Purgatory

Augustine’s war to the death with Pagans of the Roman Empire was won by deploying Original Sin as a weapon of mass conversion. Original Sin necessitated several theological inventions. The most notorious was Purgatory. The Early Church had believed that salvation was the beginning of a process of moral and spiritual transformation. Baptism was merely a symbol of new birth. The process of sanctification would not be complete until the believer became sinless.

 

Could the process of salvation be continued beyond this life?  John’s Revelation provided a mechanism for unfinished business via a future resurrection of the dead.  Augustine knew he could never convince Pagans to submit to a religion that would force them to strive after sinless perfection in this life and again in the afterlife. The mass conversion of Pagans required salvation to be quick and easy. And yet the problem of personal sin remained.  How could imperfect Christians be admitted to heaven if they had not completed the process of sanctification?

 

Augustine found a solution in the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, who had been born a quarter century earlier.  In his book On the Soul and the Resurrection Gregory wrote, ‘I think the doctrine of the resurrection is true as well as credible, as it is told us in scripture’ but Gregory admitted the doctrine had been interpreted in incorrect ways, such as oriental expectations of reincarnation and transmigration of the soul. After scoffing at the absurdity of human souls transmigrating into trees and the ‘godless theory’ that the souls of men reincarnate into the bodies of women, Gregory reminded his readers of the problem of evil. All are born in the sin of Adam and die too filled with vice to be admitted into heaven.  How are they cleansed of sin?

 

Gregory agreed with earlier theologians that the purpose of the resurrection was to purge souls of residual sin. The most righteous souls would be purged quickly and proceed quickly to heaven, the most sinful souls would be tormented longer. At the end of the process, all would be clad in the original splendour of perfect, sinless bodies. Gregory concluded his book with the words, ‘When all evil has been purged from the body and soul, and utterly removed by the healing process worked out by the (holy) Fire, then every one of the things which make up our conception of the good will come to take their place: incorruption, honour, grace, glory and everything else that is to be seen in God. Man will be restored as he was made in God’s image.’

 

There was nothing particularly original in Gregory’s description of the resurrection as a process of purification in preparation for the Great Judgement. Papias (70-155 AD) had written that ‘the disciples of the apostles say this is the graduation and arrangement of those who are saved, and that they advance through steps of this nature; and that, moreover, they ascend through the Spirit to the Son to the Father.’ Athenagoras (120?-190? AD) in his treatise on the Resurrection of the Dead wrote that it was a fallacy to believe that the purpose of the resurrection was judgement because ‘for if only a just judgement were the purpose of resurrection, it would of course follow that those who done neither evil nor good – namely infants – will not rise again.’  He argues that infants are included in the general resurrection because ‘the resurrection takes place not for the sake of judgement as the primary purpose, but in consequence of the purpose of God in forming all men...’  Origen (185-254 AD) in De Prinipiis wrote, ‘...all the saints who depart this life will remain in some place situated on the earth, which the Holy Scripture calls paradise, as in a class-room or school of souls, in which they will be instructed regarding all the things they had seen on earth, and are to receive some instruction respecting things that are to follow in the future... and thus will pass through all gradations, following him who has passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God...’  Augustine seized on Gregory’s image of a purging fire to solve a major theological difficulty that had been created by original sin.   

 

Devout Christians had been taught for centuries that they must strive with all their hearts and souls to turn away from sin. They might balk at the goal of sinless perfection preached by a zealot like Pelagius, but to sin less was the goal of all believers.  Devout Christians would not accept that the mass conversion of Pagans had suddenly made personal sin irrelevant. On the other hand, Pagans might be persuaded to be washed clean of sin with a few drops of baptismal water, but they would never commit to a life of self-control and denial of the pleasures of the flesh.  

 

Augustine created a series of double standards for Christians and Pagans.  Devout Christians were part of the ‘invisible’ society of saints while Pagans were part of the ‘visible’ school for sinners.  True Christians struggled against sin while Pagans were left free to indulge the pleasures of the flesh. How were these double standards to be resolved?  How could a just God reward saints and sinners equally?  Augustine found the solution in Gregory’s purging fire of sanctification. Once again Augustine demonstrated his profound grasp of human psychology.

 

Christians had never warmed to a long, difficult struggle for sanctification, and the idea of a 1000 year resurrection appeared filled than with despair rather than fervour. One life of struggle against sin was more than enough. Christians preferred to believe that death would bring eternal rest. They wanted to be welcomed directly into paradise no matter how wide the gap between divine perfection and their own state of imperfection. But righteous Christians also wanted justice (punishment) to be executed on their sinful neighbours. It was inconceivable that sinners who had indulged in sinful behaviour and received death-bed baptism could get a free pass into heaven. After death, habitual sinners must be forced to suffer the equivalent of what saints had voluntarily endured in life.

 

Purgatory was an attractive solution. Saints who had struggled to live righteous lives would be purged quickly and painlessly and then welcomed into paradise.  God would execute wrath on stiff-necked sinners by purging them in great agony for innumerable years.  Purgatory provided convenient dual-stage justice.  Saints would proceed quickly to heaven while God would inflict sinners with the full quotient of torment they had avoided on earth.

 

Augustine’s Purgatory was a brilliant innovation that had no roots in Jewish theology or Christian tradition. Augustine shrewdly calculated that Christians would embrace Purgatory as a far less demanding process than John’s 1000 year resurrection.  

 

Once the Catholic Church had accepted Purgatory as a theological means to absolve residual sin, it was a small step to add Limbo to resolve the problem of unbaptized babies. Purgatory remained an unchallenged cornerstone of Catholic theology until Popes of the Late Middle Ages began to abuse the power of granting indulgences.   

 

Surprising as it might be for many Protestants, and even Catholics, Purgatory remains an integral Catholic Doctrine. The Teaching of the Catholic Church (Canon George D. Smith 1952) states, ‘In no province of sacred theology are we so much in need of the fundamental doctrine of Christ’s judicial power, for the sake of clearness, as in the case of the Church’s teaching in purgatory. It seems difficult to give any other explanation why so many amongst the saved must pass through the purgatorial state than the truth so simply expressed in the old Catholic phrase that the souls of men have to pay a debt of divine justice. A more superficial view of purgatory would be this: that the souls of men pass into the other life ignorant, with the stains upon them of venial sins and the impediment of numerous imperfections. This view implies that the process of purgatorial purification would be a gradual transition of man’s disembodied spirit from a lower to a higher grade of power.’  (pp 1129-1130) 

 

The spark that ignited the Protestant Reformation involved purgatory. By the1600s, the penalty of purgation could extend over thousands and even tens of thousands of years. Luther did not question Purgatory or Rome’s authority to reduce purgatorial sentences. He was outraged by the pernicious effects on local German parishes of the methods ‘pardoners’ were employing to peddle their wares.

 

Luther deplored that naive Christians were being manipulated.  One popular sales pitch went, ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from Purgatory springs.’ Indulgences were a voluntary ‘tax’, but what hard-hearted soul would voluntarily permit his loved ones to suffer torment in Purgatory when he had it in his power to set them free for a pfennig? Luther was disturbed that money which should be invested in local charity was being siphoned off to build a pontifical palace in Rome. It also infuriated Luther that pardoners were assuring local reprobates they could ‘indulge’ their sinful nature and then wipe the slate clean by buying forgiveness of their sins. Pardoners encouraged vice because it was much better for their business than virtue.

 

Luther complained that ‘Indulgences are most pernicious because they induce complacency and thereby imperil salvation. ...  Papal indulgences do not remove guilt. ... The power of the keys (of heaven and hell) cannot make attrition into contrition. He who is contrite has plenary remission of guilt and penalty without indulgences. ... The only power which the Pope has over Purgatory is that of making intercession on behalf of souls, and this power is exercised by any priest or curate in his parish.’ Luther tore the foundation out from under the Indulgence racket with a single question: If the Pope has the power to free souls from the torments of purgatory for money, why will he not do it for love? 

 

Luther and Calvin abolished Purgatory but they did not restore the Early Church’s belief in a resurrection of the dead.  Luther and Calvin invented a new theology based on divine predestination.  Human will was irrelevant to salvation.  The elect were irresistibly called and the process of sanctification was also entirely determined by God with no need for human cooperation or even assent.

 

Modern Charismatics have rejected predestination and restored believe in freewill and personal responsibility for salvation. How do Charismatics account for the process of sanctification to prepare imperfect believers for the perfection of heaven?  They do not believe in Purgatory. Although most Charismatics believe in a future, literal resurrection, they do not believe it serves an educational or transitional purpose. The purpose of the resurrection is almost never discussed. Most Charismatics share the Calvinist expectation that the dead will be instantaneously be made sinless and taken to heaven.  Calvinists did not believe in freewill so this made perfect sense. Modern Charismatics believe in freewill so instantaneous sanctification, which ignores the human will and its many imperfections, creates a considerable stumbling block for faith and theology.

 

 

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