In the sixteenth century, religious “reformers” claimed that Catholic belief in Purgatory was false. They agued that the concept of Purgatory was incompatible with God’s mercy. What kind of God would let His saved creatures suffer torment after death before allowing them to enter Paradise?
But this view completely misunderstands the very nature of Purgatory. Far from being the work of an unmerciful God, Purgatory is a sure sign of the mercy of God.
For as I noted in a previous post, nothing undefiled can enter heaven. Only the perfect can bear the presence of God.
But very few people reach the state of perfection on earth. Since this is so, how could anyone but a very few enter heaven? What of all the good men in this life who do not achieve perfection?
Logically, they either need to be somehow purified, or else kept out of heaven entirely. The Catholic answer to this dilemma is Purgatory.
Luther saw this difficulty, and tried to get around it by arguing that while man was inherently depraved, God’s grace “covered up” the sins of those who believed in Him. In a famous phrase, Luther argued that God’s grace was like “snow covering a dungheap [of the human soul].”
But this is a horrible portrayal of both God and humanity. Is God really so blind as to be able to “cover up” the sins of His creatures, so that He and they are not aware of their own wretchedness and sinfulness for eternity? And is man so horribly depraved that his sin cannot be purged? Are not men called to be perfect by Christ Himself? (Matt 5:48) How can man be perfect if mankind is inherently sinful, and God has to “cover up” our sins?
Far more realistic – and joyful – is the belief that men and women can be purified of sin after death. We who need purging of our sins will be purged of them, after a temporary time of pain and trial. We who need purging will become the truly perfect beings God made us to be – and live with Him forever in heaven, cleansed of our sins forever.
The doctrine of Purgatory means that those who love God imperfectly will be able to love Him completely, without stain or blemish. How then, is the doctrine of Purgatory not merciful?