I saved this post in my files from a few years ago. It's an answer given on a discussion group on the Orthodox view on Purgatory. I like it because it's the only answer I received that I could fully understand and agreee wit. It comes from a convert to Orthodoxy who was a former Protestant minister.
Would appreciate any comments on it. Especially some of the Orthodox priests that post here.
<<In 'The Complete Book of Orthodoxy' by George W. Grube the following
sentence appears within the explaination of PURGATORY -
"If there is, any suffering in the after life, some Orthodox Catholic
theologians teach, it is of a purifying nature and not punitive."
I find this to be confusing because, isn't this exactly what the Roman
Catholic teaches in regards to Purgatory? Can someone explain this sentence
and its meaning from an Orthodox Catholic viewpoint?
ANSWER: (by Reader Tmothy Copple)
Some have already responded to this, and I have not looked at all of today's
post, so if this subject has died out and I am behind the times here, or all
of this has already been said, please excuse me.
Out of the post I have read, it seems there is some confusion about this
issue. So, I will try to give the general differences between RC purgatory
and Orthodox understanding of the soul's purification in the next life.
There are similarities and differences.
First, one must stop and think what the word "punishment" really means. It
is essentially, a corrective measure that is used upon someone for their
ultimate benefit. Originally, the concept of "punishment" had a very
redemptive and healing aspect to it. However, as it tends to be used today
(at least in theological talk), it tends to refer to arbitrary dishing out
of misery, often to "pay back" some wrong or injustice. We see this in our
own laws, one can see a paying back and a hope of it bringing healing when
we send someone to jail. In strict law sense, however, I think the intent is
to ultimate reform the person, or at least keep them out of society so that
they do not harm others. Revenge is more the emotional side of it from the
Due to the above, the concept of punishment has taken on more of a "paying
back" or retribution, and is then a word that people who focus on the
healing aspect like to stay away from. This probably comes from the concept
of satisfaction atonement, where the whole idea of Jesus dying on the cross
was to pay back to the Father a debt of sin that we could not. That is also
why the RC idea sounds so much like they are saying (to a Protestant) that
Christ's forgiveness wasn't good enough, since it didn't entirely pay the
debt, that we by suffering punishment still had something left to pay off
for our sins. Thus, while the RC held to some degree of the satisfaction
theory, and while that did predominate at certain times, they still had the
context of healing, even if it was buried at times and forgotten. The
understanding of "punishment" can be interpreted in either direction.
However, I would tend to stay away from it now if just because its common
connotation does not lend itself to really expressing the reality of what we
believe, and will automatically put forth a picture of God that is
incompatible with Orthodoxy's.
That said, Orthodoxy does understand a purifying to take place in the next
life, which St. Paul also speaks about (and RC uses to support Purgatory as
well), that all our works will be put through the fire, the stone, gold,
etc. will remain while all that is of hay, straw, etc. will be burned away.
Even if it is all burned away, however, if the foundation which has been
laid is Jesus Christ, that person will be saved as through the fire.
Since this is scripture, and the Fathers also speak about the purifying of
the soul in this life and the next, this is something we cannot just toss
aside. However, there are some significant differences between what I have
understood of the RC's concept and Orthodoxy's on this purifying in the next
One of the biggest differences is when this purifying takes place, and the
purpose and reason of the purifying. RC teaches that one must be purified
*before* approaching God. Orthodoxy tends to teach that one is purified
*upon* approaching God.
First, one must understand the need for purification. Keep in mind that this
is a journey. Our movement is towards the likeness of God being instilled in
our life and a growing relationship with Him. The closer we move towards
God-likeness, it basically means the less of this temporal world that we
hold onto and the more of the Spirit that we have. (Read St. Seraphim of
Sarov on acquiring the Holy Spirit as an example of this.) Some folks have
attained to the angelic life in this life. My own patron saint, the Apostle
Timothy, disciple of St. Paul, was said to have been such a person.
Incidentally he was martyred for preaching against the pagan worship in
Ephesus, where he was a bishop of the Church. A mob came and beat him with
stones and clubs. Anyway, most of us will not get there in this life time.
We hold onto too much of this world's treasures. We don't go and "sell all
that we have" to follow Christ. Thus our sins build hay and straw structures
in our lives. We are forgiven for the sins through repentance and
confession, and the relationship to God is kept whole, but we still have
that straw hut over there that we have a hard time tearing down and building
it with something of the virtues. We struggle with that in many areas. We
wish to build things in our lives with our passions instead of the virtues.
Thus, what happens for many is they leave this life with some of our life
built out of gold, silver and other sturdy materials, but we also have some
of our life built out of the straw and hay. What we are doing on this
journey is working on tearing down the straw and hay structures and
replacing them with the stones of virtues.
The need is the same in either communion, that these areas of our life built
by the passions cannot remain in the presence of God. However, the solution
to how those are dealt with varies. RC says that they must be burned away
before entering God's presence. Therefore, there is a place, or time, or
some existence that one has that one goes through this fire and is purified
of these things. Naturally this is not going to be pleasant and does feel
like a "punishment" even though it is for our benefit. When I got punished
as a child for playing in the street, it was to protect my life, not to
cause me pain for the heck of it. Yet, the concept here is that God's
holiness cannot allow any impurity and will automatically be rejected.
Therefore, if one comes into God's presence with some impurity, the idea is
that person will be rejected except that the impurity is cleansed
In Orthodoxy, God is understood as an "All Consuming Fire" that we are
either lighted with or heated by. This fiery presence is in Orthodoxy what
purifies us. Upon coming to God, His very presence burns away all
impurities. All that remains will be the gold, silver and other virtues of
our life, and at that point we will be freed from all that once weighted us
down in this life, and freed to ascend in greater ways to God. For those who
have progressed far with eradicating the passions from their lives and have
attained a great God-likeness through the Spirit, there will be little to
burn away, if any, and their transition into God's presence will be fully
like the three holy Children in Daniel, who when the king threw them into
the furnace heated 7 times greater than normal, all experienced it as a
"dewy cool breeze" instead of a burning fire. There will be many, however,
that will experience this entry to God's presence with some pain and
suffering. Not due to God inflicting punishment on them, but due to the
reaction of bringing impurity into God's holiness. The two cannot mix. It is
like mixing two chemicals together that produce an explosion. Neither
chemical "caused" it to happen, it simply happened by bringing them
together. Thus it will be with the consequences of sin in our lives that we
have yet to clean out in this life, it will get cleaned out in the next for
Therefore, there are two different understandings at work here, one which
says that we cannot come into God's presence without being purified first
because God will reject us as a person otherwise, and one which says that in
coming into His presence, He doesn't reject all those in Christ, but He does
"reject" and burns away all that is incompatible with His presence in us.
Yet, if we have Christ, we hold onto that relationship and the burning is
only temporary (whatever temporary means there), whereas those who do not
have Christ, upon coming into God's presence, experience the second death,
total and unending fire of His presence. That is "hell".
The next difference comes in our prayers for these people. Somehow over time
the RC concept mutated from what we understand as Orthodox to this whole
system of merits and the applying them from one to another. Initially, the
understanding of "merits" simply meant that a particular saint who was close
to God due to their humility and love of God in their life, who had
eradicated much of the passions and established the virtues, had by that
reason acquired the life that has faith which can move mountains. This is of
God's doing, not the saints, and the saint continually keeps this in mind if
he/she does not with to fall. However, Christ says we will be able to do
that, and like the demon that the disciples could not cast out because they
had not fasted and prayed as they should have, one's acquiring the Holy
Spirit in humility does have something to do with how well one is able to
help others with a gift God has given them, whether that is healing,
hospitality, etc. Thus, there are some that have more "merit" in their lives
than others. Doesn't mean one has earned salvation, but simply that one has
acquired a certain relationship with God which allows them to transmit to us
more of God's mercy and grace within our lives. That is why we ask people to
pray for us, in hopes that they have a relationship with God that will aid
us. So one sees the Fathers speaking of merits at times, and some current
Orthodoxy material will also speak of them as well.
However, somehow in the RC circles, this grew into some sort of "thing" that
one can almost measure. So if one did such and such a thing, it would give
them X number of merits from a saints abundant storehouse of merits (he/she
had more than they needed for themselves). I think one can find examples
where this has gone to extremes such as the selling of them (as if the
Church owned them), and the more legalistic "pray this prayer and get 2000
merits" which I read something similar to that in some Catholic literature
In Orthodox understanding, such prayers and gifts of the saints cannot be
moved around like that, nor can you store up a saints merits for when you
get to "purgatory" yourself. All that a saint can help you with in that
regard is to pray for you and help guide you to acquiring the "merits" for
yourself so that when you get to God, you will experience the least amount
of burning possible. Nor are they quantified as something measurable. Yet,
we deem the prayers of the saints as powerful and a great help in time of
need, and they work towards our salvation and redemption of our whole life.
Consequently, Orthodoxy has never built us such a system of merits as the RC
Those are the two main differences between our views of this purifying in
the next life as I have understood things. May others correct my mistakes.
Perhaps there are others, but my post has gone on long enough as it is.