I think it was Mark Twain who said that Christians are trying to get to a place where they will spend eternity with people they can’t stand to be around. He also said he would choose Heaven for the climate and Hell for the companionship. Well, take a good look around Christendom or even your own congregation and ask yourself, “Do I really want to spend eternity with these people?” Now, certainly there are a lot of nice folks around, and some of them are a joy to be with (most of the time). But seriously, eternity is a mighty long time.
Of course, such thoughts reveal a hard truth about most of us. We have not yet been perfected in love. On Sunday we can sing, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God” and on Monday we can gossip and complain about some other Christians. Not exactly the pinnacle of holiness. More like a dysfunctional family. So, why exactly do we want to go to Heaven? If Heaven is just an eternity of “more of this,” I really don’t see why anyone would desire to go there. I seriously doubt that anyone wants to spend eternity with me and my messy self, either!
One might respond, “Well, God will be there. Being with God is what it’s all about.” Ok, but everyone else will be there, too. “Well, we’ll all be so focused on God that we’ll ignore each other.” Then there’s no point in having a family of God if we spend eternity ignoring each other. “Well, God will take care of all those issues. We will be different in Heaven. We won’t be petty and sinful and we’ll love each other. We’ll be like Jesus.”
So, when “exactly” do we become like Jesus? We can’t get into Heaven until we are perfect like Jesus. If I died today I can’t say I have reached such perfection. I don’t know any Christians that would claim to be as perfect as Jesus in thought and behavior “right now.” Yet, that is how we must be in order to enter Heaven and enjoy Heaven.
None of us intend to live in eternity in the same condition we are today. We all expect that we will be “better” in Heaven than we are on the day we die. So, how and when does this “change” take place? For most of us, it has to take place between our death and our entrance into Heaven.
Most Protestants expect this “change” to happen, but they don’t have a name for it. They simply say, “God takes care of it.” Catholics also expect the change to happen, but they have a name for it. Catholics call it “Purgatory.” It is a state of being. It is what happens between death and entrance into Heaven. It is a “purging” of all the leftover “stuff” that would cause you or me to mess up Heaven by being there.
Sure, there were Catholics that exploited and abused Purgatory in order to manipulate people and get their money. The abuse of a truth by bad Catholics does not make the truth untrue. The fact still remains that I don’t want to spend eternity with you as you are today, and you don’t want to spend it with me as I am today. God has to get us ready for Heaven and strip us of all the attachments that would hinder us from entering and enjoying Heaven. There may be a few people who are able to achieve perfect holiness in this life, but most of us are not there yet.
Purgatory is not “a third choice” or a “second chance” at salvation. Everyone in a state of purgation after death is undergoing the process because they are already on their way to Heaven. Purgatory is for people who are already saved. It is not a way to save the lost. It is that state of being between death and entrance into Heaven. It’s like when your mom says, “Come inside for dinner, but take your muddy shoes off and wash your hands first.”
Saying, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” does not negate Purgatory. You still have to acknowledge that “somehow” “some way” at “some time” God completely cleans us up for Heaven and makes us “different” than we are in this life. Whatever you want to call it, however you want to “spin” it, it’s still a state of purging. Hence, “Purg”-atory.
We’re in big trouble if there is no Purgatory. Without it, all we have to look forward to is “more of this” for eternity. “More of this” is not what Christ died for. Presently, we need to strive for holiness and perfection of love. It’s not an easy process. It requires sacrifice and dying to self. The process doesn’t end until we enter Heaven. That’s why those in Purgatory are called “The Church Suffering.” They are undergoing the necessary yet painful detachment of all that might remain as a barrier to perfect love. Purgatory is God’s merciful continuation of the process of conversion to holiness. It’s just more of God’s grace.