It is often stereotyped that Roman Catholics believe in Purgatory and Orthodox/Protestants do not. In reality, the Orthodox position is far closer to the Roman Catholicism’s than Protestantism’s. Both Orthodox and Roman Catholics affirm that after death, there is some sort of struggle where the soul confronts her/his past sinfulness and that the prayers and offerings of the faithful are helpful to such a soul (just as our prayers and offerings are helpful to people when they are alive on Earth.) The two main differences are as follows:

1. An understanding of merit’s role after our deaths, and

2. Each sides choice of imagery and describing the struggle after death.

In this part, we will be focusing on the Patristic and Roman Catholic view of merit, offering some brief comments on the doctrine of Purgatory afterwards.

A Patristic Understanding of Merits. When Saint Augustine gave an interpretation of 1 Cor 3:12-15, the famous Roman Catholic proof-text for the doctrine of Purgatory, he gave an inconvenient interpretation. For one, Augustine saw the passage as pertaining to saved Christians before death experiencing the sufferings of letting go of worldly goods and things they are passionate about for the sake of Christ (“the work of the latter is burned, because things that are enjoyed with desire cannot be lost without pain,” Handbook of Faith, Hope and Love, Chap 68). It is worth noting that other fathers, such as Saint Chrysostom, interpreted the passage to be speaking about eternal hell-fire: “That the punishment then is eternal is plain from all that has been said” (Comments on 1 Cor 3:12).

Second, Augustine like Chrysostom uses the same passage to speculate about what happens to men after they die:

[I]t is not impossible that something of the same kind may take place even after this life. It is a matter that may be inquired into, and either ascertained or left doubtful, whether some believers shall pass through a kind of purgatorial fire, and in proportion as they have loved with more or less devotion the goods that perish, be less or more quickly delivered from it. This cannot, however, be the case of any of those of whom it is said, that they shall not inherit the kingdom of God, unless after suitable repentance their sins be forgiven them. When I say suitable, I mean that they are not to be unfruitful in almsgiving; for Holy Scripture lays so much stress on this virtue, that our Lord tells us beforehand, that He will ascribe no merit to those on His right hand but that they abound in it, and no defect to those on His left hand but their want of it, when He shall say to the former, Come, you blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom, and to the latter, Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire (Chap 69).

For those familiar with Augustine’s thought, he incorporated Neoplatonic elements into his understanding of who God is. In Book VII of The Confessions, Augustine dedicates the whole chapter to how reading Neoplatonist books helped clear up what was for him mainly cosmological questions, the size of God (a concern that only makes sense if one is immersed in the philosophy of the day), and whether evil has substance. Because Neoplatonism gave a rational, and more compelling, explanations to the questions he had (i.e. the universe is made by a single creator, evil lacks substance, God is not big or wide, is not all, but is in all), Augustine was able to finally understand the Christian worldview fully elucidated in the Gospel of John.

In Augustine’s mind, Neoplatonism can bring us to God, but only the Scriptures can give us a full understanding of Him due to the mystery of the incarnation.

The preceding being said, it is questionable how much Platonist understandings of purgatorial fire weighed in on Augustine’s speculation of there being a a similar fire after death “for some believers.” Plato and Virgil, writing on the same topic, were explicit in their belief that the purgatorial fire lasted “years” and “torments pay the price for former sins.” In short, Purgatory is pay-back to God, who is owed some amount of virtue as recompense for wrongs done.

Augustine’s Purgatory is clearly different. The fire, which he speculates and admits is possibly “doubtful,” burns the dross of our passions that was not worn off by our repentance in our worldly lives “in proportion as they have loved with more or less devotion the goods that perish.” Augustine viewed the process as “quick.” As we shall see in Parts II and III, this has much more in common with the modern Orthodox elucidation of what happens after we die than the dominant Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.

Interestingly enough, in the same passage he viewed almsgiving as more crucial to one’s salvation than even “suitable repentance,” as those who repent and not give alms are damned. He viewed almsgiving as meritorious and necessary for salvation. The implication in the passage in question is that merits are necessary for salvation, but their significance is not so much that they act as payment to God, but rather these good works free oneself from Earthly passions that preclude heavenly enjoyment. (This is an interpretative stretch, trying to reconcile that Augustine is talking about both merit and becoming dispassionate in the passage.)

While modern Orthodoxy and ancient eastern church fathers only rarely invoke the concept of merit, the western church fathers were comfortable with speaking of Christians doing meritorious works which in effect please God:

You have heard, O parents, in what virtues and pursuits you ought to train your daughters, that you may possess those by whose merits your faults may be redeemed. The virgin is an offering for her mother, by whose daily sacrifice the divine power is appeased. A virgin is the inseparable pledge of her parents, who neither troubles them for a dowry, nor forsakes them, nor injures them in word or deed (Saint Ambrose, Concerning Virginity, Book I, Par 32).

Therefore, it is in this life that all the merit or demerit is acquired, which can either relieve or aggravate a man’s sufferings after this life. No one, then, need hope that after he is dead he shall obtain merit with God which he has neglected to secure here (Augustine, Handbook of Faith, Hope, and Love, Chapters 110).

Whence we gather plainly that the more you bring back fugitives to the service of Almighty God, the more merit you have with Him. And by how much the more merit you receive, the more fully can you obtain what you ask for (Gregory the Great, Book VIII, Letter 42).

In the minds of these fathers, merit simply was a heavenly reward for doing good. This is something we cannot doubt, as the Scriptures are clear that God is pleased by our good works (Acts 10:4) and that He accounts them in the judgement (2 Cor 5:10). Furthermore, was apparently transferable as we see in Saint Ambrose. It is not that Orthodoxy has no concept of this (there are plenty of stories of monks doing ascetic labors on behalf of the dead or living loved ones for their benefit).

The western fathers were careful to understand merits in a synergistic way where man pleases God only by the grace of God, because it is God who works in us to will and to work for His good pleasure. Hence, God is not rewarding us for what we do ourselves, but rather we attain to award entirely by what He does by His grace acting in us:

[T]he Apostle James says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights.” And so no man can say that it is by the merit of his own works, or by the merit of his own prayers, or by the merit of his own faith, that God’s grace has been conferred upon him; nor suppose that the doctrine is true which those heretics hold, that the grace of God is given us in proportion to our own merit (Augustine, Letter 214, Par 4).

But that, when we do not always resist or remain persistently unwilling, everything is granted to us by God, and that the main share in our salvation is to be ascribed not to the merit of our own works but to heavenly grace (John Cassian, Conference 3, Chapter 18).

[N]o one should say, ‘How are we to be saved without contributing anything at all to the object in view?’ He shows that we also offer no small matter toward this, I mean our faith (Chrysostom, Comments on Rom 3:21). 

In short, the fathers taught that we do not contribute anything to our salvation as even the good we do is in fact the grace of God, not us. We can only cooperate with that grace and allow God to work through us, or in the words of the fathers and Scriptures, have “faith.”

The Roman Catholic Church still teaches the preceding. As the Catholic Encyclopedia correctly points out, “Properly speaking, man possesses nothing of his own; all that he has and all that he does is a gift of God, and, since God is infinitely self-sufficient, there is no advantage or benefit which man can by his services confer upon Him. Hence on the part of God there can only be question of a gratuitous promise of reward for certain good works.”

In short, “the righteous judgment of God, who ‘will render to each one according to his deeds:’ eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good” (Rom 2:5-6) is not God rewarding us strictly because we earned a reward. Rather, God rewards us for His own good that He does through us, which makes the God’s rewarding of man entirely gratuitous.

However, it would seem historically that the Roman system’s “gratuitous promise of rewards” is effectually not gratuitous at all, but a matter of payment owed. This is why Roman Catholicism during the Middle Ages until the 1960s devised exact calculations of years that can be subtracted from Purgatory through certain meritorious acts and indulgences. Meritorious works have been commoditized and continue to be (i.e. a few years back, going to one mass was awarded with a plenary indulgence that removed “all temporal punishment due to sin.”) Therefore, rewards for merits are only nominally gratuitous and are to be expected with a degree of scientific certainty. It reduces God into an accountant of sorts, where data is inputted and a result is calculated automatically.

This is not my imagination. Online Roman Catholic apologist Erick Ybarra remarked about Purgatory that “much hinges on whether the relaxations to canonical penance was understood to be 1-to-1 with a subtraction of temporal punishment due to the soul by God’s calculation.” You simply do not find Orthodox thinkers, nor the fathers (besides maybe Tertullian), speaking about God in such a calculatingly retributive way.

In my final estimation, Western thinkers took the concept of merit to its logical extent in the Middle Ages. So, even if the West is distancing itself from the concept in the last 100 years, it has left an indelible mark on the doctrine of Purgatory.

The Dominant Roman Catholic Conception of Purgatory. Sadly for you dear reader, this topic is something that I cannot give extensive and intelligent commentary on. What I can say is that Roman Catholicism teaches that there is “no merit is possible in Purgatory” and that the only opportunity for repentance in when we are still alive (2 Clement, Chap 8). In short, those in Purgatory are suffering but their sufferings are not payment to God that in effect earn us our salvation.

So what does Purgatorial fire do? Chiefly, it is a form of punishment from God exacted on the souls there which atones for sins. As we shall see, though it will take several articles to get there, it is this explicit purpose of Purgatory that does not correspond with Orthodox doctrine. The chief reason Orthodox and Roman Catholics differ on this matter, is that Orthodoxy views sufferings after death as the result of our own passions so that we in effect punish ourselves–God does not create a place of punishment as evil does not have a substance–but more on this later.

Similar to Orthodoxy, the purpose of Purgatorial fire does not exclude some sort of sanctifying element (i.e a baptism by fire). Nevertheless, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, “Whether our works of satisfaction performed on behalf of the dead avail purely out of God’s benevolence and mercy, or whether God obliges himself in justice to accept our vicarious atonement, is not a settled question.”

In short, in the Roman Catholic view is that our suffering satisfies the Father’s desire for justice. Monty Python’s monks smacking themselves on the heads with boards wasn’t funny for no reason–it spoke to a real defect in Roman Catholic thought. The clear implication of Roman doctrine is that the souls in Purgatory have sin that has not been atoned for yet. The fact that “God obliges Himself in justice to accept our vicarious atonement” shows how nominal the “gratuitous” grace of God really is in Roman Catholic theology.

The whole debate over indulgences in the 16th century ultimately was over whose merits are applied to the believer in which to satisfy God’s demand for justice, as it was taken for granted in western Europe that God obliges Himself to act in matters of justice and injustice. The Roman Catholic answer was Jesus Christ, the saints, and our own. The Protestant answer was Jesus Christ alone atoned for our sins by shedding His blood and satisfying the Father’s demand for justice.

Protestantism’s penal substitutionary view of the atonement was obviously a reaction against the Roman Catholic paradigm of merit vis a vis justice. The suffering of the Infinite One is always infinitely more efficacious that any other means of atonement–and so the idea a Purgatory is needed to give man additional atonement becomes superfluous.

Pardon me the observation that Roman Catholic view, if the preceding is accurate, poses us problems:

  1. The atonement is incomplete and somehow did not accomplish salvation for all men. Men, by their sufferings in Purgatory (and the divine allowance for the merits of others to be credited to the account of those suffering) please God to the point that they may then leave. This contradicts the fathers who taught unequivocally that the crucifixion is sufficient for all mankind. Saint Augustine himself wrote, “Great assurance has God given! Well may we celebrate the Passover, wherein was shed the blood of the Lord, by which we are cleansed from all sin” (Homily 1 on 1 John, Par 5)!
  2. Merit is reduced to a transaction, instead of relational and synergistic. Roman Catholicism’s way of preserving their view of Purgatory with the early teaching that man cannot repent or attain merits after death, is to say man can have someone else’s merits added to his own. Hence, the meritorious acts on Earth (prayers, masses, indulgences) in effect please God so that He takes someone else’s merits which are in effect His own (as the Body of Christ is one with Him, the merits of the saints are identical to Christ’s) and arbitrarily ascribes them to the soul in Purgatory. God, being God, may surely do things “just because” but it casts a strange picture of God. A God who can simply shift merits to different accounts like a bookkeeper, but do this because He has to satiate His own wrath due to man’s injustice, is a twisted view of God that we never see the Scriptures or early Church take. It obviously gives rise to the God of Calvin.

I see some silver-lining in the preceding, however. Saint Philaret of Moscow writes about the atonement that Christ “offered Himself as a sacrifice strictly for all, and obtained for all grace and salvation; but this benefits only those of us who, for their parts, of their own free will, have fellowship in his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death [Phil 3:10]” (Longer Catechism, 209). In the spirit of charity, it appears to me what Roman Catholics may be trying to communicate, but using the terminology and understandings of their own Western tradition, is that sufferings in Purgatory bring those souls fellowship with His sufferings. This makes the atonement of Christ efficacious for the individual as it conforms the believer to His death.

Conclusion. If this part’s objections to the Roman Catholic elucidation of the afterlife can be summed up, it is as follows:

  • The early Church did not have a concept of a Purgatory where suffering in effect placates a God who demands that extraneous sins be atoned for.
  • A correct understanding of “merit” requires that we view such merit as entirely the work of God, and so man adds nothing to His salvation than His faithfulness to God. In effect, our faith saves us because faith is a trust in Christ that surrenders our will to His, so that we allow His grace to transform us into the image of Christ.

The core difference between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism/Protestantism is ultimately our view of salvation. Salvation is not a matter of having debts paid to God, but becoming like God. The Western Church, for whatever intellectual reasons, has always focused on the former instead of the latter. In doing so, it was only logical that they would systematize the Church’s practice of praying for the dead and the image of a purging fire after death into a literal station after death that deals with the issue of human debt.

This is not to say that the West does not have a conception of Theosis, but its emphasis is drowned out by the emphasis put upon merit and debt.