By Fr.Corey Close
As November is a special month for remembrance of those who have passed before us, and there is much confusion over the last things (death, judgment, heaven and hell), I thought I would write a Q & A on some common questions I receive regarding this issue.
Q: Does purgatory exist? Don’t my loved ones go straight to heaven?
A: Excluding extremely holy people (like John Paul II or Mother Teresa) or those who have died defending the faith as martyrs, we do not go straight to heaven if we die in God’s mercy. The problem is that we are sinners, and we don’t just sin, we like it. There’s a part of us that enjoys it. If God were to transport us straight to heaven, right now, heaven would not be enjoyable, but painful, because we could not bear to see God face-to-face and we’d still want to sin. Sin is like a drug, and we get addicted to it. In other words, we need a spiritual “detox” to get cleansed of our wounded desires, so that in heaven we can fully enjoy God in all his glory. This place, this spiritual detox, we call purgatory, a place where our wounded desires are purged from us.
Q: Why couldn’t God just instantly heal us and take us to heaven?
A: This is a fair question, and the response Protestants will have to the first question. The problem with this is that God always respects our free will. God could change us instantly, but to do so would be to cause more harm than good. God wants us to participate in the change; he will not force himself upon us. Just as in this life we need to cooperate with grace to grow in holiness (a long process of growth) we need to do so in purgatory. I call purgatory “Plan B.” We are supposed to become fully holy in our lifetime but, for most of us, this doesn’t happen. God, in his mercy and his love for us, gives us purgatory to prepare us for the joys of heaven.
Q: Once you are in purgatory, can you go to hell?
A: No, once you are in purgatory, God’s mercy has saved you from everlasting death, but you need some preparation before entering the heavenly kingdom.
Q: So who’s in purgatory and what is our relationship to them?
A: Our friends and relatives who have died. Those saved by the mercy of God. Those who may have been estranged from God, but he managed to save. Those who aren’t even Christian, but lived a good life in accord with their conscience. They are in purgatory. As for our relationship with them, the Church has always held that one of the spiritual works of mercy is to pray for the dead. We are called to pray for all those who have died, but most especially our loved ones. We also try to remember those who have no one to pray for them. Our prayers, just as they can aid the living, aid those in purgatory to be healed and enter heaven’s glory. This is a work of mercy greatly pleasing to God as he wants us to help each other. These souls in purgatory can, in turn, pray for us.
Q: What about hell? How could a good God send anyone to hell?
A: Hell is, in fact, one of the greatest and most radical signs of God’s love for us. God gave us free will and without hell free will would only be an illusion. God actually gives us the ability to accept and receive his plan for us and his love, or to reject them and to choose our own path. Remember, one-third of the angels, having seen God, rejected him, so it is very possible for us humans to do the same. In the book of Exodus, when Moses is dealing with Pharaoh, the first three times Moses asks him to “let his people go,” Pharaoh refuses, and it says “Pharaoh hardened his heart” (cf. Ex 8:15, 8:32, 9:34). But, after this, it says “the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (cf. Ex 10:1, 11:10, 14:4, 14:17). God gave Pharaoh opportunities to repent but after Pharaoh had hardened his heart. God affirmed him in his choice. God loves us so much, that he will allow us to choose hell. It is important to remember, however, that through his incarnation, passion, death and resurrection, God is constantly seeking to save us from ourselves, but we must be open to it.
May the souls of your loved ones and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace!
(Fr. Corey Close is parochial vicar at Prince of Peace Parish in Clinton.)