I wish to first of all quickly remind us that our sanctification by the Spirit is not a onetime event. It is a process that continues throughout our lives. Nobody at any point in his life would say He is already perfect or that He no longer commits sin or that he is no longer in need of God’s mercy. We are constantly in need of God’s grace as we ascend in life the ladder of perfection. I laugh at Christians who tell themselves that they no longer commit sin or that they are now perfect…that is tantamount to pure deceit. No matter how much one is free from sin, out of humility which is part of the virtuous essence in him, he would never admit so. In front of his all holy God he would always admit that he still is by far less holy and less righteous…it is precisely in that humility of his that the Lord comes to fill him up…precisely in his emptiness. Even if one is at a certain time perfect and fit for heaven…even if he were as Christ himself…he would still admit to needing God’s Mercy and grace because as far as he has not gotten to his ultimate destination, temptations abound and the Devil wrestles all the more.
Now that we are on the same line of thought in our meditation, I wish to ask a question. Is it possible for a soul to die just and yet not perfectly fit for heaven? Is it possible that a soul has been claimed by God and the process of sanctification has started in him but at his death the sanctification of this soul by the Holy Sprit is not yet complete? He is a Christian, strives to do God’s will at all times, helps the poor and the needy, goes to Church, he truly loves God, and yet he is still somewhat attached to lustful thoughts? Thoughts which he might have struggled with and yet had not yet fully overcome at the moment of his death? Yes, let’s get practical! What happens if after we have been born again and started our journey towards perfection in Christ, our journey towards being fully bonded to the consuming fire of love, our hearts also aflame with the fire of Love which is God, we die when we are really half-way there? We are just people yes, we are lovers, but our love is not yet perfect.
In fact, I think the question should be does the Bible teach us anything, anything whatsoever about this possibility? Or should we just assume this possibility simply does not exist? Dearest brothers and sisters, the Bible teach us that this possibility clearly exists and I will show you where.
You would find it not much of a coincidence that the first place we would go to for an answer is the same 12th chapter of Hebrews which we sprang from in the first place. In Heb. 12:22-23 we read, ‘But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to a judge who is God of all, and to the SPIRITS OF JUST MEN MADE PERFECT…’ Notice the distinction between their being just and their being perfect. They were MADE perfect as the writer of Hebrew says.
Another place where Scripture tells us of this possibility is in 1 John 5:16-17, here St. John is talking about sin. First, there is something we need to realize here. If indeed the story of our sanctification and justification in Christ is one of Love, then it means that whenever we speak of sin we speak of the absence of that love or the weakness of it in any action or decision we undertake. St. John the beloved apostle is in this passage clearly realizing that there are gravities of sin, some more grave and some less grave. The gravity of sin therefore measured by how far we are being distanced from the Love of God as to also indicate the presence or absence of that Love at all. A mortal or deadly sin which stifles out the life of grace in us, and which indicates an absence of Divine Love in the Soul, and a venial sin or rather a sin which is not mortal which does not stifle out the life of grace in our souls but weakens it and indicate a certain distancing from the consuming fire of love which is God but not an entire removal. Let’s see what he has to say, ‘If anyone sees his brother committing a sin which is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that anyone is to pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin which is not mortal.’ The important thing to note here is the fact that St. John does not argue the fact that sin has gravity, he assumes it while trying to counsel on the way the Christian family in the Church is to approach or deal with such sin according to their gravity. So here the question goes, what if someone dies with an unforgiven venial sin, a sin which did not stifle out the life of the Holy Trinity in him but still is clearly sin and has distanced this soul, in a way, from the consuming fire of love?
For one, this soul has sinned, though it’s a venial sin, it’s like a wound on his soul, a drop of stain on his white soul, and an imperfection on his righteousness. The bible tells us in Habakkuk 1:13 that the eyes of the Lord are too pure to behold iniquity. The Bible also tells us that into the heavenly Jerusalem nothing shall enter it that is unclean. Cf. Revelations 21:27. So the question goes, what happens to that soul? Is God going to send the soul to hell? Well no, because the soul is just. Well is he going to welcome the Soul into heaven that way? No! Because the soul is not perfectly clean. It is therefore the divine Justice and Mercy of God that this JUST soul should be MADE PERFECT.cf Heb. 12:22-23.
Do not think that this is a deviation from the trend of thought we have embarked on. No. what is simply happening is that at the moment of that Soul’s death, the Holy Spirit does not leave that soul. In fact, at the moment of the death of any soul who has had the life of God in him, the Spirit of God does not leave that soul, because He has taken an abode in him, and the soul has not rejected or rebelled against him by an act of Mortal Sin at all. So how is this soul made perfect and precisely where does scripture explain to us the process?
It is to St. Paul that we owe the answer to this question in his first letter to the Corinthians. Here St. Paul is addressing the dissensions in the Corinthian Church and he freely likens the spiritual work he and his fellow Christians are doing to building. It is as he does this that he raises up a particular eschatological principle. First, in verse 11, he declares that no other foundation can any man lay but that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus. He then continues to say that there are different things Christians in doing God’s work build on that foundation. In fact, of the various ways in which our lives, our Christian lives are a building on the foundation which is Christ Jesus, a foundation that was laid at our baptism, when we were being born again, the work which we build are different and are of different kinds. He says some build Gold, some Silver, some Precious Stones, some hay, some wood, and some stubble. And that on that day of Judgment the FIRE of the Lord will the make the work of every man known according to what sort it is. In verses 14 and 15 he says, ‘If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives he will receive a reward; but if any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, THOUGH HE HIMSELF WILL BE SAVED, BUT ONLY AS THROUGH FIRE.
Therein lies your answer. First, it is important to note how St. Paul is speaking of judgment day. It is also good to know the distinction between the materials he mentioned. It is good to know also about his reference to a fire, a purifying fire, something like the fire we have been talking about which is God, in his sanctifying action in our souls. A fire, which burns off our unworthiness and imperfections, and makes us perfect, as Gold is tested in the fire and comes out all shiny. The Bible very much uses this analogy as in Zechariah 13:9, ‘And I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested.’ And also in 1 Peter 1:7. This purification starts out during life as we have explained and continues if need be when we die, so far as we have the Spirit still at work in us.
It is this particular purification of the elect, by which Just souls are made Perfect that the Church calls Purgation. And the state or ‘place’ in which that is carried out in the soul She calls a Purgatory.
Is this idea contrary to scripture? Is this alien to scripture? A ‘third’ place? Other than heaven and hell? I think not. And this is hinted at in more places than one. In Matthew 18:23 , Our Lord tells us the story of the unforgiving servant, whose master forgave him of all his debt and still went to imprison a fellow servant who owed him a much smaller debt. He was handed over to be punished until he had paid the whole debt. He also says something similar in Matthew 5:25-26, ’Be reconciled to your opponent quickly when you are together on your way to court. Otherwise he will turn you over to the judge, who will hand you over to the police, who will put you in jail. There you will stay , until you have paid the last penny’. From here it can be argued that if this was really a story about righteous living and the consequences of Sin, why then is there a chance to leave the prison, when one has paid the last penny? If there is only Heaven and Hell, we never get out of hell and heaven is no prison.
Also in 1 Peter 3:17 we read, “For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong. For Christ also died for sins once for all. The righteous for the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God. Being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit in which He went and preached to the spirits in prison.” Where are these spirits in prison? Hell? Certainly not! Heaven? No
In fact, in Rev. 20:11-14 we read, “Then I saw a great white throne and him who sat upon it. From his presence earth and sky fled away and no place was found for them and I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne and the books were opened. And another book was opened which was the book of life and the dead were judged by what was written in the books by what they had done and the sea gave up the dead in it. Death and hades gave up the dead in them and all were judged by what they had done. Then death and hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death and if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
Here a clear distinction is made between the lake of fire where damned souls go to, Gehenna in the Greek , which Christ uses to refer to Hell in the New Testament, and Hades whose dead were given up in the second resurrection.
In this and in many other places, a third place is mentioned and that souls go there who are being saved.
Finally, I will take us to 2 Maccabees 12:39-45. Here we see a clear reference to the practice even by the Jews of praying for the dead because of a hope in the resurrection. A clear belief that some souls need our prayers who though just were not yet perfect at their passing from this life. In this passage the Jews had gone to war and after the war had discovered that some of their men had died who had on them the idols of foreign nations. And so collections were offered and sent to Jerusalem so thatsacrifices could be made for these souls. “On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his men went to gather up the bodies of the slain and bury them with their kinsmen in their ancestral tombs. But under the tunic of each of the dead, they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had been slain. They all, therefore, praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden. Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all the soldiers amounting to 2000 silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem, to the Temple, to provide for expiatory sacrifice. In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view. For if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death.”
Also in Sirach 7:33 we read, “Withhold not your kindness, O Lord from the dead”, another indication that it was deeply rooted in the belief of the Jews that the kindness of God extends down to the realm of the dead. In fact the Mourner’s Kaddish is a Jewish rite lasting for 11 months where Jews offer sacrifices after the death of a loved one.
We find the concept of praying for the dead even in the New Testament in 2 Tim. 1:16-18 we read as St. Paul prays for the dead Onesiphorus that God should grant him mercy on Judgment day. Paul did this because he also knew and believed that the mercy of God also extended to the dead and that it is precisely out of this mercy and his justice that he makes perfect the just men who die with the life of grace in them.
To be sincere with you dearest friends, the two things the Church has taught on the issue of purgatory is that there is a purgatory where souls do go and that the souls there are helped by the prayers and suffrages of the faithful on earth. This we have clearly seen by looking very closely at scripture.
Thanks and God bless.