I recently participated in an informal debate with Doug Beaumont on the doctrine of Purgatory, on Theology Matters with the Pellews. During the course of the debate, a clear trajectory was being established by my interlocutor. That trajectory was that Purgatory is an atemporal and instantaneous experience in which the person is perfected and purified. This is a common tactic I’ve seen with Catholic apologists, and while I pressed him a little, I wanted to follow up.
The reason this is a popular approach is because it already has strong resonance with what the Protestant already believes. Protestants historically believe that at the moment of death for a Christian, the Christian’s spirit is perfected and brought into the presence of God. This is done without any conscious experience of the change or suffering. The Christian is conscious of their state as a sinner, then is conscious of their state as a pure spirit in the presence of God.
When the Catholic posits that this is essentially the same thing that Catholics believe, except that the transition is something that is experienced by the Christian, they are trying to show how similar their belief is… and then trying to establish that their belief makes more logical sense.
Now, during the debate I already pressed the fact that it is incoherent to speak of a temporal creature experiencing a non-temporal event. Experiences happen within time, and temporal creatures cannot experience events that have no time or duration (whatever an event without duration would be). However, I think that there is a much more fundamental reason that the idea of an instantaneous atemporal purgatory doesn’t work.
One of the major aspects of Purgatory, and one that was established by Doug as a central feature, is that the Christians who live on earth can reduce the suffering of the Christians in purgatory through various means (prayers, offerings, special masses, etc). So we are left with a picture that is very much what has historically been understood.
Grandma Ellie was an above average Christian. She was left with the stain of sin, and a debt to justice. Let’s just say she has about 10 years worth of suffering in purgatory. 3 years after she dies, I become Catholic due to finding a letter she wrote to me in which she said she has been praying for me since I was born. I convert and decide that I will devote my life to helping her get through Purgatory faster, and hopefully accrue some merit of my own in the process.
The problem with that… Grandma Ellie isn’t in purgatory. Her transition from earth, to purgatory, to heaven was instantaneous. So, how is it possible that my prayer, offerings, special masses, etc… can help her through a process which she has already completed. The Catholic could I suppose appeal to the concept of prescience in order to say that God knew I would take those actions, so he preemptively applied them to Grandma Ellie. However, that results in a state of affairs that I am now unable to NOT offer those prayers, offerings, or special masses.
Simply put, the move toward an instantaneous Purgatory is, I think, an apologetic tactic that developed in an attempt to soften the horror of what Catholics have historically believed. That is, the idea that Jesus Christ could suffer and die in order to bring about the salvation of someone, and then that someone could still have to suffer the punishment due their sins for perhaps thousands of years (millions? billions?) was simply untenable. Thus, the idea that these “years” are qualitative rather than quantitative began to take hold.
However, the other fundamental aspects of the doctrine never caught up. As Doug is keen to point out, we should take what the Church has proclaimed formally over that which it has not. According to the Catholic Catechism
From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them. (1)
As I demonstrated above, the idea of an instantaneous or atemporal purgatory is logically inconsistent with the idea that the actions of living humans on earth (which are not atemporal or instantaneous). Thus, the doctrine of an instantaneous or atemporal purgatory is inconsistent with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.
(1) CCC 1032