This week saw Pope Benedict announce that to celebrate 150 years since the Virgin Mary appeared to a peasant girl in Lourdes pilgrims traveling to the town could claim time off from Purgatory. This has caused widespread confusion and opposition amongst Protestants, who both denounce the authority of the Pope and dont generally believe in Purgatory either. This is a can of worms unlike any thats been seen in recent years, and may take a while to settle.
Now, Im no Biblical scholar, but I do have some thoughts I would like to share on this topic, exploring the nature of forgiveness, sin, Purgatory, judgement, hell and heaven. Not necessarily in that order.
First, let us look at sin. Sin is possibly one of the least popular words in use today – society would rather hold to the idea that if they dont get caught, they havent done anything wrong. The problem is to do with how we categorise our actions, and whether we call them sin or not, and that comes down to what we measure ourselves against. Its far more comforting to compare ourselves to the people around us, showing ourselves to be better than our neighbours, or not having committed as serious a crime as someone else. However, the Bible teaches that the measuring stick measures us against God, not ourselves. Everyone sins. No one hits the mark by their own merits. No one in history, apart from Jesus, has lived a pure enough life to be able to get into heaven by their own actions. You only have to look at the mighty and revered prophets of the Old Testament to see their many flaws, and realise that actually they were no different from you or I. The problem of sin is that we all fall short, not necessarily deliberately, but often through negligence or ignorance of what the rules are. We are all condemned.
This is where judgement comes in. At the end of days, God will divide the living and the dead into two groups – the righteous and the condemned. God cannot abide evil, and will not have it in His presence. This presents something of a problem, since all of us are tainted with sin, and hence would all be in the condemned pile. Not good. The issue here is the entrance requirements for heaven – its not about whether we are good, its not about our actions, its not even about whether I accept God or not. I can believe in God all I like, but that in itself doesnt remove my sin and make me acceptable in the eyes of God. I am still tainted, still dirty, still condemned. A believer, yet still condemned.
Thankfully, thats not the end of the story, because God made a way for us to be cleansed from our sin, for all our dirtiness to be wiped away, and for us to be acceptable to enter heaven. Jesus died for our sins, that we should not be punished for them. That punishment, incidentally, is the punishment in hell, not on earth. If we have done something wrong here then it will have consequences, and we must face them. But if we accept the cleansing from Jesus we are promised that we will be in the righteous group when judgement comes, not because we are better than anyone else, but because Jesus has made us clean.
So, then, the work of Jesus on the cross was in fact two-fold. On the one hand he offers us forgiveness on earth, that we might be acquitted of our sin and thus walk more closely with God during our lifetime. Our sin has still been committed, and God doesnt forget that, but because we have been forgiven He choses not to hold it against us. The other side of Jesus work on the cross was to cleanse us from our sin, so that when we do come before God at the end of days we will be bright and shining and without sin. It is important to distinguish between these two aspects; forgiveness alone does not rid us of our sin, it simply means God doesnt hold it against us, but that isnt enough for us to enter heaven, as the sin is still there. The cleansing that Jesus brings is what allows us to enter Gods presence, but we can only be cleansed if we have first been forgiven.
This is where Purgatory ought to be mentioned. The Catholic traditions teach that Purgatory is where we are cleansed from our sin, like a waiting room between death and entrance into heaven. It is a time of purification, where all our wrongdoing is purged and we are washed clean to be made acceptable for entrance into heaven. The more sin you have committed, the more cleansing will need to be done. Pope Benedicts recent announcement implies that that cleansing will not have to be done, or at least will be reduced, and that pilgrims coming to Lourdes will be effectively washed clean without the hassle of Purgatory.
There are several problems with this. Firstly, as far as I can make out, Purgatory isnt directly mentioned anywhere in the Bible, nor really hinted at either. However, that aside, there are problems with the very nature of Purgatory. Is it a place? Is it another plane of existence? Is it a state of mind? Since, being removed from this world, we are therefore beyond the realm of time and space, it doesnt matter how long it takes, because time wont exist there. As such, if one person has lots of sin and another has little, the act of purging their sin will just happen, and neither will take longer than the other. Also, Purgatory is for the cleansing of sin, and is therefore only for those destined for heaven anyway. As such, this actually comes after Judgement, where the righteous have been siphoned off, promised entrance into heaven, purged of their sin and welcomed in with trumpets and celebrations. As far as I can tell, you cant fail Purgatory. Its not a matter of enduring and hoping you get through. You are purged. Thats it. In that sense, its nothing to worry about, since its not you thats doing the purging. If Purgatory does exist, it is surely to be an instant, a concept, a moment. Sure, it may be painful, having to relive and relinquish all that youve done wrong in your earthly life, but there is still the reassurance that no matter how badly you have sinned, it can all be purged, and you will enter heaven. There is no question of coming into heaven late and missing the party. There is nothing to suggest that you can be forgiven, declared righteous, and then rejected at the last minute because Purgatory was too painful.
Another interesting thing to note is to with hell, and the misconceptions that have arisen surrounding the eternal punishment of the condemned. Firstly, at no point does the Bible say anything about eternal punishment. Eternal life, yes, but not eternal punishment. The Devil will be thrown into a firey pit and be punished forever, yes, but not the souls of the dead. As far as I can work out, the punishment of the condemned is finite. The Bible mentions eternal fires, not eternal fuel. That is not to say that hell will be the most painful experience ever conceived, both physically and spiritually. But the grace of God ensures that the crime is not outweighed by the punishment. And eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If God expects us to live by those rules, surely thats what we can expect in the afterlife too? We have not lived an eternity in sin, therefore it would not be right to punish us for eternity. That is reserved for the one who has been evil for eternity – Satan himself. Food for thought.
So then, lets see if we can round this all up with some sort of conclusion. In a rather roundabout way I have tried to show a little more clearly what happens from Judgement Day onwards, and in so doing challenged the Popes offering of cleansing. The spokesman for God he may (or may not) be, does that authority include with it the ability to cleanse people from their sins? If that really was something we as humans could do something about, surely we would have done that long ago? And why only in Lourdes? To cleanse someone of their sins, without going through Purgatory (in whatever form it may take), is to take that gift away from Jesus. As such, we would be relying on our own pilgrimage to Lourdes for our entrance into heaven, not the grace of God.