'Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, 'and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?'
- Jeremiah 23:29
A History of Purgatory
The history of Purgatory is long and detailed. Contrary to the opinions of some misinformed scholars, many of them Protestants, Purgatory is a doctrine that is far older than Christianity. Indeed, it can rightly be said that the concept of Purgatory is more than 2,000 years old and finds it roots in Judaism, especially as described in the two Books of the Maccabees. Two sources note the following:
Roman Catholic belief in purgatory is based, among other reasons, on the previous Jewish practice of prayer for the dead, a practice that presupposes that the dead are thereby assisted between death and their entry into their final abode.
- Purgatory, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Offerings for the dead were known to ancient Jewish practice, and it has been speculated that Christianity may have taken its similar practice from its Jewish heritage.
- History of Purgatory, Wikipedia
The Catholic Church also tends to believe that Purgatory is a doctrine that was taught by Jesus Christ directly to his Apostles who handed it down to the earliest Church Fathers who continued on in this originally Jewish tradition. The theory of Purgatory, in other words, 'the idea of a kind of purgatory… is quite plainly found' throughout numerous different non-Christian cultures and religions and was 'an idea that is representative of a view widely dispersed in antiquity.' One source summarizes:
The Catholic tradition of purgatory has a history that dates back, before Jesus, to the worldwide practice of praying for and caring for the dead, and the practice of prayer for the dead with a view to their afterlife purification, found in Judaism, from which Christianity grew. 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. Among other reasons, Catholic belief in purgatory is based on the practice of prayer for the dead.
- History of Purgatory, Wikipedia
When it comes to the earliest stages of the Christian religion, it can said that 'the notion of an interim state of souls after death developed only gradually, partly because it was of little interest as long as Christians looked for an imminent end of the world.' After that time period however:
Specific examples of belief in purification after death and of the communion of the living with the dead through prayer are found in many of the Church Fathers.
- History of Purgatory, Wikipedia
Thus, even though Purgatory cannot be found discussed in the New Testament, this is simply because it was either assumed, or left unspoken, by St. Paul and others who were more interested in the Resurrection and how that affected the living, rather than the dead. Even so, Purgatory was expounded upon by the earliest of Church Fathers. Here are just a few examples of the Church Fathers mentioning the notion of Purgatory:
The Early Church Fathers and Purgatory
- The Church Father Irenaeus (130-202 AD) mentioned a place 'where the souls of the dead remained until the universal judgment', a theory which 'contains the concept of... purgatory.'
- Both St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) and his pupil, Origen of Alexandria (185-254 AD), believed in a 'purification after death; this view drew upon the notion that fire is a divine instrument from the Old Testament, and understood this in the context of New Testament teachings such as baptism by fire, from the Gospels, and a purificatory trial after death, from St. Paul.' Origen argued against the idea of 'soul sleep' until final judgement on Judgment Day. Instead he beleived that 'the souls of the elect immediately entered paradise unless not yet purified, in which case they passed into a state of punishment, a penal fire, which is to be conceived as a place of purification.' Many believe that, 'Clement of Alexandria, and his pupil Origen of Alexandria, derived their view from a combination of biblical teachings' who took numerous 'vague concepts of purifying and punishing fire' that predated Christianity.
- Another Church Father Tertullian (160-225 AD) also discused a 'purification after death. In Tertullian's understanding of the afterlife, the souls of martyrs entered directly into eternal blessedness, whereas the rest entered a generic realm of the dead.' In this particular theological doctrine 'the idea of a kind of purgatory… is quite plainly found.'
- Further elaborations concerning Purgatory include those written by 'St. Cyprian (258 AD), St. John Chrysostom (347-407 AD), and St. Augustine (354-430 AD), among others.'
Thus it can be clearly seen that the doctrine of Purgatory was discussed extensively by several different people between the years 130-430 A.D. This puts to rest the notion that the idea of Purgatory was 'invented' by the Church sometime during the Middle Ages more than one thousand years after Christianity began. By the early 5th century, St. Augustine discussed Purgatory extensively and even claimed that the pain of 'purgatorial fire' was 'more severe than anything a man can suffer in this life.' Later on, in the late 6th century, Pope Gregory the Great wrote about Purgatory which specifically shows a 'development in the understanding of the afterlife distinctive of the direction that Latin Christendom would take.' Pope Gregory wrote the following Biblical argument concerning Purgatory:
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.
- Dialogues, Pope Gregory the Great
In addition to those cited above, 'numerous other famous Christians have mentioned Purgatory in their writings.' This included Bede who had a supernatural 'vision of a beautiful Heaven and a lurid Hell with adjacent temporary abodes.' The same thing happened to St. Boniface. In the 7th century, the Irish abbot St. Fursa also had a vision concerning the afterlife where he was pursued by demons intent on punishing him for his sins. This made him conclude that 'just as the body burns through unlawful desire, so the soul will burn, as the lawful, due penalty for every sin.' Others who have discussed Purgatory include Haymo, Rabanus Maurus (780 - 856 AD), and Walafrid Strabo (808 - 849 AD).
The Catholic Church proceeded to establish All Souls' Day at the end of the 10th century which 'helped focus popular imagination on the fate of the departed, and fostered a sense of solidarity between the living and the dead.' Later 12th century developments in 'the elaboration of the theology of penance helped create a notion of purgatory as a place to complete penances unfinished in this life.' Around 1128, Ermelindo Portela Silva interpreted the words of Diego Gelmírez, then Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela, to mean that there indeed was a Purgatory where those who are too sinful for Heaven go to after they die. Most historians acknowledge that the word Purgatory finally came into existence with the Latin term 'Purgatorium.' Medievalist Jacques Le Goff believes this occurred sometime betwenn 1170 and 1200. Around this same time, 'the conception of purgatory as a physical place, rather than merely as a state' also began to take hold upon Christian believers. One source notes the following:
Le Goff also considered Peter the Lombard (d. 1160), in expounding on the teachings of St. Augustine and Gregory the Great, to have contributed significantly to the birth of purgatory in the sense of a physical place.
- History of Purgatory, Wikipedia
Of course, it must be understood 'that the notion of purification after death, without the medieval notion of a physical place, [still] existed in antiquity.' It just became easier for Christianity and its followers to think of Purgatory as a place with a location, usually believed to be underground, below the earth, similar to a grave or the roots of a tree. Because of this, the 12th century became known for its many stories concerning the actual location of Purgatory. Keep in mind that this was in spite of the fact that 'the idea of purgatory as a process of cleansing thus dated back to early Christianity.' The actual tales included descriptions 'about St. Patrick's Purgatory, a cavelike entrance to purgatory on a remote island in Ireland.' The most prominent of these was called 'The legend of St Patrick's Purgatory' (Tractatus de Purgatorio Sancti Patricii) which was originally written by Hugh of Saltry, also known as Henry of Sawtry. Other stories similar to this included the Visio Tnugdali.
Another Purgatory legend spoke of an 'entrance to Purgatory in places such as a cave on the volcanic Mount Etna in Sicily.' This was a distinct era when 'the idea of purgatory as a physical place became widespread on a popular level, and was defended also by some theologians.' All these tales about the location of Purgatory were 'part of a huge, repetitive contemporary genre of literature of which the most familiar today is Dante's.' In his work called 'Purgatorio', Dante imagined Purgatory as the 'second kingdom' of the afterlife which was located upon 'a seven-story mountain situated' at the exact opposite end of the world from the actual city of Jerusalem, just like like the North and South poles.
Here is a detailed historical summary of Purgatory from the years 780 to 2011:
A Brief Timeline of Purgatory
780-856: Rabanus Maurus expounds upon Purgatory.
808-849: Walafrid Strabo writes extensively about Purgatory.
1160-1180: The word Purgatory, or in Latin Purgatorium, first appears as a noun.
1170-1200: The conception of purgatory as a physical place occurs, what Jacques Le Goff terms 'the birth of Purgatory.'
1206: A peasant named Thurkhill in England claims 'that Saint Julian took him on a tour of Purgatory.'
1220: Caesarius of Heisterbach, a Cistercian monk makes the claim that 'purgatory could be in several places at once.'
1254: The First Council of Lyon declared that 'souls...can be cleansed after death and can be helped by the suffrages of the Church...[in] a place of purgation...calling it purgatory according to the traditions and authority of the Holy Fathers.'
1438-1445: The Council of Florence issues a formal declaration concerning Purgatory.
1530: Martin Luther stops believing in Purgatory.
1545-63: The Council of Trent declares belief in Purgatory to be an official Christian doctrine.
1585: The Roman Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church agree at the Union of Brest that 'We shall not debate about Purgatory, but we entrust ourselves to the teaching of the Holy Church.'
1603: Shakespeare publishes 'Hamlet' which features a ghost of Hamlet's dead father from Purgatory.
1865: John Henry Newman publishes 'The Dream of Gerontius' which discusses Purgatory in depth.
1999: Pope John Paul II states that 'the term Purgatory does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence.'
2005: The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarizes '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.'
2011: Pope Benedict XVI discusses Saint Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510), and her visions of Purgatory stating 'that in her time the purification of souls (Purgatory) was pictured as a location in space.'
May the LORD God bless you in the name of St. Judas Maccabeus.