I have my mother living with me. My mother remembered a picture her parents had in her house growing up. People burning in fire with angels around while they are in agony. She saw this same picture in a thrift store and bought it. Now it hangs in our living room. Why, why, why is purgatory depicted like this? Is this how purgatory is?

Here is a good article about Purgatory, which makes several references to fire:

If fire is involved, as seems to be the case, it is not to be thought of as an unecessary punishment. Purgatory is principally a work of love and mercy. God is preparing the souls there for eternal union with Him. If we knew how much God loves us, says St. Catherine of Genoa, we would willingly cast ourselves into Purgatory (assuming that our souls are imperfectly purified).

St. Francis de Sales writes about Purgatory in a very balanced way.

Sr. Gertrude Mary one day asked Our Lord about why a soul in Purgatory was such a great distance from Him. He replied: ‘The more I love a soul, the more beautiful I wish her to be.’

Jesus to St. Gertrude: ‘Imagine a king, who was keeping some of his greatest friends in prison, and would gladly set them free were it not that justice prevented him. Being urged by his own longing to deliver them, and seeing that they themselves were unable to contribute towards this, this king would joyfully accept payment from others, whether in gold or silver or in any other manner, of what was necessary to acquit their debt. In the same way I accept everything offered to Me for the deliverance of the souls whom I have redeemed with My Precious Blood. I thus have an opportunity of delivering them from their sufferings and bringing them into the joys prepared for them from all eternity.’


The only sensible answer I can think of is that it is to control people through fear. This is why many today reject the idea.

God is depicted in the bible as “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). Also some angels are called Seraphim, literally “burning ones”. So burning fire is not necessarily a bad thing. The prophet Isaiah had his lips purified with a burning coal. In 1 Cor. 3:10-15 it talks about the works of a man being tried by fire and being burned. That man "shall suffer loss, but he himself will be saved, yet so as by fire.

A priest spoke about punishment for sins one time and he said that God will punish all sins. If we are still attached to those sins, than we will be punished along with the sin. If we have removed ourselves from the sins and sought forgiveness, then when the sin itself is punished, we will be given mercy and not punished along with the sin. I think that’s kind of a good description of what purgatory is. God is a consuming fire, and he burns off any attachment to sin that we still have. Yes, we “suffer loss” in this “consuming fire” of God, yet we will be saved.

To say that it is purely punishment is going too far in one direction, but to say there is no punishment is going too far in the opposite direction. There is suffering, but it is through the all consuming fire of the love of God, which purifies our imperfections and attachments to sin and before entering into the thrice Holy presence of God, I think we will gladly get purified first just as Isaiah wanted his lips purified.

spiderweb, puts it very well.

The whole point of purgatory is purgation; a cleansing of the soul. Think of someone in drug rehab that is going through the pains of withdraw. It can be agonizing, but it is necessary to free them of the poison in their veins. The same with purgatory. As our attachment to sin and the filth on our souls is burned away I suspect it won’t be pleasant. I think many people forget Revelation 21:27 which says “… nothing unclean shall enter …”. The depiction in the image is a good one to remind us that sin still has a price and it must be cleansed from our souls before beholding the beatific vision.

But, purgatory is not about fear, it is about hope. Hell should be feared, not purgatory.


Fantastic analogy! :thumbsup:

If I die and find myself in purgatory I will dance with joy, for I know my salvation is assured.

Purgatory is where we are cleansed of all traces of our sins. Just think of it this way: An angel takes a really tough old scrub brush, or a big Brillo pad, and scrubs off all of the baked on crud of sins from our soul. They got there because we got too close to the fires of hell by sinning. Sure, it hurts. It burns like fire! But, when he’s done with us, we’ll be white as snow; just like the top of a stove is after we scrub off all the grease and baked on crud from around the burners, because we neglected to keep it clean in the first place! :smiley:

(No! You cannot come to my house to check out my stove-top! :p)

Another image for purgatory that may be of help:

Suppose you get invitations to a wedding, and accept–but on the wedding day, while on the way, your car gets stuck in mud, and in pushing it out, your clothes get all muddy. What will you do?

  1. You could continue to the wedding as you are–you were invited, after all, and have a right to be there. However, your muddy clothes will make others very uncomfortable.

  2. You could go home and stay–missing the wedding. But you don’t want to do that–you want to attend the wedding and celebrate!

  3. The obvious solution is to go home and change, and go to the wedding. You will then be ready to celebrate with the couple and family.

The mud is the sins we are still attached to when we die. We are promised heaven–but are not yet ready to celebrate in the purity of heaven without being purified and cleansed of our sins. The Bible and tradition uses various images: fire to burn away dross and impurities is the most obvious and common.

Hell would be rejecting the invitation, and going to work in the garden or fields, where it doesn’t matter how muddy you get.

Thank you all of the replies. I just don’t like how this picture makes purgatory look like hell. People sinking in fire and Angels pulling people out of fire while Mary and the baby Jesus look down at them. Scary looking stuff. But if it helps me get to heaven I suppose I can endure the pain. :grimacing:

I am no expert on purgatory, and if this is of no help than please ignore everything I say in this post, but recently I heard this analogy about purgatory and it helped me get the general idea:

Committing sin is like hammering a nail into some drywall. While going to confession and receiving absolution removes those nails, the holes in the drywall remain. Purgatory is process of patching the scars left by those sins. Everything in heaven is perfect, and purgatory is the process by which we are made perfect.

I just believe that the imagery used to show it is used to show that although not hell, purgatory is still not heaven.

FYI, St. Catherine of Genoa had some very interesting things to say about purgatory. Many times I offer one decade of my rosary to the souls in purgatory especially for those that have no one to pray for them.

far be it from a simple Lutheran layman to answer your question, but I truly appreciate Pope Benedict’s POV:

Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where man is forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather is it the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. It does not replace grace by works, but allows the former to achieve its full victory precisely as grace. What actually saves is the full assent of faith. But in most of us, that basic option is buried under a great deal of wood, hay and straw. Only with difficulty can it peer out from behind the latticework of an egoism we are powerless to pull down with our own hands. Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy.


Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy.

Even a Lutheran can say Amen to this.

Is his a better view than that of your mom’s picture?


The Church does not require people to believe in a literal fire. It’s part of the traditional imagery because fire purifies as well as destroying.

I am a fan of the idea (which I believe has been proposed by Scott Hahn, and comes out of the Eastern Church) that the fire of hell, purgatory, and heaven is the same thing–God–experienced differently according to the different state of the person experiencing it.

For those who have rejected God, the fire of God’s presence is torment and mingled with darkness (because while God is present everywhere, they are morally and spiritually “absent” from God). For those who still have imperfections, the fire of God is purifying–painful like antiseptic on a cut is painful, or bright light when you have been in darkness and haven’t quite adjusted yet. For glorified saints, it is nothing but joy.


Its not a punishment from God and there is no literal fire in it. It is where God draws a soul to himself and the soul gradually lets go of its disordered attachments. God desire’s full union with a soul but he cannot be unified with a soul unless it the soul is free from its disorders. The suffering is great because the soul has to let go of its own security and it sees all the harm it has done in life. We must pray for these souls to give them graces necessary to help them with the process. Purgatory is not a punishment but rather it a radical healing.

Its provable from the catechism that there is no literal fire:

“These two punishments (eternal and temporal i.e. all forms of punshiment) must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin.” (CCC 1472)

The depiction of fire is just the image of the suffering that the souls go under. Purgatory can begin in this life.

I agree with you. When you look at it logically the souls are spiritual and fire is material. The material cannot hurt the spiritual since they are different in nature. It is somewhat like throwing a stone at the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can never be hit because there is nothing material to hit.

Originally Posted by RobinLaf
Why, why, why is purgatory depicted like this?

Nonsense. The correct answer is artist license. It is an artist’s depiction of what scripture reveals to us about purgatory. Scriptures tell us that on the day of judgement a saved man will be tested by fire. Those works of his that are not clean will be burnt away while those that are clean will be refined as metal is refined by fire. Thus the man will be made worthy of entering heaven because scripture also tells us that nothing unclean will enter heaven.

Thank you all for your comments. I feel a lot better. :thumbsup:

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.