The Christian Hope of the Resurrection (5)

Think about one of Paul’s best-known chapters, often rightly read at funerals. ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ,’ he writes (Romans 8. 1). The last great paragraph of the chapter leaves no room to imagine any such thing as the doctrine of purgatory, in any of its forms. ‘Who shall lay any charge against us? … Who shall condemn us? … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … Neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor the present nor the future, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else In all creation, shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!’ And if you think that Paul might have added ‘though of course you’ll probably have to go through purgatory first’, I think with great respect you ought to see, not a theologian, but a therapist.

In fact, Paul makes it clear here and elsewhere that it’s the present life that is meant to function as a purgatory. The sufferings of the present time, not of some post-mortem state, are the valley we have to pass through in order to reach the glorious future. The present life is bad enough from time to time, goodness knows, without imagining gloom and doom after death as well. In fact, I think I know why purgatory became so popular, why Dante’s middle volume is the one people most easily relate to. The myth of purgatory is an allegory, a projection, from the present on to the future. This is why purgatory appeals to the imagination. It is our story. It is where we are now. If we are Christians, if we believe in the risen Jesus as Lord, if we are baptized members of his body, then we are passing right now through the sufferings which form the gateway to life. Of course, this means that for millions of our theological and spiritual ancestors death will have brought a pleasant surprise. They had been gearing themselves up for a long struggle ahead, only to find it was already over.

—N.T. Wright, For All the Saints

Wow. Just wow.