Is Purgatory More Like Heaven or Hell?

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Let’s see where Scripture and Tradition lead us

What is purgatory like?

By Brian Caulfield

There is a burning issue most Catholics don’t think about much these days. What is purgatory like? Who goes there, and when do they get out? Is purgatory like Dante’s fiery mount? Or is it more an anteroom of heaven, where some soul-cleansing occurs but with the pearly gates always in view?

Since November is the month of the holy souls, this is a perfect time to take up these questions. After all, purgatory is where most of us will (hopefully) wind up, since only those who live especially holy lives will gain a straight shot to heaven at the time of death. As a popular priest used to say, “We all want heaven, but plan on a long purgatory.”

The Church’s teaching on death, heaven, hell and purgatory can be a bit frightening, so some good-natured humor is welcome. Yet these are serious issues that a merit serious thought. Purgatory is surely a place of suffering but also a place of mercy. With it, God has created a process for good but not-quite-perfect souls to undergo a few repairs before entering his presence.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us (1030-31):

  • “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”
  • “The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. … The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire …”

Ouch! But rather than dwell on the fire, let’s look at the larger picture of purgatory. Remember, not all Christians believe in purgatory, and prayers for the dead and indulgences for “time off” in purgatory remain sticking points with most Protestants. So let’s see where we find evidence for purgatory in God’s Word.

Often cited from the Old Testament is 2 Macc 12:44-45, in which Judas Maccabeus prays for dead soldiers and makes a sin offering for them, indicating that sin can be atoned for after death:

  • “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. 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.”

In the New Testament, there are many implicit references to purgatory:

  • Jesus teaches that we should reconcile with our neighbors while on earth, otherwise there will be punishment in “prison,” understood by Church Fathers to be purgatory: “Truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny” (Mt 5:26).
  • In Mt 12:32, Jesus says, “And whoever says a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” The implication is that there will be forgiveness after this life, but not in this case.
  • Even St. Paul, whom Protestants cite often, has an extended passage on the cleansing fire (1 Cor 3:11-15), writing that a person’s deeds “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.”

With all this as background, let’s return to the headlined question: Is purgatory more like heaven or hell?

Well, to be honest, it depends. No one knows for sure what purgatory is like – nor heaven or hell. But it is a good guess to say that a soul’s experience of purgatory will be related to that soul’s attachment to venial sin (remember, those with mortal sin go further downstairs in the afterlife). A soul that is just short of perfect love of God and neighbor at the time of death will likely be purified with the light of heaven visible over the horizon, as a consolation before entering the blessed gates. On the other hand, a soul that is deep in venial sin and attachment to self will likely suffer much and have the forbidding fires of hell visible over the horizon, to inspire gratitude for God’s mercy, which snatched him out of the infernal pit.

In either case, there is good news for the holy souls in purgatory. They will see God face to face at the appointed time. To hasten that time, we should pray and offer Masses for them. We should also live godly lives ourselves, so we may rejoice with them one day in heaven.

About the Author
Brian Caulfield is editor of this website and Fathers for Good, an initiative of the Knights of Columbus.