Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die -John 11:26
An old timer once told me that, of the many anxieties he was prone to in his old age, the most significant one was his fear of death. He went on to explain that it was not so much that his life would come to an end. He had accepted that inevitable reality long ago. Rather, it was the painful process of purification that awaited him in purgatory that he was most afraid of. I was at a loss for words. I knew he was not alone in this. Many practicing Catholics, both young and old, have been troubled by thoughts of what awaits them after death. The month of November has been earmarked for intercessory prayer for the souls of our loved ones in purgatory, and for all those who need His mercy. Perhaps this is a good time to reflect on this perplexing phenomenon and see how best we can understand it.
The idea of a place, or a state of being between life in this world, and heaven, where the Lord dwells, remains a bone of contention among many Christian factions. Some are in outright denial of the existence of such a concept and even accuse the Catholic Church of propagating a belief that has no foundation in the Bible. In the life of Jesus, two instances stand out significantly to support this view. One is during His encounter with the Samaritan woman when He offers to give her living water that was the source of eternal life. The second is during His dying moments on the cross when He promised the thief that he would be in Paradise with Him that very day! Two sinful people who had much to atone for; and yet they were offered Paradise in exchange of their repentance and faith in Jesus. Throughout the gospels, while the Lord constantly reassures us of our final destination, there are no specific references to this interim state.
This brings us to the confounding question- How does purgatory fit in to God's grand plan of redemption for mankind, especially in the context of those who live in the light of the Lord’s presence?
The question has been answered in several different ways by theologians, evangelists and church leaders. While some choose to reject the authenticity of the belief, others relate purgatory to the sufferings of this world. Interestingly enough, the clearest explanation of the need for purification, as well as its integral place in the divine order of things, is given by none other than St Paul. He begins by stating categorically that Jesus laid the foundation for our salvation. There is no denying that we have already attained heaven through the sacrifice of the body and blood of Christ. We are no longer slaves but co-heirs to God’s kingdom with a rightful place reserved for us in heaven. All these are irrefutable facts that St Paul himself places before us. Having said that, he then comes to the explanation of the purpose and presence of purgatory. In this life each one of us has built upon our faith and belief in the Lord using materials of differing quality and value, ranging from gold, silver and precious stones, to wood, hay and straw (1 Cor 3). The purification process will be more intense for some, and less for others depending on the ‘quality of each man’s work.’ 1 Cor 3:13. But one thing is assured—after we have atoned for our sins, we will find our place in heaven.
We still do not know what form of suffering awaits us in purgatory even though it is depicted as a raging inferno. Be that as it may, what is of greatest importance is to accept purgatory as a reality, just as much as we accept this life and the Lord’s promise of eternal life after that. If we consciously build our life in Christ on the robust foundations of His teachings, we will be able to traverse the purification process painlessly and reach the promised land of our heavenly Father. The Book of Daniel contains an interesting story of three men Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who were thrown into a roaring furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar for disobeying his orders to worship an idol he had erected in Babylon. To the king's utter amazement, he saw the three men freely walking in the fire, completely unharmed, and a fourth man accompanying them, who looked like ‘a son of the Gods’. The story continues to say that the fire hadn’t even touched the three men-“not a hair singed, not a scorch mark on their clothes, not even the smell of fire on them!” Daniel 3:27 We can take a cue from this, and be assured of the Lord’s protection through the worst conditions.
In the meantime, may our prayers for the departed souls especially in this month of November help them to come closer to the comforting presence of the Lord where all of us will meet one day. Our faith in our final destination will allay any fears we may have of death and its aftermath, for our citizenship in heaven has been established through our Lord Jesus and His death on the cross.