Sanctification, satisfaction, and the purpose of purgatory neal Judisch

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Neal Judisch

Recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the doctrine of purgatory among Christian philosophers. Some of these philosophers argue for the existence of purgatory from principles consistent with historic Protestant theology and then attempt, on the basis of those principles, to formulate a distinctively Protestant view of purgatory – i.e., one that differs essentially from the Catholic doctrine as regards purgatory’s raison d’etre. Here I aim to show that Protestant models of purgatory which are grounded in the necessity of becoming fully sanctified before entering heaven (Sanctification Models) fail to contrast materially with the Catholic model of purgatory, which has historically been formulated in terms of the necessity of making satisfaction for sins already forgiven (The Satisfaction Model). Indeed, I shall argue that contrary to widespread assumption, the Sanctification Model and the Satisfaction Model are equivalent when the latter is properly understood.

Purgatory is the process of purification for those who die in the love of God but who are not completely imbued with that love. Sacred Scripture teaches us that we must be purified if we are to enter into perfect and complete union with God. Jesus Christ, who became the perfect expiation for our sins and took upon himself the punishment that was our due, brings us God’s mercy and love. But before we enter into God’s Kingdom every trace of sin within us must be eliminated, every imperfection in our soul must be corrected. This is exactly what takes place in Purgatory. – John Paul II
A man is punished by the very things through which he sins. – Wis 11.16
I. Introduction

Among the few encouraging developments on the ecumenical frontier in recent years is the noteworthy warming of Protestant sensibilities to the idea of purgatory, understood as an intermediate postmortem state in which souls destined for heaven are purified or made fit for heavenly life.1 Belief in purgatory has of course been a mainstay of Catholic (but not of Protestant) theology for centuries, and Catholics, true to form, are none too likely to give it up. So to the extent that Catholics and Protestants can manage to achieve agreement on the reality of an intermediate purgatorial state, this achievement may be welcomed by the ecumenically-minded as a piece of genuine progress.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the arguments for purgatory which have been advanced by at least some Protestants who affirm its existence make clear how little this otherwise encouraging development must result from any authentic increase in appreciation as to where the relevant points of disagreement (and agreement) between Catholics and Protestants actually lie. Specifically, it is clear that the arguments in question were formulated with the express intent of avoiding certain perceived errors and abuses which have long been associated with the Catholic theory of purgatory – theological muddles which, according to these Protestant purgatory proponents, supply the Catholic doctrine of purgatory with its theoretical underpinning and motivational force – but which in fact betray a misconception of what the Catholic theory is. On this view of things, the Catholic doctrine had its genesis and finds its nourishment in a conception of salvation according to which a person is put right with God more or less as a result of their own good works and meritorious efforts, in contrast to the Protestant view which specifies that a person’s right standing before God is entirely a matter of grace, gratuitously applied to the individual who puts his faith in the meritorious achievements of Christ. This perceived difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is then carried over and reflected in the function assigned to purgatory, or the purpose it is thought to serve, within these contrasting soteriological schemes: on the Protestant version purgatory exists so that the heaven-bound individual who requires postmortem sanctification may complete the process of being made intrinsically holy (as distinguished from being ‘reckoned’ holy before the divine tribunal on account of an imputed righteousness not inherently possessed) prior to entering into the glories of heaven, whereas the Catholic version has it that the heaven-bound individual who has not, at the time of death, made up for all the debts he has accumulated through his sins must suffer postmortem punishment with a view toward making satisfaction for them; this individual may then “enter into the joy of his Lord,” but only after his Lord, by way of preparation for the joyous homecoming, has exacted an appropriately agonizing amount of vengeance upon him for a suitable stretch of time.

Such appears to be the general picture. So, to take a recent example, one philosopher who operates within the mindset just described contends that the difference between his view of purgatory, which is targeted at the completion of the sanctification process, and the Catholic view, which focuses on satisfaction for sins, is that the former “is forward looking in that its purpose is to provide an occasion for the fulfillment of a future aim” (viz. intrinsic, personal holiness), whereas the latter “is backward-looking as its purpose is to provide an occasion for the remission of past failures.”2 To put it in other terms, the Protestant version is aimed at ‘purging’ the “disposition to sin” which remains in the incompletely sanctified believer even though the penalty for his sins was paid in toto by Christ, while the Catholic version is aimed at ‘purging’ “the penalty for sin or sin itself” as opposed to the sinful disposition.3 This difference of purpose is then understood, in turn, to be an inevitable outworking of the fundamentally contrastive soteriological orientations of Catholicism and Protestantism: in effect, Protestants think that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, but Catholics don’t think that. Accordingly, it’s no surprise that since the Catholic view of purgatory requires the individual to make satisfaction for his own failures, it “undermines the sufficiency of Christ’s work as a satisfaction for sin” and indeed “renders Christ’s work superfluous,” whereas the “Sanctification Model of purgatory does not undermine the sufficiency of Christ’s work as a satisfaction for sin” and therefore “alleviates at least one standard objection that Protestants might have against purgatory.”4 Thus reassured, Protestants may in good faith avail themselves of the notion of purgatory and all the theoretical benefits pertaining thereto, for even if the Catholic view of purgatory is “fundamentally incompatible with Protestantism” as regards the sufficiency (and, it would seem, the overall non-superfluity) of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, it doesn’t follow that every version of purgatory likewise renders “Christ’s salvific work pointless”5 or otherwise conflicts with any given “cornerstone of Protestant theology.”6

It seems to me reasonably safe to infer from remarks like these that whatever exactly a Protestant/Catholic consensus on the existence of purgatory might suggest in the abstract, in this case it appears to represent nothing more than the mutual affirmation of a comparatively tangential doctrine to which both parties have arrived in wildly different ways and for irreconcilably opposed reasons. Thus the real agreement concerning the necessity of purgatory (for at least a large class of individuals) turns out simply to highlight the radical underlying rift between Catholic and Protestant thought generally, a rift which looks to remain as unbridgeable as ever. In this essay I would like to make one very small contribution to the ecumenical effort by showing that the Protestant version of purgatory just introduced is equivalent to the Catholic one. For ease of reference I shall continue to refer to the Protestant conception and the Catholic conception as the Sanctification Model and the Satisfaction Model respectively. Thus my thesis may be rephrased as expressing the contention that the Satisfaction Model and the Sanctification Model amount to the same thing, so long as the Satisfaction Model is appropriately understood. To put it another, slightly less ambitious-sounding way, I aim to show that the Catholic doctrine of purgatory not only permissibly can but in fact should be understood as equivalent to the Sanctification Model of purgatory. Whether every individual Catholic over the past two millennia has understood the doctrine in precisely this way is, of course, another matter entirely; but so far as I can see the answer to this question (which is almost certainly “No”) is neither here nor there. For present purposes I shall simply take my cues from the official teaching of the Catholic Church and – to allay any suspicions that my own interpretation of the Catholic position is sneaky or idiosyncratic or excessively charitable or just plain “made up” – I shall also appeal periodically to figures who can reasonably be regarded as possessing a measure of representational authority within the world of Catholicism. (Popes, for instance.) I begin with what I take to be the common ground between Christians, of whatever stripe, who believe in the reality of purgatory.
II. Why Purgatory?

Answers to this question vary, but the common thread running throughout the range of available responses is simply that (i) gracious pardon for sins notwithstanding, we cannot enter into and enjoy full union with God without being completely and finally liberated from the influence or ‘dominion’ of sin and made intrinsically pure and unwaveringly upright of heart; yet (ii) hardly anybody we’ve heard of ever attains that degree of holiness before they die and frankly, to judge by the look of things, we probably aren’t going to either; but since (iii) God cannot simply ‘zap’ us with a sanctifying ray and unilaterally bestow a radically altered nature upon us all in one go, it had better be the case that (iv) there is some kind of postmortem process, or state of being, whereby we are at last transformed into the sorts of creatures who can enter into and ceaselessly celebrate that perfect and eternal union with God held out to us in the life of the world to come.

Some readers will no doubt wish to see a fuller defense of the assumption in (iii); why can’t God unilaterally perfect us at the point of death, making up for what we lack in the way of sanctification by sheer divine fiat? And here again the reasons provided vary. According to some philosophers, an externally imposed operation which consists in the instant and irrevocable transformation of our natures to the level of perfection required for heavenly life would simply be too profound and sudden a change for any of us to survive. Maybe it isn’t such a stretch to imagine St Francis getting through the ordeal more or less intact, but the rest of us would hardly recognize ourselves. And the intuition here is that we wouldn’t recognize ourselves because we wouldn’t be ourselves: the medicine couldn’t come in that heavy a dose without killing the patient, so to speak, so not even God could renovate us so radically in one fell swoop and simultaneously preserve the sort of continuity required for personal identity through the envisioned metamorphosis. 7 Others contend that even if such externally induced sanctification could occur without God’s violating a person’s persistence conditions, there must be morally sufficient reasons for Him not to do it. For if we concede that God could carry out this kind of operation at the point of death without contravening any moral principles or preventing any valuable state of affairs which would otherwise have obtained, then we have to face the question why God doesn’t just perform this feat right now, right here in this life. Yet (so the argument runs) to the extent that we cannot answer this question we compromise our strategic posture vis-à-vis the argument from evil, since if God could unilaterally sanctify us at death without preventing any greater good – say, the good of a gradually sanctified nature brought about through the cooperative interplay between divine grace and significant human freedom – then there’s no obvious reason why He couldn’t eliminate all the post-conversion evil we bring about by just cutting to the chase and unilaterally sanctifying us here and now. So if God could do this but refrained from doing it, He’d be guilty of allowing all sorts of evil which could be “properly eliminated,” or which He could prevent without introducing a greater evil or averting a greater good, in which case we’d have no reply to the atheist’s insistence that this is exactly what God would do if He really were everything traditional theism imagines Him to be.8 And finally, in a similar vein, others have argued that any teleological theodicy which stresses the process of growth towards a moral and spiritual ideal as being essential to the genuine realization of this ideal (John Hick’s ‘soul-making’ approach is an example) must likewise have recourse to a purgatorial state, since an impeccably sanctified character bestowed from without at the time of death, as opposed to an increasingly sanctified character which continues to be developed after death from within, would short-circuit the authentic maturation of the soul and therefore undermine the justification for evil proposed by the theodicy.9

On the whole I think each of these arguments for (iii) has something to commend it. Since my aim here is less to establish purgatory’s existence and more to reconcile two allegedly rival conceptions of it, however, I shall forego any detailed discussion of them and take the reality of purgatory as read. Supposing then we grant arguendo that belief in purgatory is sufficiently well motivated for Catholics and Protestants alike, we should take a moment to make explicit the function assigned to purgatory according to (iv); and to this end it will be useful to borrow two terms10 from Justin Barnard, the philosopher upon whom I relied to represent the Sanctification Model approach above. Let us say that a person S is ‘lapsable’ iff S possesses saving faith11 in Christ and S does not (yet) possess a thoroughly sanctified nature; and let’s call a person S ‘sanctified’ iff S possesses saving faith in Christ and also possesses a thoroughly sanctified nature. To say that S possesses a thoroughly sanctified nature is to say that S cannot sin, that S’s character and dispositions are ‘fixed’ in such a way that under no nomologically possible circumstances would S commit evil. Putting the same thing more positively, S’s will is one in purpose and holiness with the will of God. His character exemplifies the quality medieval theologians termed impeccability, the characteristic feature of the redeemed in heaven who, according to St Augustine, have attained to that “truer” and “superior” kind of freedom (modeled upon God’s) which involves both the ability to not sin – an ability we haven’t really enjoyed since Adam’s fall – and the inability to sin – an inability we’ve never enjoyed at all.12 Thus the sanctified may be thought of as possessing a kind of moral libertas which mirrors the divine freedom, a state of being which St Augustine construes as a heavenly reward, whereas the lapsable are destined to but have not yet attained this moral perfection of their natures.

So finally, with all this in place, we can say that the exclusive object of purgatory according to the Sanctification Model is the transformation of the lapsable into the sanctified: by itself saving faith is necessary for getting into purgatory and sufficient for avoiding hell; being lapsable is necessary and sufficient for getting into purgatory; and being sanctified is necessary and sufficient for getting out of purgatory (or in rare cases just skipping it altogether) and getting into heaven. Purgation is thus the means by which the Christian’s inherent moral condition “catches up” to his unpenalizable status, purchased by Christ, before the tribunal of God. That is what the Sanctification Model says.
III. Sins and Satisfactions

We know, then, that there is nothing sinful about the sanctified as regards their characters or dispositions: they love God and neighbor with all their hearts as a matter of routine. And since Jesus made satisfaction for the sins they had committed prior to becoming sanctified there is nothing ‘categorically’ or ‘legally’ bad about them either, in the sense that they bear no guilt for all the wrongs they have done and are in consequence subject to no retributive punishment. Now the Satisfaction Model of purgatory as sketched above is consistent with this description of those who have gone through purgatory as being both inherently and legally upright – as having been ‘purged’ both of the “disposition to sin” and of “the penalty for sin or sin itself” – but even if the end result of purgation on the Satisfaction Model is consistent with the ultimate result according to the Sanctification Model, the purpose of purgation on the Satisfaction approach evidently isn’t the “forward looking” one of producing sanctified individuals, but appears primarily to involve the “backward looking” aspect of meeting out retributive punishments and penalties for the wrongs they have done.

Indeed, when we reflect that Barnard’s description of the Satisfaction Model fails to include the suggestion that any sanctification might be taking place in purgatory at all, it is tempting to conclude that the latter aspect (the retributive punishment bit) is really the main point, maybe even the sole point, of purgatory on a Catholic view of things. Thus Barnard: “According to the Satisfaction Model, purgatory is a temporal state of existence after death the purpose of which is to make satisfaction (i.e., payment) for sins committed on earth for which sufficient satisfaction was not rendered by the time of death.”13 Nor is the assumption Barnard voices here peculiar to him. For example, after quoting the relevant portion from the Council of Florence (1439), which specifies that “if truly penitent people die in the love of God before they have made satisfaction for acts and omissions by worthy fruits of repentance, their souls are cleansed after death by cleansing pains,”14 Michael Stoeber concludes,
From the official Vatican standpoint, then, purgatory is understood as a realm of physical or mental punishment, more in negative terms of painful retribution than in positive conceptions of spiritual learning and growth. Indeed, though the latter function is not ruled out in the traditional formulation, there is the sense that one can ‘burn off’, as it were, the actions and effects of past moral improprieties, simply through passive suffering.15
And the mere passive suffering of painful retribution, of course, hardly suggests that any spiritual learning and growth are in view here at all; what it does appear to suggest, and what it has strongly suggested to Barnard at any rate, is that Calvin’s classification of the Catholic conception of purgatory as a “horrid blasphemy” and a “deadly device of Satan” “seems fitting from the perspective of Protestant theology,” inasmuch as Protestant theology protests that Christ’s satisfaction for sin isn’t simply empty or fictitious.16

Over against this assessment of the Catholic position stands the Catholic position’s assessment of itself. And as far as I can tell, this latter assessment makes it tolerably clear that the “official Vatican standpoint” is similar indeed to the official Barnardian one. In a nutshell, the Catholic doctrine says that (1) the sins of Christians have been forgiven in virtue of the satisfaction rendered for them by Christ, and that (2) as a consequence, they will not suffer ‘eternal punishment’ for their sins. It then adds to this the provisos that (3) insofar as there remain ‘temporal punishments’ attached to sins for which these Christians themselves must ‘make satisfaction’, it follows that (4) if they have not ‘made satisfaction’ for these sins prior to death then they’ve got to go through purgatory. Now when the Catholic doctrine says all this, the statements in (1) and (2) should be taken as stating that Christians will suffer no ‘legal’ penalty for their sins because Christ took the punishment for those sins upon Himself so as to secure their forgiveness, and the provisos in (3) and (4) should be understood as specifying the need for lapsable Christians to undergo a purgative regimen aimed at the rehabilitation or restoration of their spiritual health. That is, the Catholic doctrine of purgatory says that purgatory is for Christians who, despite the cancellation of their ‘legal’ penalties before God, still need to become thoroughly sanctified.

Admittedly, the terminological devices involved in this formulation tend to invite misgiving. But the juridical/legal language in which the doctrine is cast is simply the characteristic mode of expression that the Western tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, has historically used to get across whatever it’s trying to say. Doubtless this mode of expression can be misleading and at times does more harm than good (in fact the case before us seems a promising candidate for one of those times), but however that may be there is no question that the vision of purgatory expounded here is one with which Protestants (and Eastern Orthodox, too) should be perfectly happy.17 To see this, however, one must first appreciate how terms like ‘satisfaction’ and ‘temporal punishment’ are being deployed by those who use them to describe what’s going on in purgatory. And in order to get straight on these terms it is of first importance to recognize that according to Catholic thought sin has a “double consequence” which corresponds to two distinct kinds of punishment for sin. That is to say, a given sinful action or omission must be thought of as resulting in two kinds of consequence, and corresponding to each kind of consequence is a particular form of punishment appropriate to it. As regards the first consequence of sin – or, if you prefer, the first aspect of the “double consequence” of sin; I take these expressions to be synonymous – sin “deprives us of communion with God” which in turn “makes us incapable of eternal life;” and the “privation” of eternal life “is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin.”18 Thus we can see that the first consequence of sin is to be identified with the deprivation of the sinner’s communion with God, and the punishment attending this consequence of sin is the sinner’s exclusion from eternal life: i.e. his consignment to the eternal punishment of sin, or ‘hell’. Now this ‘eternal punishment’, which is one of the two consequences of sin, should be understood as corresponding to what Barnard has in mind when he speaks of the “penalty for sin.” In other words, this consequence of sin relates to the ‘legal’ debt we owe to God and for which, as St Anselm insisted in Cur Deus Homo, only a person who is both God and Man could make a satisfaction acceptable to divine justice.19 It follows, then, that we ourselves cannot make satisfaction for this consequence of sin (i.e. we cannot ‘purge’ the “penalty for sin or sin itself”) on the Catholic view; for that is a work of Christ only. And when we appropriate the satisfaction Christ made on our behalf by repenting and putting our faith in Him we receive “forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God,” which, in consequence, releases us from the obligation to pay the penalty for our sins and entails that we are no longer deprived or “made incapable of” of eternal life.20

So far so good. But recall that there is a second consequence of sin in addition to the one above. For although forgiveness of sins and restoration of communion with God together “entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin,” the “temporal punishment of sin remains”– and it is of course the ‘temporal punishment’ for which we are expected to ‘make satisfaction’, either in this life or in the purgatorial fires of the next.21 Now, this element of the current approach will likely be regarded as rendering the Satisfaction Model flatly and irredeemably incompatible with the Sanctification Model, since it may easily sound as though it takes back from us with one hand what it had given us with the other – Jesus made satisfaction for sins, it assures us, but for some reason or other, it goes on to say, we’ve got to make our own satisfaction anyhow; and that is precisely the suggestion proponents of the Sanctification Model are eager to repudiate. Yet to charge the Satisfaction Model with doublespeak on this point would be to ignore the fact that the ‘temporal punishment’ for sin really does correspond to a distinct consequence of sin and that this consequence is entirely different from the first one, the one that corresponds to the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin described above.

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