Thought Experiments on Purgatory

Since yesterday was the Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed, more famously known as All Soul’s Day, I thought I’d present a few thoughts on purgatory. Some variation of this may have appeared on this blog before, but I’ve been sort of mulling it over recently, so forgive me if I repeat myself.

Thought Experiment One
Your child drops a glass of milk on the kitchen floor, shattering the glass. He sincerely apologizes, and you forgive him. Can you still tell him to clean up his mess?
It seems to me that the answer is a clear yes. His cleaning up the mess isn’t even particularly a punishment: it’s having him pay some of the natural consequences of his actions. And note, it’s not even the full weight of the actions: he’s cleaning up the mess, but not buying a new glass and some more milk.
Take-away: Just because you forgive someone, it doesn’t stop you from demanding redress for the thing done wrong. If someone steals your car, repents, and apologizes, they don’t get to keep the car just because you forgive them. It’s possible for you to (a) take the car back and not forgive them; forgive them and let them keep the car; or (c) take the car back and forgive them. The repentant criminal is no less forgiven in (c) than (b).

Thought Experiment Two
A variation upon the first. This time, your child is in an antique store, and recklessly drops a priceless vase onto the floor, shattering it. The store owner is justifiably upset.

  1. The child apologizes, and the store owner, in his mercy, forgives him.
  2. Nevertheless, it isn’t fair to the owner’s coworkers to simply write off the cost of this vase, and so he requires some sort of redress. The child, by his own merits, can never pay off this vase – he’s a child. So you, out of love for your child, pay the cost of the vase, even though you are, yourself, innocent.
  3. There is still, however, the mess that the broken vase made. May the store owner demand the child clean up this mess?

The answer seems to be a clear yes again. Just as if, in the first thought experiment, someone had paid for the child’s milk and glass, the responsibility to clean it up would still lie with him. In either form, there’s a problem, and he’s to blame for it.
Take-Away: Here, we see the fuller extent of sin’s damages. Sin is both a debt and a trespass (as the parallel structures of Matthew 6:12, Luke 11:4, and Mark 11:25 illuminate): it occurs when we infringe upon the rights of others, and/or when we fail to live up to our own duties. It can occur due to action or inaction. Mocking those in need is a sin, but ignoring those in need can be as well. In this example, redress for the monetary damage is imputed, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for redress of another form: cleaning up the physical mess.

Christ pays our debt of sin in full, just like you might do for your child in step 2 of the second thought experiment. And Christ’s payment is intertwined with our own being forgiven (step 1). But neither our being forgiven nor Christ’s paying our debt removes the obligation of redress – precisely because neither are designed to. Christ’s payment is fully efficacious, but it’s not intended to remove our obligation, just as you wouldn’t, as a responsible parent, pay the storekeeper to clean up your kid’s mess.

Thought Experiment Two-A
Instead of having the child clean up the mess, another view of Purgatory sees it as a needed chastisement. In this variation, you pay for the damage your child causes, he’s forgiven, but you still punish him.

Thought Experiment Two-B
A still-further variation, here you have the child do something else, while you clean up the mess. This way, he’s still learning the consequences of his actions, but for some reason it makes more sense to have him do an alternative form of redress: perhaps you don’t want him to cut his hands on shards of the vase or glass of milk. Often, direct redress is simply impossible. This substitutionary logic is part of the logical basis for indulgences.

A lot of what the thought experiments were meant to do was to establish where, logically, the notion of Purgatory fit into the whole redemption scheme to Catholics. Arguments like “Christ paid our debt on the Cross” don’t really refute anything we think. Another quick example. If my sin is stealing cars, and I got to Christ and get forgiven, shouldn’t I still return your car? Does my returning your car diminish in any way the forgiveness I’ve received from Christ? Likewise, if I’ve stolen something from Christ Himself, shouldn’t I be at least as inclined to restore it to the best of my ability? And if restoring to you doesn’t diminish Christ’s sacrifice, why would restoring to Him?


Biblical Support
But of course, it’s easy for arguments from logic to end up pretty far outside of orthodoxy. So what kind of Biblical support can we find?

  • 2 Samuel 12:13-14: Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have made the enemies of the LORD show utter contempt, the son born to you will die.

A few quick notes on this — if you want to skip to the important stuff, skip this paragraph. First, “you are not going to die” must be understood in an eternal sense, or it doesn’t make any sense (how would it be just, or even desirable, for David to say, “Don’t kill me! Kill my son!”?). Also, note 2 Samuel 12:23, where David seems to suggest that his son has gone to Paradise. Second, the original version of this verse says “because you have spurned the Lord,” not “caused the enemies of the Lord” to do so; that was a later whitewashing from the Masoretic Text which a lot of Protestant translations I’ve read have taken a bit uncritically, just because the MT is in Hebrew. This is one of those times the Greek translation is more accurate. The NAB is a better translation here. Third, I purposely used the NIV version here, b/c it’s got the right ambiguity. It’s unclear from the wording if God forgives him, or removes his sin for a later payment (Christ’s atoning death). The effect is the same.

David is forgiven. No matter how you read it. But his son still dies. Anti-Purgatory logic falls apart here: if he’s forgiven, how can he still be penalized? If he’s penalized, how can he be forgiven? But if you follow the flow of the logical experiments from above, it makes perfect sense. God still exercises a penalty against David by costing him his son. It does two things: (1) it creates a deterrent against sin; and (2) it prevents David from profiting off of the sin by having another heir. The son was solely the product of a sinful union that should never have happened. He’s as illicitly obtained as a stolen car, and God (who owns every soul) demanded repayment, even though David was forgiven.

  • Wisdom 3:1-9 The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace. For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality; chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself. In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble; they shall judge nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord shall be their King forever. Those who trust in him shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with him in love: because grace and mercy are with his holy ones, and his care is with his elect.

This makes it clearer what sort of suffering Purgatory entails. It’s not the torments of God’s wrath. It’s the loving care of a Father. And sure, it hurts, but lots of loving things do, like removing splinters, or getting immunizations. This is the same God who required circumcision, who had both religious and sanitary benefits, but which came at a fierce price of temporary pain. This same analogy to gold tested in fire is later found in 1 Peter 1:7. So even though we’re saved by Christ, we can still expect to have our faith refined by fire. This comports with the conclusions from the thought experiments above.

  • 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.

So there will be those on that Day who suffer loss. That is, after death, they’ll suffer, because of what they’ve done in their lives. A lot of Catholics get hung up on the use (once again) of fire imagery, and Purgatory is often imagined as fiery because of all these Biblical references to refiner’s fire, and being saved as through fire, etc. But even if one views those simply metaphorically, it doesn’t escape the central point that some, post-death, will be (a) saved through Jesus Christ, and (b) still suffering, at least briefly, because of the lives they lead..

Finally, there are going to be those who say that these suffering aren’t necessarily referring to the sufferings of Purgatory. They could be referring to sufferings during our lifetimes. True. There’s no reason to read one interpretation to the exclusion of the other. In the spiritual life, sanctification is a process of purgation, sometimes painful even upon Earth. That seems, in fact, to be part of Paul’s point in this passage from 1 Corinthians. We can either wait to see what happens if we build our faith-lives upon straw, or we can start doing the hard things right now, and build a more stable structure upon our Foundation. Catholics simply read these verses, and verses about how nothing impure can enter Heaven, and about how we are to be perfect as Our Father in Heaven is Perfect, and we draw the natural conclusion that this process of purgation does not stop at the moment of death for some of the elect, or they wouldn’t be able to enter Heaven.

Purgatory, it seems to me, is the natural consequence of taking seriously (a) sin, and (b) the purity of Heaven. Imputed righteousness or saying “Good enough” about someone’s sins at death won’t cut it.


  1. As always, very clear and accurate.

    I’ve often used the allegory of the bath of purgation when explaining to my protestant friends, and I know that it is fairly popular with a lot of other (professional) apologists.

    In short, if you are a peasant, working in a pigsty, and are suddenly summoned to the court of the King, you cannot go as you are, nor (if you are honest with yourself) would you want to. It would be a great offense to the King to appear covered in mud and other filth. You might wash really well in preparation for the visit, but once you arrive at the court, the servants at the gate politely inform you that you still have some washing to do.

    They guide you to a great bath, where you are scrubbed vigorously, until all of the dirt is gone (note, they may have to scrub very hard, and it may hurt, but you endure it, knowing the pain is only temporary). After all traces of grime and even the smell of it are only a memory, you are given a new robe and escorted to the King.

    There are a good many areas where this allegory breaks down, but then, the scenario with the glass or vase has a few small issues as well.

    I think that you’re right about the fire imagery being a stumbling block to many people, who begin to equate it with a brief stay Hell. On the other hand, I have no image to substitute for fire that would convey that the suffering endured in purgatory is real, though very different from the sufferings of Hell.

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