When You Die You Won’t Go to Heaven and You Won’t Become an Angel: the Good News of Purgatory

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First of all: Happy Halloween, Happy All Saints Day, Happy All Souls Day, and Happy Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time!

This sequence of days (okay, it doesn’t always include the thirty-first Sunday of Ordinary Time) is one of my favorite in the year. I love the children (and adults) dressed up to defy their fears and emulate their heroes. I love the joyful and triumphant music celebrating our forebears who already stand around the throne of the Lamb. I love the incense and the quiet as we remember our loved ones who are somewhere between here and Heaven. I love Sundays in general.

I must retract something from my title: when you (dear Reader) die, you might go to Heaven (with angels there is no “might,” they’re either in Heaven or Hell and have no chance to change their fate). In fact, I highly encourage you to go to Heaven, because I want you to be a saint, and so does God. Being a saint is not as easy as it looks, though. Sainthood does not mean sinlessness, but it does mean virtuous self-sacrifice and extreme dedication to God’s will (whose plan for you gets less attractive the more dedicated you are to it, because the devil steps in and reminds you of everything you would rather be doing) and performing at least a couple of miracles—don’t worry about that part, though: once you have the virtue-doing-God’s-will thing down, miracles will be as easy as walking on water.

But in general, I will probably see most of you in Purgatory before any of us make it to Heaven. And that, dear Reader, is spectacular news, because if I don’t see you in Purgatory. . .well, that probably means I ended up in Hell.

Purgatory is a great place to be. When you die and “wake up” in Purgatory, you will know without a doubt that you are on your way to union with God in the beatific vision. There are worse places you could be, and at this point the only way is “up.” In purgatory you will be “purged,” not in the eating-disorder sense but in the medicinal, poison-control sense. Purging will hurt—there are a lot of deeply imbedded vices in your soul, even if you are a generally good person. Purging the vices from your system is going to involve what feels like slowly tearing bits of you off the rest, emptying you of what makes you unique. In reality, the removal of those vices will leave behind you and only you, you as God made you perfectly and uniquely and wonderfully (well, half of you anyway, you’ll still be sans body, but that will come later).

Purgatory is boot camp for the soul. It is where God sends his trouble children (and most of us are trouble children) to straighten us out and make us fly right. We are not the really good ones who only ever strayed by accident, but we are not the really bad ones who sinned purposely and consistently and, upon death, spat in the face of God and preferred the “choice” of Hell.

In truth, upon death most of us have more in common with the people in Hell than the people in Heaven. We are selfish or prideful or intemperate or inconsiderate and we think we have good reason to be that way (or, worse, we think that our behavior is not viceful). The difference between souls that go to Purgatory and souls that go to Hell is very small and very, very significant: the souls that end up in Purgatory want to love God correctly. Because of that desire, God will keep us in Purgatory until we do love him correctly, at which point we are ready to join Him in Heaven. That is the good news of Purgatory: Purgatory saves you from Hell and facilitates passage to Heaven.

When we do join Him in Heaven, we will not get a pair of wings or join the angel chorus. Within each human person there is absolutely no potential to become an angel. And trust me, we’re better off that way. Human beings are the crown of God’s creation, the only creatures made in both God’s image and likeness. Angels, who are pure intellect, do not get to experience the movements of the appetites which allow for things like desire and love, and so they are unable to image God in His love for Creation. Angels don’t get to have bodies (and let’s be serious: who doesn’t love his or her body [except due to sin]), and you will get your body back at the Last Judgment.

Most importantly, God did not incarnate (increatureate?) as an angel, only as a human being. Angels could have used a savior taking on their nature so as to lead them back to God—that whole Satan and his angels contingent would have benefited from the kind of personalized intervention human beings got when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

After you die and spend some well-needed time in Purgatory, you will make your way to Heaven where you will be something much better than an angel: perfectly yourself in perfect union with God.

Siobhan Benitez

Siobhan Benitez

After growing up near Kennett Square, PA, the Mushroom Capitol of the World, Siobhan knew she would always live in a bustling capitol city. She earned a B.A. in Theology, History, and Classics at Mount St. Mary's University and an M.A. in Theology (specializing in Systematics) at Villanova University. Now she lives in Washington, D.C. with her wonderful husband where she is still getting used to living with a boy, right down to playing video games and watching football. When she's not hanging out with him or reading novels, she uses her spare time to earn a PhD in Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America.

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10 thoughts on “When You Die You Won’t Go to Heaven and You Won’t Become an Angel: the Good News of Purgatory”

  1. Avatar

    … and the specific biblical basis for the existence of a place or realm of purgatory is? …not speculative interpretation, but direct, clear and convincing evidence?

    1. Avatar

      Phil, I’ll give you two answers.

      Short answer: As Catholics, we do not believe in the Bible, we believe in God, who is a person and considerably more worth our belief than any thing. The doctrine of Purgatory has been officially affirmed by the Church since the Council of Florence (1439), and that should be enough for you.

      Long answer: The good news is, Scripture and Tradition never contradict. The idea of Purgatory has been deeply imbedded in Christian and Jewish worship for thousands of years. For instance, in the Second book of Maccabees, Judas (who is a good guy and completely unrelated to Judas the Iscariot) and his army are busy burying their fallen comrades one day. As they do so, they notice all the men who died in the previous battle had been wearing pagan amulets for protection (i.e., they were sinning by placing faith in false gods). Judas and his army reacts in two ways, first by praising God for allowing the sinner-soldiers to die while the faithful-soldiers were preserved, and second by praying for their fallen comrades: “that the sinful deed [of idolatry] might be fully blotted out” (2 Maccabees 12:42).

      Why does this reveal the idea of purgatory? Easy: dead people in Heaven don’t need prayers, they’re already with God (that’s why no one prays for, say, Moses). Dead people in Hell won’t benefit from prayers: Hell is a permanent residence. So there must be somewhere else where dead souls go, somewhere where they can be purified from sins (like idolatry) and eventually end up in Heaven with God. The author of Maccabees goes on to explain: “In doing this [praying and offering sacrifice for the dead] he [Judas] acted in a very excellent and noble way. . .for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been very superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:43-46).

      Another biblical text you could check out is the teaching described in Matthew 5:21-26 about anger, brotherhood, and right worship. Here, Jesus advises a sinful person to seek reconciliation with those he has wronged before he dies, “Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” God is the judge who, seeing your guilt (upon death) has you “thrown into prison” (i.e., Purgatory) until you pay back your debt (of sin). The prison can’t be Hell, because, as mentioned above, Hell is permanent, and Jesus tells us that you can, in fact, pay back your debt (although it would have been better to die without “debt”). The prison can’t be Heaven, because Heaven is not a prison and because the judge (God) does not dwell in the prison.

      You could also look at 1 Peter 1:7 and 1 Corinthians 3:15, which both speak of sins being purified by fire before a person enters into the Kingdom of God.

      Beyond the Biblical evidence for Purgatory, we have the writings of the saints, the Council of Florence, the Council of Trent, the Council of Lyon II, and our personal experience. I have never attended a Christian funeral, Catholic or otherwise, where no prayers were said for the dead person. We pray for the dead because we believe (1) they need our prayers and (2) our prayers will facilitate their journey to Heaven.

      I hope this has helped to answer your question.

      ~Siobhan Benitez

    2. Avatar

      Phil, I’ll give you two answers.

      Short answer: As Catholics, we do not believe in the Bible, we believe in God, who is a person and considerably more worth our belief than any thing. The doctrine of Purgatory has been officially affirmed by the Church since the Council of Florence (1439), and that should be enough for you.

      Long answer: The good news is, Scripture and Tradition never contradict. The idea of Purgatory has been deeply imbedded in Christian and Jewish worship for thousands of years. For instance, in the Second book of Maccabees, Judas (who is a good guy and completely unrelated to Judas the Iscariot) and his army are busy burying their fallen comrades one day. As they do so, they notice all the men who died in the previous battle had been wearing pagan amulets for protection (i.e., they were sinning by placing faith in false gods). Judas and his army reacts in two ways, first by praising God for allowing the sinner-soldiers to die while the faithful-soldiers were preserved, and second by praying for their fallen comrades: “that the sinful deed [of idolatry] might be fully blotted out” (2 Maccabees 12:42).

      Why does this reveal the idea of purgatory? Easy: dead people in Heaven don’t need prayers, they’re already with God (that’s why no one prays for, say, Moses). Dead people in Hell won’t benefit from prayers: Hell is a permanent residence. So there must be somewhere else where dead souls go, somewhere where they can be purified from sins (like idolatry) and eventually end up in Heaven with God. The author of Maccabees goes on to explain: “In doing this [praying and offering sacrifice for the dead] he [Judas] acted in a very excellent and noble way. . .for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been very superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be absolved from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:43-46).

      Another biblical text you could check out is the teaching described in Matthew 5:21-26 about anger, brotherhood, and right worship. Here, Jesus advises a sinful person to seek reconciliation with those he has wronged before he dies, “Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” God is the judge who, seeing your guilt (upon death) has you “thrown into prison” (i.e., Purgatory) until you pay back your debt (of sin). The prison can’t be Hell, because, as mentioned above, Hell is permanent, and Jesus tells us that you can, in fact, pay back your debt (although it would have been better to die without “debt”). The prison can’t be Heaven, because Heaven is not a prison and because the judge (God) does not dwell in the prison.

      You could also look at 1 Peter 1:7 and 1 Corinthians 3:15, which both speak of sins being purified by fire before a person enters into the Kingdom of God.

      Beyond the Biblical evidence for Purgatory, we have the writings of the saints, the Council of Florence, the Council of Trent, the Council of Lyon II, and our personal experience. I have never attended a Christian funeral, Catholic or otherwise, where no prayers were said for the dead person. We pray for the dead because we believe (1) they need our prayers and (2) our prayers will facilitate their journey to Heaven.

      I hope this has helped to answer your question.

    3. Avatar

      Phil, I second Siobhan’s response to you, but I add this:

      Where is the “specific Biblical basis” for thinking that all the critical doctrines of the Christian faith can be found plainly stated somewhere in the Bible?

      I’m not talking about speculative interpretation, mind you: Just citing approval of the Bereans will not fly.

      Nor will St. Paul’s words to Timothy in which he states that, given what Timothy knows and from whom he learned it, Timothy should add study of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament canon and deuterocanon used by diaspora Jews living among the Greeks, like Timothy’s mother and grandmother) to what he already knows, because the study of the Septuagint is useful for training, reproof, correction, et cetera. St. Paul is not, in that passage, even characterizing his own letters as “God breathed”; he is talking about the Scriptures which Timothy learned about from his mother and grandmother.

      Neither of those passages will give you “direct, clear, and convincing evidence” that all the doctrines which Jesus delivered “once for all” to the apostles is promised, by God, to be clearly stated in the Holy Scriptures.

      Nor will any other passage.

      The problem is that your request to Siobhan — which, as it happens, he did answer — was nevertheless premised on a falsehood; namely, that all the critical doctrines of Christianity can unambigiously be found somewhere in the Bible.

      They can’t. It’s just wrong to think that they can. In fact, it’s un-Christian to think that they can: Nobody in the history of the Christian faith ever suggested that they could, until 3/4ths of Christian history (thus far) had already elapsed. The idea is a (comparatively) recent innovation.

      Deriving an exhaustive knowledge of Christianity from a Bible is like deriving an exhaustive knowledge of a family from a few of their scrapbooks. You can find out a lot. But not all of it.

      The idea that you can find out “all of it” is, in a word, un-Biblical.

      The Bible doesn’t promise it anywhere. It would have been an unfamiliar notion to the Jews, as well — this notion that one could pick up the books of Moses, the Writings, and the Prophets, study them a lot, and be guaranteed to be able to reconstruct all the beliefs of Judaism correctly. Gamaliel and Shammai and Hillel would have laughed their tuckuses off, gasping “let us know how that works out for you” in between their guffaws. Naturally this approach continued in the Messianic age as the Gentiles also joined the family of God.

      In fact, even the canon of Scripture — the list of which books make up the Bible — can’t be found in Scripture. (How could it?) So you can’t know, from Scripture, which books are and aren’t Scripture.

      You must rely on an outside authority to let you know what’s in the Bible, if you are to have any authoritative knowledge of what’s in the Bible. And of course, the degree to which your knowledge will be certain and authoritative will depend on the level of infallibility and authority that God gives to whichever person/organization you trust to give you your canon of Scripture.

      A lot of people seem to have this strange notion that Jesus gave the Christian faith to the apostles, charged them with writing down all the details of that faith unambigiously in a book (technically, that’d be called a “Catechism,” and then told them to distribute that book worldwide.

      Not so.

      He told them to preach the gospel, to make disciples of all nations, to teach them whatsoever He commanded them, to baptize them in the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Yes, they and some of their friends eventually got around to writing some things down, but they had no intention of writing a catechism. Mostly they wrote some evangelistic biographies of Jesus, an early-church travelogue, and an apocalypse — had they been moderns they’d have made “Jesus film” I suspect — and then sent letters to various churches and persons. These last were focused on specific problems; in many places they explicitly state that they’re not going into any detail about the fundamentals of the Christian faith because the recipients are supposed to already know all that. These fundamentals are often, as a consequence, left entirely unstated throughout the whole New Testament. Reader knowledge of the basics is assumed, so it is not clarified.

      I point all this out so that you understand:

      Siobhan Benitez was able to give you good solid Biblical reasons to believe in Purgatory.

      But if he hadn’t? If that belief had not been able to be defended on the basis of Scripture? That would not, by itself, have been a reason to think that the doctrine was not critical and fundamental to Christianity.

      For, of course, knowing which books belong in the Bible is critical and fundamental…and yet, THAT isn’t in the Bible, either.

      So, yes, give Siobhan’s response a good read-over.

      But make sure you also re-examine your assumptions about how Jesus communicates authoritative doctrine to His Church. How is it that He makes sure they RELIABLY know ALL of the truths He needs them to know, in order that they, knowing the truth, may be “set free?”

      It isn’t through the Bible alone. The Bible helps enormously — and I am second to no man in asserting the value and inerrancy and divine inspiration of the Scriptures — but it is simply not true that, from the Bible alone, one can get the whole faith, unambigiously stated.

      Therefore one shouldn’t make the assumption that all true Christian doctrines are unambigiously stated in the Bible. They aren’t.

  2. Avatar

    Purgatory is a cop out as is Limbo, all based on some medieval Council that
    could not have happened in modern times. A third of the world has believed
    for a 1000 years longer in reincarnation and It’s very possible that what we do
    or not in this life can only be expiated in another body. And since parents have not qualms about bringing children into the world to die, rolling dice with their salvation which they may not work out, caring only that we outlive them to spare us exquisite pain of loss, all this begs the question : if life is good enough once … why is there a problem with the transmigration of a soul that cannot see God until it has worked off all its sins in a human body. JPII gave us all a hint at Assisi when he put the Buddha on the altar. It’s very obvious there are enough gospel references for clear study on this translation. At least be humble dear author, you do not know what a few hundred years will bring. It wasn’t so long ago when only Catholics could get into heaven.

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