Purgatory and the time factor

19-04-2022. Own translation of the Dutch article of 11-08-2014

The tone of the public discourse of scientists such as Richard Dawkins or Stephen Hawking, or philosophers such as Etienne Vermeersch, suggests that humanity in general (and themselves in particular) already knows a lot about “the whole reality” and is even on the cusp of knowing just about everything about it. With all due respect to their remarkable intellectual abilities, it can safely be assumed that their optimism or “atheistic belief in the scientific future” creates a fantasy or mirage. This is for the simple reason that human science is inextricably linked to the 4 dimensions of time and space.

In the spatial field, all scientific knowledge literally dwarfs in two directions. No one can demonstrate or calculate with scientific certainty what lies behind the observable universe, since scientificity is bound to experimental observation and repeatability. Also in the other direction, that of the unimaginably small, science reaches for a vacuum. It simply concludes that what we usually consider “matter” does not in fact exist, but is a complex of mutually influencing energies, the essential nature of which is difficult to express in scientific terms. The deeper one descends into the world of the smallest, the more complex it becomes. It is also populated with “particles” that tend to play hide-and-seek in the researchers’ very expensive devices and gigantic cyclotrons and to “behave unpredictably”.

As far as the dimension of time is concerned, an honest researcher must also accept that our temporality is firmly embedded in an eternity dimension that cannot be grasped by the human mind. “Time travel” will only remain possible in science fiction stories and even the archaeological quest for the past collides with its unrepeatability. A scientist who intends to break through these boundaries is similar to the Greek mythological Sisyphos who challenged the gods and as punishment has to push a boulder against a mountainside, which roars down again and again. We can also think of the vision of church father Saint Augustine. In it he saw a child carrying water from the sea to a dimple. Augustine said to the child that the sea really does not fit in that dimple, to which the child replied: and do you think that the awesome mystery of God fits in your head?

Arriving at the limit of the observable, imaginable and calculable, science must reasonably give way to other cognitive possibilities, such as wisdom, intuition, philosophical insights and religious experiences. It can and may, of course, critically evaluate the material conclusions coming from an extra-scientific or supernatural world of thought, but if it also wants to enter that area itself, it becomes downright ridiculous, even if it temporarily manages to seduce a large following with delusions or eccentric ‘research results’.

Theology is pre-eminently a discipline that moves into such an extra-scientific field. As long as its practitioners confine themselves to using scientific research methods to examine the truthfulness or internal logic of religious propositions, or to evaluate and, if possible, partially reconstruct the historical reality of religious narratives, they stay within the boundaries. But when they not only use a scientific methodology, but also apply scientific knowledge to facts or beliefs of a supernatural nature, they fall into the same trap as the overconfident scientists of other fields. It must be said that the temptation to do so  can be great, due to the urge for worldly acceptance and prestige.

Catholic teaching on purgatory can be seen as a typical example of a controversial belief and theological thesis, in which a religious truth clashes with scientificity and even with human logic.  Few deeply religious Catholics are able to  present a coherent vision of purgatory without preparation. The fact that the vision of purgatory, during its historical development, became fraught with a mixture of supernal as well as secular elements, is certainly not strange to this. In itself, however, this is an immaterial and therefore highly “unscientific” subject, which has always had a major impact on religious activities within the Catholic faith community. Moreover, for about a millennium it has been inseparably linked to an established custom that raises many more questions and concerns: that of indulgences.

Purgatory, called “purgatorium” in Latin, is a place or “condition” in which the soul undergoes a purifying penalty for sins that have already been forgiven but have not yet been expiated. It can also be seen as a process of transformation into the necessary state of holiness or perfection to enter the heavenly paradise. These disparate definitions show once again that our human vocabulary often fails to adequately represent supernatural realities. But we also face an additional problem here. Hell and heaven are fairly easy for the human mind to situate. They belong definitively to eternity, a stable situation in which “time” no longer plays a role. But this is not the case for purgatory: after all, that is by definition “temporary”.

Protestants, following Luther and Calvin, have dismissed this problem by banning purgatory as a point of faith. So, in their eyes, there are only two possible states for the soul: the temporary and the eternal. There is no transition phase from one to the other. That seems fairly logical at first glance, and it is in any case easier to grasp. After all, everything that has to do with “time” is bound to variability and vice versa. If there were no changes in our observable reality, there would be no more time. Humanly speaking, that is also what happens to us after death. Only our body undergoes a process of change in the form of degradation, but our soul can no longer encourage us to make good or bad decisions and thus apparently immediately enters a timeless state of immutability. At least it seems that way, but this does not fit with the Catholic teaching on purgatory. So, let’s take a look at where it is based on and how this “contradiction” between faith and logical expectations can be bridged.

An important aspect of Catholic teaching on the soul’s life of man is that three phases can be distinguished in this: earthly life, the period after our death until the end of time, and finally the infinite period that will begin after the Last Judgment. So there is indeed an intermediate stage. The question that now concerns us can therefore be formulated as follows: what happens to the souls of the deceased in the period preceding the announced Last Judgment? To answer these correctly, we first go back to the sources (the Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers) and then we look at the dogmatic doctrine and the more recent papal statements about it.

The oldest Bible story in which there is explicit mention of a direct involvement of the Jewish People with the soul state of their deceased can be found in 2 Maccabees 12, 40-44. The Jews pray and offer sacrifices for their fallen during the uprising against their Syrian rulers. The belief in the resurrection is also mentioned here. In the Gospels we do not find passages that explicitly speak of the “intermediate state” of the soul after death, but the very fact that Christ makes very concrete mention of the “Last Day” on which all people will be resurrected and judged implies that the souls have not yet reached their final status in the meantime. For the pious and the purified, the latter will be eternal life in the face of God, for the others the final death sentence (or second death) of their bodies and the perpetual separation of their souls from their Creator. A time-bound stage then no longer exists.

In 1 Peter 3, 19 we read explicitly: “And in the spirit he went and preached to the spirits in prison, who refused to obey God long ago in the time of Noah. God was waiting patiently for them while Noah was building the boat…”.  Here we see that Jesus did what is impossible for man and science: in the Spirit He performs, as it were, a journey through time and saves the souls of those who perished in the Flood. This confirms a saying of God’s Son during his earthly preaching: “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18, 27, Mark 10, 27, Matthew 19, 26). An important twofold foundation of Catholic teaching on purgatory is expressed here: God’s omnipotence and his enduring mercy. The latter continues to operate continuously until the irrevocable final judgment on every human being has been made and no “times” or changes in state are possible.

Consequently, the belief in an intermediate state, in which souls are purified in order to appear worthy before God, already existed within the first Christian communities. Examples of this can be found in the surviving writings of the Fathers of the Church, of which we quote some passages here. St. Justin (c. 150 A..C D.) wrote: “What then? That [the souls] of the pious remain some-where in a better place, while those of the unjust and wicked [remain] in a worse one, waiting for the time of judgment….” (Dialogue with the Jew Tryphon, 5).The H. Cyril (c. 350): In the same way we, when we offer to Him our supplications for those who have fallen asleep, though they be sinners, weave no crown, but offer up Christ sacrificed for our sins, propitiating our merciful God for them as well as for ourselves” (Catechetical Lectures, 23: 10).  St. Augustine has repeatedly spoken of the souls of purgatory, among others: Nor can it be denied that the souls of the dead find relief through the piety of their friends and relatives who are still alive, when the Sacrifice of the Mediator [Mass] is offered for them, or when alms are given in the Church. But these things are of profit to those who, when they were alive, merited that they might afterward be able to be helped by these things ” (Sermo, 172,2,2); “Some suffer temporary punishments only in this life, others after death, others both now and then, but before the most severe and final judgment. But not all who undergo temporal punishments after death come into the eternal punishments that will follow after that judgment” (De civitate Dei, 21, 13); It must be maintained that there will be only purifying punishments before that final and terrible judgment” (De civitate Dei, 21, 16).

Around the beginning of the second millennium, a popular belief arose, in which purgatory was portrayed as a concrete “place”, which had the appearance of a lake of fire. An unknown “duration” was also attributed to the sojourn in that purifying fire, necessary as punishment for the forgiven but still incomplete atonement for sins. Although the Church has never dogmatically confirmed this latter popular belief, it led to the ecclesiastical introduction of “indulgences” with which one could shorten that duration for oneself or others. This practice, in turn, evolved into serious abuses, involving widespread cheating with indulgences for profit, even without any ecclesiastical permission. Over time, this abuse was denounced within the Church as a form of “simony”, the trading of spiritual matters. It played a leading role in the genesis of the Reformation and the schism in which the Protestants secede. At first Luther remained faithful to the doctrine of purgatory itself, but afterwards he renounced it. Calvin immediately opposed the concept of purgatory, mainly as a result of the associated indulgence practice; but he also had serious problems with the idea of a literal “fire.” Nevertheless, even in Protestant circles people can be found who believe in the existence of some form of purification after death.

During the Council of Trent in 1563, the doctrine of purgatory was dogmatically recorded with the following wording: “That purgatory exists, and that the souls detained therein are helped by the suffrages of the faithful, but especially by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar”. It was added that no unnecessary and certainly no misleading speculations should be made about that purgatorium. This can also be applied to the term “place” which in fact has a symbolic meaning, as confirmed in 1999 by Pope John Paul II. He explained that purgatory is not a place, but a state of existence (i.e., something like a situation). The most beautiful description of purgatory comes, in my opinion, from pope Benedict XVI, in his encyclical Spe Salvi: “In the pain of this encounter [with Christ], in which the unclean and sick of our existence is revealed to us, is salvation. His gaze, the touch of His heart, heals us in an undoubtedly painful transformation, ‘so to speak through the fire’. But it is a blissful pain, in which the holy power of His love penetrates us burning, so that in the end we become wholly ourselves and thereby wholly belong to God.” Here again Benedict XVI showed  his special ability to describe difficult concepts in an uplifting language, both theologically and literary of a high quality.

Remains, of course, the problem of the factor “time”, inseparable from all that is “change”. How can a soul that ends up postmortem in a timeless state of powerlessness undergo another change? She falls, as it were, into a uniform black time hole, in which it is of no importance whether she stays there for one hour, one day, or, for example, ten thousand years. This applies both to the people of prehistory and to those who will die just before the Last Judgment.

In seeking an answer to this, we want to observe the council of Trent’s exhortation concerning speculations about the exact nature of the purgatory and certainly not pretend that the spiritual world is easy to grasp in earthly words. Yet there remains the human need to have the clearest possible vision of the religious matters that concern us. As far as purgatory is concerned, it is intertwined with our ideas about the concept of “soul”. In the article “Heaven” of this section, the following possible description was proposed: “It is the spiritual essence of our humanity, that which God specifically and individually gives to each man in his origin in the womb and which gradually enables us to discover Him, to believe in Him and to come into contact with Him through words and deeds, on a voluntary basis’.

As can be seen from our daily experience with ourselves and around us, our soul can go in all directions and as a result is not “perfect”, but “divided”. We may strive for perfection and for serving God, but only “to a certain extent.”  But if we want to enter God’s Father’s House, our clothes must first be “laundered in the blood of the Lamb” (Apocalyps 7: 14). In other words, our soul must be purified. It is reasonable to assume that many people (probably the vast majority) die without their souls having fully committed themselves to the service of God, while possibly their sins have not yet been completely atoned for. Although we do not find a detailed doctrine in the Gospels about the “purgatory” that is supposed to provide that purification  (Jesus taught with parables and in ordinary human language), there is a saying of Christ that refers to this: “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (just before the quoted passage that teaches us that God can do what is impossible for men). So this is about a “passageway” for the soul, symbolizing its necessary purification process.

Our souls are tainted by an urge for temporary earthly happiness that stifles our desire for God. That attachment to the material and temporary must first be removed. In fact, like Saint Francis, we must come to lay down all wealth and attachments, if necessary up to and including our clothing, if we are to get through that “eye of a needle”. That costs so much pain that it is almost impossible for an average person in life. It is then that God’s mercy and omnipotence come into effect to save and purify our souls so that it can reach its final destination through an ultimate “rebirth” at the end of all times. He knows the soul he has given us through and through and He is ruler of time and eternity, including all possible intermediate stages that are incomprehensible to our human brain.

Let us not break our heads about this, remembering the words of the Child in the vision of Saint Augustine.


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