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More questions about purgatory
In my previous column (August 2009), I answered in a very basic way the question of the existence of purgatory. This month we’ll talk about some common misconceptions regarding this teaching. But before I do that, I would like to remind everyone that the most important aspect of the teaching about purgatory is that it is not a third option between heaven and hell; rather it is a temporary stage established by God to prepare or purify those who have been saved and will enter heaven.
Misconception No. 1: The word purgatory is not in the Bible. Maybe the word purgatory is not mentioned specifically, but the concept is there and it is taught implicitly (1 Pet 3:19, LK 16:19-31). There are many such teachings in Christianity, one being the Trinity. The word Trinity is nowhere found in the Bible yet all Christians must believe in it.
Misconception No. 2: The Catholic Church invented the teaching of purgatory.
This is a false accusation. No one can prove or claim any date historically of when the Church began this teaching. Since this teaching can be traced as far back as the Old Testament, such as 2 Maccabees 12:41-45, other non-Biblical Jewish texts, the New Testament as well as many teachers of the faith in the history of the Church, as early as 160 A.D., this argument does not hold water.
Misconception No. 3: The teaching of purgatory contradicts what the Bible teaches regarding the price that Christ paid as a ransom for our sins; therefore we don’t have to suffer! The Catholic Church affirms the teaching of the Bible that Christ paid the price for our sins and it is only through His grace that we are saved (Ephesians 2:8-10) and not due to the works that we do. However, Christ’s work of salvation also means that we are called to live a life of holiness, which very often requires suffering. Christ’s suffering, therefore, should not be understood as a substitution to our suffering but as a means of participation with His suffering. This can be seen in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of His body, which is the Church”. (See also Mark 8:34-35,1 Peter 2:21 ; 3:13 -19.)
Misconception No. 4: If the Bible promised forgiveness of sins to those who believe, why do we still need to be disciplined in order to be forgiven?
The Bible often shows us that we still have to pay the price for sins even if we are forgiven. This is called temporal, or temporary, punishment. This concept is seen clearly in the story of King David (2 Sam 12) where we see God forgiving David‘s sin of adultery yet he punishes him by taking his son as retribution for his sin. This can be seen today where even though we receive forgiveness from the people we hurt, we still need to repair the damage we caused. That’s why the priest in confession, after giving absolution which restores God’s grace (eternal forgiveness), still asks us to do some good works or prayers. It is a means of discipline or compensation to our sins. Also that is why discipline is important as seen in Hebrews 12:5-11; "My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges." (Italics added).
Misconception No. 5: Isn’t purgatory Limbo?
No it’s not. The theory of Limbo teaches that babies who have died without baptism spend eternity in a state of "natural happiness" but not in the presence of God. It was a theory that was never officially taught as a doctrine of the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1261) teaches that unbaptised children are entrusted to the mercy of God where He is powerful enough to draw to himself all those who were unable to receive the sacrament.
Karam Bahnam is on the administrative committee of the E.C.R.C., a lay organization made up of volunteers committed to answering the late Pope John Paul II’s call to re-evangelize the world so that it may come to an intimate knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His Church. We welcome questions to email@example.com.