If Jesus Christ died ‘once for all,’” a Protestant might query you, “then why does the Catholic Church teach that you must suffer in purgatory for your sins? Wasn’t His death sufficient to save you from your sins?”

This is surely a reasonable question. After all, Hebrews 10:14 proclaims, ‘‘But this one [i.e. Christ] offered one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God; now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool. For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.” So, that being the case, how can purgatory be compatible with Christ’s perfect, once-for-all sacrifice?

The key to this issue is to recognize that our earthly life affords us an opportunity to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). We are called by Christ to accomplish this by his grace (Mk 9:23). He told us, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). These truths dovetail with what Revelation 21:27 says about the condition one must be in to enter heaven: “nothing unclean shall enter it.”

Now, consider the words of Christ in Matthew 22:1-14 where he compares heaven with a wedding feast. One of the invited guests arrives without a “wedding garment” (i.e. he is dressed shabbily and inappropriately for the great occasion). The master says to him, “‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.’ For many are called, but few are chosen.’”

The truth is that Christ’s once-for-all death on the cross is the perfect and unique sacrifice for sins, one that saves from damnation those who are in Christ (cf. Hebrews 7:25) and “cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). But notice that this “cleansing” does not happen all at once, it takes time and perseverance on our part, spanning our entire lives. Jesus said, “He who endures to the end will be saved” (Mt 10:22; 24:13; Mk 13:13).

This all means that for some of us, the process of purification in this life is left uncompleted when death comes. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment.” And after the judgment comes our eternal destiny in either heaven or hell. And for those whose names are found to be written in the Book of Life, heaven awaits. But since “nothing unclean” can enter the glorious splendor of God’s presence in heaven (cf. 1 Tim. 6:16), if one is not fully prepared to meet God face-to-face, if there remain spiritual defects and temporal effects of forgiven sins that still cling to his soul, then some final purification must take place before that one can enter heaven.

The Prophet Habakkuk reminds us that this is because God is all holy, and he will not allow anything in heaven with him to be less than holy and spotless: “Too pure are your eyes to look upon evil [O Lord], and the sight of misery you cannot endure” (Hab. 1:13). This process of final purification or purgation is called “purgatory” by Catholics.

St. Paul taught very clearly that some souls undergo a final purgation or purification that is performed by God on the soul of a departed Christian, a process that that involves suffering. This is the most central of all biblical texts, and we will return to it later in this chapter. For the moment, though, read and ponder what the Bible says here about what happens to some souls when they are purified after death:

“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw -- each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor. 3:10-15).

This final purification removes all the dross that clings to the soul, things that St. Paul describes metaphorically as flammable materials such as “wood, hay, and straw.” They are burned away in this judgment by God. Conversely, that man’s good works -- which St. Paul compares with “gold, silver, and precious stones” -- are refined and retained.

In Matthew 12:32, Christ mentions a sin that cannot be forgiven even “in the world to come,” implying that there are some sins that will be forgiven after death (St. Augustine interpreted this passage this way, with regard to purgatory, in ‘‘The City of God,’’ Book 21:24:2).

Similarly, in the teaching about the unforgiving servant, in Matthew 18:32-34, Christ concludes with the fact that the wicked servant, even after his debt was canceled by the king, was thrown into prison for maltreating his fellow servant and told, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; and should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord delivered him to the jailers, till he should pay all his debt.”

Then Christ adds a chilling warning to us: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Mt 18:35). Clearly, Christ did not mean that the Father will literally lock people in prison in this life. Rather, he is referring to what will happen to those who die in a state that includes the hardness of heart to a brother or sister; stored up anger, grudges that have never been abandoned, unwillingness to forgive, etc. All of these kinds of defects in the soul -- plus others of different types -- will need to be eliminated, so that the one who dies with these defects yet adhering to his soul can be purified from them and then be able to enter into glory, the presence of God himself.

Patrick Madrid is an author, public speaker, and the publisher of Envoy Magazine. Visit his website at www.surprisedbytruth.com

Additional passages:

2 Maccabees 12: 43-45;

Luke 16:19-31; 1 Cor. 11:27-32;

Hebrews 11:13-16, 32-40;

1 Peter 3:18-19; 4:6

Related sections

of the Catechism:

CCC 1030-1032, 1472-1477