Fifty years, or more, ago there was a common saying in an around old Lancashire, to the effect that: 

“God’s good –  An’ t’divil’s not bad to them ‘e teks to.” 

So there we have it – the dichotomy of two diametrically opposing concepts – good and evil, a dichotomy that pervades all our lives, from cradle to grave, whether we like it or not.  And the greater problem, perhaps, is that human beings are prone to the latter, rather than the former.  Sin is not – and never will be – a ‘nice’ subject.  A writer, putting his mind to a discourse on ‘sin’ is never going to win any popularity contests in his choice of subject matter.  Most would agree that it is not ‘fashionable’ to talk about ‘sin’. Rather distasteful, but, why?  I think the answer to my question is that we would all have to admit to having a guilt complex about sin.  It would be something we would rather see ‘brushed under the carpet’ – rather that, than get it out into the open – but get it out in the open, we must, as this is important to the discussion.  Sin is something that makes us all feel guilty – we are all sinners – apart, that is, from a couple of perfect saints who lived some two thousand years ago – Jesus and Mary, his Mother.  From Adam and Eve, and right down to you and me, across millions of years and billions of people, we are all – apart from these two – egotists who have put ourselves before God and the good of our neighbours.  

I use the  word ‘ egotists’ advisedly, for that, essentially, is just what sin is – putting ourselves and our desires before God and his loving friendship and kindness – and before the love and welfare of our neighbour.  In following our desires, our wants, our feelings, the ‘ego’ in us comes to the fore, promoting ‘us’ to the exclusion of ‘them’ – ‘them’ being God and our fellow man.  Please do not misunderstand – this is certainly no attempt at preaching – as I very much include myself in all of this.  Sinning thus, we turn away from God and our backs to every ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ on earth.  Just how self-centred can we get?  Well the answer is on display world-wide today and has been ever since the world began.  

Everywhere we can see examples of what ‘self’ – in its lust and greed for power, money, sex and all the earthy things that go with base human nature – can do for love, friendship, caring, peace and security, justice and fair-play.  It does not seem to matter in which direction you look, for, on every side, on every level, there is war, injustice, torture, false imprisonment, deprivation and hunger etc, on the international and national scenes, and all these are reflected in what we do to each other, when we examine our human activities, at the more personal levels. I take a look at the TV magazine, and on the front see ‘David’s Evil Plot’, ‘Has Marlon killed Shadrach?’, ‘Hostage Terror’, to name just three recent ‘spicy headlines’.  “Alright”, I hear you say, “but that’s fiction.”  Then switch on the TV and the national and local news programmes, and I will lay odds that quite often the truth is worse than the fiction.  All the positives – subsumed under the ‘umbrella of love and human kindness – are tossed to one side, when the negatives of self-centredness are allowed to take over.  And, it is just no use blaming governments or tyrants for what they do to thousands, perhaps millions, when we realise that we individuals are all in this mess together.  

And, what a mess! And over what a time span! The Bible is full of examples of such behaviour, right from Adam and Eve – through Cain and Able – Sodom and Gomorra – on to, and through the New Testament where Jesus calls a halt, and gives us two new commandments to replace the old ten:

Love God, above all.. … .. Love your neighbour as yourself. 

Unfortunately, humankind takes not much notice and continues down through all the pages of history – to the Greeks and Romans, the European nations in more modern times and their search for empires, west versus east, and north versus south, the ‘haves’ against the ‘have-nots’, with slavery in the middle, dictators and tyrants versus their peoples, homicides, fratricides, matricides, patricides – through to genocides – you name it, and we have done it, individuals, families, partners, communities, societies, nations and groups of nations as far as the international – top to bottom and bottom to top – we have been there – killing, raping, assaulting, kidnapping, pillaging, stealing, lying – evil on top of evil – God and his goodness – never in sight – brotherly love thrown out the window; I said at the start that sin, and sinning, does not win any popularity contests.  How depressing!  But, that again, is just what sin does to us.  Because of the guilt complex – invariably attached to sin – we become part of a downward spiral and end up in deep depressions. 

So where is the light then?  Life, surely, cannot be all about doom and gloom – all about evil – to the total exclusion of good.  Experience teaches us that the totality is never composed of just one aspect, one side, one way of life, one set of actions, one faith, just one ideology.  Only God has that kind of unity, and it is he that provides the other side to the seemingly overwhelming imbalance.  He gives us the positive – the light – the good – the chance to escape the depressing and total blackness of sin and death to self. 

Given the gift of faith, we believe that God provided the answer to the unrelieved total ‘blackness’ of sin.  He has always loved us.  He loves us now, every second, every minute of every hour and day ….. so much so, that it was against His very nature to see us condemned to unremitting death for all eternity.  As we die, each one of us, He wants all of us to be with Him in heaven, a life of joy, peace and happiness, ‘until Hell freezes over’, upwards, and onwards …. ….  So Jesus comes into the ‘frame’ comes to save us from that horrible fate of sin’s ‘black hole’ and to give us hope – to give us light – to show us the way – to teach us the secret of happiness – because to give, is to serve, is to love God and our fellow man – the opposite of self – the opposite of ‘me’ – the opposite of ‘take’, ‘take’, ‘take.   We take Jesus at his word, the ‘penny drops’ and we then begin to see how wonderful it is to live with a clear conscience, to live loving God and trying to do His will, to live trying to love, be kind and to help others.  It seems to me that the man with a soul washed clean, is a man with a clear conscience, a man happy about his life and about his future.  He loves God.  He loves his fellow man.  He is united within himself – not at odds with anything or anyone – very much in that happy mode we call a ‘state of grace’  On the other hand, I never saw anyone truly happy when living a life opposed to God, opposed to his neighbours, when manifesting a soul as black as t’ fire-back. 

At this point, I think, we are back precisely where we started – back with the dichotomy – good versus evil: 



And this forces me to ask the question as to whether this discourse has been a waste of time?  I think not!  Given all the evil in the world is there any hope? I think there is – that there must be! The analysis forces us to consider that with God on our side and given the actions of Our Blessed Lord, his birth, life, death and resurrection, we are given the magnificent graces of  repentance and forgiveness for the sins we commit, if only we say sorry in all sincerity to God.  Once we are honest with ourselves and admit our faults, then ask for God’s help and forgiveness, we know that he will not turn away from us and leave us friendless.  He will always help us to ‘start over’ and with a ‘clean slate’ – at whatever time, however late – even on our death bed, as we draw our last breath.  All that we ever need to do is to turn to Him and say: “Sorry.” 

Where next?  Is that the end of all useful discussion on the subject?  Well no – because the subject inevitably takes us to the grave and beyond, to two judgements – the individual, immediately after death, and the general, at the end of time. 

Sistine Chapel Fresco – The Last Judgement by Michelangelo 

And here, we must rely on faith and the words of Jesus, himself.  We know that if we die in a state of enmity to God then, at our judgement, we shall hear the dreaded words: “Depart from me …… ” and we then face an eternity of suffering – the greatest of all perhaps being the knowledge that, through our own doing, we have denied ourselves that state of perfect happiness, living in God’s presence for ever, and ever – throughout an infinity we cannot begin to comprehend.  Hopefully, we may have succeeded in trying our best to follow God’s will, loving Him and neighbour, and then we will hear those wonderful words of welcome: “Come ye blessed of my Father….. “  However, at this point, most will more than likely meet with a problem – a problem all to do with some venial (minor) sins, and / or, the guilt attached to other sins we have committed.  The past sins, themselves, will have been forgiven, but there is now an atonement to be paid and that means a stay in Purgatory.  

 (Logic dictates that to pray for the dead means to pray for the souls in Purgatory.  The souls that have found their reward in Heaven have no need of our prayers – they can pray for we who are still alive.  As for those in Hell, it is of no value to pray for them as they have no promise of escape from their torments there – they are there for all eternity)… … … 

II Maccabees 12:43-46: “And making a gathering, he [Judas] sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection, (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead,) And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.” 

 St. Teresa of Avila – Interceding for the Souls in Purgatory

(from the Workshop of Reubens) 

The above arguments lead us to consider, now, some of the evidence for the existence of Purgatory – often thought of as a place to which souls go for a time.  The intuitive evidence, certainly, can be traced back thousands of years, to the earliest Christians, and the Catacombs, where there are 1st to 3rd centuries’ records of the Christian practice of praying for the dead, and beyond that, into the annals of Jewish history.   

The Catacomb of Callistus – Procession

(Writings found in the Catacombs (other than in the New Testament) take the tradition, of praying for the dead, back as far as centuries 1 – 3 A.D., to the early Christian writings such as the ‘Acts of Paul and Thecla’ and the ‘Martyrdom of ‘Perpetua and Felicity’)

The Bible speaks of something other than Heaven and Hell, often called the Limbo of the Fathers, for in the First Letter of St. Peter, (1 Pet. 3:19), it is said that Jesus, after his death and before his resurrection, went and preached to the ‘imprisoned spirits’ – souls of the just, in Limbo, who had died and could not yet go to heaven, because ‘redemption through Christ’ had not yet taken place.   Years ago in the ‘Apostles Creed’ we Catholics used to say: “… .. he descended into hell… ..”   Could it be that this (hell) Limbo (of the Fathers) is the same as purgatory? Maybe yes!  Maybe not! However, the long held belief is that the souls of the just were held in Limbo pending the actions of the Messiah.  If the limbo of the Fathers was purgatory, then this argument points directly to the existence of Purgatory. If the Limbo of the Fathers was a different temporary state, then the Bible at least says such a state can exist – a state other than heaven and hell.  Even today orthodox Jews commonly recite a prayer known as the ‘Mourner’s Kaddish’, for eleven months after the death of a loved one, so that the loved one may be purified. 

Similar intuitive evidence also exists for several other religions, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Mormons, among them, and the Moslems believe that Hell is temporary for some and permanent for others – all appearing to indicate the existence of some intermediate state – for certain souls – between heaven and Hell.   The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as: 

“purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified” (CCC 1030). It notes that “this final purification of the elect . . . is entirely different from the punishment of the damned” 

Theologians have tendered opinions as to Purgatory, somewhere between Heaven and Hell, and the time limits on our periods to be spent there – limits in proportion to the amount of sinful debt to be expunged – but my feelings, my instincts, are less than convinced by some of the arguments.  As I understand the teachings of the Church on this point, then our lives after death are lives of the spirit – lives spent in a state of being, no longer subject to, or limited by, time and space.  Going to Purgatory, therefore, will not be anything like a prison sentence of 6 months in ‘Strangeways’. We are told that God lives in a  perpetual ‘now’; He who is called ‘I am’ does not know past or future – only present – and, therefore, time would seem to have no meaning for the Souls in Purgatory.   However, we try to understand and explain what we mean by Purgatory, I think our efforts – largely built on faith and tradition – are likely to be wide of the mark.  The trouble is we have no clear explanation concerning this state of separation from the presence of God.  Hell, certainly, is a state of being in which we are to be everlastingly denied the presence of God, for nothing stained by mortal sin can ever enter Heaven.  Purgatory differs from Hell in one vital element – there is no mortal sin involved – and because of that it holds the promise that our separation from God and the happiness of heaven, will not last for ever.  The trouble with this is that this ideology takes us back into the problem of time, once again.  Leaving all that aside, the great promise of Purgatory, we believe, is that once the guilt of our sins is expunged, we shall then take our rightful place in heaven – with God – and in total happiness for all eternity. 

Good and evil, sin and death, Judgement Day, Heaven, Hell – or the promise held out by Purgatory – even if it happens to be ‘second best’ – takes us where, may I ask?  Forgive me for saying so, but such concepts describe the totality of what it means to be a human being – to have existence – in this world of ours.  In using the word’ totality’, I intend that it should be interpreted as holding all the most basic structures pertaining to our very existence – both spiritual and temporal.  We are born.  We live for an indeterminate number of years.  Our life is (bound) to be neither totally bad, nor totally good, but somewhere between the two extremes.  At some point in time, life gives way to death and then we face the judgement – and the consequences of our life on earth.  Those consequences can be hellish or heavenly – or again, in some spiritual state, somewhere between the two – but with the ultimate promise of a life of happiness with God.  

From childhood, I remember, vividly, some of the ‘fire and brimstone’ sermons that used to be preached in many Christian churches.  Thank God, this rather frightening aspect from our past seems to have mellowed, and we no longer listen (and shudder) at the sound of these tirades.  I cannot believe that God is like that – neither does he expect us to live in fear like that.  My own view, founded only on belief in God’s great love, is that through all – life, death, good, evil, judgement – God simply wants us to love him in return, to love our neighbour for his sake and to try to do our best to keep these two Divine commands. He knows we are not perfect, but, if we do this, if we try – sincerely – honestly – we shall not fail. 

My final thoughts go back to Maccabees: ‘It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead.’ I live in the fervent hope that someday, someone, somewhere, will pray for me.