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.
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