Father of Mercy,

In Your love for Your children You have provided a means of purification that works to cleans the soul of the children in need of final cleansing so that they can come into Your eternal rest.  No one single venial sin will keep us from Your eternal embrace, but in Your divine mercy Your fiery love purifies, burning off that which is impure so that Your children can present themselves as a shining clean reflection the pure light of Jesus Christ. Send Your Holy Spirit to guide us in our study.  We pray in the name of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


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For had he not expected the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead, whereas if he had in view the splendid recompense reserved for those who make a pious end, the thought was holy and devout. Hence, he had this expiatory sacrifice offered for the dead, so that they might be released from their sin.

 2 Maccabees 12:44-45


Let us help and commemorate them.  If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.  St. John Chrysostom, Homily on 1 Corinthians 4:1-5


Although it has always been a teaching of the Church that for some a final purification is necessary before entering into the presence of God, the formulation of this doctrine of faith on Purgatory was formally defined at the First Council of Lyons in 1245; the Second Council of Lyons in 1274; and in the Councils of Florence [1438-45] and Trent [1546-63].  Divine justice requires the reparation for sins and if reparation is not made before death, God in His divine mercy allows reparation to be made after death in the refining fire that destroys the impurities of sin, whether unrepented venial sin and/or the temporal punishment due to mortal sin repented of and forgiven in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.


In the Old Testament the Old Covenant Church believed in an individual judgment that was imposed upon every man and woman at death and also in the promise of a resurrection and reunification of the body and soul at the end of time.  In the first century AD the Sadducees denied the resurrection [Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18; Luke 20:27; Acts 23:8] but Jesus corrected them in this error of doctrine in Matthew 22:31-33 [Mark 12:26-27; Luke 20:36-38].  The Old Covenant people of God also believed in the purification of the righteous after death and that certain sins could be forgiven during God's purification of the soul in Sheol.  They also believed that the living could assist the purification of the dead by offering aid through prayer and sacrifice so that their souls would be purified of earthly sins, assuring their resurrection. Jesus affirmed that no soul with the stain of original sin could enter heaven which had been closed since the sin of Adam when He said: No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man (Jn 3:13; also see CCC 536 and 1026).

Question: How did Job intercede for his children in Job 1:1-5?

Answer: In case his children had sinned, he purified them and offered sacrifice for them.

Question: Job was interceding for his sons who were still living, but can we, like Judas Maccabee and his soldiers make similar intercession by offering sacrifice for loved ones who are dead?

Answer: Yes, we in the pilgrim Church can offer help to the souls suffering in Purgatory by our prayers, fasts, almsgiving, by indulgences and by offering a Mass in their name.


In 2 Maccabees chapter 12 the offering to aid purification is for the dead who have already been judged and not for the living as in the case of Job's children.  In the 2nd century BC, the great Jewish military leader Judas Maccabee offered prayer and sacrifice for his dead soldiers in 2 Maccabees 12:43.

Question: Read 2 Maccabees 12:32-46.  Why did Judah Maccabee make arrangements for prayers to be offered for his dead soldiers? Why were his soldiers in need of purification? See Exodus 20:4; Deuteronomy 4:15; 5:8.

Answer: The fallen soldiers had amulets with the images of pagan gods as "good-luck" charms hidden under their tunics.  This was a violation of the covenant and therefore a serious sin.  The response of their kinsmen was to thank God for reveling the sin of their fallen comrades to them so they had recourse of come to their aid, even though these men were already dead.  They believed that their prayers and a sacrifice offered at the Temple in Jerusalem would appeal to God's mercy to mitigate the seriousness of the sin and allow these men to still be candidates for the resurrection of the dead: For had he not expected the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead, whereas if he had in view the splendid recompense reserved for those who make a pious end, the thought was holy and devout.  Hence, he had this expiatory sacrifice offered for the dead, so that they might be released from their sins.


In the Old Covenant the faithful understood that in Sheol there was purification for sins for those who were in need of purification.  The Book of Wisdom 3:1-7 also describes such purification in Sheol: To the unenlightened, they appeared to die, their departure was regarded as a disaster; their leaving us like an annihilation: but they are at peace.  If, as it seemed to us, they suffered punishment, their hope was rich with immortality; slight was their correction, great will their blessing be.  God was putting them to the test and has proved them worthy to be with him. He has tested them like gold in a furnace, and accepted them as a perfect burnt offering.  At their time of visitation, they will shine out; as sparks run through the stubble, so will they.  The "time of their visitation" may refer to the coming of the Messiah.  After His death and burial, Jesus descended to the spirits imprisoned in Sheol/Hades and preached the Gospel of salvation [see 1 Peter 3:19-20; 4:6].


Question:  How does Jesus describe the purification of the sinner in Sheol/Hades in the story of Lazarus and the Rich man in Luke 16:19-31?  In this parable of death and judgment Sheol is divided into two parts: the side of purification by fire and the part reserved for the righteous dead which is guarded by Father Abraham and is called "Abraham's Bosom."

Answer: The rich man, whose sin was ignoring the plight of the needy, was purified with fire in the part of Sheol designated for purification of sins.  He was not in the Hell of the damned.  No human was condemned to Hell before the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of a covenant which granted eternal blessings and eternal punishments.  In the Hell of the Damned the dead are forever separated from God.  God is love and therefore in the Hell of the damned there is no love.  The rich man suffering punishment for his sins still has love for his brothers.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church #633 addresses the condition of the dead in Sheol/Hades: Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, "hell"'Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek, because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God.  Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into "Abraham's Bosom":  "It is precisely theses holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham's bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell."  Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.


For the Jews a place of purification for sins after judgment of the human soul was an established doctrine in the Old Testament and the Sinai Covenant. 

Question: But what about the New Covenant people of God?  Was purification of certain sins possible after death under the New Covenant?  Read 1 Corinthians 3:10-17.  What kind of purification is St. Paul describing?

Answer: The person being "tested" by fire is "saved" but his imperfections-the wood, hay and straw of his sins are burned away.  The purifying fire will test the quality of each person's works: The one whose work stands up to it will be given his wages; the one whose work is burnt down will suffer the loss of it, though he himself will be saved: he will be saved as someone might expect to be saved from a fire.  St. Paul is not writing about the Hell of the damned, there is no salvation from Hell.  He is writing about the purifying fire of Purgatory where only the saved will go if they require further purification before entering the gates of Heaven.


Concerning this passage in 1 Corinthians 3:10-17, Pope Benedict [as Joseph Ratzinger] observed: Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation....Purgatory follows by an inner necessity from the idea of penance, the idea of the constant readiness for reform which marks the forgiven sinner."


Question: Did Jesus suggest there was an opportunity for purification and forgiveness of sins beyond the grave?  See Matthew 12:30-32.

Answer: In teaching on the forgiveness of sin Jesus said:  And so I tell you, every human sin and blasphemy will be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.  And anyone who says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but no one who speaks against the Holy Spirit will be forgiven either in this world or in the next.  There must be a way for sins to be forgiven after death, in the next world.


In the parable of the Ungrateful Servant Jesus also speaks of a place of punishment from which the one undergoing punishment will eventually be released.  This parable is clearly referring to the purgation of sins in what the Jews understood to be Sheol and later for the Christians, Purgatory.  Please read Matthew 18:21-35.

Question:  What is the outcome for the ungrateful servant who refused to forgive his brother servant his small debt when the Master had forgiven his great debt?  How can this be a teaching on Purgatory?

Answer: The ungrateful servant is cast into "prison" to be tortured until he should pay all his debt.  Jesus says that this is how we will be treated, cast into "prison" unless we each forgive our brothers from our hearts.   The key point is that the servant owed a debt and he could make restitution on the debt.  In Purgatory we owe Jesus a debt for our sins, we too can make "restitution" and be released.  There is, however, no release from Hell.


And in 1 Peter 1:6-9 St. Peter also writes of purification by fire: so the worth of your faith, more valuable than gold, which is perishable even if it has been tested by fire, may be proved, to your praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.


The Church's belief in this doctrine is manifested in the constant and universal practice of prayer and penance which the faithful of God have given even from Old Testament times.  The Church teaches, therefore, that Purgatory is reserved for those who have received the gift of salvation: 




Question: When will Purgatory no longer be necessary?  See Revelation 20:11-15.

Answer: After the Second Coming of Christ and the Resurrection of the dead there is the Final or General Judgment.  At that time there will no longer be any need for a place of final purification.  Revelation 20:14 records that Death and Hades [Sheol] were hurled into the burning lake [Hell].  That Sheol or Hades still exists at the end of time as we know it and no other place is mentioned, Scripture suggests that Sheol as a place of purgation and the Catholic place designated as Purgatory are one in the same. But this is a topic opened for discussion and not all scholars would agree. Still, nothing new has been created since the first Creation and so Sheol as a place of purgation before the first Advent of Christ must have continued to functioned as a place of purification after His Ascension, but since both blessings and punishments were not eternal the wicked were, from the time of the Resurrection forward consigned to Hell; the only souls who would inhabit Sheol would be the righteous in need for further purification in Purgatory, which means "purification".


Question: If Jesus died on the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins and if His sacrifice was full and complete, why do we need further purification?  See CCC# 1472.

Answer: The problem is the double consequence of sin.  Forgiveness is one thing but accountability of the sin is another.  I my child took the neighbor child's bicycle without permission and damaged it he must reconcile himself with the wronged child by more than asking forgiveness, he must also make restitution.  CCC# 1472 states: ...it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence.  Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the "eternal punishment: of sin.  On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified wither here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory.  This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin.  [..].  A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.  In 2 Samuel chapters 11-12 King David commits a grievous sin by taking another man's wife and then compounds the sin by arranging for the man's death when he cannot protect the pregnant Bathsheba's adultery from being found out by her husband.  When his sin is revealed, David confesses his sin and asks for God's forgiveness.  The prophet Nathan tells David that his sin has been forgiven, but his child by Bathsheba must die in 1 Samuel 12:13-15.  Forgiveness is one thing but accountability is something else entirely.


As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire.  He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come.  From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.
Pope St. Gregory the Great 540-604AD


Catechism References:


CCC# 954: one of the three stages of the Church

CCC# 1030: for those who die in God's grace but imperfectly purified

CCC# 1031: doctrine from Councils of Florence and Trent

CCC# 1032: prayers for the dead in Old Testament

CCC# 1472: why the need for final purgation

CCC# 1479: remitting the temporal punishment due for sins


Resources used in this lesson:

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church
  2. New Jerusalem Bible
  3. Crossing the Threshold of Hope, John Paul II, 1999.
  4. Dogmatic Theology: Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, Johann Auer, Joseph Ratzinger, Catholic University of America Press, 1988.
  5. Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine, edited by Russell Shaw, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Huntington, Indiana, 1997.
  6. The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, volume 5, Christian Classics, Benziger Bros., New York, 1948
  7. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, volume 2:  Augustine:  City of God, Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
  8. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, volume 3: Augustine: On the Trinity, Hendrickson Publishers, 1995.
  9. The Baltimore Catechism volume 4, Rev. Thomas Kinkeade, Tan Books Publishers, 1978.


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