Why does Purgatory Exist?
In short, Purgatory exists because without it, saints would go to Heaven and the rest of us would be SOL.
lots of people think of purgatory as something wrathful and mean about God, one of those “old-fashioned cruel things” that Catholics did a long time ago. You don’t hear “Purgatory” and “the spirit of Vatican II” in the same sentence a lot. However, this is ultimately incorrect – Purgatory is a channel of God’s mercy just as much as it is an instrument of His justice.
Rev. 21:27 tells us that “nothing unclean will enter [Heaven].” However, most of us still have some of the “dirt” of sin hanging onto our souls when we die, for some reason or another. We haven’t rejected God’s forgiveness, so we don’t deserve damnation, but we aren’t sparkly clean enough to go straight into Heaven – we need washing first.
This makes sense, because Heaven itself is the state of complete and unencumbered happiness. If we entered into Heaven without having made up fully for all of our sins, if we still had the dirt of guilt upon our souls, we would 1) know that we didn’t belong there and feel guilty and not fully happy, and 2) feel inferior to the people who had slightly cleaner souls, and therefore not be completely happy.
So, without the cleansing of Purgatory, we couldn’t go to Heaven – we would either be damned (which would be both unmerciful and unjust) or have to hang out in Limbo with Virgil for all time, and we’d eventually get sick of the Aenead.
Thus, Purgatory satisfies both God’s justice by providing for the penance we deserve, and His mercy, by allowing those who could not otherwise enter into Heaven a way to do so.
But you say, “Hey, Jesus died for my sins, I don’t need purgatory to make up for my sins, because Jesus already did it, and I accepted Jesus and now I’m saved.”
As Br. Joel would say, “thank you, wrong.” If this were the case, nobody would go to Hell, because all the sins would be completely forgiven through Christ’s sacrifice (except maybe "blaspheming the Spirit," and even that doesn't make a lot of sense in this scenario). Faith can’t be a distinction, because all men are compelled to believe in Christ, failure to believe is thus a sin, and therefore would have been already forgiven you by the sacrifice on Calvary. So no matter what you do, you still wind up in Heaven. Universalism is a nice idea, but even those who seriously engage the concept don't frame it in terms of necessity. In the situation that this objection supposes, universal salvation is a necessity, not a possibility.
Christ’s sacrifice provided satisfaction for mankind’s sins, but did not free each person from the temporal effects of sin, nor did it erase our free will. We can still choose to refuse God’s mercy, and our souls and environments are still polluted by sin – this is painfully easy to see in our own lives and in things all around us. Christ opened the gates of Heaven that had been closed through Adam’s sin, and therefore gave man the opportunity to achieve salvation – He did not guarantee it for any person.
It is true, however, that Christ’s sacrifice is important here (like everywhere), though, because the merit gained for mankind through that sacrifice allows our purification in purgatory – without the satisfaction of Christ’s Precious Blood, all of our pain and sacrifice still don’t matter at all (cf, the Limbo of the Patriarchs – even the heroically virtuous were excluded from heaven prior to Calvary).
Consider an analogy: you’re a kid who breaks the neighbor’s window while playing baseball. The homeowner threatens to beat you with a stick because of it, but your dad comes over and apologizes for you and convinces the homeowner not to beat you. He agrees, and forgives you, but insists that you still have to pay him for the window, which is only just and fair. We’re the little kids, and Christ is our parent – God the Father owns the house who’s windows we’ve broken through sin. Christ made satisfaction for us before the Father, but has not freed us from the effects of our sins, which we still must bear.
File Under: Doctrine