Fr Francis Marsden



            “Rabbai Sammai teaches this: that there will be three groups at the judgment: one of the truly holy, another of the truly wicked, and a third in between. It is immediately written and sealed that the holy shall live until the end of time. It is likewise written and sealed that the truly wicked shall remain in Gehenna, as it is written (Dan. 12:2) As for the third group, they shall go down to Gehenna for a time and then come up again, as it is written (Zech 13:9 and 1 Sam 2:6) . . .” (Jewish treatise concerning Rosh Hashanah, c.100 AD)

            This notion of three possible destinations after death - the damned, the blessed, and an in-between group who can be assisted by our prayers - is found in both late Judaism and Christianity. The Book of Maccabees teaches: It is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.” (2 Macc.12:46)

Even nowadays, when a Jewish parent dies, one of the children must pray for them the Kaddish, each day for a whole year. This duty is so serious, that if a Jew dies without issue, someone else is hired to recite the daily prayers for the departed soul.

            In pagan writers of ancient Greece and Rome we also find the idea of retribution after death, and in Virgil, the theme of purification:

“Therefore we souls are trained with punishment

And pay with suffering for old felonies –

Some are hung up helpless to the winds;

The stain of sin is cleansed for others of us

In the trough of a huge whirlpool or with fire

Burned out of us – each one of us we suffer

The afterworld we deserve.”    (Aeneid, vi.741 ff.)


            The Church solemnly teaches a threefold destiny immediately after death: heaven, hell or purgatory. One of the clearest references to a purifying punishment after death comes in 1 Corinthians 3:11-15:

“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds upon the foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble - each man’s work shall 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 a penalty, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Cor 3:11-15)

            This passage from St Paul intrigued the Church Fathers. Origen suggested that the wood of our sins will be burnt out, leaving the soul pure. Clement of Alexandria  suggested two types of fire in the next world: a “devouring and consuming fire” for the incorrigible; for the rest “a fire that sanctifies” and “does not consume, like the fire of the forge”, but “penetrates the soul that passes through it.”

On the Day of Judgment each person’s work will be put to the test. That which was shoddily done will burn away like wood, hay or stubble. He will see his life’s achievements reduced to ashes, while he himself may be saved “yet so as through fire.”

The man who has performed good work, will behold it purged of dross like precious metal. He will be duly rewarded. 

Now it is certain that nothing impure, imperfect, defiled, can enter the all-holy presence of the Most High. Only when a soul been made perfectly holy, pure and selfless, is it fit for heaven. Hence so often the need for a post-mortem purification, a doctrine unpopular in post-Protestant Britain.

            When the Reformers rejected the Church’s teaching on Purgatory, they ended up in difficulties. Luther dreamt up the doctrine of “imputed righteousness”, that is, the righteousness of Christ justifies believers, covering their sins as snow covers a dunghill. God grants a purely mechanistic and exterior “holiness.” But is a snow-covered dunghill fit for heaven?

Catholic doctrine understands justification as not merely being reckoned righteous, but actually being transformed and made righteous and holy before God. This is the far-reaching work of sanctification and purification. Because at physical death it often remains unfinished, it is perfected in purgatory by “purifying punishments.”

The doctrine of purgatory also allows the question of God’s justice to be considered seriously, and not brushed aside in a happy-clappy manner. Consider baptised Christians who have committed heinous evil – peddled drugs and for profit drawn others into addiction, never helped the hungry millions in the Third World, campaigned or voted for or procured abortion, walked out on their spouses and children, indulged in serial monogamy, assassinated their political rivals, or sexually abused children.

If they repent, can they expect immediate heaven? Certainly not. A genuine repentance saves them from hell, but they still have severe punishment to bear in prison or in purgatory.

To market “instant heaven” or “instant salvation” risks trivialising the awesome, infinite Holiness of God. It reduces God to the level of human judgments: “OK, he’s now a nice, decent chap, cover up his sins and let him in.” We must always beware, as the late Cardinal Hume said, of presuming that God’s standards are no higher than our own.

The attraction of the “just believe in Jesus and you are immediately saved” economy-Gospel is obvious. Only baptism or a plenary indulgence can achieve this. Those evangelical sects which poach lapsed Catholics offer cheapo-grace and fake salvation. If they read their Bibles more carefully, they would see that St Paul urges his followers: “Work out your salvation in fear and trembling”. We shall be judged upon our works as well as our faith. (CCC 1021)

After baptism, it is only by the Sacrament of Penance that the guilt of mortal sin, which would otherwise damn the wicked, can be remitted. Even then the “temporal punishment” remains. The penance given before absolution is usually only a token penance – the rest of the “temporal punishment” remains to be discharged in this life or the next.

To illustrate this, let us compare mortal sin to a man who drinks a lethal dose of some poisonous cocktail. He collapses and is rushed off to hospital. The doctors put him on a life-support machine and manage to maintain his vital systems through the worst crisis. His life is saved. But there are weeks or months of suffering and sickness to endure before he is back to full health, as the noxious elements are slowly purged from his system.

Sacramental forgiveness of the guilt of mortal sin is like the life-support machine. It saves us from the eternal death of hell. But the harmful effects of the “poison of sin” have damaged the entire spiritual organism. Slowly and painfully they have to be purged by prayer, penance and good works. This may be done in this world, or if we are foolish, postponed until purgatory in the next. For as Padre Pio said: “The souls in purgatory would like to throw themselves into a well of our earthly fire, because for them it would be like a well of cool water.”

Those who neglect Sunday worship week after week, who cohabit without the sacred bond of matrimony, who indulge in immoral lusts, who never turn a thought to the poor and the needy, are storing up for themselves a long and severe punishment in purgatory, even if, by the mercy of God, they finally repent and avoid damnation.

The doctrine of Purgatory urgently needs to be rehabilitated and widely preached. A God who administered only infinite bliss or eternal damnation could not be a just God. Divine Mercy would embrace the repentant sinner who has not expiated his fault, but Divine Holiness requires from him a painful purification from the traces of every sinful thought, word, and deed.

St Clare of Montefalco (1268-1308) once experienced a vision of the judgment of souls during a 30-day rapture. She reported that at this judgment, there was no anger, no guilt, no trial. God did not judge anyone; they judged themselves, as they came face to face with the fullness of Truth. She could see souls convicting themselves of all they had done in their lives – all that had been hidden in the darkness was now revealed in the light. The souls themselves exacted their own punishment, their own condemnation.

Her own sins, even defects she had never considered wrong before, suddenly took on a grave significance, as she became aware of all their consequences. She saw the condemned being dragged down by demons to Hell or Purgatory (she knew not which). She beheld God upon the mountain of heaven, with the angels singing “Come, Come.”  A voice said: “Certainly, she will come, but not yet.”