What Is Purgatory?
Purgatory is an intermediate state after physical death for expiatory purification. Roman Catholic doctrine holds that this state exists and that those being purified can be helped by the prayers of the living. In the speculation of theologians and in popular imagination, purgatory is a place where this purification is done by the agency of fire, a notion of purgatory that according to Jacques Le Goff came into existence in Western Europe towards the end of the twelfth century, but which has not been declared official doctrine of the Catholic Church. The Church of England officially denounces what it calls “the Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory”, but the Orthodox Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches and elements of the Anglican and Methodist traditions hold that for some there is cleansing after death and pray for the dead.Judaism also believes in the possibility of after-death purification and may even use the word “purgatory” to present its understanding of the meaning of Gehenna.
The word ‘purgatory’ has come to refer also to a wide range of historical and modern conceptions of postmortem suffering short of everlasting damnation and is used, in a non-specific sense, to mean any place or condition of suffering or torment, especially one that is temporary.
History of the belief
While use of the word “purgatory” (in Latin purgatorium) as a noun appeared perhaps only between 1160 and 1180, giving rise to the idea of purgatory as a place(what Jacques Le Goff called the “birth” of purgatory), the Roman Catholic tradition of purgatory as a transitional condition has a history that dates back, even before Jesus Christ, to the worldwide practice of caring for the dead and praying for them and to the belief, found also in Judaism, which is considered the precursor of Christianity, that prayer for the dead contributed to their afterlife purification. The same practice appears in other traditions, such as the medieval Chinese Buddhist practice of making offerings on behalf of the dead, who are said to suffer numerous trials. Roman Catholic belief in after-life purification is based on the practice of praying for the dead, which is mentioned in 2 Maccabees 12:42-44, which the Roman Catholic Church has declared to be part of Sacred Scripture, and which, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, was adopted by Christians from the beginning, a practice that presupposes that the dead are thereby assisted between death and their entry into their final abode.
Over the centuries, theologians and others have developed theories, imagined descriptions and composed legends that have contributed to the formation of a popular idea of purgatory much more detailed and elaborate than the quite minimal elements that have been officially declared to be part of the authentic teaching of the Church.
Shortly before becoming a Roman Catholic, the English scholar John Henry Newman argued that the essence of the doctrine is locatable in ancient tradition, and that the core consistency of such beliefs is evidence that Christianity was “originally given to us from heaven”. Roman Catholics consider the teaching on purgatory, defined in the Second Council of Lyon (1274), the Council of Florence (1438–1445), and the Council of Trent (1545–63), and thus without the imaginative accretions of the popular idea of purgatory to be part of the faith derived from the revelation of Jesus Christ that was preached by the Apostles.
Some denominations, typically Roman Catholicism, recognize the doctrine of purgatory, while many Protestant and Eastern Orthodox churches would not use the same terminology, the former on the basis of their own sola scriptural doctrine, combined with their exclusion of 2 Maccabees from the Protestant Canon of the Bible, the latter because the Orthodox Churches consider purgatory a non-essential doctrine.
The Catholic Church gives the name purgatory to the final purification of all who die in God’s grace and friendship but are still imperfectly purified. Though in popular imagination purgatory is pictured as a place rather than a process of purification, the idea of purgatory as a physical place with time is not part of the Church’s doctrine. Fire, another important element of the purgatory of popular imagination, is also absent in the Catholic Church’s doctrine.
The purgatory of Catholic doctrine
At the Second Council of Lyon in 1274, the Catholic Church defined, for the first time, its teaching on purgatory, in two points:
- some souls are purified after death;
- such souls benefit from the prayers and pious duties that the living do for them.
The council declared:
[I]f they die truly repentant in charity before they have made satisfaction by worthy fruits of penance for (sins) committed and omitted, their souls are cleansed after death by purgatorical or purifying punishments, as Brother John has explained to us. And to relieve punishments of this kind, the offerings of the living faithful are of advantage to these, namely, the sacrifices of Masses, prayers, alms, and other duties of piety, which have customarily been performed by the faithful for the other faithful according to the regulations of the Church
A century and a half later, the Council of Florence repeated the same two points in practically the same words, again excluding certain elements of the purgatory of popular imagination, in particular fire and place, against which representatives of the Orthodox Churchspoke at the council:
[The Council] has likewise defined, that, if those truly penitent have departed in the love of God, before they have made satisfaction by the worthy fruits of penance for sins of commission and omission, the souls of these are cleansed after death by purgatorial punishments; and so that they may be released from punishments of this kind, the suffrages of the living faithful are of advantage to them, namely, the sacrifices of Masses, prayers, and almsgiving, and other works of piety, which are customarily performed by the faithful for other faithful according to the institutions of the Church.
The Council of Trent repeated the same two points and moreover in its 4 December 1563 Decree Concerning Purgatory recommended avoidance of speculations and non-essential questions:
Since the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Spirit, in conformity with the sacred writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers in sacred councils, and very recently in this ecumenical Synod, has taught that there is a purgatory, and that the souls detained there are assisted by the suffrages of the faithful, and especially by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar, the holy Synod commands the bishops that they insist that the sound doctrine of purgatory, which has been transmitted by the holy Fathers and holy Councils, be believed by the faithful of Christ, be maintained, taught, and everywhere preached.
Let the more difficult and subtle “questions”, however, and those which do not make for “edification” (cf. 1Tm 1,4), and from which there is very often no increase in piety, be excluded from popular discourses to uneducated people. Likewise, let them not permit uncertain matters, or those that have the appearance of falsehood, to be brought out and discussed publicly. Those matters on the contrary, which tend to a certain curiosity or superstition, or that savor of filthy lucre, let them prohibit as scandals and stumbling blocks to the faithful.
Catholic doctrine on purgatory is presented as composed of the same two points in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, first published in 2005, which is a summary in dialogue form of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It deals with purgatory in the following exchange:
210. What is purgatory?
- Purgatory is 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.
211. How can we help the souls being purified in purgatory?
- Because of the communion of saints, the faithful who are still pilgrims on earth are able to help the souls in purgatory by offering prayers in suffrage for them, especially the Eucharistic sacrifice. They also help them by almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance.
These two questions and answers summarize information in sections 1030–1032 and 1054 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992, which also speaks of purgatory in sections 1472−1473.
Role in relation to sin
According to Catholic doctrine, those who die in God’s grace and friendship imperfectly purified, although they are assured of their eternal salvation, undergo a purification after death, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of God.
Unless “redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness”, mortal sin, whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent, “causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back.” Such sin “makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the ‘eternal punishment’ of sin”.
Venial (meaning “forgivable”) sin, while not depriving the sinner of friendship with God or the eternal happiness of heaven. “weakens charity, manifests a disordered affection for created goods, and impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good; it merits temporal punishment”, for “every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the ‘temporal punishment’ of sin”.
“These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain.”
This purification from our sinful tendencies has been compared to rehabilitation of someone who needs to be cleansed of any addiction, a gradual and probably painful process. It can be advanced during life by voluntary self-mortification and penance and by deeds of generosity that show love of God rather than of creatures. If not completed before death, it can still be a needed for entering the divine presence. Saint Catherine of Genoa said: “As for paradise, God has placed no doors there. Whoever wishes to enter, does so. An all-merciful God stands there with His arms open, waiting to receive us into His glory. I also see, however, that the divine presence is so pure and light-filled – much more than we can imagine – that the soul that has but the slightest imperfection would rather throw itself into a thousand hells than appear thus before the divine presence.”
A person seeking purification from sinful tendencies is not alone. Because of the communion of saints: “the holiness of one profits others, well beyond the harm that the sin of one could cause others. Thus recourse to the communion of saints lets the contrite sinner be more promptly and efficaciously purified of the punishments for sin”. The Catholic Church states that, through the granting of indulgences for manifestations of devotion, penance and charity by the living, it opens for individuals “the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins”.
Speculations and imaginings about purgatory
Over and beyond the two points that constitute the Catholic Church’s teaching on purgatory, saints and theologians have had their additional not always concordant ideas, reflecting or contributing to the popular image of purgatory. That popular image includes the notions of purification by actual fire, in a determined place and for a precise length of time; these are theological opinions, not Church teaching. Paul J. Griffiths notes: “Recent Catholic thought on purgatory typically preserves the essentials of the basic doctrine while also offering second-hand speculative interpretations of these elements”. Thus Joseph Ratzinger wrote: “Purgatory is not, as Tertullian thought, some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where man is forced to undergo punishment in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God, and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints”.
The speculations and popular imaginings that, especially in late medieval times, were common in the Western or Latin Church have not necessarily found acceptance in the eastern Catholic Churches, of which there are 23 in full communion with the Pope. Some have explicitly rejected the notions of punishment by fire in a particular place that are prominent in the popular picture of purgatory. The representatives of the Orthodox Church at the Council of Florence argued against these notions, while declaring that they do hold that there is a cleansing after death of the souls of the saved and that these are assisted by the prayers of the living: “If souls depart from this life in faith and charity but marked with some defilements, whether unrepented minor ones or major ones repented of but without having yet borne the fruits of repentance, we believe that within reason they are purified of those faults, but not by some purifying fire and particular punishments in some place.” The definition of purgatory adopted by that council excluded the two notions with which the Orthodox disagreed and mentioned only the two points that, they said, were part of their faith also. Accordingly, the agreement, known as the Union of Brest, that formalized the admission of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church into the full communion of the Roman Catholic Church stated: “We shall not debate about purgatory, but we entrust ourselves to the teaching of the Holy Church”, implying, in the opinion of a theologian of that Church, that both sides can agree to disagree on theological speculations and opinions about what is called purgatory, while there is full agreement on defined dogma: “In the Catholic understanding, only two points are necessary dogma concerning ‘purgatory’: 1) There is a place of transition/transformation for those en-route to Heaven, and 2) prayer is efficacious for the dead who are in this state. The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches agree with the Latin Church fully on both of these points. In practice, we routinely celebrate Divine Liturgies for the dead, and offer numerous prayers on their behalf. We would not do so if we did not agree with the above two dogmatic points.”
Fire has an important place in the popular image of purgatory and has been the object of speculation by theologians, speculation to which the article on purgatory in the Catholic Encyclopedia relates the warning by the Council of Trent against “difficult and subtle questions which tend not to edification”.
Fire has never been included in the Catholic Church’s defined doctrine on purgatory, but speculation about it is traditional. “The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire.” In this regard the Catechism of the Catholic Church references in particular two New Testament passages: “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” and “so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ”. Catholic theologians have also cited verses such as “I will put this third into the fire, and refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call upon my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The LORD is my God'”, a verse that the Jewish school of Shammai applied to God’s judgment on those who are not completely just nor entirely evil.
Use of the image of a purifying fire goes back as far as Origen who, with reference to 1 Corinthians 3:10–15, seen as referring to a process by which the dross of lighter transgressions will be burnt away, and the soul, thus purified, will be saved, wrote: “Suppose you have built, after the foundation which Christ Jesus has taught, not only gold, silver, and precious stones − if indeed you possess gold and much silver or little − suppose you have silver, precious stones, but I say not only these elements, but suppose that you have also wood and hay and stubble, what does he wish you to become after your final departure? To enter afterwards then into the holy lands with your wood and with your hay and stubble so that you may defile the Kingdom of God? But again do you want to be left behind in the fire on account of the hay, the wood, the stubble, and to receive nothing due you for the gold and the silver and precious stone? That is not reasonable. What then? It follows that you receive the fire first due to the wood, and the hay and the stubble. For to those able to perceive, our God is said to be in reality a consuming fire.” Origen also speaks of a refining fire melting away the lead of evil deeds, leaving behind only pure gold.
Gregory the Great also argued for the existence, before Judgment, of a purgatorius ignis (a cleansing fire) to purge away minor faults (wood, hay, stubble) not mortal sins (iron, bronze, lead).
Gregory of Nyssa several times spoke of purgation by fire after death, but he generally has apocatastasis in mind.
Medieval theologians accepted the association of purgatory with fire. Thus the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas considered it probable that purgatory was situated close to hell, so that the same fire that tormented the damned cleansed the just souls in purgatory.
Since fire is not part of defined Catholic doctrine on purgatory, ideas about it have changed with time: in the early 20th century the Catholic Encyclopedia reported that, while in the past most theologians had held that the fire of purgatory was in some sense a material fire, though of a nature different from ordinary fire, the view of what then seemed to be the majority of theologians was that the term was to be understood metaphorically.
Pope Benedict XVI recommended to theologians the presentation of purgatory by Saint Catherine of Genoa, for whom purgatory is not an external but an inner fire: “The Saint speaks of the soul’s journey of purification on the way to full communion with God, starting from her own experience of profound sorrow for the sins committed, in comparison with God’s infinite love. […] ‘The soul’, Catherine says, ‘presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God’. Catherine asserts that God is so pure and holy that a soul stained by sin cannot be in the presence of the divine majesty. We too feel how distant we are, how full we are of so many things that we cannot see God. The soul is aware of the immense love and perfect justice of God and consequently suffers for having failed to respond in a correct and perfect way to this love; and love for God itself becomes a flame, love itself cleanses it from the residue of sin.”
In his 2007 encyclical Spe salvi, Pope Benedict XVI, referring to the words of Paul the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 3:12–15 about a fire that both burns and saves, spoke of the opinion that “the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire’. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the ‘duration’ of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming ‘moment’ of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning — it is the heart’s time, it is the time of ‘passage’ to communion with God in the Body of Christ.”
Popular notion of purgatory as fiery
Beth Felker Jones has commented: “Popular ideas about purgatory have been prone to extreme mythological excess, imagining all kinds of horrors on the path of purgation.”
Although the defined teaching of the Catholic Church concerning purgatory makes no mention of fire, this element is perhaps the most prominent feature in the popular image of purgatory.
Popular notion of purgatory as a place
In his La naissance du Purgatoire (The Birth of Purgatory), Jacques Le Goff attributes the origin of the idea of a third other-world domain, similar to heaven and hell, called Purgatory, to Paris intellectuals and Cistercian monks at some point in the last three decades of the twelfth century, possibly as early as 1170−1180. Previously, the Latin adjective purgatorius, as in purgatorius ignis (cleansing fire) existed, but only then did the noun purgatorium appear, used as the name of a place called Purgatory.
The change happened at about the same time as the composition of the book Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii, an account by an English Cistercian of a penitent knight’s visit to the land of purgatory reached through a cave in the island known as Station Island or St Patrick’s Purgatory in the lake of Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland. Le Goff said this book “occupies an essential place in the history of Purgatory, in whose success it played an important, if not decisive, role”.
Le Goff dedicates the final chapter of his book to the Purgatorio, the second book in Dante’s fourteenth-century La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy). In an interview Le Goff declared: “Dante’s Purgatorio represents the sublime conclusion of the slow development of Purgatory that took place in the course of the Middle Ages. The power of Dante’s poetry made a decisive contribution to fixing in the public imagination this ‘third place’, whose birth was on the whole quite recent.”
Dante pictures purgatory as an island at the antipodes of Jerusalem, pushed up, in an otherwise empty sea, by the displacement caused by the fall of Satan, which left him fixed at the central point of the globe of the Earth. The cone-shaped island has seven terraces on which souls are cleansed from the seven deadly sins or capital vices as they ascend. Additional spurs at the base hold those for whom beginning the ascent is delayed because in life they were excommunicates, indolent or late repenters. At the summit is the earthly paradise, from where the souls, cleansed of evil tendencies and made perfect, are taken to heaven.
The Catholic Church has not included in its teaching this idea of purgatory as a third place distinct from heaven and hell, any more than it has sealed with its authority the idea of a place called Limbo, which also has been postulated by some theologians.
On 4 August 1999, Pope John Paul II, speaking of purgatory, said: “The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection as “a condition of existence.”
Similarly in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking of Saint Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510) in relation to purgatory, said that “In her day it was depicted mainly using images linked to space: a certain space was conceived of in which purgatory was supposed to be located. Catherine, however, did not see purgatory as a scene in the bowels of the earth: for her it is not an exterior but rather an interior fire. This is purgatory: an inner fire.”
While the Eastern Orthodox Church rejects the term purgatory, it acknowledges an intermediate state after death. It believes in the determination of Heaven and Hell as stated in the Bible and that prayer for the dead is necessary. According to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America:
The moral progress of the soul, either for better or for worse, ends at the very moment of the separation of the body and soul; at that very moment the definite destiny of the soul in the everlasting life is decided. …There is no way of repentance, no way of escape, no reincarnation and no help from the outside world. Its place is decided forever by its Creator and judge. The Orthodox Church does not believe in purgatory (a place of purging), that is, the inter-mediate state after death in which the souls of the saved (those who have not received temporal punishment for their sins) are purified of all taint preparatory to entering into Heaven, where every soul is perfect and fit to see God. Also, the Orthodox Church does not believe in indulgences as remissions from purgatorial punishment. Both purgatory and indulgences are inter-corelated theories, unwitnessed in the Bible or in the Ancient Church, and when they were enforced and applied they brought about evil practices at the expense of the prevailing Truths of the Church. If Almighty God in His merciful loving-kindness changes the dreadful situation of the sinner, it is unknown to the Church of Christ. The Church lived for fifteen hundred years without such a theory.
Eastern Orthodox teaching is that, while all undergo a Particular Judgment immediately after death, neither the just nor the wicked attain the final state of bliss or punishment before the Last Day, with some exceptions for righteous souls like the Theotokos (Blessed Virgin Mary), “who was borne by the angels directly to heaven.”
The Eastern Orthodox Church holds that it is necessary to believe in this intermediate after-death state in which souls are perfected and brought to full divinization, a process of growth rather than of punishment, which some Orthodox have called purgatory. Eastern Orthodox theology does not generally describe the situation of the dead as involving suffering or fire, although it nevertheless describes it as a “direful condition”. The souls of the righteous dead are in light and rest, with a foretaste of eternal happiness; but the souls of the wicked are in a state the reverse of this. Among the latter, such souls as have departed with faith but “without having had time to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance … may be aided towards the attainment of a blessed resurrection [at the end of time] by prayers offered in their behalf, especially those offered in union with the oblation of the bloodless sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, and by works of mercy done in faith for their memory.”
The state in which souls undergo this experience is often referred to as “Hades”.
The Orthodox Confession of Peter Mogila (1596–1646), adopted, in a Greek translation by Meletius Syrigos, by the 1642 Council of Jassy in Romania, professes that “many are freed from the prison of hell … through the good works of the living and the Church’s prayers for them, most of all through the unbloody sacrifice, which is offered on certain days for all the living and the dead” (question 64); and (under the heading “How must one consider the purgatorial fire?”) “the Church rightly performs for them the unbloody sacrifice and prayers, but they do not cleanse themselves by suffering something. The Church never maintained that which pertains to the fanciful stories of some concerning the souls of their dead who have not done penance and are punished, as it were, in streams, springs and swamps” (question 66).
The Eastern Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem (1672) declared that “the souls of those that have fallen asleep are either at rest or in torment, according to what each hath wrought” (an enjoyment or condemnation that will be complete only after the resurrection of the dead); but the souls of some “depart into Hades, and there endure the punishment due to the sins they have committed. But they are aware of their future release from there, and are delivered by the Supreme Goodness, through the prayers of the Priests and the good works which the relatives of each do for their Departed, especially the unbloody Sacrifice benefiting the most, which each offers particularly for his relatives that have fallen asleep and which the Catholic and Apostolic Church offers daily for all alike. Of course, it is understood that we do not know the time of their release. We know and believe that there is deliverance for such from their direful condition, and that before the common resurrection and judgment, but when we know not.”
Some Orthodox believe in a teaching of “aerial toll-houses” for the souls of the dead. According to this theory, which is rejected by other Orthodox but appears in the hymnology of the Church, “following a person’s death the soul leaves the body and is escorted to God by angels. During this journey the soul passes through an aerial realm which is ruled by demons. The soul encounters these demons at various points referred to as ‘toll-houses’ where the demons then attempt to accuse it of sin and, if possible, drag the soul into hell.”
In general, Protestant churches reject the doctrine of purgatory. One of Protestantism’s central tenets is sola scriptura (“scripture alone”). The general Protestant view is that the Bible, from which Protestants exclude deuterocanonical books such as 2 Maccabees, contains no overt, explicit discussion of purgatory and therefore it should be rejected as an unbiblical belief.
Another view held by many Protestants is sola fide (“by faith alone”): that faith alone, apart from any action, is what achieves salvation, and that good works are merely evidence of that faith. Justification is generally seen as a discrete event that takes place once for all during one’s lifetime, not the result of a transformation of character. However, most Protestants teach that a transformation of character naturally follows the salvation experience. Instead of distinguishing between mortal and venial sins, Protestants believe that one’s faith dictates one’s state of salvation and one’s place in the afterlife. Those who have been saved by God are destined for heaven, while those have not been saved will be excluded from heaven. Accordingly, they reject any notion of a provisional or temporary afterlife state such as purgatory.
Some Protestants hold that a person enters into the fullness of one’s bliss or torment only after the resurrection of the body, and that the soul in that interim state is conscious and aware of the fate in store for it. Others have held that souls in the intermediate state between death and resurrection are without consciousness, a state known as soul sleep.
As an argument for the existence of purgatory, Protestant religious philosopher Jerry L. Walls wrote Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation (2011). The book evoked reviews and news stories. It received a positive review in the Roman Catholic University of Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
Historically informed, philosophically competent, and theologically alert, . . . as careful
and fair a discussion of the doctrine of purgatory as one is likely to find.
The Christian Century suggested that, if Protestants followed Walls’ logic, they might accept his view of an intermediate state without calling it purgatory. Within early Christianity, he finds “biblical hints of purgatory” and examines them. In a survey of Christian writers, whom he calls the “Fathers and Mothers of Purgatory”, Walls finds the beginnings of the doctrine of purgatory in their writings. These three sources led up to the “birth of purgatory” in the 12th century. The 13th century saw the beginnings of purgatory’s adoption and its adoption as doctrine in 1274. Walls does not base his belief in purgatory primarily on Scripture, the Mothers and Fathers of the Church, or the Magisterium (doctrinal authority) of the Roman Catholic church. Rather his basic argument is that, in a phrase he often uses, it “makes sense.” For Walls, purgatory has a logic as in the title of his book. Walls documents the “contrast between the satisfaction and sanctification models” of purgatory. In the satisfaction model, “the punishment of purgatory” is to satisfy God’s justice. In the sanctification model, Wall writes that “Purgatory might be pictured . . . as a regimen to regain one’s spiritual health and get back into moral shape.” In Roman Catholic theology, Walls finds that the doctrine of purgatory has “swung” between the “poles of satisfaction and sanctification” sometimes “combining both elements somewhere in the middle.” He believes the sanctification model “can be affirmed by Protestants without contradicting their theology” and find that it “makes better sense” than an instantaneous purging of sin at the moment of death.
While purgatory was disputed by the reformers, the Early Patristic Theologians of the Eastern Church taught and believed in “apokatastasis”, the belief that all creation would be restored to the original perfect condition after a remedial purgatorial reformation. St. Clement of Alexandria was one of the early church theologians who taught this view through key scriptures. Many today are discovering that the reformers did an injustice to Early Christian understandings concerning purgatorial restoration. Protestants have always contended that there are no second chances. However, Lutherans have a similar doctrine of what may happen to the unevangelized in a book titled What about those who never heard. Also several Apologists of both Protestant, Universalist and Catholic backgrounds dig deeper into the subject in the book, “Four Views of Hell”. Thomas Talbott and David Burnfield both wrote books defending the Early Church view of the unlimited atonement, and the ultimate salvation of all mankind.
Purgatory was addressed by both of the “foundation features” of Anglicanism in the 16th century: the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion and the Book of Common Prayer.
Article XXII of the Thirty-Nine Articles 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.” Prayers for the departed were deleted from the 1552 Book of Common Prayer because they suggested a doctrine of purgatory. The 19th century Anglo-Catholic revival led to restoring prayers for the dead.
John Henry Newman, in his Tract XC of 1841 §6, discussed Article XXII. He highlighted the fact that it is the “Romish” doctrine of purgatory coupled with indulgences that Article XXII condemns as “repugnant to the Word of God.” The article did not condemn every doctrine of purgatory and it did not condemn prayers for the dead.
As of the year 2000, the state of the doctrine of purgatory in Anglicanism was summarized as follows:
Purgatory is seldom mentioned in Anglican descriptions or speculations concerning life after death, although many Anglicans believe in a continuing process of growth and development after death.
John Henry Hobart, an Anglican bishop, writes that “Hades, or the place of the dead, is represented as a spacious receptacle with gates, through which the dead enter.” The Anglican Catechist elaborates on Hades, stating that it “is an intermediate state between death and the resurrection, in which the soul does not sleep in unconsciousness, but exists in happiness or misery till the resurrection, when it shall be reunited to the body and receive its final reward.” This space is divided into Paradise and Gehenna “but with an impassable gulf between the two,” Souls, with exception of martyrs and saints, remain in Hades until the Final Judgment and “Christians may also improve in holiness after death during the middle state before the final judgment.”
As such, the Book of Common Prayer includes prayers for the dead, both that they may be “purged” of “defilements . . . contracted” in their “earthly life” and that they may increase in the “knowledge and love” of God.
Leonel L. Mitchell (1930-2012) offers this rationale for prayers for the dead:
No one is ready at the time of death to enter into life in the nearer presence of God without substantial growth precisely in love, knowledge, and service; and the prayer also recognizes that God will provide what is necessary for us to enter that state. This growth will presumably be between death and resurrection.”
Anglican theologian C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), reflecting on the history of the doctrine of purgatory in the Anglican Communion, said there were good reasons for “casting doubt on the ‘Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory’ as that Romish doctrine had then become” not merely a “commercial scandal” but also the picture in which the souls are tormented by devils, whose presence is “more horrible and grievous to us than is the pain itself,” and where the spirit who suffers the tortures cannot, for pain, “remember God as he ought to do.” Lewis believed instead in purgatory as presented in John Henry Newman’s The Dream of Gerontius. By this poem, Lewis wrote, “Religion has reclaimed Purgatory,” a process of purification that will normally involve suffering.
Martin Luther, founder of the Lutheran Church, believed that it was of no avail to pray for the dead. Nonetheless, a core statement of Lutheran doctrine, from the Book of Concord, states: “We know that the ancients speak of prayer for the dead, which we do not prohibit; but we disapprove of the application ex opere operato of the Lord’s Supper on behalf of the dead. … Epiphanius [of Salamis] testifies that Aerius [of Sebaste] held that prayers for the dead are useless. With this he finds fault. Neither do we favor Aerius, but we do argue with you because you defend a heresy that clearly conflicts with the prophets, apostles, and Holy Fathers, namely, that the Mass justifies ex opere operato, that it merits the remission of guilt and punishment even for the unjust, to whom it is applied, if they do not present an obstacle.” (Philipp Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession). High Church Lutheranism, like Anglo-Catholicism, is more likely to accept some form of purgatory.
Further information: Last Judgement
Methodist churches, in keeping with Article XIV – Of Purgatory in the Articles of Religion, hold that “the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory … is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warrant of Scripture, but repugnant to the Word of God.”However, in the Methodist Church, there is a belief in Hades, “the intermediate state of souls between death and the general resurrection,” which is divided into Paradise (for the righteous) and Gehenna (for the wicked). After the general judgment, Hades will be abolished. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, “made a distinction between hell (the receptacle of the damned) and Hades (the receptacle of all separate spirits), and also between paradise (the antechamber of heaven) and heaven itself.” The dead will remain in Hades “until the Day of Judgment when we will all be bodily resurrected and stand before Christ as our Judge. After the Judgment, the Righteous will go to their eternal reward in Heaven and the Accursed will depart to Hell (see Matthew 25).”
Latter-day Saint Movement
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, teaches of an intermediate place for spirits between their death and their bodily resurrection. This place, called “the spirit world,” includes “paradise” for the righteous and “prison” for those who do not know God. Spirits in paradise serve as missionaries to the spirits in prison, who can still accept salvation. In this sense, spirit prison can be conceptualized as a type of purgatory. In addition to hearing the message from the missionary spirits, the spirits in prison can also accept posthumous baptism and other posthumous ordinances performed by living church members in temples on Earth. This is frequently referred to as “baptism for the dead” and “temple work.” Members of the Church believe that during the three days following Christ’s crucifixion, he preached his gospel to inhabitants of spirit prison.
In Judaism, Gehenna is a place of purification where, according to some traditions, most sinners spend up to a year before release.
The view of purgatory can be found in the teaching of the Shammaites: “In the last judgment day there shall be three classes of souls: the righteous shall at once be written down for the life everlasting; the wicked, for Gehenna; but those whose virtues and sins counterbalance one another shall go down to Gehenna and float up and down until they rise purified; for of them it is said: ‘I will bring the third part into the fire and refine them as silver is refined, and try them as gold is tried’ [Zech. xiii. 9.]; also, ‘He [the Lord] bringeth down to Sheol and bringeth up again'” (I Sam. ii. 6). The Hillelites seem to have had no purgatory; for they said: “He who is ‘plenteous in mercy’ [Ex. xxxiv. 6.] inclines the balance toward mercy, and consequently the intermediates do not descend into Gehenna” (Tosef., Sanh. xiii. 3; R. H. 16b; Bacher, “Ag. Tan.” i. 18). Still they also speak of an intermediate state.
Regarding the time which purgatory lasts, the accepted opinion of R. Akiba is twelve months; according to R. Johanan b. Nuri, it is only forty-nine days. Both opinions are based upon Isa. lxvi. 23–24: “From one new moon to another and from one Sabbath to another shall all flesh come to worship before Me, and they shall go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men that have transgressed against Me; for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched”; the former interpreting the words “from one new moon to another” to signify all the months of a year; the latter interpreting the words “from one Sabbath to another,” in accordance with Lev. xxiii. 15–16, to signify seven weeks. During the twelve months, declares the baraita (Tosef., Sanh. xiii. 4–5; R. H. 16b), the souls of the wicked are judged, and after these twelve months are over they are consumed and transformed into ashes under the feet of the righteous (according to Mal. iii. 21 [A. V. iv. 3]), whereas the great seducers and blasphemers are to undergo eternal tortures in Gehenna without cessation (according to Isa. lxvi. 24).
The righteous, however, and, according to some, also the sinners among the people of Israel for whom Abraham intercedes because they bear the Abrahamic sign of the covenant are not harmed by the fire of Gehenna even when they are required to pass through the intermediate state of purgatory (‘Er. 19b; Ḥag. 27a).
Main article: Barzakh
Islam has a concept similar to that of purgatory in Christianity. Barzakh is thought to be a realm between paradise (Jannah) and hell (Jahannam) and according to Ghazali the place of those who go neither to hell or to heaven. But because it does not purify the souls it resembles more the Christian limbo than the purgatory.
In some cases, the Islamic concept of hell may resemble the concept of Catholic doctrine of purgatory, for Jahannam just punishes people according to their deeds and releases them after their habits are purified. A limited duration in Jahannam is not universally accepted in Islam.
Purgatory and life review
The life review undergone by those who have had a Near Death Experience (NDE) can resemble a sort of purgatory. Bruce Horacek Ph.D and the International Association of Near-Death Studies (IANDS) write about the Life Review:
“During a predominantly pleasurable NDE, usually while in the light, the NDEr may experience a life review. In this review, the NDEr typically re-views (sees again) and re-experiences every moment of his/her life. At the same time, the NDEr fully experiences being every other person with whom the NDEr interacted. The NDEr knows what it was to be on the receiving end of his/her own actions including those that caused others pain. At this time, the NDEr usually reports feeling profound remorse, along with extreme regret that the harm cannot be undone. At the same time, the NDEr typically reports feelings consistent with unconditional love from the light, which communicates forgiveness because the NDEr was still learning how to become a more loving person. NDErs tend to say that this “learning how to love” is the purpose of life.”
In Richard Matheson’s novel What Dreams May Come, a newly-dead character sees all the events of his life unfold in reverse, then later experiences the same thing slowly, in a self-evaluation process that the novel equates with purgatory. This may be seen to complement the final description under “Roman Catholicism” above.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia