The Eastern Orthodox Church does not believe in purgatory. Its main beliefs can be found in the Catechism of the Eastern Orthodox Church which states that “The souls of those who depart this life in God’s grace, but still have some sins remaining and are therefore unable to enter directly into the Kingdom of Heaven, undergo a temporary punishment” (para. 593).
The Catholic Church does believe in purgatory. Purgatory is understood by Catholics as a way for those who, having died with some degree of attachment to sin as judged by their own conscience or perhaps even once convinced of sin by others and fully contrite but without confession or repentance before death, are cleansed before entering heaven proper.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in its article on purgatory “Who can be saved? What are the means of salvation? How long is one required to make use of the means of salvation? Is there a purgatory? The Catechism also answers these questions: “The Catholic Church professes that it is possible for anyone to be saved, but she holds that not all will attain it. … The primary purpose of suffering, then, is that man may gain merit and grow in charity (Catechism paragraphs 1102-1104). St. Paul is clear that if we “have not charity, I am nothing” (I Corinthians 13:2).
The Eastern Orthodox church does see a close link of the reform in the church and purgatory. But they do not go so far as to say that there is a time/place where one waits for their sin to be purged.
Both churches agree on the fact that people in heaven have no fear of returning to hell or undergoing any temporary purgation, as it were. But for those who are yet alive and working out their salvation on earth, it is a different story. The Catechism refutes any idea that Catholics and Orthodox do not accept the literal belief in hell as a strict separation between Heaven and Hell.
The Eastern Orthodox Church does not teach that there is a purgatory before heaven but merely teaches that after death there is still something more than a resting place to be done. So even if you have done all you can to be completely pure, when your time comes to go up and into the eternal rest, it will still be a moment of purification before being accepted into heaven. Hence the Eastern Orthodox Church has less of a fear that there is a place where you wait to be cleansed before going into the eternal rest.
The Catholic Church does fear that in some way a soul may not be cleansed from sin before entering heaven, and will be required to do something more in order to enter the eternal rest and remain there. However, purgatory does not exist, as purgatory is explained as “a temporary suffering of those who have died in God’s grace but still have some sins remaining.” (para 593). The Catholic Church believes this purgation can only be done by God Himself after death. This is stated by the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
The Eastern Orthodox Church does believe that all sin can be forgiven after death. As it says in Catechism of the Orthodox Church, “All the dead will rise from their graves with their bodies and will stand before God’s throne. Each one will give an account of his life in answer to God’s questions and as a result ‘from dust you have been made, to dust you shall return” (para 474). But they say that we should strive to be sinless while on this earth, because when death comes we cannot change anything and our destiny is sealed. It is in this case, the Eastern Orthodox Church believes that purification has to be done by God Himself. They do not believe in a type of purgatory where you are required to perform something else. The Catholic Church accepts that purification is required but does not say it has to be done by God.
The Catechism explains the connection between Purgatory and the concept of salvation, which can be found below: “The [Catholic] Church professes that it is possible for anyone to be saved, but she holds that not all will attain it. Some are predestined to be among the number of the elect who will enjoy eternal life, to whom Jesus Christ was revealed in advance by God. Others, however, are predestined to be deprived of eternal happiness. It is impossible for them to gain salvation: ‘The final decision is always reserved to the Father’ (Catechism paragraphs 1111-1112).
It should be noted that while Catholics do believe in purification after death and believe that it can only be done by God after death (Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1133), they do not teach that this purification has to be done before entering heaven. One can enter heaven without the Church teaching that purification has been done by God. However, one could not stay in heaven if they had not been purified in this way.
The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that there is no time or place of purification before entering heaven. Speaking about the dead, it says in Catechism of the Orthodox Church paragraph 474, “Sleeping sinners will awake and those who have done good will be received into everlasting life”. They believe that once you die a person will be judged immediately and either allowed into heaven or not. They say the following about purification after death:
“We admit to the possibility of future cleansing, but not to the possibility of a final purification for all who have fallen asleep in Christ. For the grace of purification is not extended to everyone.” (Paragraph 1341)
The Eastern Orthodox Church is similar to the Catholic Church concerning their belief in purgatory. Only differences are that they do not believe it is done by God after death, and instead believe it is just a “spiritual fire.” They also do not think of it as a time and place where things are done for you; you go to heaven as soon as you die. However, this does mean that one who neglects to be purified in this way will have an incomplete salvation.
There is a third way to receive salvation. This place of purification is not for everyone, just those who have something to be purified — namely, stains of sin. The Eastern Orthodox Church teaches that “Those who have not broken God’s commandments but have committed sins which they are aware of having committed and which cannot be forgiven by themselves alone, are reconciled with the grace of the Holy Spirit and are granted forgiveness through the prayers of believers and by the help of God’s mercy they are cleansed from these stains. It is only then that they can be considered as having already been saved.
Those who do not repent and ask God’s forgiveness in their life, will not be forgiven after death. If sins cannot be forgiven by the departed one him- or herself, then the Lord does not forgive them and gives no blessing for those who pass away. This is explained in John 9:41-42: “And Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now that you say. We see, your sin remains.’” (Catechism of the Orthodox Church paragraph 1349)
The Eastern Orthodox Church refers to this place as the “porches of Hades.” It is a process of purification which happens after death. Those who have accepted Christ into their souls are allowed to enter the kingdom of heaven by passing through a cleansing fire, which symbolizes the Holy Spirit cleansing them and enabling them to be born anew. The Orthodox Church teaches that we are cleansed from sin after death. Those who continue in sin will not pass beyond the borders of Hades where they can see neither heaven nor hell.
The actual process of purification itself is unknown to us, but it is described as “a state of anxiety” for those who have not received forgiveness for their sins (Catechism of the Orthodox Church paragraph 1350). It is considered a necessary step in order for those who have repented to be able to receive forgiveness for their sins after death.
In conclusion, the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church believe in the same process of purification after death. The only difference is whether it is done by God or not. The Catholic Church believes that God forgives sins after we die, whereas the Eastern Orthodox Church is more personal. The Bible does not give a clear answer as to how purification is completed in either case.