Dr. Clark Carlton · May 31, 2007
This week we get a helpful lesson on the Orthodox perspective on Purgatory.
Hello, and welcome again to Faith and Philosophy. Today’s topic is Purgatory. Last week we discussed the word Hell. I suggested that we should avoid the use of this word in our translations of the Bible and the Fathers and simply transliterate the words Hades and Gehenna from the original Greek texts.
I pointed out that in the New Testament, Hades and Gehenna have very different meanings. I also noted that in the medieval, Latin-speaking West, the terms had more or less become synonymous by the time folks got around to translating ecclesiastical texts into the vernacular. This explains why early translators always used the single word Hell when translating Hades or the Latin, Infernus and Gehenna.
I finished up last week by noting that this confusion concerning the use of these terms resulted in an oversimplified view of death, which whether intentional or not, tended to downplay the significance of the resurrection and Last Judgment. Because Hades or Infernus came to be thought of as the place of damnation or Gehenna and not simply the abode of the dead.
Any sense of death as a fundamentally unnatural rural state was lost. When people die, they go to their reward whether in Heaven or in Hell. Period. The resurrection and Last Judgment are mere afterthoughts at this point. The stark polarity between the saints in Heaven and the sinners in Hell left medieval churchmen in the West with a problem, however.
From the very beginning, Christians prayed for the dead. But why? The saints in Heaven do not need our prayers, and those in Hell would not benefit by them. The answer to this problem was Purgatory. Recognizing that Christians have always prayed for the dead and also recognizing the obvious fact that not all Christians live saintly lives, Purgatory was conceived as a third place or state in between the fully-blessed and the hopelessly damned. It is for those in Purgatory that the Church prays according to this particular theory.
Now let’s be clear about what Purgatory is and is not. Only baptized Roman Catholics are said to be in Purgatory. Those who die outside the Roman Catholic Church go straight to Hell. They do not pass Go. They do not collect $200. There is no possibility for their salvation. By the way, few Catholics will admit to this nowadays. But this was the unequivocal teaching of the Roman Catholic Church for most of the last millennium.
Now amongst those who have been baptized, there are those who have died without fulfilling certain penances for their sins. Here, Roman theology has traditionally distinguished between the eternal penalty for sin and the temporal penalty. Christ paid the eternal penalty for sin on the Cross. That is why all persons in Purgatory are guaranteed to be saved, eventually.
However, a temporal penalty remains to be paid for sin. This is where penance comes in. By undergoing penance, one pays the temporal penalty. But most Catholics die without fulfilling all the penance due for their sins. That is why they go to Purgatory—to suffer temporal punishment until their debt is paid off, at which point they are allowed to enter Heaven with the rest of the saints.
It’s easy to see how some enterprising clerics, in the late Middle Ages, found a way to turn this scheme into a moneymaker. This is of course the origin of the practice of selling indulgences. For the right price, you can actually buy a certain number of years off your sentence in Purgatory. Offended by the noxious practice of selling indulgences and skeptical of the distinction between eternal and temporal punishment, the Protestant reformers rejected the notion of Purgatory, and rightly so.
Well this brought them back to the polarity I spoke of before. This is the version of things that I grew up with as a Southern Baptist. At the very moment of death, those who are “saved,” that is those who have invited Jesus into their hearts to be their personal Lord and Savior, go immediately to Heaven to be with God. Those who are not “saved,” go directly to Hell where they will burn forever in a fiery pit. No middle ground. No ambiguity. And no prayers for the dead.
There’s also not much reason to believe in the resurrection or Last Judgment, since the real judgment has already taken place. But here is the point I want you to notice. Even though the Reformers rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, they didn’t question the identification of Hades with Gehenna that gave rise to the issue in the first place.
In the late Middle Ages, there were numerous debates between the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox over the issue of Purgatory. In one such debate Cardinal Bessarion defended the practice with exactly the same argument I outlined above. The Orthodox, however, had trouble understanding it. For one thing, the legalistic framework of owing satisfaction for sins was so foreign to their way of thinking that they had trouble understanding what the Romans were talking about.
Furthermore, they pointed out that in the Scriptures there is no mention of a Purgatorial fire. The only fire is the fire of Gehenna, that is the fire of the Last Judgment. Beyond these points however, the most significant difference between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics was the fact that when the Orthodox read the word Hades in the Scriptures, (They were after all reading the original Greek.) they actually thought of Hades, the abode of the dead. They did not confuse it with Gehenna, the fiery lot of the damned.
The Orthodox pray for the dead precisely because the Last Judgment has not taken place. I mentioned a few weeks ago that the first use of the word resurrection in the Bible occurs in the Second Book of Maccabees. It is significant that the mention of the resurrection in this passage is tied directly to the offering of prayer for the dead. Judas Maccabeus offered sacrifices for his slain men on account of the resurrection and the Last Judgment.
We see something similar in the New Testament. When Paul learns of the death of his friend Onesimus, he says, “May the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that day.” And of course in the Liturgy, we ask for a good answer before the fearful judgment seat of Christ. Both the New Testament and the Liturgy of the Church are focused clearly on the coming day of the Lord.
Now to fully understand the significance of all of this, we’re going to need to look at the nature of the Last Judgment and how it relates to death. But I’m afraid it will have to wait until next week. Until then, let us not forget that Christ has conquered death. So in our intercessory prayers, let’s not forget those who have already died. All who await the judgment, whether alive or dead, need our prayers—just as we need the prayers of our brothers and sisters.
And now may our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who sent the Holy Spirit to abide in His Church, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and of the Blessed Elder Sophronius Sakharov, have mercy upon us all and grant us a rich entrance into His eternal kingdom.