The Birth of Purgatory

The correlation between birth and death hovers at 1:1. That unalterable ratio leads humans to ponder what happens at and after death. Christian theology teaches that humans have the opportunity to spend eternity in the presence of God, nuances and footnotes unmentioned.

Let us assume that to enjoy the presence of God one must enjoy who God is and what God is like and what conditions obtain in the presence of God.  Let us agree that at least one of the features of that kind of existence is holiness, utter purity and devotion to God.

Which raises an age-old question: Do people immediately become holy at death or do they endure a process of postmortem holy-making (sanctification, purgation)? In the history of the church both the Orthodox and (especially) the Catholics think there will be for most people a period of purgation, and where this happens is often called Purgatory. The issue here for Protestants (come back tomorrow) is that Purgatory is not in the NT and what’s not in the Bible is not to be believed as dogma. The issue for theologians is that plenty of theologians and Christians are not Protestants, and that means that scads and scads of Christians believe in Purgatory.

Which leads to this question: When did belief in the Purgatory begin? Jerry Walls, in his fine new book Purgatory, examines this question. If you want the short answer, before we sketch it out, here it is: there are traces of purgation in the Greco-Roman world, in the Bible, but it really got its birth in the legal satisfaction, quantification era of the 12th Century and then was codified in the 13th Century, and flourished into the 19th Century.

You ask where in the Bible? The classic purgation texts are Mal 3:2-3; 2 Macc 12:41-43; Matt 12:31-32; 5:25-26; 1 Cor 3:11-15. You’ll have to look them up or go to the next page to see the texts.

There are traces and hints and evocations of purgatory in The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, in Cyprian of Carthage (after life prison where purgation occurs; big for Pope Benedict XVI), Augustine (purgation, prayers for dead, four classes of persons), Gregory the Great, Venerable Bede.

But for Walls, who follows mostly the brilliant work of LeGoff, the birth of purgatory is the 12th Century. Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, Peter Comestor, Gratian … all shaped in a context where moral accounting became quantified, where satisfaction theories were at work in justice systems, auricular confession systems, and the value of pain for moral development. Thus, by the 13th Century it’s official: Albertus Magnus is at the core. Pope Innocent IV, in 1254, defined purgatory; Second Council of Lyons in 1274 got its institutional stamp of approval; Pope Boniface in 1300 and the famous jubilee offer of plenary indulgence, and Dante’s immortal Divine Comedy, which graphically framed purgatory.

Protestants, most famously Luther, with an eye on Tetzel, despised the theory of purgatory at work (though Luther’s focus was abuses). Walls observes that later scholars wonder if secular pedagogy (I would wonder about virtue ethics) was connected to purgatorial ideas.

Mal 3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…

2 Macc 12:41Then they all blessed the just judgment of the Lord, who had discovered the things that were hidden.

42And so betaking themselves to prayers, they besought him, that the sin which had been committed might be forgotten. But the most valiant Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forasmuch as they saw before their eyes what had happened, because of the sins of those that were slain.

43And making a gathering, he twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection,


Matt 12:31 And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. 32 Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.

Matt 5:25 “Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still together on the way, or your adversary may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.

1 Cor 3:11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

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  • “Which raises an age-old question: Do people immediately become holy at death or do they endure a process of postmortem holy-making (sanctification, purgation)?”

    Perhaps, since God exists outside of time, this is a false dichotomy. What’s the difference between “immediately” or “process” when chronos doesn’t exist?

    I think this is a huge misconception of the Catholic concept of purgatory. The Church has never defined purgatory as a place you go ‘for a certain period of time’.

    This is all the Church defines in her Catechism:

    “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

    It says “they undergo purification” but doesn’t describe it as instantaneous or lengthy for the reasons above.

  • Norman

    I would venture that Judaism itself sows the seeds for the development of the concepts surrounding purgatory. Older Hebrew literature works primarily with the simpler concept of Sheol or the pit. However as Greek influence entered into their literary concepts the expansion of Sheol into Hades as a realm of multiple chambers for their associated holding tanks for the dead became more vivid. One of the best pieces of literature to gather a glimpse of first century literary concepts concerning the realm of the dead is to read 2 Enoch which influenced the early church and even Paul it appears. Let me provide a clue to Paul using 2 Enoch concepts directly in his writings.

    Eph 4:8 This is why it[a] says: “When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people.” 9 (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions[c]? 10 He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

    The idea of descending into the middle earthly region appears to be a way of illustrating the realm of the various formerly dead whether good or bad. It was considered the holding place of the dead as a direct result of Adam’s fall from God’s Garden of Grace, but in the NT this realm is going to be done away with through the full establishment of the Kingdom of Christ.

    Rev 20: The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 THEN DEATH AND HADES WERE THROWN INTO THE LAKE OF FIRE. (in other words Death and Hades: separation from God spiritually is going to be destroyed and put away)

    Did Paul believe there were dead people trapped under his feet in the middle of earth? I doubt it because these were literary expressions used to illustrate vivid and concrete concepts of the problem of good and evil. Christ leading the captives free is simply a way of illustrating that those past faithful have been vindicated in their foresight of the coming messiah and the new promised kingdom. See Hebrews 11 for more detail. Did many ordinary Jews and Christians at the time of Christ believe these stories literally? Probably so; just like some do today. The debate becomes is where do we separate literary freedom of the ancient authors from reality in their descriptive terms. That is a process that every generation will have to wrestle with as we today attempt to determine the literalness of scriptures.

  • Sherman Nobles

    I believe that we all go through cleansing and reconciliation with God and with one another, if not in this life, the life to come for sure. Judgment is a big part of this where we come to face the fire of truth and it sets us right; the fire of truth burns the hell out of us, if not in this life, the life to come for sure! How that all works out, well, it’s on/over the horizon (olam haba, aionion) beyond site, beyond full understanding. We see vague shadows of what is too come yet can touch it now. But my trust is in the Lord to not only reconcile all of creation, but to even reconcile me.

  • T

    One of the great things I have received in large part through this blog is the growing realization of how so much of our theology, whether Catholic, Protestant, or whatever, that is so often espoused with such certainty, is really just inference on top of inference.

    Do we really know if there is a purgatorial experience? (i.e., Do the scriptures settle the issue clearly?) No. And so much of doctrine is like this. My list of the things I “know” is increasingly getting so much shorter, but also much more personal, not only in regard to me, but also in relation to the people around me and especially to God himself.

  • Joe Canner

    Following on Norman’s observations in #2, according to this (and other confirmatory sources that I have found), Jews believe in a number of purgatory-like possibilities (depending on the holiness of one’s life on earth), including getting beaten with a fiery rod, spending a short time in hell, and reincarnation. Apparently, these views were formulated during the first few centuries AD.

  • Scott Lyons

    Scot, actually Pope Benedict XVI seems to propose something entirely different about purgatory – not as “prison,” but as our encounter with Christ. See his encyclical Spe Salvi, section 47 (and 48).

  • Inwardly, I am conformed to the image of Jesus, the Son of God. Outwardly, I am still being transformed to accurately reflect that image. But if I die without that outward transformation being complete, will I have to go throughout eternity flawed? My expectation is that the process will be completed, one way or another, so that I may enter eternity fully transformed. What shall we call that “gap” in our outward state between when we leave this life and enter the next? And what name shall we give to how that “gap” is filled or the process by which our transformation is completed?

    Or, to put it another way ~ Ruth Bell Graham wanted her gravestone to read, “Construction is now completed. Thank you for your patience.” This is, I suppose, in response to the saying, “Please be patient with me. God is not finished with me yet.” So, how, or by what process, is that “construction” completed?

  • David

    It’s worth reading a Wednesday general audience address given by Pope Benedict XVI on St Catherine of Genoa early last year. In it he reflects on the centrality of purgatory in her thought and her contribution to our understanding of it today. Here’s the link to the address.

  • I’ll go the route of Luther on this one, and I suppose a great number of Protestants. Would the necessity of a purgation not negate the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice? Perhaps this is beating a dead horse, but to add anything to Christ’s death and resurrection, tradition or not, is tantamount to telling Jesus, “Nice try, you almost got it done.”

  • T


    When we say that someone’s suffering in this life can be used in their sanctification, are we negating the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice? I don’t think so. If we can allow for suffering to play a role in our transformation (and there are a multitude of biblical passages on this point), or if we can even say that Jesus “learned obedience” through his sufferings, I fail to see how any pain in the afterlife as part of our final transformation is necessarily negating of Christ’s sacrifice.

    To say it another way, if suffering in this life can be fruitful (and yet not take away from Christ’s sacrifice), why not after death? Please note, I’m fully accepting that Jesus’ death justifies me now (and then). But even though I am justified today, I’m also not so transformed as to be incapable of sin, as I will be then. Does it take away from Christ’s sacrifice to say that meeting Christ, and seeing him and myself and others as they actually are, will be both joyous and painful, even if the pain is short-lived and overwhelmed?

  • Of course, the sacrifice of Christ is efficacious for us, Patrick. But there is still a transformation process where the truth of our salvation and identity in Christ is worked out in our lives.

    I don’t know about you, but I have never met a Christian who passed from this life completely transformed outwardly so as to match up with their true inward condition in Christ. All the ones I know were still flawed in that regard. Indeed, the more advanced they were in their spiritual life, the more aware they were of those flaws (not inordinately troubled by them, but still aware of them).

    Will they go through eternity with the inward condition mismatched by their outward? My expectation is that we will, somehow, be fully and completely transformed ~ purged, as it were, of every last bit of selfishness, impatience, anger, etc. I don’t know exactly how that would happen, or how it would take, or what we should call it.

    I suspect that it may very well be that our encounter with Jesus in His glory will wipe all those flaws out in an instant ~ for which I will be very grateful (of course, “wipe out” sounds very like a purgation). Or perhaps all those things are inherent in our fallen human bodies, and the problem will be solved when these old bodies are buried in the ground and we await our transformed bodies in the resurrection.

    But I do not think such speculations cast any doubt on the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice.

  • David

    “Would the necessity of a purgation not negate the efficacy of Christ’s sacrifice?”

    No, I do not see why it should, not if it is through Christ and by the Holy Spirit that the purification takes place. I’m of the view that many a roaming cognizant spirit undergoes this existential cleansing (However we conceive of it) before it moves on and enters full communion with God. This happens whether they know it or not (Presumably they do) through Christ. Are you not placing a limit on the reach of Christ’s sacrifice by restricting it to the temporal sphere? After all, it is not the state of the soul at death that determines one’s ultimate fate but rather the judgement of Christ after death.

  • PaulE

    I’m confused by the Malachi 3 quotation. Here’s how the text leads into that passage:

    “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? […]”

    If the refining is supposed to be at the time time Christ comes, do Catholics believe that another messenger will come besides John the Baptist? And will there be a new temple built to which Christ will come again? And is there going to be a new (third?) covenant?

  • Nikolaj Kjaerby

    To me it seems pretty clear that 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 teaches that come the time of the resurrection of the dead, we will be completely purified. Now if we assume that purgation takes place after death, but prior to the resurrection (provided there will be a concept of chronos in our post-death pre-resurrection existence that will render the words “prior to” meaningful), then what about those who are still alive at the time of Christ’s coming? How would they be purged? If we scroll down to verse verses 51-52, they wil be “changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye” (NIV). If that can happen to them, why should it not happen to all of us?