Purgatory refers to a doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church which posits that those who die in a state of grace undergo a purification in order to achieve the holiness necessary to enter heaven (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1030). The doctrine is linked to the universal tradition of Prayer for the Dead. St John of Damascus sums up the patristic consensus on the doctrine like this:
- One who has departed unrepentant and with an evil life cannot be helped by anyone in any way. But the one who has departed even with the slightest virtue, but who had no time to increase this virtue because of indolence, indifference, procrastination, or timidity, the Lord Who is a righteous judge and master will not forget such a one. —(St John of Damascus)
What St John was saying was that, while there is no forgiveness of sins after death for the unrepentant, for the faithful departed God will make up for what is lacking so that they can be maximally happy with him in heaven forever. It has been the conviction of Christians and Jews throughout history that their prayers for the faithful departed actually benefit them and help them to rest in peace and to finally receive their eternal happiness.
The way of defining purgatory that is most acceptable to the Eastern Orthodox mind is to say that those who are being saved by Repentance and Baptism and participation in the sacramental life of the Church but whose sins, nonetheless, continue to create lasting effects such as passions, addictions, attachments to worldly things which inhibit their spiritual growth and progress toward theosis, are given the grace of having these lasting effects expiated so that they can receive the Vision of God. The way of spiritual progress moves beyond Baptism through three stages, Purification, Illumination, and finally Theosis. For those who die in a state of faith and repentance but before having completed these stages of spiritual progress, their eternal salvation is not in doubt, but this does not abrogate the need to pass through these stages.
That said, Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Kallistos Ware acknowledges several schools of thought among the Orthodox on the topic of purification after death. This divergence indicates that certain Catholic interpretations of purgatory, specifically the satisfaction model, more than the concept itself, are what is universally rejected. Also, there are Orthodox sources that indicate some sins can be forgiven after death;(Mt 12:32) but which also reject the teaching of purgatory because of the doctrine of indulgences and idea of literal purgatorial fire that are tied to it. Still other Orthodox hold to the notion of the Toll Houses and that those who pass through them after death have no assurance of final salvation.
Rather than say that the doctrine of Purgatory is a heresy, it is more accurate to say that it is an ancient ecumenical tradition which, due to the mysterious nature of the subject matter, Christians throughout history have interpreted and explained in a very wide variety of ways, some of which were strongly rejected by Eastern Orthodox Christians.
A Condition of Waiting
Some Eastern Orthodox sources, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate, consider Purgatory to be among "inter-correlated theories, unwitnessed in the Bible or in the Ancient Church" that are not acceptable within Orthodox doctrine, and hold to a "condition of waiting" as a more apt description of the period after death for those not borne directly to heaven. This waiting condition does not imply purification, which they see as being linked to the idea "there is no hope of repentance or betterment after death." Prayers for the dead, then, are simply to comfort those in the waiting place.
Concordantly, the Catholic Encyclopedia indicates that the souls of the faithful departed detained in purgatory are "shut out for the time being from the sight of God." This is because, only the pure in heart can see God (Mt 5:7, Rev 21:27). Man's ultimate happiness is to know and love God and to be fully united to him forever. Because the soul is given to know this the soul suffers the loss of divine intimacy knowing he is separated even temporarily from the full vision and union with God. However, because in death, the soul becomes incapable of sin (Rom 6:7), the souls in purgatory know they cannot loose eternal life through sinning. Furthermore, being aware that their time in purgatory is only temporary the souls are happy that they are being made ready to enter into the fullness of divine life. The ancient Liturgies and the inscriptions of the catacombs speak of a "sleep of peace", which would be impossible if there was any doubt of ultimate salvation.
Going back to the reason for the souls time of waiting, the Catholic Encyclopedia says that this has to do with the souls purity, because, only the pure in heart can see God (Mt 5:7, Rev 21:27). This is entirely consistent, even with modern Orthodox thought. Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos writes:
- Knowledge of God, as will be explained further on, is not intellectual, but existential. That is, one's whole being is filled with this knowledge of God. But in order to attain it, one's heart must have been purified, that is, the soul, nous and heart must have been healed. "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God." (Orthodox Psychotherapy Section The Knowledge of God according to St. Gregory Palamas by Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos published by Birth of Theotokos Monastery,Greece (January 1, 2005) ISBN 978-960-7070-27-2)
Kyriacos C. Markides also confirms that purification is necessary in order to "see" God:
- The soul's journey toward God, I explained to Emily that day, must go through three identifiable and distinct stages. At first there is the state of catharsis, or the purification of the soul from egotistical passions It is then followed by the state of fotisis, or the enlightenment of the soul, a gift of the Holy Spirit once the soul has undergone its purification. Finally comes the stage of Theosis, union with God, as the final destination and ultimate home of the human soul. The last two stages are impossible to attain without having the soul first pass through the fires of catharsis from egotistical passions. (Markides, The Mountain of Silence)
He goes on to explain that, according to the Athonite tradition, catharsis or purification is essential in assisting the soul to overcome the obstacles that keep us from the vision of God, namely, “the sum total of our worldly passions and desires. These passions are products of the enchantment and enslavement of our hearts and minds to the gross and transient material universe with its myriads of temptations and seductions.” In life these effects of sin are purified through acts of mortification. (See Romans 8:13-14, I Corinthians 9:25-27, Galatians 5:18-25, Colossians 3:5 “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth: fornication, uncleanness, lust, evil concupiscence and covetousness, which is the service of idols.”)
The doctrine of Purgatory, far from being only concerned with a foreign (to Orthodoxy) legal metaphor, rather explains how a soul that has died prior to completing his or her purification, can finally attain union with God, through the grace of a final post-mortem expiation of the lasting effects of sin. Father Seraphim Rose sums up the Patristic doctrine in this way:
- In the Orthodox doctrine, on the other hand, which St. Mark teaches, the faithful who have died with small sins unconfessed, or who have not brought forth fruits of repentance for sins they have confessed, are cleansed of these sins either in the trial of death itself with its fear, or after death, when they are confined (but not permanently) in hell, by the prayers and Liturgies of the Church and good deeds performed for them by the faithful.
Literal Fire or Encounter with Risen Christ
One of the primary objections to the classical Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory is the supposed literal nature of the purgatorial fires. During the middle ages, the Western tradition began to lean more toward a literal interpretation of the fires and even tortur of the souls in Purgatory. A book entitled “St. Patrick's Purgatory” is a particularly egregious example of this tendency. However, medieval Orthodox piety also expressed an overly literal view of the Aerial Toll-Houses. (see below)
However, Roman Catholic teaching does not require a belief in literal fire. In Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi, he writes:
- Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Savior. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgment. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves (Spe Salvi 47, ).
Catholic Apologist Jimmy Akin writes that the interpetation of purgatory’s fire has been complex. Historically, medieval theologians tried to understand how a physical fire could affect an immaterial soul. However, contemporary theologians including Fr. Joseph Ratzinger have proposed that the purgatorial fire might better be understood as a “symbol of a transforming encounter with Christ.”
- In writing his encyclical, Benedict XVI apparently wanted to give the new proposal official recognition without requiring theologians and the faithful to reject other understandings of purgatorial fire. By proposing it as a theological opinion—rather than a Church teaching—he made it clear that this is a permitted and even a favored view but not the only one possible. 
Father Seraphim Rose admits that the Latin Church Fathers taught about an allegorical fire which cleanses small unconfessed sins. 
Some Church Fathers, such as St. Cyprian and St. Augustine of Hippo, seemed to believe in a purification after death. However, the character of this purification is never clarified, and especially (as St. Mark of Ephesus underlined at the Council of Florence) it seems there is no true distinction between heaven, hell and the so-called purgatory: all souls partake differently in the same mystical fire (which, according to St. Isaac of Syria, is God's Love) but because of their spiritual change they are bound to different reactions: bliss for those who are in communion with him; purification for those in the process of being deified; and remorse for those who hated God during their earthly lives.
Because of this confusion and inability of the human language to understand these realities, the Church refrains from theological speculation. Instead, she affirms the unbroken Tradition of prayers for the dead, the certainty of eternal life, the rejection of reincarnation, and the communion of the Saints (those living and those who have fallen asleep in the Lord) in the same Body of Christ which is the Church. Private speculation is thus still possible as it was in the time of the Church Fathers.
Other Orthodox believe in the "toll gate" theory by which the dead go to successive literal "toll gates" where they meet up with demons who test them to determine whether they have been guilty of various sins during life and/or tempt them to further sin. If they have not repented and been absolved of those sins, or if they give in to sin after death, they will be taken to Hell.
Pope Shenouda III
The Orthodox Church has neither explicitly recognized the term "purgatory" nor officially accepted such a state, which is distinct from the more general being "asleep in the Lord." In his book entitled Why Do We Reject Purgatory?, Coptic Pope Shenouda III presents many theological and biblical arguments against Purgatory. For example, he refers to 1 Thess 4:16,17, "And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord", in which Paul describes the Last Day saying that those faithful who are still alive will meet the Lord with those who rise from the dead and then remain with Him always, and wonders, "Are these faithful (alive on the Last Day) exempt from Purgatory? Or is God showing partiality towards them?"
However, a response to this objection from the Catholics is perhaps found in the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, in the discussion of the Final Conflagration. The Final Conflagration is the fiery apocalyptic transformation, accepted by the Fathers, of the Old Heaven and Old Earth into the New Heaven and New Earth on the Last Day, immediately preceding the General Resurrection and General Judgment. It is said that for those still living at the time of the Conflagration, it will transform their bodies; thus technically, in Catholic thought, those found living may also die for a brief moment (ie, the "twinkling of an eye" mentioned in 1 Corinthians).
According to the Summa, the Final Conflagration will act as "purgatory" for those found living who still need cleansing/healing: "There are three reasons why those who will be found living will be able to be cleansed suddenly. One is because there will be few things in them to be cleansed, since they will be already cleansed by the previous fears and persecutions. The second is because they will suffer pain both while living and of their own will: and pain suffered in this life voluntarily cleanses much more than pain inflicted after death, as in the case of the martyrs, because "if anything needing to be cleansed be found in them, it is cut off by the sickle of suffering," as Augustine says (De Unic. Bap. xiii), although the pain of martyrdom is of short duration in comparison with the pain endured in purgatory. The third is because the heat will gain in intensity what it loses in shortness of time."
Sources and further reading
- Purgatory (Wikipedia)
- CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Purgatory
- Purgatory: Eastern Orthodox beliefs — religioustolerance.org
- Death, The Threshold to Eternal Life — Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
- Coptic Orthodox lecture about Purgatory, adapted from ‘Why Do We Reject Purgatory?’ by H.H. Pope Shenouda III
- The Orthodox Response to the Latin Doctrine of Purgatory
- Summa Theologica Supp.74.8