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Toward a Rehabilitation of Purgatory and Hell

Posted on 23 November 2021, 18:58

Elderly Catholics will remember the deep uneasiness they felt at the prospect of going to Purgatory. For them Purgatory sounded like Hell with a happy ending in a very distant future. In their parochial schools they were taught that if they were fortunate enough to avoid Hell, their souls would still be stained with the residue of all the sins they committed. They would not be ready to come into God’s presence because nothing that is unclean can be permitted. Purgatory is the place where they would go to prepare themselves for Heaven.

Purgatory is a fundamental Catholic teaching and is one of those doctrines that sets them apart from most of their Protestant friends. Yet nowadays you seldom hear about it. It’s as if Catholics are embarrassed to own up to it. It makes God sound harsh, not like a loving Father. The other day I talked to a recent convert who told me he had never heard of it. His teachers must have kept it securely under wraps.

I believe that Purgatory is a wise and good teaching and should be prized by every Catholic, even every Christian. But it needs to be recast more plausibly and attractively. Authentic mediums channels through which the “dead” speak are the closest thing to the voice of God that our planet has. They describe a destination that beats back the fear of death that the traditional version, based on Dante’s Purgatorio, represents. Throughout this essay I will be using very un-Dante-esque imagery, all of it based on spirit channeling, to suggest its true nature.

Dante’s Purgatory by Gustave Dore

But why not Heaven directly? Why the need of Purgatory at all, however worked over it might be? The reason is that for the newly dead, God’s Heaven is like the glare when our eyes aren’t ready for it. If we were lifted straight into Heaven the instant we died, we’d be uncomfortable and feel out of place. We’d feel like we crashed a black-tie party when all we wanted was a place to hang out with our friends in their tee shirts. For the worst of us it would be torture. Purgatory gives us time to adjust. It is not a place of punishment. It’s not a place where we get purged, in spite of what the unfortunate word suggests. It’s a place where we get schooled. Schools can be, and should be, very pleasant places.

How, then, should we imagine Purgatory? As a child I was told it was fiery and sulphurous; a hideous place. Suppose it had been packaged in a way that made it wondrously mysterious, as in the following: The sky overhead shines a vivid cloudless blue. Parks of forest, meadow, and garden alternate with houses. Brooks twist around the houses and through the parks. Everywhere trees stretch up high and flowery. Birds flit, their plumage as diverse as the colors of a patchwork quilt, their songs more beautiful than earth’s. People walk along the roads, undisturbed by cars and trucks. They walk on a grassy boulevard as wide as a football field. The atmosphere is unhurried and serious. It is serious because there is important work to do.

For basically good people Purgatory is a welcoming place that points upward to a better world, what we call Heaven. But the prize will not come cheap. Purgatory is the place where we correct our flawed character, the place where good but imperfect men and women go when they die. There is work to be done: mental work, soul work, good work. In A Grief Observed C. S. Lewis, following the death of his wife, captures the idea to perfection: “How do I know that all her anguish is past? I never believed before—I thought it immensely improbable—that the faithfulest soul could leap straight into perfection and peace the moment death has rattled in the throat. ... H was a splendid thing; a soul straight, bright, and tempered like a sword. But not a perfected saint. A sinful woman married to a sinful man; two of God’s patients, not yet cured.”

But what happens to people who are not so good, people who made a habit of getting the most out of others and giving the least possible in return—people who did not live the Christian life, even minimally? Picture a dull, decaying city in America’s rust belt with its abandoned steel mills, stretches of barren fields, and run-down houses. Picture its residents—spiritually dim, morally sloppy, mentally undeveloped. They have a long way to go before they reach the heights they were created for. They are in Purgatory’s basement. 

Such spirits will eventually wake up and reach for a better state. Picture halls and schools where study is encouraged and where teachers tell of more beautiful regions above. Over time these spirits gradually wake up and acknowledge the harm they did on earth. Hard as it is, they repent. They learn new habits. They learn that selfless service brings self-respect and earns them love. There are a million ways to serve, to practice love, where they are. They will be guided toward the work that is good for them.

From the beginning, Christians prayed for the dead. Their prayers were etched on the catacombs and are visible to this day. These ancient Christians had the good sense to recognize that it would take time to get ready for the full blast of God’s awe-inspiring presence. When we pray for the dead at our funeral services, it’s because we recognize that fact. Protestants do not pray for the dead. They believe the dead are either already in Heaven or lost forever in Hell, so it has no point. Instead they pray for the living family of the dead. I see this as a lost opportunity. Not to pray for my mother when she died would have seemed ungrateful, unfilial, and unworthy of being the son she raised and loved. Not to pray for the beloved dead feels to me like an unnatural act.

I want to stress that Purgatory is not a place of punishment, but rehabilitation. Without rehabilitation we would turn away from Heaven’s light, just as thugs and criminals avoid earth’s churches. With it we can begin the climb toward God’s luminous presence. Purgatory is a school, easy and pleasant for some, difficult and painful for others, but necessary for almost all of us.

As the apostle James said, faith without works is dead. Purgatory is the place where our true character is faced and our works judged, not by a God sitting on a throne, but by ourselves. We’ll be both judge and jury. There will be no escaping who we really are; we will come face to face with the habits we developed over a lifetime—we can’t hide from them, as we did on earth. The process will be humbling, sometimes painful. But it will also be thrilling because its therapy will rehabilitate us and free us to enjoy the heavenly realms. We’ll be on our way.

This brings us to Hell, a subject that has brought derision upon Christians for centuries. It is a mistake to imagine it as a separate world where God damns souls to live for eternity in a state of perpetual regret and suffering. Better to think of it as the dungeons of Purgatory. Picture it as a casino with its endless jingling noise, its glitzy lights, its cigarette smoke, its seductive games appealing to human greed. No natural beauty, no fresh air, no sunlight, no silence, no churches or chapels, no God. Think of the kind of person who would choose to live there and call it home. That is Hell. That is the place where God is absent.

No one is forced to live there. As C.S. Lewis said, “The gates of hell are barred from the inside.” Nothing would please God more than for the place to be emptied. But Hell dwellers are just as free as everyone else. God respects their freedom, and Hell is the realm where they feel safe and at home with others like themselves who dread the Light of the higher worlds. He does not force himself on them any more than on us.

Can souls in Hell leave their twilight world? That must be God’s will for them; after all, they are his beloved creatures. But if they choose not to leave, can they work their evil on others of their own kind? Yes, and they do. They are like gangsters looking for a fight. Anger, hatred, and cruelty are their currency. They thrive on it. Can they do us harm? The Catholic Church says yes. That’s why each diocese has an exorcist. His job is to protect innocent people from these dark, earthbound souls. Catholic exorcists are overwhelmed with requests for exorcism these days.

Many Christians believe that Hell is eternal because Jesus warned the Pharisees that they would be going to everlasting Hell, where there would be “weeping and the gnashing of teeth.” It would be a mistake to take his warning literally. Jesus, like many a great teacher, used hyperbole to make a point, as when he told his disciples to gouge out their eye if it led to sin. No Christian takes this literally. To believe in a Hell where sinners are damned for eternity against their will is a hideous teaching. It turns God into a monster—what Lewis memorably called a Cosmic Sadist. It brings derision on Christians from outsiders, and rightly so. It should be abandoned.

We don’t hear much talk about Hell from the pulpit these days. We leave the topic to fundamentalists, evangelicals, or “non-denominational” Christians. But is it wise to ignore it, to act as if it isn’t real? Catholics take seriously their immortal destiny and wonder what awaits them at death. Many continue to view God, unfortunately, as a harsh judge who condemns sinners to endless torment, while others with tenderer hearts view him as a harmless Uncle who sweeps everyone into his heavenly embrace, regardless of how they lived their lives. Both extremes are misleading and counterproductive.

A long life has taught me that belief in an afterlife where we are accountable for our actions can be a potent motivator toward virtuous living. Without this motivation it is too easy to drift through a meaningless life that ends in a death whose sting is final. A more plausible eschatology would make people wonder if life were more than a single dance on a crowded planet, with sinners and saints sharing a common destiny in a meaningless scrum. If we built wonder into the mysterious realms awaiting us after death, if we made them fascinating and wondrous by a proper use of imagery and symbol, if we made them more real—as real as they deserve to be—people would take them more seriously. Christ’s teachings about love of neighbor and forgiveness of enemies, reinforced by his many warnings that we would be held accountable for our moral decisions, both good and bad, would gain currency.
To put it another way, if you believe everyone suffers the same extinction at death, from Jeffrey Dahmer to Padre Pio, you lack the motivation to make the hard choice when serious temptation sidles up to you. Purgatory and Hell, rightly understood, are a 300-pound lineman pushing you toward the goal line. There is a lot to push against. We call it life.

Stafford Betty, Professor of Religious Studies, CSUB, is the author of When Did You Ever Become Less by Dying? and Heaven and Hell Unveiled. Stafford’s latest novel, The Afterlife Therapist is published by White Crow Books.



Greetings from another denizen of Michael’s blog. You asked (over there) a few weeks back for recommendations of more recent (late 20th C.) instances of good quality mediumistic communications. Of the responses I’ve seen, there don’t seem to be any mentions of what I consider to be the single most important of those recent cases…1987’s “The Barbanell Report.”

As you may well know, Maurice Barbanell was the longtime editor of the Psychic News, and a medium of note himself, with a close association with the discarnate “Silver Birch.” Shortly after his passing in 1981, messages, apparently from Barbanell, began appearing through another British medium, Marie Cherry, and directed to his longtime friend and colleague, Paul Beard. The unique aspect of those messages lay in their presenting an almost a blow-by-blow description of the other-side “developmental process” (or at least its earlier stages) from the point of first arrival, to the point of losing the ability to communicate any longer (presumably as a result of the passage to a higher plane).

I strongly commend it to your attention…

Donald C Porteous Jr, Tue 18 Jan, 17:54

Hi all,

This is not specific to the topic of purgatory and hell so my apologies, but I thought it an appropriate question for those who post on this forum. I just posted the same question, below, on Michael Tymn’s blog and was hoping some here could try to answer my question:

I would be very interested to know what forum members think re Virgin Mary apparitions in terms of being evidential of an afterlife. This is a topic of great interest to me given my mom’s experience (she is 79 and recalls the experience as though it occurred yesterday):

I believe there is something more to this life primarily because my mom and her brother, not long after ww2 in communist occupied Lithuania, witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary while home alone as children. They were not mistaken and they were not lying (their own mother did not believe them when she came home from work and listened to their fantastic claim).

I find it curious how Virgin Mary apparitions are very rarely if ever included as being strong evidence for an afterlife. I am not religious and my mom and her brother knew almost nothing about religion when they witnessed the Virgin Mary apparition. I wonder if some here could perhaps try to explain why such apparitions rarely, if ever, are included in afterlife discussions as being evidential yet deathbed visions of deceased family members, ndes with deceased family members and/ or Jesus are considered to be evidential by many. Virgin Mary sightings/ communications were not mentioned in any of the winning Bigelow essays, unless I am mistaken.

Is it perhaps because such claimed sightings cause cognitive dissonance for many who believe in the afterlife yet who claim religion to be nonsense,  so they naturally assume apriori that such sightings are hallucinations, dreams, outright lies, etc?

It was odd that Robert Bigelow said he would not accept any essays about religious figures (I wonder if that included accounts of Virgin Mary sightings/ communication).

Thanks for your thoughts on this.

Lee, Wed 12 Jan, 17:08

I’ve just started reading your blog, Stafford, and am certainly enjoying it. While I like your take on purgatory and hell, largely in accord with classic spiritualism, how do we square it with all those NDE accounts that point to unconditional forgiveness via a life review and instantaneous translation into paradise? Even without a life review, Dr. Alexander, for example, found himself riding with his (then unknown) sister on the wing of giant butterfly. Isn’t this (and so many similar NDE accounts) the farthest cry from Imperator’s & Co.‘s series of arduous probationary spheres?

Newton E. Finn, Mon 27 Dec, 17:16

Love is the Currency of Heaven
The currency of heaven is love and the currency of hell is hatred. The aim of earthly existence is to gather as much of the heavenly currency of love as possible. Heavenly love is pure, unselfish, and unconditional. Heaven is not about playing harp all the time; it is about a community living in harmony where we experience the Creator absolutely.
Hellfire is symbolic of hatred. One may imagine a dimension of discarnate spirits filled with nothing but hatred torturing each other and bullied by satanic entities-it is possibly more hellish than the hell imagined traditionally. Mediumship literature is deficient of illustrations about heaven and hell as the communicators are mainly inhabitants of middle planes who are insulated from these dimensions.
Satan is traditionally pictured as entities with horns and pointed tail. Satan is also pictured as black. In fact, they may be lightless entities because black is light-fulness. They are actually malevolent intellectual entities, probably more intellectual than humans. The apparition at Medjugorje has confirmed the existence of negative entities innumerable times in her messages. An example of such insightful message is as follows:
Our Lady’s message to Medjugorje visionary Marija Pavovic, March 25,2020: Dear Children! I am with you all these years to lead you to the way of salvation. Return to my Son; return to prayer and fasting. Little children, permit God to speak to your heart, because Satan is reigning and wants to destroy your lives and the earth on which you walk. Be courageous and decide for holiness. You will see conversion in your hearts and families; prayer will be heard; God will hear your cries and give you peace. I am with you and am blessing you all with my motherly blessing. Thank you for having responded to my call.”

“Satan wants to destroy the earth on which you walk” may be a reference to the nuclear proliferation. She made the same warning back in 1991. “...Satan is powerful, and he wants to destroy not just human life, but also nature and the earth you live on…” (Message from Medjugorje, January 25, 1991). Dr. Stopar Ludvick, the late Croatian neuropsychiatrist who investigated and accepted the Medjugorje events in their early stages, presented the concept of Theistic parapsychology and “unknown forces,” which include negative entities. Impairment of abstract thinking, delusions and hallucinations are psychiatric terminology used to explain away the concept of negative entities. Such malevolent powers have found a safe harbour in cognitive sciences, yet Marian apparitions claim that these toxic intellectual beings truly exist. Fr Slavko Barbaric, the onetime spiritual director of Medjugorje visionaries used to say that the greatest tragedy of a human being is not to become a saint, implying spiritual salvation into the richer realities and negative entities are constantly trying to block the ultimate human triumph. They follow us like puppies, but roar like tigers once we give them a single entry into our life.
To believe in the invisible dimensions has become a challenge for the technically minded people because of Newtonian influences. There is a conundrum in physics. Physical theories do not permit any dimension to end abruptly; physical dimensions ought to continue into a dimension that has the physics which would allow such an abrupt closing. Thus, physical dimension may continue as para-physical dimensions which could in turn culminate in the eternal spiritual dimensions with an altogether different physics and reality, existing beyond space and time. As they exist in multidimensions of time, beginning and ending are irrelevant. It is logical to assume that a spiritual consciousness evolved before the Big Bang that gave a thrust to the evolution of the material world, and that there is a Master Mind behind all these orchestrations-the alpha and the omega. We may carry an image of Him according to Christian thinking (Aham Bramachaaya) and according to Hindu philosophy, there is God within us (Aham Brahmasmi). Vedic Philosophy promulgates the view that “Brahma is present in anything and everything, but anything and everything is not Brahma.” Existence of God becomes relevant only if we prove that humans are spiritual personalities, and we survive physical extinction. Arriving at such conclusions have been the highlight of my career in mental health profession and consciousness studies. Marian apparitions are a guiding star in these days of faith crisis and in the distant future when there could be even a reversal of faith.

-James Paul Pandarakalam

James Paul Pandarakalam, Sun 28 Nov, 18:16

There is a search button on NDERF: results for review 228, void 397,hell 399. The last number of NDE is 4982…so many people come in a sort of purgatory state.

Chris, Sat 27 Nov, 18:07

Appraisal is part of every career progression, and it is logical to assume that we all will have to go through a self- appraisal after death for further development as we need to enhance spiritual insight about ourselves. A voluntary self-appraisal is the first offer in the discarnate realm and the most desirable way of getting through it for progressing further. Catholic confession itself inolve such a rehearsal of self-appraisal. It is also a training for self-forgiveness, forgiving others and loving the next-door neighbour. Those who are not capable for such painless appraisal due to poor spiritual insight, will have an assisted appraisal. Those who do not cooperate may have a persuaded one and those who totally refuse the self-examination will have an eventual forced appraisal. Probably, such a pressurised evaluation might take a longer period and could turn out to be tortuous. The lowest plane of purgatory may be referring to such a state of after death existence. The Catholic teaching of purgatory itself is mainly about the lowest plane. There may be higher planes in purgatory and those could be referred to as pre-heaven stages. Mother Mary has confirmed the existence of purgatory in the Fatima apparition (Portugal 1917), more lately in her Kibeho apparitions (Rwanda,1981-1989) and in Medjugorje apparitions (Bosnia 1981 to date). Marian apparitional knowledge about post-mortem existence is complementary to the mediumistic communications and should be given the due importance.At least, the recent scientifically evaluated ones cannot be ignored and they enrichen our existing knowledge of discarnate existence. After all, this evidence consists of only dim symbols of eternal realities.

Mother Mary, in one of her apparitions at Medjugorje gave this description of after death existence in 1983.
Message,Monday, January 10, 1983
Questioned on the subject of Purgatory, the Blessed Virgin says:
“There are different levels of which the lowest are close to Hell and the highest gradually draw near to Heaven. It is not on all soul’s day, but at Christmas, that the greatest numbers of souls leave Purgatory. There are in Purgatory, souls who pray ardently to God, but for whom no relative or friend prays for them on earth. God makes them benefit from the prayers of other people. It happens that God permits them to manifest themselves in different ways, close to their relatives on earth, in order to remind men of the existence of Purgatory, and to solicit their prayers close to God who is just, but good. The majority go to Purgatory. Many go to Hell. A small number go directly to Heaven.”

And she gave this confirmation of Purgatory in 1982:

Message,Wednesday, July 21, 1982
“There are many souls in Purgatory. There are also persons who have been consecrated to God: some priests, some religious. Pray for their intentions, at least 7 Our Father’s, Hail Mary’s and Glory Be’s and the Creed. I recommend it to you. There is a large number of souls who have been in Purgatory for a long time because no one prays for them.”

Chico Xavier literature has narrations about pre-heaven stages, and the lower planes are scary. Lyon Playfair who analysed them told me when I met him at S.P.R.  meetings that Chico was a living saint. The Austrian visionary Maria Simma who claimed paranormal visitations from the discarnate realm, has also described different levels of preparatory phases. During my interview with Simma, she reiterated such visitations. These elucidations may contain cultural construct and psychological editing. After all, parapsychology is not really an empirical “ology” except experimental parapsychology, and it is founded on court room logic/para-logic. Judaism, the parental religion of Christianity offered very little about the nature of after death existence and Catholic church had enhanced the knowledge of various forms of discarnate survival depending upon the available knowledge. Admittedly, these are days even nobel laurates in physics could lose their scientific credibility if they express their belief in survival after physical extinction.
-James Paul Pandarakalam

James Paul Pandarakalam, Fri 26 Nov, 08:22

Kevin, congratulations for your pieces also.

Chris De Cat, Thu 25 Nov, 21:50

Beautifully explained. But with this wider explanation of purgatory we would also have to include our planet Earth, which also is a school for souls. Not sure if everybody would agree with that assumption. On the other hand if we look at the ‘hellish’ conditions under which some people live here on Earth it might as well be part of purgatory.

Hans Wilhelm, Thu 25 Nov, 21:31

Great article, Stafford.

Here is my 2 cents worth. I believe there are three components of the NDE which define “Purgatory”.

(1)  The Earthbound realm—A temporary experience which religions designate as “hell”

(2)  The Void—Another temporary experience which religions designate as “outer darkness”

(3)  The Life Review—Another temporary experience which religions designate as “judgment”

I believe these three experiences comprise the “purgatory” aspect of the afterlife; and they can be experienced in any order for those being “purged”.

Kevin Williams, Thu 25 Nov, 19:18


Well stated. My parents both subscribed to the teachings of Catholicism to their dying days and expected to spend a few hundred years in the purgatory they had been indoctrinated with—an environment just like hell but not eternal. I gather they don’t teach that these days, but the problem is that they don’t discuss it at all.

Another problem is that various Hebrew and Greek words, such as “eternal,” have taken on different meanings in the English translations.

Michael Tymn, Wed 24 Nov, 23:12

Purgatory in the way I’ve presented it here turns up everywhere in spirit literature. I can’t think of an exception. Blue Island is a good example.

Stafford Betty, Wed 24 Nov, 21:00

I think there is also a good description of the so called ‘purgatory’ in W.T Steads ‘Blue Island’. I also think that the place where we come to and the people we meet has something to do with the Law of Attraction. Some spirit teachers speak about that law.

Chris De Cat, Wed 24 Nov, 19:06

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Missing Time by Budd Hopkins – Since World War II, tens of thousands of reports of unidentified flying objects have been gathered, officially and unofficially, by the United States Air Force and myriad other governmental and civilian investigative organizations around the world.1 Like Astronaut McDivitt’s “cylinder with antennas,” these objects are often described as being mechanically structured, metallic, and very frequently as behaving as if they were under intelligent control. The thousands of similar, enigmatic reports from across the world mean that no matter what realities may lie behind it, the UFO phenomenon exists as an undeniable fact of life. Read here
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