What is Purgatory All About?
by Steven R. Hemler
Clearly, God respects the free will of people on earth. We are not His puppets. We have a free will. We can choose what to do and how to do it. However, since the beginning of time people have used their free will to choose sin. It's the misuse of human free will that causes moral evil, like murder, rape, etc., in our world.
Furthermore, since we are not God's puppets on earth, we will not be His puppets in Heaven. Just like on earth, it seems very likely that God respects the free will of people in Heaven. Yet, by its very nature having a free choice means that the possibility of making a wrong (sinful) choice must also exist.
But, the question then arises: How will Heaven be any different from earth? For if people in Heaven can use their free will to choose sin, then there would also be moral evil in Heaven. In that case, Heaven would be no different than earth!
In other words, how can God respect our free will in Heaven, but Heaven still be without sin and moral evil? It seems the answer is that the only people in Heaven are those who are willing and able to not sin. In short, if people in Heaven have a free will, then the only way Heaven can be different from earth is if everyone there fully aligns their own will with God's Will.
Thus, it follows that people are unlikely to actually enter Heaven until they are able and willing to not choose evil. Without perfect holiness, we cannot be with God in Heaven. For as Jesus said, "You must be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).
This helps explain why growth in holiness (sanctification) should be a primary purpose of our life here on earth. Given this, does it make sense to spend our time on earth primarily seeking fun, fame, and fortune? For as Jesus said, "What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his soul" (Matthew 16:26).
Of course, Christians believe that Christ opened the gates of Heaven by His redemptive sacrifice on the cross. Provided we fully accept this most gracious gift, we will eventually get into Heaven. It's not a matter of if, but when.
Therefore, we really need to make a serious effort to deepen our union with God and grow in holiness while here on earth. We should prayerfully seek to allow the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to enable us to become increasing less likely to choose sin and more likely to align our will with God's will.
But, what if we don't succeed in fully growing in holiness while here on earth? The Catholic Church has long taught that Purgatory is an additional opportunity for purification from sin and growth in holiness (sanctification). Purgatory comes from the verb "purge" meaning "to purify or cleanse." Purgatory is where all remaining self-love is purged and purified until only the love of God remains. It's where we become, by the grace of God, finally and fully able and willing to use our free will to not choose sin.
If we're not perfect saints by the time we die, Purgatory is how we become fully ready for Heaven. Purgatory is a temporary state of purification for imperfect saints. Once the imperfect saints are purified they enter Heaven. Everyone in Purgatory will go to Heaven.
Christians believe we have been redeemed by Christ's atonement on the cross and that His sacrifice opened the gates to Heaven. However, it seems that we will not be able to actually go to Heaven until we are willing and able to fully align our own will with God's Will. Therefore, we should make every effort to correctly discern and follow God's Will by fervent prayer, by studying the Bible, and by learning and following the teachings of the Church, especially as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
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Copyright © Steve Hemler. Steve Hemler has been involved in youth ministry, pro-life political activism and religious education. His articles have been published in America, Liguorian, Church, Modern Liturgy, Religion Teacher's Journal, Liturgical Catechesis, and National Review.