Sermon at Matins: Purgatory

11 December 2005 at :00 am

by the Reverend Canon Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian

Purgatory

This year only three of the Sundays in Advent fall in December, so as Canon in Residence for December I have only three Advent sermons to preach. This set me thinking. Traditionally, there are four themes for Advent sermons: death, judgment, heaven and hell. With only three to preach, my thoughts turned to Dante, with his vision of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

Dante took his scheme from Christian teaching, which he developed using classical sources and made his own through the extraordinary vividness of his poetry. His journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise has influenced so many poets and artists that it has become part of the furniture of the western imagination, and many people in the west now think that what Dante described so vividly is what Christians believe. I tried to show last week - the sermon is on the Westminster Abbey website if you want to look it up – that Dante’s imagery of punishment in hell goes far beyond anything in the Bible. The writings of the Old and New Testaments teach that wrongdoing deserves to be punished, but, unlike Dante, they are not interested in describing the ways in which the wicked suffer in hell, and Jesus repeats again and again that God always welcomes and forgives the repentant sinner.

Like the doctrine of hell, the doctrine of Purgatory has been developed from just a few Biblical pointers. In Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, writing to Christians who expected the end of the world very soon, he says he does not want them to grieve for those who have died because as ‘we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died’ (1 Thess 4:13). This developed into teaching about a ‘waiting state’ in which the souls of those who have died are being prepared to be brought by Jesus into the full light of God in heaven. Similarly, Jesus’ words, ‘in my father’s house are many dwelling places’ ( Jn 14:2) suggested there was a sort of ante-chamber to heaven, a dwelling place for those who were in that waiting state.

The idea that in this state of waiting believers are being tested and purified developed from passages such as the one in the first letter to the Corinthians, where Paul looks forward to the day of the Lord, saying, ‘The work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work has been done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss: the builder will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:13-15). The fire is a metaphor for purification - as in the famous prophesy of Malachi, where we are told that God’s messenger will be ‘like a refiner’s fire … and he will purify the descendents of Levi until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness’ (Mal 3:3). The idea that there could be punishment after death according to our behaviour in this life was also developed from the teaching of Jesus in Luke, where, talking about the coming of the Son of Man, he says, ‘That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself to do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating’ (Lk 12:47-48). The suggestion here is that there is punishment after death but it is limited and it is closely related to what we have done in this life.

These are only scriptural hints, which were developed into a doctrine. They developed into a doctrine because in the Mediterranean world people were used to the idea of another world in which the growth of the soul might continue, and because, from an early stage in the Christian church, they prayed for those who had died. What they asked for the dead was, of course, that they would attain salvation – and if such prayer was part of the life of the church this suggested that those who had died were still in some way being prepared for the salvation that would come at the end of the world on the day of the Last Judgment. The dead were still being purged of their sins. The pain they experienced in this purging was the pain that would ultimately ensure they were completely ready to enter the presence of God; completely prepared for heaven.

One of the problems in the development of this doctrine is clearly evident in Dante’s Divine Comedy. For Dante, the Inferno (inferno, incidentally, just means ‘underworld’ and has nothing to do with fire) is a quite separate place from Purgatorio. Over its gate is written, ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ Dante’s Hell is a place of everlasting imprisonment and punishment, which has lodged in all our imaginations but goes way beyond anything taught in the Bible. The New Testament teaches that God ‘is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’ (2 Pet 3:9). This is why it seems to me that, though it is possible for human beings to refuse absolutely to enter into the process of salvation, nobody languishes in hell forever. Whilst it is, according to the teaching of the Bible, possible that there may be those who do not enter ‘eternal life,’ that is God’s business: God has his ways of bringing all who are in the slightest way open to his love to the fulfilment and joy of his eternal presence. Hell, as Dante and so many others have imagined it, is largely a pagan idea; Purgatory, as a process of preparation for the fullness of life, both in this life and beyond, fits closely with the Church’s understanding of the love, the holiness and the justice of God.

There is something more that needs to be said. In the Middle Ages this doctrine took on a life of its own and was horribly distorted. The Church taught that it had the authority to grant people a shorter time in Purgatory, and even sold indulgences to do just that. This was a grotesque abuse of spiritual power that was rightly condemned by the Reformers. It produced a reaction in Protestant theology against any notion of Purgatory, though, by comparison with the early Church, this left a gap in their teaching about death and future judgment. I was taught to believe that the clock stops at death: after death there is no chance for further repentance and no chance for further purification. This now seems to me unbiblical and contrary to the Church’s understanding of the God of love and freedom who is bit by bit and step by step drawing all things to their perfect conclusion through the work of Jesus Christ and of his Holy Spirit. It seems to me that it is not the doctrine of Purgatory which is unbiblical, but our received doctrine of hell.

Whether we use the language of Purgatory or not, we don’t seem to talk much about God’s work refining the believer in preparation for heaven. Perhaps we have also lost the openness to this process of refinement, even in this life, which used to be part of Christian spiritual discipline. It is a wonderful testimony to the progress that has been made in medicine, nutrition, and public health that we no longer accept sickness and loss as normal in life. However, we do get sick and we always will, we experience tragedy, bereavement, ageing and failure and always will. In the Prayer Book service for the Visitation of the Sick, the priest is to say to the sick person. ‘Take therefore in good part the chastisement of the Lord’. This is exactly what we would do - take ‘in good part’ what is happening to us - if we saw more clearly the way God fashions us, his people, as he fashioned Israel, through life’s failures and life’s troubles. And this is what the doctrine of Purgatory is really all about: being a Christian is a process of being refined, sometimes painfully refined, to become more like Christ. Whether we believe God carries on purifying us in this way after the death of the body is really not the point: what matters is what is going on now, and whether at a deep level we can dare to let God’s Holy Spirit purge away the poison of sin and, through his love, fashion within us more of the beauty of Christ.

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