Dear Fr. Joe: Purgatory is not in the Bible. Where did we get that concept?
Don’t let the first part of my answer discourage you, because this is a good question. But there is a concept of purgatory mentioned in the Bible. Now, before we jump in, it’s important to remember that we Catholics don’t base our faith solely on the Bible. If we did, we would have no theology for the Trinity, for example. Our faith comes from two sources: sacred tradition and Scripture. Sacred tradition is what gave us the sacred Scripture, and it’s important to keep that in our hearts and minds. Either way, the concept of purgatory is mentioned in Scripture. Let’s look at the following verses and what they teach us: “It is a wholesome thought to pray for the dead that their sins may be forgiven.” (2 Maccabees 12:46) Here we see that even before Jesus, the Jews were growing in the knowledge of how God/heaven works. Now, let’s look at some words from Jesus: “Therefore, I say to you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. And whoever speaks 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.” (Matthew 12:31, 32) Here, Jesus informs us that there are some sins that he will forgive in the afterlife. Now, if you look at Matthew 5:26 and Matthew 18:34,35, Jesus gives examples of people suffering and not being forgiven until “the debt was paid”; he informs us that there is a place where we will be until we are purified for heaven. So, we do have some scriptural evidence for purgatory; but not only that, we can use logic to get there. Look at it this way: God’s presence is a fire. The angels who surround God are called the “fiery ones.” In Dante’s wonderful poem, The Divine Comedy, he describes the places farthest from God as being frozen and cold. I know that we are used to the opposite idea, but that comes from a misunderstanding of Scripture we can cover later. Either way, God is pure, perfect, consuming love. When we die and stand before him, think of it like entering a room. You are at the door and Jesus is at the far end of the room. You can imagine purgatory being the process of walking toward that perfect, consuming fire. During our life on earth, we accumulate all types of sin and that sin alters us; it wounds our soul and scars us. When we stand at the threshold of heaven, all those impurities burn up as we approach the fire of God’s love. We end up like gold in the furnace; it’s a refining fire that heals our wounded souls. It’s gonna hurt, but it’s gonna be that good kind of hurt. I have heard purgatory explained to me as God’s severe mercy – God desires heaven for us more than we could ever desire it for ourselves. God cannot undo the consequences of our choices; that would be violating our free will. In his loving mercy, God makes heaven possible through the gift of purgatory. Enjoy another day in God’s presence!