Wrath, fear, punishment, atrocities, vengefulness, genocide, abominations, iniquity – sound like what makes up TV drama? Actually, it’s what comprises much of God’s Word in the Old Testament of the Bible. For many, the Bible gives religion a bad name. Fortunately, the teachings of Jesus – mercy, love, forgiveness – are what give Christianity a good name. Why the dichotomy?
The Old Testament prophets interpreted God’s love as conditional. He loved them when they obeyed His will and punished them when they didn’t. Jesus taught that God’s love is unconditional. He loves us when we obey Him and when we ignore Him. Despite Jesus’ teaching, the Church struggles to overcome our fear of God's judgement and of hell. An example is Church teaching on purgatory.
Purgatory is one of Christianity’s most misunderstood and divisive subjects. Most Roman Catholics accept their Church’s teaching with little enthusiasm and most non-Catholics dismiss it as unfounded. Some interpret Church teaching as that purgatory is a form of hell. Most are disturbed by its implication that most of our deceased loved ones, who have lived good lives, are not immediately in heaven. They ask themselves, why would a God that loves us punish us? The answer is, He doesn’t.
God created us with the intent that we choose to love Him and exist in total intimacy with Him for eternity. Because God is perfect, intimacy with Him requires that we become perfect. It’s clear that none of us are perfect and all of us are incapable of becoming perfect on our own. Considering this, how can God’s intention be realized?
He realizes His intention by loving us, giving us the free will to enable our choice to love Him and enabling our perfection. Let’s look at each of these techniques one at a time.
Because we are not perfect, God’s love must be unconditional. He loves us in our imperfection. He loves us whether or not we choose to love Him. His love is characterized by a quotation credited to Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, “If you love someone, set them free. If they come back, they’re yours; if they don’t, they never were.” For us to truly love Him, He must give us the freedom to choose whether to come back to Him.
He enables our perfection by topping up our best efforts to achieve perfection. However, to preserve our free will, He awaits our request for His help rather than imposing it.
For His help to be effective we need to do our best to strive to become perfect. No one can help you achieve something for which you don’t strive. As with every one of His attributes, His patience is perfect. He gives us as long as we need to ask for and use His help. Because few, if any, of us achieve our prerequisite perfection during our lifetime on Earth, He patiently gives us more time after our deaths in the state we call purgatory.
All this requires that God judge us. Throughout our assisted striving for perfection, He judges the degree to which we have achieved it to the best of our ability. His judgement is simply an assessment of us rather than a basis for punishment. His judgement's purpose is matriculation rather than punishment. Purgatory is our greatest gift rather than a feared punishment. It provides us with as much time as we need to ask for His help, and to do our best to achieve perfection.
Purgatory is a necessary gift. None of us could achieve perfection on our own and certainly not during our short lifetime on earth. Still, might it be smart to ask for and use God's help, to achieve as much as we can during our earthly lifetime, rather than having to start from scratch in purgatory?