"'Lord, rebuke me not in Your indignation, nor correct me in Your anger' [Psalm 38:1]...In this life may You cleanse me and make me such that I have no need of the corrective fire, which is for those who are saved, but as if by fire...for it is said: 'He shall be saved, but as if by fire' [1 Cor 3:15]. And because it is said that he shall be saved, little is thought of that fire. Yet plainly, though we be saved by fire, that fire will be more severe than anything a man can suffer in this life." (Augustine, Exposition of the Psalms, 37:3)
Purgatory is a great idea. You might not feel the need for indulgences, but at some level I think purgatory appeals to us as a place to finally burn away all the dross, grind out all the flaws, work out all the kinks. It is the hammer of forgiveness; the tool by which grace can be allowed. Like a mother scolding her children as she to takes their muddy shoes off, purgatory explains how sin soaked people can stand in the presence of a holy God: we can’t, and must wash up first. One does not simply walk into Mordor, after all.
Something of the idea seems to have been around from the beginning of the church. From the prayers for the dead scrawled over early catacombs to Origen’s contemplation of a purging fire, there has been talk of an in-between place to drive the sin out of us before we see God. Augustine looks to have been very fond of it as well. The reformers, of course, would have nothing to do with it since, in addition to all the tension with church authority, it seemed to diminish the atoning work of Christ. Calvin wrote that the doctrine of purgatory is “..a blasphemy against Christ.” (Institutes, III, 5) Shouldn’t the cross be enough?
But, to this Baptist, the doctrine makes a kind of sense. It answers the questions flying around about my obvious faults; "when will the sin get burned out of him?" How do you work out the evil and fallen nature? A holy acid bath seems totally necessary to strip the corrosion from our frames. What I take issue with most in the doctrine of purgatory is its timing. I believe purgatory actually happens before death, and the name of purgatory in Baptist circles is “community.”
Community – that vague network of daily relationships- is the place where all our evil is exposed and worked out. In the midst of our connection to other people, our multifaceted issues emerge to be scraped away and the result, hopefully, is that we Christians are made fresh, true, with eyes that can see God because we have become holy as He is holy. In this way community prepares us to see God; wipes the mud from our feet. How else will the sin in our lives be pressed out and driven away?
If there is a flaw in this view of purgatory, it is that we can choose to ignore it. While it’s not possible to avoid the suffering of improvement completely, we do try to hide from it. We ignore it and deny that is really happening or necessary. We blame and judge instead of confess and forgive. We lead when we should listen. And maybe this is the worst part; instead of working through conflicts we leave. We bounce from group to group looking for a collection of people in which we can fit in easily, never really loving anyone different than we are, never learning to love the least.
Few of us ever make it into the purgatory of community. We miss our chance to persist and be refined, choosing instead to fool ourselves we’re making progress with books and seminars. We don’t buy indulgences, we buy Christian media hoping to escape our stay in the fire. Our real brokenness , the kind Christ can heal and salve, is not often brought to the surface and improved. (Who could bear it?) In truth, the agony of a classic doctrine of purgatory is more appealing because we do not have to choose it. It requires nothing of us other than dying…which we were going to do anyways. Deciding to honestly be present to the people around us is the hardest thing of all.