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Questions and Answers

Why be so strict? We’re only human, and we all make mistakes. God is love, so God will forgive everything in the end anyway.

Outline of the Answer
• The Promise
• Redemption
• Salvation
• Baptism and Betrayal
• Hell
• Purgatory
• Brokenness and Healing

Yes, through the ages God has promised us salvation through forgiveness. And, in the fullness of time, He fulfilled this promise by redeeming us from our guilt through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. But redemption is one thing, and salvation is something else entirely.


Redemption (sometimes called justification) is God’s gift to us. It’s a gift, unmerited on our part, that pays the mystical penalty for our Original Sin. This penalty, which no man can ever pay, and which even obedience to the sacred Jewish Law cannot erase, was paid through the sacrifice of Christ. As Saint Paul said, “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3):

Through his suffering, my servant shall justify many,
    and their guilt he shall bear.
Therefore I will give him his portion among the great,
    and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,
Because he surrendered himself to death
    and was counted among the wicked;
And he shall take away the sins of many,
    and win pardon for their offenses.

—Isaiah 53:11b–12


Christ’s sacrifice of Himself bought pardon for the sins of the whole world; redemption, therefore, is given to everyone.

But unless we accept that gift of our own free will—through repentance of our sins, through baptism, and through continued repentance and confession of sins committed after baptism—and put that gift into action through a holy lifestyle, we will suffer the consequence of eternal separation from God.

Our salvation from eternal separation from God, therefore, depends on our willingly accepting the gift of our redemption; as Saint Paul admonished us, “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12b). Thus to achieve salvation we must change our lives accordingly, turning away from our old ways of sin and faithfully keeping the commands Christ gave us, through His own example, so as to live as God created us to live: in pure love and holiness.

Come now, let us set things right,
    says the LORD;
Though your sins be as scarlet,
    they may become white as snow . . .
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked man his thoughts;
Let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.

—Isaiah 1:18, 55:7

Baptism and Betrayal

Now, in the early Church, baptism fully affirmed this radical change in life.


Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ were baptized into His death? We were indeed buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.


—Romans 6:3–4

But in today’s world, just about everybody has forgotten the real meaning of baptism: our death and burial to a life of sin, and our rising into a life of holiness. Most of us, however, are baptized as infants, and then we proceed on a lifetime of indoctrination into the unholy ways of the world around us. We live in the world, blind to its corruption; we live not as exiles in this vale of tears but as eager competitors for all the material “salvation” the world has to offer.

And Christ knew it would come to this. Time and time again, throughout the Gospels, He warned us about the “weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth” that will occur on the last day, that terrible day of judgment. Those who, like a fearful servant, bury the graces God gives them—instead of burying their lives of sin—and have not increased the value of what is entrusted to them, will lose everything when the master returns and demands an accounting (Matthew 25:14-30).

One day, on account of some fault which I had committed, my Divine Master gave me the following lesson. “Learn,” He said, “that I am a Holy Master and One that teaches holiness; I am pure and cannot endure the slightest stain. Therefore, thou must act with simplicity of heart and with an upright and pure intention in My presence. Know that I cannot endure the least want of straightforwardness, and I shall make thee understand that, if the excess of My love has led Me to constitute Myself thy Master, in order to teach and fashion thee after My manner and according to My designs, nevertheless I cannot bear tepid and cowardly souls, and, if I am gentle in bearing with thy weakness, I shall not be less severe and exact in correcting thy infidelities.”

—Saint Margaret Mary,
Autobiography, 51.


Read an excerpt from the writings of Saint Catherine of Genoa
about how sin is an offense to God

So, in the end, just as the fearful servant of the parable held his destruction in his own hands, your salvation is in your own hands. You have all the resources of the Church to assist you, but if you fail to use them, or misuse them, you have only yourself to blame. If you fail at your salvation because you aren’t willing to sacrifice everything for it, out of pure love and joy, as in the parables of the treasure buried in a field and the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44–46), then, sadly, you probably don’t desire it that much to begin with. Thus it can be said that sending yourself to hell is the ultimate form of self-punishment.


God is love, and God welcomes us all into His presence. He loves us as we are, despite our wretchedness—but those persons who do not recognize and repent their sins reject God’s love for them, and those persons who reject love have no place in His presence. Those who separate themselves from God in this life by persisting in sin and refusing to repent it will have no choice but to hide themselves from God in the afterlife—and that “place” of eternal separation from God, to which the soul’s own sins condemn it, is called hell. All souls who end up in hell have no one to blame but themselves. Their only place is hell, because hell, with all its selfishness and hatred, is the place of those who reject love.

Saint Teresa of Avila once had a terrifying vision in which she saw the horrible place the devils had already prepared for her in hell (The Book of Her Life, ch. 32, nos. 1-7). As she herself says, she hadn’t committed any egregious sins; until that time in her life, she had simply filled herself with vain gossip and friendships. What was missing from her life, then? Only love. In fact, she spent 20 years in religious life before she even began to understand the real love that is a necessity for salvation.

This tells us two important things about heaven and hell.


Only pure love can gain us entrance into heaven.


Sin excludes us from heaven.

Consequently, a legalistic life that focuses only on rules and regulations is not sufficient to gain entrance to heaven; only a person with a humble, loving heart, free from pride and hatred, can be admitted to heaven. Conversely, a “nice” person who does great, loving deeds for others can still be excluded from heaven by unrepentant personal sins.


Or, said in a different way, Christ is our ticket to the wedding banquet. He freely gives Himself to everyone, and, at the door to the banquet, we are admitted when we present that ticket with love and faith. No other ticket will be honored, nor can we earn a ticket through our own efforts. But, even if we have a ticket, if we have not kept His commandments—if we have not put on the wedding garments provided by Him—we will be thrown out of the banquet into the darkness (see Matthew 22:1-14).


In hell, then, the fires of God’s love consume all deception, all lies, all untruth—in short, all that has rejected love and its commandments—and leave you, for all eternity, with the dead reality of your own emptiness. When God says, “Be holy, for I am holy,” this is not just a call out of sin and a plea for our acceptance of redemption; it is also a warning: all that is not holy will be left to hell to suffer the pain of eternal separation from God.


I tell you, to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.


—Luke 19:26

That is, to those who have grown in love because they have opened their hearts to God, more love will be given them. But to those who lack love because out of fear of love itself they have buried it—pushed it out of their hearts with narcissism—so that it can never increase, everything they have will be lost. A million dollars, a million soldiers, a million orgasms—all pride and self will be found to be worse than useless on that day of judgment before Christ the King.


If God had wanted to just snap His fingers and say, “You’re all saved,” then why did He go to all the trouble of the Incarnation and Passion? The fact is, just wiping sin away would have violated our free will—and it would also violate divine justice, as Jesus told Saint Faustina, 

My mercy does not want [the suffering in Purgatory], but justice demands it.

Diary, 20

Note carefully that, contrary to popular belief, the purifying, penetential suffering in Purgatory is not punishment. In its psychological sense, punishment is a technique to decrease specific behavior. After death, however, there is no need to decrease sinful behavior. There is, though, a need to purge from all souls the desire to sin which is spiritually bound to all the sins the souls have committed through the course of their lives. This purging of a desire and all the harm brought into the world through its associated sins has been falsely called “punishment,” but it is properly called purification.

Thus, even though God forgives our sins when we repent them while we are alive—that is, He constantly welcomes us back to Him despite our sins—the stain of our sins must be removed from us after death in Purgatory before we can endure the fire of His love in Heaven. In Heaven, any stain of impurity will burn and torment a soul, so an impure soul will fling itself out of Heaven.

Yes, the purification process necessary to remove the stain of our sins is painful suffering, just as Christ’s passion was painful suffering. But the purification process of Purgatory is not arbitrary; the suffering is as painful as it needs to be, and it takes as long as it needs to take, according to the disposition of any particular soul. The “price” of a soul’s purification is penance for all the accumulated spiritual damage caused by the sins that were committed by that soul, and that penance is not something that can be evaded or simply dismissed. You can, however, decrease the extent of your suffering after death if, before death, you follow a spiritual life of holy penance that helps to make reparation for your sins and purge from your heart the desire to sin. Then, depending on the price you pay in this life, after death the remainder of the purging work will be done in Purgatory until your soul becomes pure in its love for God.

According to the testimony of the mystics, such as Saint Catherine of Genoa, who literally wrote the book about Purgatory, [1] we can understand something very important about all this.

As Saint Catherine learned, all that separates a soul in hell from a soul in Purgatory is sorrow for sin. Those souls in hell are in hell, and eternally separated from God, precisely because, in their physical lives, they declared their lack of love for God through their refusal to acknowledge, repent, and pay for their sins. But if you can cry out to God and say, “Have mercy, Lord, I was wrong. What I did was a sin. I’m sorry. Teach me how to change my life. Guide me, and I will do what You tell me,” then you can be reconciled with God and hope that when you die you will get to Purgatory rather than hell.


Read more from the writings of Saint Catherine of Genoa
about God’s love, patience, and mercy


No matter what religion you practice now, at the moment of your death you will find yourself standing before Christ in the light of divine truth. Every act of your life will be accounted for. It will all come down to one question: do you really have sorrow for all your sins? Truth will be absolute. There can be no excuses, no deception.


Brokenness—and Healing

“I felt myself burning and crumbling,” she said, “and . . . the worst was that interior fire and despair.” Thus Saint Teresa describes an experience in which the soul “tears itself in pieces.” And lacking any real love for God to save it, the soul is left to its own eternal emptiness.


Is it any wonder, then, that Christ chose the breaking of the bread to demonstrate to us the brokenness of human reality? And so we, in the Fraction Rite of the Mass, continually join ourselves to His sacrifice, as we acknowledge that He alone, through His holy love on the cross, can bring redemption and peace to our fragmentation.


Now, you can experience this process psychologically by giving up the worldly identifications which “glue” your sense of “self” together in the illusions of identity; as these bonds crumble, you will crumble into your real despair. And then you will be able to accept God’s love, for in emptying yourself of your petty desires you make room for real love, and in being filled with love is your forgiveness and salvation.


God does not “overlook” our sins—in fact, quite the contrary: He knows that our sins will condemn us to everlasting separation from Him if we do not repent them. But if only we do repent our sins then God will receive us as deeply as if we had never sinned at all.


Of course, you can believe in Zorba the Greek’s “Flap! Swap!” theory of forgiveness if you want, and just sit back in smug satisfaction and wait for God to “forgive everything anyway.” But I prefer to listen to a saint who, at least eventually, knew what she was talking about.


Who wrote this web page?


1. The online text (which is now in the public domain) may be found at www.catholic-forum.com: Treatise on Purgatory by Saint Catherine of Genoa.


 Back to the list of questions

Recommended Reading

Interview with an Exorcist

Interview with an Exorcist by Fr. Jose Antonio Fortea provides clear answers to questions about angels and demons, the reality of evil, demonic activity, temptation and sin, demonic oppression and possession, and the path to deliverance from evil influence.

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Hungry Souls by Gerard J.M. van den Aardweg recounts stories of supernatural visits, messages, and warnings from Purgatory. These are trustworthy, Church-verified accounts of earthly visitations from the dead in Purgatory. Accompanying these accounts are images from the "Museum of Purgatory" in Rome, which contains relics of encounters with the Holy Souls, including numerous evidences of hand prints burned into clothing and books; burn marks that cannot be explained by natural means or duplicated by artificial ones.

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An Unpublished Manuscript on Purgatory by Sister M. de L. C. recounts the mysterious relation continued for several years between the living nun and a departed religious suffering in Purgatory.
   “When the soul leaves the body it is as if it were lost in or, if I may say so, surrounded by God. It finds itself in such a bewildering light that in the twinkling of an eye it sees its whole life spread out, and at this sight, it sees what it deserves, and this same light pronounces its sentence. If the soul deserves to go to Purgatory, it is so crushed by the weight of the faults that still remain to be blotted out, that it hurls itself into Purgatory.”
   “In the great Purgatory there are several stages. In the lowest and most painful, like a temporary hell, are the sinners who have committed terrible crimes during life. For such souls, Purgatory is terrible. Next to these come the souls, who though they did not commit great crimes like the others, were indifferent to God. They are in Purgatory for the long years of indifference. They suffer unheard of pains and are abandoned either without prayers or if they are said for them, they are not allowed to profit by them. In the second Purgatory are the souls of those who died with venial sins not fully expiated before death, or with mortal sins that have been forgiven but for which they have not made entire satisfaction to the Divine Justice. Lastly, there is the Purgatory of desire which is called the Threshold. Very few escape this. To avoid it altogether, one must ardently desire Heaven and the vision of God. That is rare, rarer than people think, because even pious people are afraid of God and have not, therefore, a sufficiently strong desire of going to Heaven.”

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