departed. Holy Mass exceeds by far the sacrifices of the Old Law and more wondrously liberates the suffering souls in Purgatory. Many who could never have been liberated by the sacrifices of the righteous Maccabees, even if those sacrifices had been offered till the end of time, already have been or will be liberated according to the plan of God before the end of time. How grateful, then, we should be to have the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to offer! How blessed to know there is a Purgatory! They who do not believe in Purgatory have no good hope of escaping it. Those of us who believe and confess that there is a Purgatory can easily, if we co-operate with God’s Grace, avoid going there.

God and Mary have revealed, with Church approval, a Life Offering. Jesus and Mary have promised all who offer their lives, all their Masses and Communions, good works, prayers and sacrifices, to Jesus and Mary, for the salvation of souls, that they can avoid Purgatory and go straight to Heaven.

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