Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Big Lebowski and Why the Doctrine of Purgatory Makes Perfect Sense

In the movie the "Big Lebowski" the "Dude" (the post-modern hippie character played by Jeff Bridges) is distraught because some thieves have broken into his house and stolen some of his belongings. However, what seems to upset him the most in all of this is a particular rug that has been taken from his living room; a rug, mind you, that "tied the whole room together"!

In a similar sense, without the doctrine of purgatory being included in any proper discussion of the "after life", the conversation surrounding it just winds up sounding a little too simplistic and self-serving (i.e. it doesn't seem to hold together). If heaven only requires some sort of minimal assent in order to get there, then what does that say about the need for holiness? In other words, whether you are Mother Theresa, or someone who barely squeaks in, then it really doesn't matter at all. To God a "70" is pretty much the same as a "100", and a martyr, the same as the one who is barely saved.

Perhaps this is why in many Protestant circles there really isn't much room for notable heroic figures, not because they don't exist, but because the celebration of radical holiness is not generally permitted in the same way it is in the Catholic Faith. However, no matter what type of Christian you are, the starting point must be God's grace and mercy... yet surely God distinguishes between the one who gives everything, and the one who is simply a minimalist.

Speaking of minimalism, another unfortunate side effect of this minimalist mentality is the "well, as long as I'm not Hitler or John Wayne Gacy" approach. Indeed, in some quarters you can't help but suspect a kind of creeping (or sprinting) universalism in all of this spiritual largesse. Hell practically gets blotted out altogether. Everyone MUST go to heaven, and that's all there is to it!

Unfortunately, this "I'm OK you're OK" mentality, leads to the veritable glorification of mediocrity.  Everyone kind of becomes "The Dude", who is incidentally a really "nice guy", and thus who could possibly envision a cool guy like that ending up in the fiery furnace? Hell is empty, in fact hell is impossible. And if there is a hell at all, it's probably like that room in your house that no one wants to go in anyway. Ironically, by completely evacuating hell, we may well have unleashed it upon the earth.

Lebowski: A new kind of holy icon rooted in a sort of "lovable" mediocrity

On the more religiously conservative side of things, what a "purgatory-free" after life winds up inviting is a kind of "remnant" mentality (i.e. unless you are one of the chosen few... meaning me… and maybe Mother Theresa... you shall not enter in). One can witness this kind of exclusivity among groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Seventh-Day Adventists, who are probably too exclusive for even someone like Mother Theresa. They are something like the "gated community" of religious adherents.

Hence, purgatory, at least as it relates to a real sense of justice and sanctification, makes perfect sense. No one should for a second claim that the grace of Jesus Christ is insufficient to save us, but then again, no one should say that grace doesn't demand anything more of us either (like one's spouse, whose  name may incidentally be "Grace").

The real question is what happens when the demands of holiness aren't met in this life due to a lack of virtue or urgency on our part? Are we, the un-virtuous, to be rewarded in the same way as the virtuous? Is heaven like our present day society, wherein all you need to do is to show up in order to get a trophy? Perhaps. But this doesn't seem to line up with the general logic of Scripture, particularly as it relates to parables like that of the wedding guests, the Sheep and the Goats, or even the sobering admonition about doing the will of the Father.

And that's just the point, justice and reason demand an award (or demerit) commensurate with one's labors in this life (see Beatitudes). As for those who might otherwise be saved, but who are nevertheless lacking in certain necessary virtues for heaven, what shall we say? Do they just waltz right into heaven with the rest of the holy ones, or rather is there not some kind of refinement process that they may need to endure before they share that same vision with the rest? 1 Corinthians 3:15  seems to affirm this latter instinct (i.e. that they really do need a kind of "come to Jesus" moment before they can share the Beatific vision). In fact, all of Scripture seems to stand behind this logic.

People sometimes complain that Purgatory is not specifically in the Bible. Yet as is this case with any number of doctrines which were, after the fact, given a theological/philosophical formulation (e.g. the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation), so also with Purgatory. Saying Purgatory is not in the Bible is a bit like saying that the word Bible is not explicitly in the Bible, and therefore lacks the necessary authority to be accepted. The point is this doctrine is everywhere in the Bible to the point that it is patently self-evident, and would in fact be redundant to say so. Is discipline in the Bible? Is punishment for sin in the Bible? Is God promising to "purify", and thus "purge" Israel of their sin? Do believing people still suffer crosses, trials, deserts before they enter various "Promised Lands" (it would seem the desert of Sin is a perfect example of a Purgatorial experience). Do sons of Levi (i.e. the chosen of God), suffer crucibles of fire in order to be purified in the kiln of God's love in order to enjoy their Master's rest. Can punishment itself be seen as a sign of God's love? Well, apparently Proverbs and Hebrews seem to think so- not to mention the minor detail that everything else we know about life seems to gel with this simple idea.

The only real question then is not whether Purgatory exists, but whether it exists on the other side of the veil as well; which is why it is so important to look at the practice of the early church. Is this how the Church has interpreted God's discipline from the very beginning? Yes.

Perhaps this is why "purgatory", like the giant rug in the Big Lebowski, ties the whole room of eschatology together. Not because heaven and hell require any further explanation, but because we do. The truth is most human beings are neither the best versions of themselves, nor the worst, neither heaven nor hell people, and thus it only makes sense that the whole thing might need to be sussed out in some other way.

Some may point to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as wholly sufficient as a means to solve this entire dilemma. However, the more you try to over-simplify the implications of our redemption, the more unsatisfying one's conclusions become. If before the Fall, man was expected to use his freedom in a way that was consistent with his dignity and sanctity, then why does it make sense to say that after his redemption the same wouldn't hold? How can this "new man" be superior to the old, when all he is expected to do is accept Christ in his heart, while simultaneously working to down-play the very works that would actually lead him to a life of sanctity?  

Justice demands purgatory because it matters what we do with our time here on earth. And mercy demands purgatory, for if there is even a glimmer- a redeemable flicker of hope and goodness left in a person, would it not make sense that the Lord would do everything in his power to try to reach that particular soul.

Most importantly though, Purgatory is necessary- not because of what it means for the next life- but rather what it means for this one. If our trials in this life do not serve to purify our faith (2 Corinthians 7:10), then what are they there for at all? Or to put it another way, if our suffering doesn't cease the very moment we have accepted Christ in this life, then why should we expect it to cease the moment we meet him in the next (presuming we aren't yet completely sanctified)? And if God simply allows suffering to continue for no reason at all in this world, then wouldn't that imply that he is little capricious and cruel?

This is in some ways the worst crime of denying any notion of purgatory and/or redemptive suffering, for it completely empties the cross (both Christ's and ours) of its meaning. It doesn't simply make the final judgment seem arbitrary and gratuitous, but it makes our current trials seem so as well.

What is the point of suffering if our trials do not further serve as a means of sanctification? Scripture never presumes (nor ever really even implies) that judgment is pain free. To the contrary, there are plenty of instances wherein the "saved" must first be "tested" by "fire" before entering the Promised Land. If this Scriptural "fire" does indeed represent God's curative grace (as well as his judgment in general), then that experience may turn out to be a beautiful one, but there is no evidence that it would be in any case painless. Point of information: Fire burns… unless the thing that it happens to be burning is itself fire.

And that's all that Catholics really mean by the doctrine of Purgatory, not that there is some limbo-like state between heaven and hell (as some have falsely concluded), but rather that upon meeting God face to face, and subsequently seeing one's entire life flash before their eyes (i.e. the cause and effect of every action and every careless word ever spoken), one may well experience a certain level of discomfort and shame at this meeting; a discomfort that exists, incidentally, for the sole purpose of reconciling you to the Father. It is not easy to be conformed to the Lord's will in this life, so why should it necessarily be easy in the next, especially if you have not diligently "worked out your salvation in fear and trembling"? If you can accept this, then you should be able to accept the doctrine of Purgatory… whatever you wish to call it.  


  1. Well put, good and faithful band mate

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