The Pit and Purgatory
Can a blind person lead a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit? Luke 6:19
One of the most common biblical reference to contemporary images of Hell today is the Pit. When we do not count the pit references that seem to mean a regular hole in the ground (i.e., “the pit was empty; there was no water in it” – Genesis 37:24), there are 33 references to the Pit as an unpleasant, hellish destination. They are almost all in the Old Testament, with six in Job, nine in the Psalms, two in Proverbs, four in Isaiah, eleven in Ezekiel, and one in Jonah. The only New Testament references are in Revelation, with seven mentions of a “bottomless pit” into which the Devil is locked for a thousand years (Revelation 20:3).
Here is a sampling of references to the Pit:
“That he may turn them aside from their deeds, and keep them from pride, to spare their souls from the Pit…” Job 33:17-18
“O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.” Psalm 30:3
“You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions of dark and deep.” Psalm 88:6
“One who walks in integrity will be safe, but whoever follows crooked ways will fall into the Pit.” Proverbs 28:18
“Then I will thrust you down with those who descend into the Pit, to the people of long ago, and I will make you live in the world below, among primeval ruins, with those who go down to the Pit, so that you will not be inhabited or have a place in the land of the living. I will bring you to a dreadful end, and you shall be no more; though sought for, you will never be found again, says the Lord God.” Ezekiel 26:20-21
In addition to the references that seem clearly to refer to the Pit as a destination for the impure, there are 46 additional references throughout the Bible to a pit, which could refer either to a literal hole in the ground (as in a pit for a wine press) or to a destination for the dead. I suspect many of these references have dual inferences. The passage from Luke 6, quoted above, is an example, where Jesus tells a parable of one blind person leading another into a pit. If the leader is spiritually blind, the pit fallen into would be spiritual in nature.
Purgatory is not a term used in the Bible, but certain religions, particularly Roman Catholics, refer to it in their doctrines. Like Sheol, Hades, the Pit, and Hell, it is a place of the dead. In general, however, one might say that purgatory is a place for dead persons who were “mostly” good but still have some sin issues to work through. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes purgatory as “the state of those who die in God’s friendship, assured of their eternal salvation, but who still have need of purification to enter into the happiness of heaven.” The concept of purgatory is one that predates Christianity, although it has developed as formal church doctrine only over the past few centuries. The Catholic church draws a clear distinction between purgatory and hell.
Personally, I find the concept of purgatory compelling and probably necessary. As earthly creatures, we identify with and attach to earthly matters and possessions, none of which are likely to cross into the next life at our earthly death. To the extent we are attached to what we must leave behind, to that same extent will we need to release those attachments in order to fully participate in the next phase of life. For example, when we move to a new town, we cannot fully participate in the life of that town until we let go of our attachments to the old.
I suspect the linguistic root of the word purgatory is purge, or to release. It is a painful process to have that which was so much a part of our earthly life unavailable to us, even when greater blessings await. It makes sense to me that there might be a transition period after this life, a time of adjustment (not punishment) to better prepare for what lies ahead. The more we are attached to our earthly identities, the more hellish it will likely feel. Our concept of Purgatory, Hell, the Pit, Sheol, or Hades may just be such a place, described from an earthly point of view.
Next week I will consider the relationship between hell and sin.
This is the 13th in the series of Life Notes titled, If I Should Die Before I Wake. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at email@example.com, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning, if you are not receiving them in another manner.
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 The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2005, 210.