Any discussion on the Last Things – death, judgment, heaven and hell – is incomplete without taking up the matters of purgatory and “limbo.”
In the popular imagination, purgatory is thought of as a place not unlike a waiting room. In fact, purgatory is not so much a location as it is a temporary state of being or process. Furthermore, while some have objected to the concept of purgatory, properly understood it should not be that controversial. Nor should it be feared. In fact, if one is “in” purgatory, they can rejoice because they are on their way to heaven (CCC 1030).
When someone dies in mortal sin, that is having deliberately acted in a way that now separates them from God, that separation continues after death, a state which is called hell. Meanwhile, some people die burdened with lesser or venial sins, imperfections and failures which wound love and mar spiritual life. But such persons are still in the friendship of God. Because heaven is a place of pure holiness, this impurity of sin must necessarily be removed from the soul to enter. Only if healed and purged of impurities can we enter into that life which is blessed communion with God, rejoicing in his infinite goodness.
This process of purification is called “purgatory,” in which we are transformed and purified in a way that may be experienced as suffering, but “it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God” (Spe Salvi, 47). This purification is entirely different from those in hell who suffer eternally the pained anguish of being separated from God and his love; it is not “hell-lite” (CCC 1031).
The Church’s teaching on purgatory finds a solid foundation in scripture, which also speaks of the practice of praying for the dead. In the Second Book of Maccabees, we encounter the tradition of praying for those who have died so that they might be cleansed of their sins. Since the communion of those in purgatory with the faithful on earth is not broken, when the last breath is taken, it is a “holy and pious thought” to pray for the departed “that they might be absolved from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:45-46). This is the greatest charity we can do the deceased.
Quite different from the teaching of purgatory is the idea of “limbo,” which in the past was advanced by some to address questions about God’s mercy and justice toward unbaptized babies, understanding that the grace of baptism is necessary to remove the impediment of Original Sin. Today, as noted in a 2007 report from the International Theological Commission, this theological hypothesis – which has never been doctrine – has largely been disfavored in favor of a greater prayerful hope of a way of salvation in the mercy of our Lord who desires that all should be saved (95-103).
This is the fourth entry in a multi-part series on the Last Things.