Jesus said to the repentant thief “today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23:43). Many non-Catholics use this to “prove” that purgatory doesn’t exist because the thief went straight to heaven and therefore purgatory wasn’t necessary. Does it prove that?
Fundamental Misunderstanding of Purgatory
First, purgatory is a temporal (in time) place for souls that need to be cleansed (purged) of the stains of their sins. However, purgatory is only one of several ways for this cleansing to occur; suffering and penance are two of the other forms.
If a person has no temporal punishment to atone for at death then they have no need for purgatory. The repentant thief acknowledged that his punishment fit his crime so it is entirely possible that his temporal punishment was atoned for via his crucifixion. We have no way of knowing; but it’s very possible that when he died he was completely purified. In other words, he wouldn’t go to purgatory anyway.
Jesus Didn’t Go To Heaven
The focus of Jesus statement is often on the words “today” and “paradise”. The argument is that Jesus and the thief will be in heaven “today” so the sinner must not have gone to purgatory. Far from disproving purgatory; it disproves the notion that the thief went straight to heaven! Why? Because Jesus didn’t.
We see in the Apostles Creed that Jesus “descended into hell”. “Hell” and “paradise” are actually from the same word; “Sheol”. Sheol is the “land of the righteous dead”, those, like Abraham, that died and didn’t go to eternal hell (Gahanna as opposed to Sheol) but couldn’t enter heaven because it had been locked.
So if the thief was with Jesus that day in “paradise” then they were together not in heaven but in this other place. Was that place purgatory? I don’t think so, but it was neither heaven nor hell which proves that there can be other temporal realities.
Catholic doctrine is perfectly consistent with the story of the repentant thief.