Busted Halo
March 12th, 2009

What the Hell is Purgatory?

A mixed-media guide to the afterlife

by and Mike Hayes

“None of us are perfect but all of us are on a journey toward God” is one of the ways we use to explain what the name Busted Halo® means. Given our name it is no surprise that people often ask us:

“Since I’m not perfect, how can I get into heaven?”

Heaven is defined by the Catholic Church as “a perfect life with the Holy Trinity” and “ultimate end and fulfillment of our deepest human longings.”

But most of us feel we fall short of deserving to be in full union with God. While all of us sin, though, most of us don’t sin in such a grave way that we cut ourselves off completely from God. And even if we do commit grave sins, many of us seek reconciliation with God throughout our lives.

So, if heaven is this state of perfection… and one dies while being far from perfect… how can one enter heaven? The answer, Father James Martin, SJ, tells us, is purgatory. So just what the hell is purgatory? >>


Before the second Vatican Council, limbo was a “theological hypothesis,” believed to be an eternal state of natural happiness reserved for unbaptized infants and young children who died before reaching the age of seven, which was considered to be “age of reason.” Pope Benedict XVI highlighted what the latest version of the Catechism states, which says:

1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism.


Hell is the ultimate absence of God. In this state of being, we can never unite with our God and have rejected God through our own free choice in an ultimate way, by choosing gravely sinful matters over God without any repentance. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines hell as follows:

1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: “He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren.

To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

So if there is a purgatory? What does that mean for us? Fr James Martin tells us more. >>

Catechism on Purgatory:

1030 All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. 606 The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire. 607

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults also states:

It is impossible for us to imagine what purgatory is. Traditionally, it has been described as a purifying fire…the image serves to recall that perfect love is achieved by a gradual and a painful spiritual detachment from selfishness and self-centeredness. (USCCA, pg 54)

So, we all realize we are not perfect and thus do not automatically merit heaven without making some type of amends for our own imperfect nature. We also trust that because of our belief and faith in God, we are not so evil as to merit eternal separation from God (hell) either.

So let us pray that those who enter into this great mysterious afterlife may be able to get past all of the things that have kept them separated from God, and that they will one day soon share in the joy of God’s heavenly kingdom.

And on a lighter note…

The Author : James Martin, SJ
James Martin SJ is the culture editor of America magazine the national Catholic Weekly published by the Jesuits. He is the author of numerous books including My Life with the Saints and The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything but is perhaps best known as "chaplain" to The Colbert Report due to his frequent appearances on the show.
See more articles by (16).
Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • tim

    Hee heee, Paul, you are still very far to understand the scriptures.

  • tim

    No one could know what God does after death but we just imagine!

  • Stacy

    Mike- Thank you

  • Mike Hayes

    Indeed that is possible. We are assured that saints are in heaven by their canonization but that doesn’t mean that they did not at some point also need purgatory. Great question!

  • Stacy

    BarbaraKB, I also like these mixed-media articles. Is it possible for a canonized saint to have been in purgatory before being coming a saint?

  • Mike Hayes

    Paul–Thanks for your comment. I respectfully disagree that the Catholic Church’s councils are not based on scripture. But that’s not the only thing they’re based on. Catholics are not “sola scriptura” people. Scripture and tradition are our guides. But rest assured that scripture is very important to Catholics despite many people believing that Catholics don’t read the bible.

  • Paul

    If purgatory is true then what did Jesus die for? Did he die so we could go to purgatory and be purified there or did he do it on the cross. I know that I am just as guilty as everyone else and I deserve to go to hell. But what is Grace? Is it not giving someone a gift that they neither earned of deserve. Purifying fire is not purgatory it would be tribulations that God has sent to his elect. 1Peter 4 is the best example. We are made holy through Jesus, not baptism or sacraments. Do not trust in your own wisdom because it will lie to you everytime. Proverbs 29:25 “The fear of man bringeth a snare, but whoso putteth his trust in the Lord will be safe.” Church counsels that are not based on scripture should not be trusted.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1573090261 Colleen Parker

      2 places in scripture do not say the word purgetory but mean the same thing: Jesus said, “you will not enter into the Kingdom until you pay the last penny” and St. Paul also mentions the “burning” as well…this is the self love we all have and need God to cleanse us of it…if we r full of self love how can we love God? Yes, Jesus died on the cross for our sins but we are still unworthy, can you or I stand before God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit right now without bursting into flames! I dont think so.

  • Joyce Miletic

    I wonder if the difference between becoming holy on earth and doing it in purgatory is like the difference between a step down program and cold turkey to be free of alchohol or drugs?

  • Bridget Reidy

    I had a helpful vision once on Purgatory (and forgiveness). Purgatory is Jesus reaching out his hand, saying “Do you want to come”, while I notice the Communion of Saints is full of people I don’t really want to be in communion with. It is the hesitancy before I forgive them and their types and say “Yes!”. It’s easier if I led a holy and forgiving life.
    This came to me while I was having trouble forgiving someone who hurt me greatly. During the vision I also realized that person could be there, but he would be free of sin and unable to hurt me, thanks to Jesus. All of a sudden I realized forgiveness didn’t mean being willing to put up with someone in this world if that is impossible or they continue to hurt you, it’s just being willing to not forgo Heaven in your efforts to avoid them! Ever since, forgiveness is easy. Just picture them washed of their sins and unable, uninterested in hurting you again, and would you still keep hating them, even if it meant denying yourself Heaven?

  • Paul

    Purgatory fo rme would be God revealing the impact my sins had had on those around me and leaving me there until those I had affected forgave me (prayers for the dead) and/or stopped the bad effects from spreading any further. Worse than the coach dissecting game tapes.

  • BarbaraKB

    Love it: “mixed media.” Uber cool!

  • Eamonn

    I believe that Fr. Rick Walsh CSP once described Purgatory as a “Bubble Bath”… A very interesting observation…

    Fr. Jim Martin – what are the three things God doesn’t know? (hee hee)…

  • Mike

    It’s a waiting room!

  • Kevin Carrizo di Camillo

    Great piece! But what’s with the muzak? :) -Kev.

powered by the Paulists