Purgatory (from the Latin: purgare “to purify”) is the Roman Catholic doctrine of an intermediary state between physical death and heavenly salvation where souls must make retribution for their sins. In purgatory, it is said that a soul’s previous negative actions are purified, which enables the individual to pass through the gates of Heaven. This doctrine was accepted by the fathers of the Church and many early Christian writers prior to it being codified at both the councils of Florence and Trent. The majority of Protestant denominations, however, reject belief in purgatory, especially those who stress the sola scriptura principle (as the doctrine is not mentioned by name anywhere in the Bible).
In considering the end of human life, mainstream Christianity accepts the "doctrine of the four last things," which stipulates that all humans will experience death, judgment, and heaven or hell (see the Book of Revelations). Though the doctrine of purgatory is not one of these "four last things," Catholics argue that it is a logical corollary and necessity because it allows for the expiation of sins committed by the elect. For them, the Reformation’s denial of a posthumous purgatorial stage leaves a void that cannot be entirely ignored.
The doctrine of purgatory is somewhat similar to Buddhist and Hindu conceptions of hell, which is likewise conceived of as a temporary residence. Hell's torments are punishment for sins, and when in due time the term of punishment is finished, the soul is released from hell to be reincarnated in another body.
Jewish and Early Christian Antecedents
Despite the fact that Jewish cosmology does not include an explicitly purgatorial stage, evidence from the Second Temple period indicates that one important component was present, namely the idea of praying for expiation of the souls of the dead. A famous example is found in The Second Book of Maccabees. While this book was rejected as being extracanonical by Luther and other reformers, it presents an important depiction of Jewish history and practice shortly before the birth of Jesus. One episode in this book describes the Jewish response to finding amulets of a pagan idol, Jamnia, under the tunics of slain Jewish warriors. This discovery was significant, as it was understood to render them ritually unclean, placing their salvation in jeopardy. The Jewish survivors, led by Judas Maccabeus, prayed to God to blot out this sin and to refrain from harsh judgment against these dead. The text justifies this practice, stating "if [Judas Maccabeus] were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from their sin" (2 Maccabees 12:44-46).
In this way, we can see that it was a Jewish belief that intercession could/should be made for the departed. This was accomplished through prayers and meritorious actions, as well as sacrificial offerings (rituals).
Likewise, the Roman catacombs of the early Christian era are replete with inscriptions and graffiti indicating a belief in a future life and a reunion with the departed. There are no scriptural admonitions by Jesus against any prayers of intercession for the dead and his teachings are clear that there will be a resurrection to a new life.
Biblical Basis and Theological Justification
The major theological impetus for the development of the doctrine of purgatory is the ubiquitous description of the Divine as a God of Justice. Though the text also describes God as a being of ultimate love, many think that God would still require a penalty to be paid for disobedience. Supporting this claim, they draw upon various Biblical tales, including the story of Noah and the flood (where the sinfulness of humanity compels God to destroy the first creation), of the Tower of Babel (where God confounds the tongues of man as a punishment for their arrogance), and of the Original Sin (where God condemns Adam and Eve to a life of pain and toil due to their disobedience). In all of these cases, God is depicted as a Being who desires the administration of justice.
Likewise, the Gospel of Matthew discusses the need for Divine justice, using the concept of expiation as a model. In Ch. 5:22-26, Jesus stresses the necessity of purifying oneself of sins before death, as otherwise Satan (the accuser) will ensure that shortcomings are brought forward for judgment. A further example illustrating God’s requirement of justice can be found in Luke’s story of the vigilant and faithful servants:
But if that servant says to himself, "My master is delayed in coming," and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, to eat and drink and get drunk, then that servant’s master will come on an unexpected day and at an unknown hour and will punish him severely and assign him a place with the unfaithful. That servant who knew his master’s will but did not make preparations nor act in accord with his will shall be beaten severely; and the servant who was ignorant of his master’s will but acted in a way deserving of a severe beating shall be beaten only lightly. Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more. (Luke 12:45-48)
Though the ostensible purpose of this story is to explore the relationship between sin and punishment among Christians and non-Christians, it also provides ample evidence of the Christian God's requirements concerning justice. Indeed, it implies that all actions will be post-posthumously examined and tested against the standard of divine justice and that the analysis of one's actions will determine the final reward or punishment that is due. A scriptural reference for this process of posthumous assaying can be found in 1 Corinthians:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10-15)
Paul introduces this "purifying fire" as the means of addressing the paradoxical relationship between a loving God who provides a heavenly place for eternal life and a just God who bars the entrance because we have not achieved a state of sinlessness. Indeed, when Heaven is described as a place where "nothing unclean will enter...nor any[one] who does abominable things or tells lies" (Psalm 51), the prospects of salvation (without an intermediate purification stage) become quite bleak.
For this reason, the doctrine of purgatory was formulated as a means of accounting for the purification and eventual salvation of sinful, but still faithful, individuals. It is often deemed to be an actual place wherein temporal punishment or corrective action are applied to the saved who have died in a state of God’s grace without freedom from all minor sins (venial sins) or who have not accounted for the consequences of their serious actions. It uses the concept of purifying fires addressed in scripture (see above) to explain how the elect are cleansed and allowed entry into the heavenly Jerusalem.
These Biblical themes (and the nascent concept of purgatory) were acknowledged and explored by Augustine of Hippo, Tertullian, Cyprian, St. John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Lactantius, and Cyprian of Carthage. In fact, St. Monica (Augustine's mother), specifically asked him to pray for her after her death—a request that indicates her belief that the dead are in a place (or state) where they would benefit from such attention. Edward Hanna notes, "the Apostolic practice of praying for the dead which passed into the liturgy of the Church, is [already] clear in the fourth century" (newadvent.org). Further, many early theologians explicitly formulated the concept of purgatory to better understand this intercessory practice. For example, Origen suggested, "if a man depart this life with lighter faults, he is condemned to fire which burns away the lighter materials, and prepares the soul for the kingdom of God, where nothing defiled may enter" and Gregory of Nyssa argued that a deceased soul "cannot approach God till the purging fire shall have cleansed the stains with which his soul was infested" (Hanna, newadvent.org).
As early as 1254, the Church formally supported the doctrine of purgatory. The doctrine was later formalized as an article of faith at the Council of Florence in 1439 and also confirmed at the Council of Trent in 1548. At its Twenty-fifth Session, this council decreed:
Since the Catholic Church, instructed by the Holy Ghost, has, following the sacred writings and the ancient tradition of the Fathers, taught in sacred councils and very recently in this ecumenical council that there is a purgatory, and that the souls there detained are aided by the sufferings of the faithful and chiefly by the sacrifice of the altar, the holy council commands the bishops that they strive diligently to the end that the sound doctrine of purgatory, transmitted by the Fathers and the sacred councils, be believed and maintained by the faithful of Christ, and be everywhere taught and preached. (Quoted in Denzinger, Enchiridon, 983)
Of course, no one has determined exactly how the saved are cleansed in their state of purgatory or indeed how long the process takes. It is often deemed to be a period of numerous years, although the theory of “God’s Second in Hell” holds that this is an extremely painful process that is experienced immediately and then relieved. Others hold that some undergo much of their purgatory in their sufferings and trials encountered during their temporal lives.
As mentioned above, many Protestant theologians completely deny the validity of the doctrine of purgatory. This is especially common among those who stress scripture as the sole source of legitimate Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
An additional reason that many reformers felt a great impetus to reject this theory lies in the abhorrence they had for the then common Catholic practice of selling indulgences. Specifically, many ecclesiastical authorities in the Catholic Church were, at that time, raising large sums of money by encouraging living relatives to monetarily “ransom” their departed loved ones from the torments of purgatory. It was thought that these officials were callously preying upon the feelings of those who had lost family members. As a result, many reformers equated this practice with the doctrine of purgatory, assuming that the two were intimately (and necessarily) related. Also, they noted that the term “purgatory” (or any related concept) is not explicitly used anywhere in scriptures.
Martin Luther eventually went beyond rejecting the doctrine of purgatory to reject even the idea of prayers for those who have died. In his famous catechism, he taught: “We should pray for ourselves and for all other people, even for our enemies, but not for the souls of the dead” (Luther, Expanded Small Catechism, Question #211). Therefore, one can conclude that Luther came to reject any efficacy of prayers for the departed by those who remain in this temporal existence.
A second major objection that many Protestants voiced against the idea of purgatory concerned the view that the salvific work of Jesus Christ on the cross paid the entire debt for the sins of humanity–past, present, and future. For them, nothing else is required of an individual after they come to accept Christ and are baptized. In fact, they would argue that any doctrine stating that there is more to be done to achieve salvation negates, rejects, or denies what Christ has allegedly achieved. It is seen to somehow demean Christ’s actions on humanity's behalf, reducing them to something less than fully complete.
Those who would say that the atonement for sins was completed at the cross would certainly reject any doctrine that says otherwise. Some claim that support for these positions is to be found in scripture. For example, the anonymous author of the Epistle to the Hebrews states, “by [God’s] will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10. Also see 1 John 2:1-2). They argue that the Bible points to the completeness of salvation at the hands of Christ. However, Catholic theologians would argue that this affirmation does not inherently preclude the existence of purgatory and that it contradicts some of the Jewish and Early Christian beliefs discussed above.
- "Purgatory" by Edward J. Hanna, The Catholic Encyclopedia
- "The Church Teaches: Documents of the Church in English Translation." St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co. 1955. Based upon Heinrich Denzinger's Enchiridion Symbolorum.
- "Catechism of the Catholic Church." Liguori, MO: Ligouri Publications. 1992.
- Council of Trent
- Luther, Martin. "Expanded Small Catechism." Found in Denis Janz's Three Reformation catechisms: Catholic, Anabaptist, Lutheran. New York: E. Mellen Press, 1982.
- Stark, R. & Bainbridge, W. S. The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation. Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1985.