Brief Thoughts on Purgatory and Indulgences

Recently I saw a Protestant Christian railing against the idea that retweeting Pope Francis could "earn" time off from purgatory as a kind of "indulgence" found in this 2013 news story. The person who reposted the story asked for someone to explain what was going on with "retweeting" as an "indulgence" to lessen time in "purgatory". So I responded with this:

I don't agree with a "mechanical" or "commercial" doctrine of purgatory, which says that "if you pay X amount, or put in Y effort, you get Z time off of purgatory". And most thoughtful Catholics I know do not support it either. With that said, here is a relational view of purgatory which I am sympathetic to:

First off, we are saved by grace alone, in the free gift of salvation by Christ (cf. Ephesians 2). But to be "saved" in Scripture is synonymous with being healed (the root words, such as “sozo” often mean both “save” and “heal”). Thus, to be “saved” means to not be sick anymore. You cannot be fully saved and still be sick. So, following the medical analogy of salvation that Jesus uses several times (i.e. “it is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick”): We can say that sometimes rehabilitation is required to co-operate with God's grace in us, so that we can fully live into the abundant, healthy life Christ calls us to. Otherwise, all ministry would end at Baptism or the “Altar Call”, when we are reconnected with Christ, right?

Second, we know that most of us go into eternal life still being sick in great and small ways, whether that is because of issues of lust or anger or un-forgiveness or addiction or whatever else separates us from the full life of Christ. We die still needing healing. Will Christ continue the process of healing in the next life? Yes. Paul says we will be transformed from one degree of glory to another as we see Christ, in Christ's presence (cf. 2Corinthians 3.17-18). Furthermore, Paul says that to be away from the body is to be at Home with the Lord (cf. 2Corinthians 5.6-8).

So, if Christ is going to heal us until we are completely whole and healthy, will he do that against our will, or with our cooperation? Perhaps both, because God clearly drags us kicking and screaming to receive his grace at times. But in general, Christ tends to work with our co-operation. That means a process of repentance and growth, and a purging of sin (hence the root word of purgatory). CS Lewis envisions such a process of healing and purging after death in his book "The Great Divorce".

Furthermore, we can integrate into this all the Scriptural images of God as a refining fire, a consuming fire, the undying flame of Love, which purifies everything that is against Love from us. Paul's admonishment in 1Corinthians 3 about the Fire of God's Love testing and purifying the quality of our works can fit into this rubric quite naturally. All of this is to say that an idea of purgatory-- one that is centered in meeting God face to face in Christ-- is easily found in Scripture, and does not contradict the Reformation insight that we are saved by grace alone. Yes, salvation is initiated, continued, and completed by the power of God which comes from beyond our abilities. But that grace always enlivens and heals us, so that we progressively cooperate with God's Love and manifest the abundant life of Jesus Christ.

What I have just described is basically the Eastern Orthodox idea of the intermediate state, which prepares us for the final resurrection. To compare this with both Protestant dualism, and the Catholic theory of purgatory, I have included a chart I often use to teach students about Christian views of death, the intermediate state, and the final resurrection. This chart is included at the top of this essay, or can be downloaded in THIS PDF.

In my estimation, where some Catholics tend to distort the Biblical and Traditional material we have regarding death is that: (a) Some Catholics view purgatory as punitive and apart from Christ, rather than redemptive and in the presence of Christ; (b) Some Catholics import into this the mechanical/commercial analogies of "paying off" time in prison. But I stress that this is only some Catholics. The best theologians of the Catholic Tradition effectively mitigate and reorient the “pop culture theology” toward a view of death which is much more relational and organic, and less commercial and mechanical. 

Thus, one could understand "retweeting" the Pope in the crass commercial sense, as the article above clearly does. This is an “easy” read of the idea of indulgences, and one that is designed to provoke controversy and sell ads. Or, most thoughtful Catholics I talk to, understand it rather in this way: Every time we actively cooperate with Christ's grace working through us, we become more healthy and whole in this life, and thus need less healing in the next life. Retweeting the words of a wise and holy man-- just like copying them into a prayer journal, or sharing them with a friend in conversation-- is one very small way of cooperating with God's grace and becoming healthy and whole. Thus naturally, there is less of a "purgatorial" healing for that person in the next life.

This same understanding can be applied to any such idea of “indulgences" in general. Yet, I would agree that the whole framing of “indulgences” and “purgatory” tends to be problematic and tilted toward the mechanical/commercial. While they can be successfully rehabilitated from their commercial and mechanical connotations, perhaps it is best just to use different terminology altogether. Perhaps it is best to just talk about relationship, and process, and healing, and growth into the fullness of God’s Love. That is why I tend to go with the more organic, relational, and ancient understanding advocated by the Eastern Orthodox.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.