From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Jump to: navigation, search

The term purgatory is best defined as "the means by which the elect reach perfection before entering into the Kingdom of Heaven". Many different theories on how purgatory takes place have been discussed in the past. Some of these theories would include: the main Catholic theory, discussed below; the main Protestant belief in an instantaneous and painless event; the Left Behind Theory, which states that when a person dies their imperfections are left behind on earth; the "God's Second in Hell" theory, which says purgatory is extremely painful but instantaneous; and many others.

In Roman Catholic theology, Purgatory is a process of purification of the soul after death, following the particular judgment and ordinarily a requirement before entry into Heaven. The word Purgatory was unknown before the 11th century: one of the first documents to mention purgatorium by that name was a letter from the Benedictine Nicholas of Saint Albans to the Cistercian Peter of Celle in 1176 (Haggh, 1997). Although Catholics would state the concept dates from much earlier, citing, among others, Gregory of Nyssa (4th century)

"When he has quitted his body and the difference between virtue and vice is known he cannot approach God till the purging fire shall have cleansed the stains with which his soul was infested. That same fire in others will cancel the corruption of matter, and the propensity to evil."

-- and St. Augustine of Hippo:

"Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment"

Purgatory was an essential element in the three-part world-scheme expressed in Dante's Divine Comedy, written in the early 14th century.

The Anima Sola, a "lonely soul", prays for deliverance from the fires of Purgatory; from a modern Roman Catholic holy card.
The Anima Sola, a "lonely soul", prays for deliverance from the fires of Purgatory; from a modern Roman Catholic holy card.


Catholic theology

A concise explication of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory was presented by Julian, Cardinal Cesarini to the Eastern Orthodox fathers assembled at the Council of Ferrara-Florence, Session vi, June (1438?):

"From the time of the Apostles," he said, "the Church of Rome has taught, that the souls departed from this world, pure and free from every taint,—namely, the souls of saints,—immediately enter the regions of bliss. The souls of those who after their baptism have sinned, but have afterwards sincerely repented and confessed their sins, though unable to perform the epitimia laid upon them by their spiritual father, or bring forth fruits of repentance sufficient to atone for their sins, these souls are purified by the fire of purgatory, some sooner, others slower, according, to their sins; and then, after their purification, depart for the land of eternal bliss. The prayers of the priest, liturgies, and deeds of charity conduce much to their purification. The souls of those dead in mortal sin, or in original sin, go straight to punishment."[1]

A canonic decree embodying similar doctrine is incorporated in the "Decree of Union" drawn up before close of the Council of Florence, which gave a short-lived hope of repairing the Great Schism.

The developed doctrine of Purgatory was further expressed in canons of the Council of Trent, Session xxv, which claimed to derive a concept of Purgatory "from the Sacred Scriptures and the ancient tradition of the Fathers taught in Councils." Protestant churches largely reject the concept (see below).

In official Catholic teaching, after death, people who had repented for their sins, but had not expiated them, are purged before entering Heaven. Everyone who enters Purgatory will eventually reach Heaven, therefore it is not some lesser form of Hell. Prayers for the dead and indulgences can shorten one's own or a loved one's stay in Purgatory: "We believe that alms, sacrifice, and other benefits can be of help to the dead" (Denziger §427, 1208). In Catholic theology, some sins — i.e. those against the Holy Spirit — may not be forgiven "neither in this life nor in the future" (Matthew 12:32); whereas "fire will test the work of each one [i.e. individual person], of what kind it [the work] is" (First Epistle to the Corinthians 3:13), so that Catholicism states a kind of after-death processing may be assumed to exist based on the Scriptures.

Catholic theology argues that the doctrine of purgatory allows for God to be both infinitely merciful and infinitely just. Theoretically, a sinner who decides to reform late in life may not be able to make perfect contrition during their lifetime, yet they are not any less deserving of salvation than a person with less sin. Purgatory allows perfect contrition and salvation to occur while avoiding the same reward for a differing set of actions for different people. The seeming paradox of justice vs. mercy is therefore solved by purgatory, and allows God to be omnipotent as fits with Christian doctrine.


Pope Gregory I began formulating teaching concerning penances in this life to reduce time in purgatory. In 1254 the dogma of Purgatory was asserted against those who denied it by the Catholic Church.(see Denziger §456: "[W]e, since they say a place of purgation of this kind has not been indicated to them with a certain and proper name by their teachers, we indeed, calling it purgatory according to the traditions and authority of the Holy Fathers, wish that in the future it be called by that name..."). Before the time of Pope Gregory I the essential concept was referred to by Clement of Alexandria (202)¹, Tertullian (c. 210), Cyprian of Carthage (253), Lactantius (307), Cyril of Jerusalem (350), Gregory of Nyssa (382), St. John Chrysostom (392), and St. Augustine (411),² among others. Roman Catholic doctrine is normally clarified in this fashion, with concepts having historical roots being given explicit names by dogmatic decree at a later time (see papal infallibility for another example). Various additional Scripture verses cited in support of a period of purgation after death and/or efficacy of prayers for the dead include Dan 12:10; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2-3; 2 Mac 12:42-45; Mt 5:26; Lk 12:47-48; Lk 12:58-59; 1 Cor 3:13-15; Apoc 21:27; and others.

Traditional Christian spirituality

Roman Catholics and many Eastern Orthodox Christians consider it to be a fact of great beauty that God provides a means of purification after death, considering it "a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins" (2 Mac 12:39-46). The Eastern Orthodox church, separate from the Roman Church since well before 1054 (see East-West Schism), has no explicit recognition of the term "Purgatory" nor acceptance of such a state distinct from being "asleep in the Lord". Yet belief that the dead may be loosed from sins, defined with differing levels of explicitness as mentioned, plays a very large part in the spiritual life of millions of devout Catholics and Orthodox, as numerous prayers and liturgical actions, many dating from the earliest Christian times, assume that purification after death is possible for those who do not die in a state of mortal sin, whom the Eastern Orthodox might refer to as "the righteous dead".[2] The traditional Catholic prayer (often included in the Grace after meals) states: "...and may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace." In addition to the everyday and liturgical spiritual life of the Catholic, there exist Purgatorial societies³ which regularly offer prayer, especially the Mass, for the deceased. None of these ceremonies or doctrines, however, are intended to become a license for sin; a Catholic would consider that to be "tempting God" (cf. Lk 4:12).

Protestant theology

Protestant churches largely reject explicit belief in the catholic view of Purgatory. Although they do embrace the doctrine of glorification which caries an almost identical definition (The reaching of perfection by the elect before/as they enter into the kingdom of heaven) Perhaps the largest reason protestants chose not to agree with the Catholics is that Martin Luther's first attack on Roman Catholic theology was on the sale of indulgences and, through this, the concept of purgatory. Even today, Lutherans are forbidden to say prayers for people who have already died, as this is reserved to those who believe in a purgatory, as spelled out by Luther in Question No. 211 in his expanded Small Catechism:

"We should pray for ourselves and for all other people, even for our enemies, but not for the souls of the dead."

Article 22 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church states that:

"The Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory...is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God."

Protestant disbelief in "purgatory" stems also from the idea that the existence of a purgatory implies that Christ's blood sacrifice on the cross was insufficient to save humanity in whole and represents a human desire to perform some works that can "assist" them through into Heaven. Protestants believe that all those who have faith in Christ are justified freely by his grace and require no more purgation than the cleansing of Christ's blood taken on when a new Christian is clothed in Christ and born again through baptism. (Romans 3:21-26, Galatians 3, John 3). Catholics equate being "born again" with Baptism, and see salvation in terms of Jesus having appeased God on our behalf rather than seeing it in judicial terms. Their response to Protestants is to ask how -- if Jesus paid for all sins in a judicial manner rather than in a propitiatory manner -- God could send anyone to Hell since doing so would require Him to punish twice for the same sins.

A difficulty arises though in that "Protestant" is something of a blanket term used to describe many denominations with a wide variety of views on most issues. Hence several protestant theologians and spiritual leaders (such as C. S. Lewis) have acknowledged the existence of an intermediate state between Earth and Heaven, persuaded by the argument that a period of cleansing and purification is necessary before one can enter Heaven and be in the presence of God. There are also those who equate various "times of testing", linked to theories the Rapture, with Purgatory. The extent to which these realms or periods can be equated with the Catholic doctrine of purgatory varies between different Protestant sects and theologians.

As 2 Maccabees is a deuterocanonical book, most Protestants consider it to be apocryphal, and do not consider that the other Scripture verses mentioned admit of a belief in Purgatory. Many Protestants claim that belief in Purgatory has been used, by unscrupulous priests if not by the Catholic Church itself, to terrify parishioners into donating money to fund Church projects, on the pretext that they might effectively buy their loved ones out of the torment of Purgatory. Many Catholics agree that the belief has occasionally been used to fleece the flock, but challenge the notion that the dogma is instrincally and inseparably rooted in such motives.

Eastern Orthodox theology

Some Eastern Orthodox sources, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate, consider Purgatory to be among "inter-corrolated theories, unwitnessed in the Bible or in the Ancient Church" that are not acceptable within Orthodox doctrine,[3] and hold to a "condition of waiting"[4] as a more apt description of the period after death for those not borne directly to heaven. This waiting condition does not imply purification as it is linked to the idea "there is no hope of repentance or betterment after death." The prayers are simply to comfort those in the waiting place.

Other Orthodox believe in the "toll house" theory by which the the dead go to successive "toll houses" where they meet up with demons who test them to determine whether they've been guilty of various sins and/or tempt them to sin. If they have not repented and been absolved of those sins, or if they give in to sin after death, they will be taken to Hell.

That said Eastern Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware acknowledges several schools of thought among the Eastern Orthodox on the topic of purification after death indicating the Catholic view, more than the concept itself, is what is universally rejected. Also there are Orthodox sources that indicate some sins can be forgiven after death[5], with their rejection of purgatory revolving more around the concept of indulgences and the idea of purgatorial fire.

Jewish theology

The Jewish Talmud may be thought to indicate Purgatory in Sabbath 33b and Rosh HaShanah 16b-17a; a similar belief in the efficacy of prayers for the dead is manifest in the Mourner's Kaddish which is prayed for 11 months after a loved one dies. The Septuagint Scriptures do include the Maccabees which incorporate prayer for the dead (2 Mac 12:42-45). However, Jewish theology is inconclusive about Jewish teaching in this area, as indeed it is about almost all life-after-death teachings.

Relational concepts


The Zoroastrians have a belief in a place called hamistagan. This is where souls go when "their good deeds equal their evil deeds."[6] Hamistagan seems to have been a place without suffering where you waited until the judgment at the final Resurrection. This might be the oldest Purgatory concept so critics of the Catholic Church, like Frank Hughes, indicate they borrowed the idea from Zoroastrianism for nefarious purposes.[7]


There are some who feel the Islamic concept of Barzakh is relational to Purgatory, but this is disputed. It is a place of judgement until the last day. What relationship, if any, this has to Purgatory or hamistagan is not entirely clear.

Purgatory in literature

Purgatory or Purgatorio is the second book of Dante's Divine Comedy. Scholars disagree whether the Ghost in Hamlet presupposes a belief in Purgatory [8]. British Canadian author and artist, Nick Bantock, illustrates an idealistic contemporary idea of purgatory as a place of deciding while in transition to a utopia, dystopia, or reincarnation in his book, The Museum at Purgatory. This relates to the use of purgatory as a metaphor, which occurs in several mystery novels, rather than as an actual place or condition.



  • Barbara Haggh (1997). "The meeting of sacred ritual and secular piety: endowments for music", Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198165404.

External links

Personal tools