Monday, November 1, 2010

Is there fire in purgatory?

The doctrine of purgatory is revealed through certain scriptural texts which speak of a burning fire – cf. 1 Cor 3:15, 1 Pet 1:7. Though there are certainly other passages of the Bible which can be drawn upon (e.g. Job praying for his dead children, the Judas Maccabeus praying for the dead), the Tradition of the Church has principally relied upon the passages referring to fire – this is especially noticeable in the declarations of Florence and Trent.
Hence, we come to a very important question: If the Church discovered the doctrine of purgatory through meditating upon the scriptural images of a purifying fire, ought we to hold that there is material fire in purgatory? With the help of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the great Thomistic theologian Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, we may succeed in shedding some light upon this question.

Not a clear teaching of the Church
That there is fire in purgatory is not a clear teaching of the Church – Garrigou-Lagrange considers it a sententia probabilissima (the most probable doctrine), but not a defined teaching of the Church. He notes that the Council of Florence did not condemn the Greek schismatics who denied the existence of fire in purgatory, though it does favor the common Latin opinion affirming the presence of material fire there.
On the other hand, it is important to mention that the Church has not rejected the possibility of material fire in purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1030-1032) refers to the fire and flames of purgatory twice, never indicating that these flames are metaphorical. Thus, the Church seems to feel bound to at least allow for the possibility of a strictly literal interpretation of the purifying fire and uses the language of fire and of flames without any hint that this is meant metaphorically.
How can a disembodied soul suffer from material flames?
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, following St. Thomas Aquinas, affirms that it is possible for spiritual beings to “suffer” from material flames – this is called the pain of sense. It is a clear doctrine of the Church that the souls in purgatory undergo the pain of sense, at least spiritually – even if there are no physical flames in purgatory, the souls there suffer in their spiritual senses. The chief pain of purgatory is the delay of the beatific vision, but in addition to this there also the pain of sense.
A disembodied soul cannot suffer from material flames in the same way a body or even an embodied soul can suffer from them. The separated spirit suffers insofar as it is bound to the material flames and hindered from acting as it would and where it would. There is a certain humiliation inflicted upon the soul since it is made to depend upon a material creature (i.e. the fire). A loose analogy is seen in a paralyzed person who cannot act as they would.
Are there material flames in purgatory?
Here we will cite the words of the venerable father Garrigou-Lagrange: “After long discussions and wide historical researches on this particular point, it seems wise to conclude with St. Robert Bellarmine and Suarez as follows, ‘Although the existence of fire in purgatory is less certain than that of fire in hell, the doctrine which admits a real fire in purgatory must be classified as a sentential probabilissima. Hence the contrary opinion is improbable.’
“This view rests on seven reasons: first, the consent of scholastic theologians. Second, the authority of St. Gregory the Great (Dial. 4, 39). Third, the authority of St. Augustine. Forth, the concordant testimonies of St. Cyprian, St. Basil, St. Caesarius, of the liturgy, which begs refreshment of these souls. Fifth, the unanimous decision of the Latin fathers at the Council of Florence. Sixth, the very probable foundation found in 1 Corinthians 3:15. Seventh, particular revelations, for example those of St. Catherine of Ricci. She suffered forty days to deliver a soul from purgatory. A novice, touching her hand, said, ‘But, my mother, you are burning.’ ‘Yes, my daughter,’ she replied, ‘this fire is not seen, but it consumes like a burning fever.’” (from Life Everlasting)

Throughout the next couple of weeks, I will post on several additional questions regarding the nature of purgatory. Let us all pray for the Poor Souls during the next month!


Marc said...

I would love to be able to reprint some of your post to use in our Church bulletins... May I have you permission please Father(s)?

Howard said...

I have read that the very fires of Hell are the love of God, which the sinner rejects. Likewise, the seraphim burn from the love of God. It seems likely that fire after death is unavoidable, but whether it is bliss or torment depends on our disposition.

timmy said...

Howard, this seems to be the most comprehensive view. Its also been said that the fires of damnation would freeze an angel, as in the closer we get to God, the hotter it gets.

we can see beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is fire in purgatory, however, why would immaterial souls be subjected to material fire. what would be that purpose? unless the elements that soil us were material (which of course they're not) there would be no rhyme or reason for the fire to be material.

fire hurts relative to the state of being in which the object of its consumption resides. immaterial soul with immaterial filth means immaterial fire. this doesn't make it any less real or serious. God the Father is real, and serious, and immaterial.

Robert Keller said...

I want to thank you for publishing a great post about the possibility of fire in purgatory.

I wonder though, why does this matter so much? It seems to me that the most important parts of the teaching relate to Purgatory being a time of suffering from the consequences of sin. The fire used in the Scriptural images speaks mostly about something that is purifying, such as how a metal can be purified by putting it in a fire and allowing the impurities to burn away.

Does this question of the material fire make a difference us here on earth?

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@ Marc,

Sorry for the delayed response. Please feel free to reprint any of this as you desire!
(also feel free to include our website address, if it seems prudent to you)

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Robert Keller, This teaching does not seem to have any immediate effect for us here on earth.
It does effect the way we interpret the relevant Bible passages (mostly 1 Corinthians).
The truths related to the realities of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell do have a strong moral impact for us... The more we think of Heaven the more we want to go there. The more we think of Purgatory, the more we want to live it out on earth. The more we think of Hell, the more we want to avoid sin which could send us there.

Meditation on these mysteries has a purifying effect on the mind and makes us more like God. Contemplation is what we were made for, even if it has no immediate practical application.

Thank you for the good question!

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

@Timmy, Just to be clear -- the opinion you offer here is one possible opinion. It is not the opinion which I have espoused in this post.
I am maintaining, as the most probable teaching, that there is material fire in purgatory and that the immaterial souls are purified by and suffer from a union with these material flames. It is theoretically possible for an immaterial soul to be bound to material fire in this way.

"Immaterial fire" is a metaphor -- it is one option, the one you have taken.
For reasons I have explained in the article, I maintain that the fire is not metaphorical, but is material (all real fire is material, it is part of the very definition of fire).
You are correct in stating that God is immaterial and is also real. But a rock must be material in order to be real (otherwise it is a metaphor, like 'God is my rock').
So too, fire must be material if it is really fire, otherwise it is a metaphor (though the purification would be real).

So, just to be clear, I am stating (contrary to you) that what we have here is:
Immaterial soul, immaterial filth, but material fire.

This seems to be the common teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church (and it is consistent with the Church's current teachings as well).

Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

I will soon be writing a post on the fires of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.
In this post, I will argue that fire is most properly associated with purgatory; light with heaven; and ice with hell.
(Though you are quite correct in stating that, at least metaphorically, there is fire in all three places)

Peace to you!

Seraphim said...

Two comments:

a) The argument from consent only considers the views of Western theologians. The Greeks have always rejected the image of fire in Purgatory, for which the Council of Florence did not condemn us (and Fr.Garrigou-Lagrange was being quite inaccurate by calling us "schismatics" when we were coming back into union with Rome); this is still the position of the Orthodox churches united with Rome (Eastern Catholics or so-called "Uniates") today.

b) We know from science that "fire" is simply the process of combustion. Purgatory is the state of purification, not a physical place with physical oxygen and physical fuel being heated to high temperatures and releasing a spectrum you could quantitatively measure; hence no "fire" in the sense with which we normally speak of it. It's a metaphor to describe what the pain feels like.

Have a blessed Advent,


Father Ryan Erlenbush said...

Thank you for your comment.
Regarding point "a" - You are correct, Garrigou is clearly siding with the Latin tradition on this matter. (btw, St. Basil is an Eastern Father, and he held for the presence of physical fire in purgatory). Because of the lack of complete agreement, Garrigou is only claiming that it is a most probable doctrine and not a certain doctrine.
As far as the historical question of the state of those Greeks of whom Garrigou speaks...I will have to side with the revered Dominican theologian, but it is really only an historical question...

Regarding point "b" - it is interesting that you take such a rigid position on this matter, dictating that the western tradition is wrong and unscientific. Garrigou is really far more ecumenical, only claiming that his argument leads to a most probable conclusion.
You, however, seem to think that it is simply impossible that fire should exist in purgatory...yet, you don't give a good reason, nor do you answer the Latin arguments...

By the way, even Aristotle understood what fire was...I am quite sure that the Latin Doctors, including St. Thomas Aquinas, as well as Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange also knew what fire was...and yet they held that physical fire existed in purgatory as a means of punishment for immaterial souls.

Rather than simply stating "Purgatory is not a physical place", why don't you try to give a rational argument?
Rather than simply stating, "It's a metaphor", answer the Latin claim.

I do not mean this comment as an attack. I am only point out that you have taken a far more rigid and restrictive view than any serious theologian should (considering we really know very little about purgatory, our conclusion regarding the presence or absence of physical fire should only be a probable one).

Blessings and peace to you!

Tangent said...

My simple interpretation -

just as we know we have a soul and feel its suffering (on realization of sin), soul in the purgatory has a body waiting for Christ's coming (and it knows it will be saved). So the material flames can burn the soul - hence the cleansing.

Seraphim said...


Here's my argument. My apologies for the delay in responding; I simply forgot about it.

(1) Fire IS combustion at high temperatures radiating light in the visible spectrum. Combustion requires oxygen and fuel, which require matter and space. Matter exerts gravitational and electric fields infinite in scope, though exponentially decreasing in strength. Therefore "Purgatory" would be in some place relative to our own - this is falling into an anthropomorphism as silly as that of the Soviet cosmonauts who thought they had disproved God because they hadn't gotten to Heaven in a rocket ship.

On the authority of the Latin Fathers, I hold to a fire in Purgatory, but an immaterial fire. Yes, it is a metaphor, as is calling Heaven and Hell and Purgatory "places". Almost all of our theological consensus consists of metaphors.

I do hold a rigid position on the matter, because such a view as the one I am rejecting is incompatible with the certainties of modern science, whereas theological opinions are only probable insofar as they use insufficient and transitory philosophical and scientific tools to express their language. My intellectual background is in science (graduate student in theoretical astrophysics).

In refutation of the Latin Fathers: The authority of scholastic theologians holds little weight in the East because of their philosophical assumptions, ones which I would also call for re-examination in light of modern science. Second, St. Gregory Dialogos is one Father, and he was using the science of his day, which is all he had access to. Same goes for the third argument, Blessed Augustine, who is not very highly regarded in the East (usually called "Blessed" rather than "Saint" by more zealous Orthodox writers in order to acknowledge his piety but separate him from the "unanimity of sanctity", as he is not regarded as a theological authority for the Orthodox). Fourth, I cannot answer the argument from St. Basil or the Latin Fathers mentioned; our own Greek Liturgy presupposes the idea of temporal purification of sins and at least the "poeni damni" as we pray in our Pannihidas and Liturgies for God to admit the souls of the faithful departed to "blessed repose". We usually say 40 Liturgies for the souls of the departed, ever since some deceased Greek monk appeared to his confreres and told them that he couldn't enter Heaven for 40 days because they hadn't said any Liturgies for him. Purgation is usually placed in the context of the theloneia or mytarstva or "toll houses", especially in the prayers in my Old Believers prayer book.

Fifth, we Orthodox in communion with Rome hold to the decision of Florence regarding Purgatory, namely that we shall not debate the particulars but "entrust ourselves to the teaching of Holy Church".

Sixth, regarding 1 Cor 3:15, my Douay-Rheims says "as if by fire", implying a metaphorical understanding of the pain, and I also refer you to Ott, Manual of Dogmatic Theology, page 485, where he dismisses the Scriptural argument as insufficient.

Seventh, the visions of mystics and saints are by nature metaphorical.

I thank you for your response to my last post; I did not take it as an attack - I love to debate, and generally do not withhold any zeal in doing so.

Slava Isusu Christu! Slava Na Viki! Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory to Him forever!


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