Tuesday, May 14, 2024

An argument for purgatory

Here is a plausible argument for purgatory.

Start with these observations:

  1. Some people end up in heaven even though at the time of death they had not yet forgiven all wrongs done to them by other people who end up in heaven nor had they been performing such an act of forgiveness while dying.

  2. An act of forgiveness takes time, and at the beginning of the act one has not yet forgiven.

  3. It is impossible to be in heaven without having forgiven all wrongs done to one by other members of the heavenly community.

Premise 3 seems clearly true: the perfection of the heavenly community requires it.

Premise 1 is pretty plausible. It does not seem that a minor bit of unforgiveness would damn one to hell.

Premise 2 is what I am actually least confident of. It is pretty plausible in our present state. But I guess there is the possibility that we can forgive in the very first instant of our presence in heaven, so that the act is already completed in that very instant. Maybe, but it doesn’t seem very human.

It follows from 1-3 that some people who end up in heaven have to initiate the necessary act of forgiveness post-death. When they initiated the act of forgiveness, they were not in heaven. Nor were they in hell, since they ended up in heaven, and one cannot transfer between heaven and hell. Hence, they must have been in some intermediate state, which we may call purgatory.

Here is a difficulty, though. Suppose a person in heaven is wronged by someone on earth
who will end up in heaven. This surely happens: for instance, a parent is in heaven, and their child on earth fails to fulfill a promise they made to the parent. If an act of forgiveness takes time, isn’t there a short period of time before the person in heaven forgives?

I don’t think so. Perhaps a part of becoming the kind of person that ends up in heaven is one’s having engaged in a prospective forgiveness of all who might wrong one (or at least all who might wrong one and yet are going to be a part of the heavenly community, since the argument above only requires one to forgive such persons as a condition for heavenly beatitude). Some have engaged in it in this life, having transformed themselves into perfect forgivers who have always already forgiven, and others need purgatory.


SMatthewStolte said...

Have there been any people who believed in purgatory but also held that the maximum amount of time anyone spent in purgatory was pretty short—say, an hour or so?

Alexander R Pruss said...

As far as I know, there is no doctrine on how long purgatory is. How time flows for a disembodied soul is also unclear to me.

Alexander R Pruss said...

It is commonly believed by Catholics that purgatory precedes the resurrection of the dead. If memory serves, Aquinas thought that even those who are alive at the second coming will die--but only briefly. If we combine this with the idea that purgatory precedes the resurrection, it becomes plausible that for some people, purgatory will be very short in terms of external time. But it could still be long in subjective time.

Sam Harper said...

Do indulgences still exist in Catholicism? One of the major issues I have with purgatory is how one reconciles it with indulgences. From what I understand, purgatory is necessary to rid a person of whatever sinfulness or imperfection in their character that remains after they die so they can enter heaven as morally perfect people. But if one can reduce their time in purgatory with an indulgence, doesn't that mean purgatory wasn't really necessary after all?

Applied to the question of forgiveness, if a person could get an indulgence that completely allowed them to avoid purgatory altogether, it would seem to follow that a person could enter heaven even though forgiveness was a process.

Walter Van den Acker said...


'It doesn't sound very human'.
But the perfection of the heavenly community doesn't sound very human' to me either. To be 'very human' entails imperfection. The Humans who are in heaven are made perfect by God and God, being omnipotent, does not require time to do so.
So, at the moment of death, in the very first instant of our présence in heaven, everybody will forgive, unless they will never forgive, in which case they go to hell.
None of this requires any sort of purgatory.

Alexander R Pruss said...


The Church is a community, and the activity of other members of the Church can contribute to our salvation. Cf. Colossians 1:24. Indulgences are a way of accepting that contribution "from the treasuries of the Church". We do not know to what degree indulgences contribute to the decrease of purgatorial suffering. It seems like to me that the person in purgatory would be humbly accepting the gift of grace from a fellow human, and this acceptance itself is a part of the moral growth that purgatory is about.

Ben Stowell said...

Moral perfection either can be done by will or requires divine intervention.
Only a being already morally perfect can will to become perfect.
Therefore human perfection can only be achieved through divine intervention, ie the beatific vision.

If the beatific vision is necessary to cause someone to become morally perfect then wouldn't purgatory be a waste of time?

Maybe: Exposure to the beatific vision is a slow process, and until that process is complete can you enter heaven. But that would suggest no one makes it to heaven immediately.

But if being on a path to self-improvement counts as flourishing , which I think it does (especially when the self-improvement is guaranteed), and heaven is a place of perfect flourishing, then this process could take place in heaven.

Ben Stowell said...

I should clarify: Of course an imperfect being can will to be perfect, but an imperfect being cannot become perfect through sheer willpower.