How Physics Might Bring Purgatory to Protestants
Each Lent, millions of Americans examine their souls in a time of fasting and reflection that imitates Christ's own 40-day period in the desert. For Catholics, this harbinger of Easter's joy and hope for our eternal souls includes reflection on Purgatory -- part of the journey that takes us from this life to the next.
But for most Protestants, this is a belief that has no theological or scriptural basis. It has become one of several chasms separating the denominations. As Easter approaches yet again, it is an appropriate time to explore whether the split on Purgatory is one of theology or simply a the need for a model that appeals to all Christians.
Protestants rightly point out that the "purgatory" isn't in the Bible, but then neither is the Rapture or even the face of Christ himself. Because of this lack of a specific mention, and their belief that people destined for Heaven don't make a pit stop along the way, Protestants disavow prayer for the dead to free souls in Purgatory.
The Catholic Church has affirmed the doctrine of Purgatory as early as the 4th century, and again at the Council of Trent. However, contrary to many Protestant texts, praying for the dead is a Jewish practice that has carried over to Catholic belief and practice. To this day, it is found in a Jewish practice called the Mourner's Kaddish, which is tantamount to prayers for the dead.
Lutherans were the first Protestants to confront the theology of Purgatory, based upon the Catholic teachings at the time of Martin Luther. Catholics find their evidence in biblical passages. Most prominently used is Maccabees, including Hanukkah (168 B.C.E.). The New Testament also has many references applied to the theology of Purgatory, especially in Matthew 12:32 and Revelation 21:27. Particularly fascinating is this quote from Corinthians, describing Heavenly saving "only as through fire."
Clearly there are two sides to this issue, but this impasse could be solved with scientific observations and a new model that all sides could agree on.
In physics, there are universally agreed upon models that unite various factions of understanding. Take the model for the atom. It was first proposed, tested and agreed upon and re-tested before being further refined. Now every kid reads about the same thing in elementary school.
Let's parse this problem like the physics community might, using St. Bonaventure's observations about the connectedness between the created order and the unseen spiritual reality. The Sun could be called the source of all heat and light without which there would be no life on Earth; likewise, all of existence is to the grace of Heaven. Christianity has many historical references using the Sun as a metaphor for Heaven; the Sun's corona would certainly qualify as Purgatory. The corona constitutes the Sun's upper atmosphere and is a super-heated plasma which can reach a million degrees kelvin. That's far hotter than the surface of the Sun. We could never send a probe to the Sun itself without finding a way to make it survive the trip through this coronal firestorm that is hot enough to melt the Earth. This super-heated layer is 5 million kilometers thick.
What we know about the corona is therefore a surprisingly good fit with certain passages from Catherine of Genoa's writings on Purgatory:
I believe no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise; and day by day this happiness grows as God flows into these souls, more and more as the hindrance to His entrance is consumed. Sin's rust is the hindrance, and the fire burns the rust away so that more and more the soul opens itself up to the divine inflowing.
If Catherine is correct, it may be possible to draw an even larger conclusion. Perhaps this plane of existence was created by God to reflect some greater spiritual reality in Heaven. Purgatory would now no longer be viewed as a place, but rather as an effect that one must pass through to reach Heaven. No unworthy soul, demon or angel could pass through without scrutiny.
Thus, the objection of Purgatory being a third location is eliminated by reusing the model God may have applied to the Sun and its corona. Additionally, consider that many near-death experiences recall moving towards a light. In our world, that is the Sun -- in the spiritual realm, perhaps it is the perfection of God -- a light so intense that, like the Sun, and we cannot look directly at it.
Perhaps physics can inspire a new dialogue about Purgatory, and take Christianity from its 500-year Lenten suffering to an Easter future.