Recently, I read a post by Stephen Ray regarding the misuse of 2Cor 5:6-8. Many people believe the passage proves that there is no such thing as Purgatory since “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord.” Mr. Ray explains why that is a misreading of the text. Some of the comments to the post also pointed to the thief on the cross as a reason to reject the idea of Purgatory since Jesus told the thief, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.” “See,” they will say, “there is no ‘lobby’ or ‘front porch’ or ‘mud room’ to Heaven. One either goes straight to Heaven or straight to Hell.”
The experience of the thief on the cross does not disprove Purgatory. First of all, Catholicism does not teach that everyone must go through Purgatory, only that there is a Purgatory for those who need that purification. Martyrs, for example, having suffered for the faith in unspeakable ways, likely do not need the purging experience of Purgatory to release them from lingering attachments to this life.
Secondly, the thief was already suffering on his cross and such suffering can be part of (or the whole extent of) the purging process. We do not know exactly when the thief believed in Christ, but Jesus knew. It may have been long before he was crucified next to Jesus. The thief’s cross may have perfected him since we are told by Christ to suffer our own crosses and lay aside all other attachments to follow Him. The thief knew he was getting what he deserved. He was willingly making reparations for his sins.
Recall there was another thief being crucified next to Christ, but he did not believe in Christ. He mocked Christ. He did not take up his cross to follow Christ. He took no ownership of his sins or the consequences of them. His suffering was more like Hell than Purgatory. No Paradise ahead.
Thirdly, Christ was right there, present with the thief, “on the front porch of Heaven” if you will. That’s why Christ, in all the burning fire of His love, fully present with the thief could say, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” It is a great picture of Purgatory. The believer, in a state of suffering complete separation from worldly attachments, expresses his desire to be with the Lord who welcomes him off of the “front porch” and into His house.
When Christ ascended to Heaven, the so called “front porch” went with Him. Rather than being nailed to a literal cross, the “fire” of Purgatory now does the purging for us. In order to enter Heaven, every hint of attachment to things other than Christ must be eliminated (perfection). Whatever detachment does not take place in this world is resolved in the fire of Christ’s purifying love. Purgatory is not a “location” but a “state of being” that prepares the believer to enter Heaven completely pure and holy.
Rather than disproving Purgatory, the thief on the cross is a great image of Purgatory. Many of us will need to spend time “hanging on the thief’s cross” so to speak, before we are ready to enter Heaven. It’s not that our suffering replaces the sacrifice of Christ. It’s that we need to completely let go of the rope we still have tied to things in this life. That can require some pretty serious rope burn before we completely release our grip. Hence, we pray for the souls in Purgatory, to help them loosen their grip.