Will the 11th-grade theology class at Mercy High School in Middletown, Connecticut, ever run out of questions for me? Not likely . . .
Q: Hi, I am from Mercy High School, and it was amazing to see you answered my classmate Isabella. One question I’d like to ask you is, how do you know purgatory is real?
— from M
A: Judaism, Christianity and Islam all believe that the best of us go straight into Heaven and the worst of us go straight into hell, but what happens to the souls I call the “tweeners”? These are the souls of people who were not totally good and not totally bad but were somewhere in between. Purgatory is the tweener place where souls are purified and spiffed up and then sent off to Heaven.
Purgatory is not a belief found in the Hebrew Bible or even in the New Testament. It dates from at least the 12th century. It is also only a belief of the Latin Rite of the Roman Catholic Church. Protestants don’t believe in purgatory. Jews don’t believe in purgatory. However, the idea behind purgatory is in nearly every religion. It is the idea that the soul within us for our lifetime may be pure when God implanted it into our bodies, but that that soul is affected by the choices we make in life. Our pure souls are broken and stained and twisted and made fearful by our sins. Since God is eternal, our souls are eternal and so it makes sense to me that as part of our soul’s eternal journey to God in our one life (or, if we are reincarnated, in our many lives), that God would help our soul to understand just why we failed. It makes sense to me that our souls deserve to understand what we feared and how our fears limited us. We need to know what our lives meant, and purgatory is the place where that happens. This is why for some religions, like Judaism, the intermediate stop of our souls before proceeding to Heaven is not a place of torment and torture where sins are burned off, but more like a kind of soul school where our souls learn how we succeeded and why we failed.
The lesson I take from the belief in purgatory is that if we are spiritually and morally attentive to the choices we are making in our life right here and right now, we can get some of that soul school/purgatory introspection accomplished while we are alive. Then we can turn to the light of compassion and kindness before it is too late. Just spend some time every evening before you surrender to sleep thinking about the choices you made today, and remember that the ripples of both your kindness and your cruelty extend outward to the end of our time with God, which is the very end of time.
Q: Dear Rabbi Gellman, if God intended for us to do the right thing or be good people, how come now in our world there are bad people? Do you think that God meant to make the world this way?
— from C
A: Let’s look at the options God faced when God decided to create us. God could have programmed us to only do good, or God could have let us freely decide to do good.
If God programmed us, we would not really be doing good. We would only be doing what God made us do. We would be like animals following their instincts rather than their free will, like ants or bees that are driven to do what they do. They do not choose their lives.
The other option God had in creating us was to give us free will and let us choose our lives. Free will means that there is nothing stopping us from doing what we decide to do. We can decide to do good things or bad things — it is our free choice. Obviously, this option makes it possible for bad people to be in the world. God tried to help us use our free will by giving us the Bible, which is a kind of a guide book for doing good. But a guide book, even one from God, is not enough to overcome our free choice to do evil.
If you look at these two choices God faced, you may wonder why God gave us freedom. The evil some people freely choose is so horrible it may seem that being programmed would be better. However, God needed to make us free because God wanted us to love God and love each other. The only way to love — to really love — is to freely choose to love. God needed to make us free so God could help us to love. Love is worth the risk of evil.