Purgatory is the Waiting Room for Heaven, Not Hell

Purgatory is the Waiting Room for Heaven, Not Hell November 7, 2015

Original Title: Purgatory is the Waiting Room for Heaven, Not a Temporary Hell (1st C. Understanding of “Gehenna”)


[public domain / Pixabay]

The following friendly exchange took place on the Coming Home Network board with a self-described “Hebrew Catholic.” His words will be in blue.

* * * * *

The reason that Purgatory is not mentioned in the New Testament is the same reason that neither hell, nor heaven are mentioned in the NT–The NT is written in Greek. All three of these words: Purgatory, Heaven and Hell are English words. So, none of them is in the NT!

The question is whether the Greek word Gehenna, which is usually translated into English as the word “hell” really means “hell.” Or does Gehenna mean something different?

Gehenna is a Greek form of the Hebrew word Gehinnom. Ge means “valley”, so Gehinnom is the Valley of Hinnom–a garbage dump to the south of Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. It was always burning garbage, so we get the image of a place where “the fire not stops burning and the worm never dies.”

The question whenever we translate a word is what the particular word meant to the writer’s contemporary audience–in this case 1st C Jews. What did 1st C Jews think Gehenna meant?

For this we have a clear answer. The Talmud records the debates between the schools of Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai–the two great rival rabbinic schools of 1st C Israel. Hillel and Shammai. In Talmud tractate Rosh Hashanah 16b-17a, the two schools are arguing about how many souls will escape Gehinnom to go to Gan Eden (Garden of Eden–the rabbinic name for Paradise.) Hillel was more lenient than Shammai, so the school of Hillel thought that more souls would leave Gehinnom than did the school of Shammai. Both schools believed that some souls were so evil that they would spend eternity in Gehinnom.

So, to 1st C Jews, Gehinnom was place much like a maximum security US prison in which some inmates are sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, while others will get out after say 10 years served for armed robbery.

However, in English, we don’t have a single word that refers to the punishment of those who will be purged and eventually go to heaven vs. those who will spend eternity in hell. So, in practice, translators have chosen to translate Gehenna as “hell.” However, this has the unfortunate result of convincing those who do not understand the culture of 1st C Israel that “Purgatory is not in the Bible.”

The concept of Purgatory is definitely inherent in Gehenna and therefore is mentioned throughout the NT! Shalom!

Doesn’t this show that the rabbis had a notion of Gehenna that was really more akin to Sheol / Hades than to our notion of hell (since some souls can escape it)?

As I understand Gehenna, as used by Jesus, and pretty much the equivalent of “hell”, there is no way out of it, so I don’t see how you could think the NT Gehenna contains the concept of purgatory within itself.

Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the NT supports my argument above:

The NT distinguishes between hades and geenna: a. the former is temporary, the latter definitive (cf. Mk. 9:43, 48); b. the former is for the soul alone, the latter for the reunited body and soul (Mk 9:43ff.; Mt. 10:28).

(p. 113 in one-volume edition)

Kittel also states about pre-NT belief that “Later it was also used for the place where the wicked are punished in the intermediate state” but doesn’t apply this meaning to the NT understanding.

Gerhard Kittel (1888-1948) was a German Protestant (not a Catholic) scholar and an ardent anti-Semite, whose anti-Semitic works of scholarship formed an ideological foundation and justification for the Third Reich. As such, one must be concerned with the issue of bias in his scholarly output.

See: Studying the Jew: scholarly antisemitism in Nazi Germany By Alan E. Steinweis Edition: illustrated Published by Harvard University Press, 2006

Also, he lived prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Scholars of his era made the same skeptical assumptions about the veracity of rabbinic compilations of oral traditions that they made in Higher Criticism of the Bible. Since older rabbinic traditions were passed down orally, later compiled by editors, they were assumed to be inaccurate, filled with mistakes, and biased.

The discovery of the DSS showed that the Masoretic text of the Bible, the New Testament and Pharisaic traditions compiled in rabbinic literature were unexpectedly and remarkably accurate.

So, even though the 1st C rabbinic schools are cited in the Mishnah of Rosh Hashannah, compiled in 200AD by Rabbi Judah the Prince, they accurately reflect 1st C thought.

The Encyclopedia Judaica version 2 article on Paradise, traces the development of the idea of Gehinnom from Jewish Pseudepigraphical sources such as I Enoch that predate the birth of Jesus, through Deuterocanonical books, through Rabbinic sources. Since Judaism never produced an orthodoxy of belief, but rather an orthopraxy of obedience to law, there are, of course, varying speculations about the afterlife. All of which shows that Gehenna cannot have had the static and fixed meaning attributed to the Christian doctrine of “hell.”

Neither Mark 9:43ff, nor Mat 10:28 states that imprisonment in Gehenna must be permanent for all therein: 

Mk 9:43 “And if your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life crippled, than having your two hands, to go into hell, into the unquenchable fire,


45 “And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame, than having your two feet, to be cast into hell,


47 “And if your eye causes you to stumble, cast it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes, to be cast into hell,


What is permanent here is not the imprisonment of any particular person, but the constancy and duration of the worm and the fire. It is the worm that does not die and the fire that is not quenched, not the individual. No statement is made about how long these forces act upon an individual there, only that their punishment is constant and unrelenting for whatever duration they are imprisoned. Undoubtedly any period of imprisonment in a state of constant torture is worse than self-denial here on earth. This point is valid, regardless of how long the imprisonment may be. 

Mt 10:28 “And do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.

The rabbinic understanding of Gehenna includes some who will be there forever due to their sins. God is able to imprison such forever, so we should fear him who is able to do this. This does not mean that all who are in Gehenna will suffer this extreme punishment. Again, the passage does not state that imprisonment is eternal in Gehenna for all who are there.

You can dismiss Kittel if you wish. I’m sure I could produce other linguists with the same understanding. It doesn’t all rest on him. I’m confident that I can defend the NT understanding of Gehenna as pertaining to eternal hellfire. I’m not sure exactly what your position is on this. Do you have some objection to the Christian and Catholic doctrine of hell? I deal mostly with the NT understanding of eternal judgment in this paper: “Biblical Evidence for an Eternal Hell”.

I read your article on the Development of Jewish idea of punishment in the afterlife. I agree with it. The question is whether this development of Jewish concept of Gehenna is present in the use of the term in the NT. If so, then both Purgatory and Hell, as understood by Catholics, are present in the concept of Gehenna as defined in the NT.

Certainly, linguists have historically only seen hell in the use of the term Gehenna. I would argue that this is a matter of historical prejudice in the reading of the text, caused by a Gentile tradition of reading that was not informed by the Jewish context of the NT.

The discovery of the DSS [Dead Sea Scrolls] is causing many New Testament texts to be read in an entirely new light, by scholars of Jewish, Protestant and Catholic background.

Whenever we use the work of scholars who interpret the NT prior to the publishing of the DSS, we are seeing their best interpretation of these texts prior to a mountain of new historical evidence. Such scholars only see the development of Jewish interpretation in the Pharisaic tradition. They are perforce entirely ignorant of the development of interpretation among the Essenes. Their interpretations are simply outdated by the facts!

Read the texts yourself in Greek. Without the lens of centuries of Gentile (mis)interpretation, pre-DSS, these texts simply do not say that Gehenna is a place of eternal punishment for all of its initial inhabitants!

Even Edersheim admits this from the Rabbinic tradition, writing in 1883! He argues that the Pharisaic tradition understands Gehenna as a permanent place of punishment for at least some of its inhabitants. This is exactly what I am saying in my previous post.

Similarly, many Protestant scholars have re-read Galatians, only to discover that ek pistos means equally: out of faith and faithfulness. Thus overturning 500 years of Protestant interpretation!

The Pope in a recent homily (Holy Thursday 2007, if memory serves) identified the Passover celebration of the Last Supper as an Essene seder. This would mean that the Last Supper was celebrated according to the Essene calendar, not celebrated on Holy Thursday, overturning many centuries of RC tradition. But, very plausibly explaining the differences between the Synoptics and John on the dating of the Last Supper. So, there is a lot of this reinterpretive activity going on!

So, my comments are entirely in accordance with the RC Catechism and the teaching of the RCC. Too bad for linguists born just a century too early!

Your comments are fascinating as always, and I am enjoying this exchange a lot. I continue to disagree with you regarding Gehenna. I have never seen, to my recollection, anywhere in the NT where it is definitively taught that souls can escape hell or Gehenna. Whatever the pre-Christian and immediately post-Christian Jews taught, it doesn’t overcome the dogmatic force of the texts in the NT that we have. I’m all for the idea of a consistent development of Judaism into Christianity. I defend that very often in my writings. I have no hostility to that at all. I love it. So my motivation here is not to downplay Hebrew precursors to Christianity (which I never try to do, because I think it’s silly and most unhelpful). I just don’t see that Gehenna is treated in the NT and by Jesus Himself (who talked most about it) as you are positing.

I think the more accurate analogy to purgatory is Sheol / Hades, as seen most clearly in Luke 16 and the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Secondly, the analogy is to purging and suffering processes in general: God’s chastisement of His sons and daughters: a common theme in the OT and continued in the NT. Thirdly, the Protestant conception of the judgment seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3) is highly analogous to purgatory.

But purgatory is the anteroom (or, if you will, holding-tank or halfway house) to heaven, not of hell. That’s the biggest problem I have with your reasoning. Purgatory in Catholic theology is not a “five-year sentence” in hell, then the prisoner is pardoned and released to heaven. No; heaven and hell are so essentially different that there could never be any such connection between the two. Whoever is sentenced to hell is damned, and damned forever. Whoever is in purgatory is saved, and only there temporarily. Hell is the utter absence of God, which is why no saved person who is a follower of God can ever go there, even temporarily.

From a NT perspective, I would say that the late-period Jews had confused Sheol and Gehenna in their eschatology. We expect some confusions as categories are developed and worked-through, just as we saw in Christian development concerning the Trinity a few centuries later. Some will get it wrong. So the Jews who thought Gehenna could be a temporary state for some, who were released to heaven, were simply wrong.

I don’t know Greek, so I don’t have that benefit, but I have some linguistic aids to help me get to the Greek text. I can locate all the instances of Gehenna in the NT. I’d like to examine those to see what we find there, and if there is any hint of a temporary stay in hell for some, as you suggest.

Matthew 5:22,29-30 (RSV) But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, `You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire. . . . If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. [30] And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

The distinction between “council” and “hell of fire” in 5:22 is an argument for purgatory, but note that they are separate, not that purgatory (if this argument holds) is part of hell.

Matthew 10:28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

Matthew 18:9 And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. (18:8 refers to “eternal fire”)

Matthew 23:15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Matthew 23:33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?

Mark 9:43, 45, 47-48 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. [45] And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. [47] And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, [48] where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.

[RSV states that verses 44 and 46 are omitted by the “best ancient authorities” but it is repeated in verse 48 anyway]

cf. Isaiah 66:24 “And they shall go forth and look on the dead bodies of the men that have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

Luke 12:4-5 “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. [5] But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear him!

James 3:6 And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell.

I don’t see any hint of temporary stay here (I would say that is a weak argument from silence). I think eternal duration is strongly implied by “unquenchable fire” and the “worm does not die” clause. You have argued (rather weakly, I think) that it only refers to the worm and not to men. The Navarre Bible comments on Mark 9:44:

They are taken from Isaiah 66:24 . . . Our Lord uses them to refer to the torments of hell. Often, “the worm that does not die” is explained as the eternal remorse felt by those in hell, and “the fire which is not quenched” , as their physical pain. The Fathers also say that both things may possibly refer to physical torments. In any case, the punishment in question is terrible and unending.

(p. 274)

Similar data (obviously also referring to hell) occurs in the metaphor of “outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth” (Mt 25:30; cf. 8:12; 22:13).

A stronger indication, for determining whether hell is eternal for all who are in it, is Jesus’ metaphor of the tree that doesn’t bear good fruit being thrown into the fire:

Matthew 3:12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (cf. 3:10)

Matthew 13:40, 42 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the close of the age. . . . [42] and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. (cf. 13:50; 7:19; Lk 3:9; Jn 15:6)

No hint of nuance and temporary stays here, either. The chaff is burned and that’s it. It’s interesting that Jesus in Matthew 3:12 says that the chaff is burned with unquenchable fire; not that it is burned and then the fire continues on, unquenchable. There is a logical difference.

We get more information in Jesus’ account of the Last Judgment:

Matthew 25:41, 46 Then he will say to those at his left hand, `Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; . . . [46] And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

cf. the metaphorical parallel:

Jude 7 just as Sodom and Gomor’rah and the surrounding cities, which likewise acted immorally and indulged in unnatural lust, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.

Again, we see no hint whatsoever of temporary stays in hell. It is either cursed = eternal hellfire = eternal punishment or righteous / saved = eternal blessedness in heaven (25:31-40,46).

The clincher verses come, I think, in Revelation:

Revelation 20:10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.

Revelation 20:13-15 And the sea gave up the dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead in them, and all were judged by what they had done. [14] Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; [15] and if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Revelation 21:8 But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.”

Again, we see stark contrasts all around. The damned go to this lake of fire prepared for the devil and his angels (as we learn from Matt 25:41,46). This is hell, which is eternal fire, and we so no mention of anyone getting out of it. The damned go there, and it is eternal punishment (Matt 25:46, Rev 20:10). The mention of “eternal punishment” lays to rest any notion that the fire may go on forever but not the punishment of the people (as punishment always refers to a person being punished). Temporary punishment is entirely absent. I would contend that it is eisegesis to read it into any of these texts. We can’t eisegete from late pre-Christian Jewish eschatological tradition (no matter how rich and interesting it may have been). We have to go with what the text itself teaches us. Jesus and the NT writers are the definitive interpreters and developers of authentic Jewish theology. They have defined the eschatology that was still somewhat confused in 1st c. Pharisaic Judaism.

Lastly, I think it is notable that Hades is contrasted with the Lake of Fire. The dead in Hades who were to be damned eternally were thrown into hell (Rev 20:14). In other words, Hades was a holding-tank. Some went to heaven and the others went to hell (cf. Luke 16). But it is not to be confused with Gehenna. The damned in Hades are eventually consigned for eternity to hell, or the Lake of Fire.

The Catechism draws the same distinctions I made above (my bolding):

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.606 The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire . . .

1034 Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost.614 Jesus solemnly proclaims that he “will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire,”615 and that he will pronounce the condemnation: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!”616

1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, “eternal fire.”617 The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

1054 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.

1057 Hell’s principal punishment consists of eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

Coming Home Network Board Helper David W. Emery also chimed in:

I see Jesus’ return to the proper distinction as a way to reconcile the two viewpoints, just as he did in a number of other areas, especially in moral theology. Sheol had a number of “levels,” depending on the relative merit of the deceased, and those (at least in the higher levels) were destined for their respective places in Heaven (“…for star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead.” – 1 Corinthians 15:41). Gehenna was envisioned by the scholars sometimes as the lowest levels of Sheol and sometimes separately. Jesus separated out Gehenna as he did Heaven, and Christians followed that doctrine. So I don’t think it is so much a gentile thing as a Christian thing that we distinguish three “places” after death: eternal hell, temporary purgatory and eternal heaven.

* * * * *
"Then it becomes an issue of prudence that is left to the bishop to decide. ..."

Pope Francis’ Traditionis Custodis is for ..."
"Dave, the Orthodox are not on Luther's side, but ours.(Though they do hate 'philosophy')"

Eucharistic Real Presence: Luther’s Magnificent Defense
"Latin mass followers of today are of the youth generation, young families. Most followers reject ..."

Traditionalist Fr. Chad Ripperger Critiques Traditionalism

Browse Our Archives