Early Theologies of Purgatory

How can a loving and merciful God send a person into endless torture in hell? Actually, He does not. They send themselves there. The only unpleasantness to which He channels them is purgatory, where they have the hope of rising to heaven.

Protestants and Eastern Orthodox deny the concept of purgatory because limited, temporary detention for sin with a hope of release is not mentioned in Scripture or earliest church fathers. In real fact, purgatory is indicated by many of them, including those of the first three centuries of Christian literature. Consulting such early sources helps give us the most accurate meaning of New Testament doctrine and praxis. It does so through revealing the presuppositions shared by the New Testament personages and their original hearers and thus disclose the interpretation and lesson that recipients were intended to draw from them. In this way, the ancient sources help inform us of Biblical concepts (which are sometimes quite different from ours) and help supply its conceptual framework so that we can better relate to biblical paradigms. In addition, the literature cited in this article recorded contemporary beliefs and practices during a period as to which most present-day Christians agree the Holy Spirit was still actively guiding the church.

In evaluating modern interpretations and methods of interpreting the Bible, Christians today can derive much assistance from what ancient Christians wrote on various issues before they became subjects of dispute.1 It is more probable that the teaching of Jesus and His apostles was preserved among the first few generations of Christians, instead of the true faith and practice disappearing as soon as the last word of the Bible was written, then long afterwards being perfectly restored at the Reformation or by Mohammed in the seventh century or by Joseph Smith of the Latter-Day Saints in the nineteenth. Similarly, it is infinitely more credible that the correct interpretation of the Bible was preserved by these early generations than first come to light centuries later.

The probability is vanishingly remote that even the most dedicated and protracted study of the Scriptures in the sixteenth century or later would uncover a spiritual truth unknown to early Christians. Christianity has never been a mere collection of writings that can be interpreted by one person as accurately as by another regardless of time or place. The Christian faith has always been a living community or group of communities in which the gospel is shared and transmitted. One Christian interacts with others; older members tell younger members; unwritten memories are recorded in writing by a later generation; and each person directly or indirectly interacts with other Christians, ultimately preserved in the sources below.

Where the early Christian authors agree among themselves, it must be that their presentations of the Christian faith were received from the apostles not many years earlier. Theirs may be only an interpretation, but it is a more authoritative interpretation than those formulated since the sixteenth century because it was made closer to the milieu of the New Testament authors.

A major premise of belief in purgatory is that God is not vindictive or vengeful or inclined to bear grudges forever. The flames in the afterlife, as mentioned at various points in the Scriptures, are a purifying fire, like that for metals, not a destroying fire or one burning for the sole sake of punishment. The distinctive principle of a temporary, graded punishment after death is that the purpose of such chastisement is to purge sin from a soul and thus purify it for eventual entry into heaven. This principle of divine operation is hinted at in Ezekiel 22:18 and stated more clearly in Malachi 3:3: “He will sit refining and purifying silver, and he will purify the Levites.” In addition to this principle is the concept that evildoers must make reparation or pay for their earthly sins.

In early Christian times a commonly-used proof-text for this was Matthew 5:25-26: “Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.” Instead of “penny,” some translations say “farthing,” which was a quarter of a penny.

It may seem strange to twenty-first-century readers to link this passage with the afterlife, but purgatory — often called Hades — is the theme of all earliest known exegeses of it.

Origen was the foremost Christian theologian, Bible scholar and teacher of the first half of the third century AD, and the most prolific Christian writer prior to Martin Luther. From AD 202 to 230 or 233 he was the dean/principal of Christendom’s leading institution of higher learning. In AD 231 or 233 he established his own in Palestine. He traveled much in the eastern Roman Empire as a theological consultant to local bishops, and thus could witness ethics and doctrine in many places.

Origen taught in Against Celsus that somewhere in the universe God maintains a “training school of virtue” for Christians who died in sin, to perfect them for heaven. God purifies them “like gold in the fire” after their deaths so that they can recover their pristine spiritual status and eventually enter paradise.2 According to his Homilies on Samuel, purgatory is not hell or heaven but a waiting room where God intervenes in the lives of its inhabitants and metes out greater or lesser punishments, or no punishment at all, depending on the person’s life and faith on earth.3 His Homilies on Leviticus explain that purification for sins comes by death and eternal fires.4

About Origen’s time lived a bishop in central Italy whose Against Plato, on the Cause of the Universe indicated that Hades is the region in which the souls both of the righteous and the unrighteous are detained. He elaborated that “this locality has been destined to be as it were a guard-house for souls, at which the angels are stationed as guards, distributing according to each one’s deeds the temporary punishments for [different] characters.”5

Earlier in the third century, Tertullian, the Father of Latin Christian Literature, wrote that all souls go to purgatory, where they undergo punishment and consolation while awaiting judgment, in a certain anticipation either of gloom or of glory:6

In short, inasmuch as we understand “the prison” pointed out in the Gospel to be Hades, and as we also interpret “the uttermost farthing” to mean the very smallest offence which has to be recompensed there before the resurrection, no one will hesitate to believe that the soul undergoes in Hades some compensatory discipline, without prejudice to the full process of the resurrection, when the recompense will be administered through the flesh besides.7

This region, therefore, I call Abraham’s bosom. Although it is not in heaven, it is yet higher than hell, and is appointed to afford an interval of rest to the souls of the righteous, until the consummation of all things shall complete the resurrection of all men with the “full recompense of their reward.”8

Tertullian noted that “by Abraham’s bosom is meant some temporary receptacle of faithful souls.”9

These pronouncements are not alternate descriptions of a permanent, endless hell as commonly conceived. Its purpose is completely different from purgatory/Hades. In Protestant thought, hell is endless, only for persons who died in sin, has no bearing on the righteous (who go directly to heaven), where all inmates are treated the same way regardless of frequency or degree of turpitude, and the living cannot do anything to shorten the denizens’ stay or otherwise help them.

As for length of time in purgatory, Origen’s Homilies on Judges leave little doubt that the durations of punishment are determined according to the severity of the sin, and the prolongation of our conversion to God’s ways also prolonging the time of chastisement.10 His Homilies on Luke express the same thought: “Each one of us incurs a penalty for each single sin, and the size of the penalty is reckoned according to the quality and nature of the offense.”11 “Each one receives a sentence with a different fine, according to the quality and quantity of his sin.”12 “There is no other time to give an account except the time of judgment. Then, what has been entrusted to us, and what gains and losses we have made, will be clearly known.”13 “You will be sent to prison, and there you will have payment exacted by labor and work, or by punishments and torture; and you will not get out, unless you have paid the penny and the ‘last farthing.’14 One’s stay in purgatory will depend on how he or she behaved on earth, according to Homilies on Psalm 36.15

There is a widespread understanding that most of us, even virtuous souls, spend some amount of time in purgatory. The Homilies on Psalm 36 record that even Peter and Paul had to go there.16 This is because heaven is only for the absolutely perfect, and the purpose of purgatory is to purify the less-than-perfect for heaven, with saints and apostles spending only a short time.

Such postmortem chastisement is essentially medicinal and curative, designed to rehabilitate offenders so that everyone may eventually, although belatedly, enter heaven.17 Another explanation was given by Origen’s teacher in the AD 190s, and predecessor at the prominent Christian school:

For there are partial corrections, which are called chastisements, which many of us who have been in transgression incur, by falling away from the Lord’s people. But as children are chastised by their teacher, or their father, so are we by Providence. But God does not punish, for punishment is retaliation for evil. He chastises, however, for good to those who are chastised, collectively and individually.18

and:

God’s punishments are saving and disciplinary, leading to conversion, and choosing rather the repentance than the death of the sinner; and especially since souls, although darkened by passions, when released from their bodies, are able to perceive more clearly, because of their being no longer obstructed by the paltry flesh.19

As a loving father, God inflicts punishment only in order to correct and redirect his children; therefore, chastisement after death is no more severe and no longer in duration than is necessary to reform the individual sinner.

Lastly, much of the theology of the afterlife, “the four last things,” of standard Protestantism is without hope, and Christians on earth can do nothing to alleviate the fate of its inhabitants. However, in the second century, Christians taught that the living can indeed assist their brothers and sisters there. One book in early Christian use, the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, states there is prayer for the people in Hades.20 Even in the first or second century, the Testament of Abraham recognizes heaven, hell, and Hades, and that the prayer of a righteous man can transport a soul from purgatory to Paradise.21 A little later than our time period, the Acts of Andrew record that an apostle prayed that a dead repentant Christian “might rest in peace.”22 Tertullian’s On Monogamy described the activities of a Christian’s widow: “she prays for his soul, and requests refreshment for him meanwhile, and fellowship with him in the resurrection; and she offers a Eucharist on the anniversaries of his falling asleep.”23 In mentioning Christian traditions so old and so universal that they were embraced by the faithful often with the same level of authority as as Sacred Scripture, Tertullian spoke of offering a Eucharist for the dead “as birthday honors.”24

Despite standing alone among Christian churches in teaching about a transitory place of rectification and disciplining immediately after death, the Roman Catholic Church has preserved the concept that the earliest church possessed, unlike the Eastern Orthodox and most Protestants, including denominations with fulsome and intricate pronouncements on what happens in the afterlife.

 

Except where otherwise indicated, all patristic quotations are as translated in The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. American Reprint of the Edinburgh edition by A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature, 1885–96; continuously reprinted Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson). Herein cited as “ANF.”

  1. Ellen Flesseman-Van Leer, Tradition and Scripture in the Early Church (Assen, Netherlands: Van Gorckum, 1954), 9.
  2. Origen, Against Celsus 6.44 (ANF 4:593).
  3. Origen, Homilies on Samuel 5.9-5.10.
  4. Origen, Homilies on Leviticus 14.4.2.
  5. Hippolytus, Against Plato, on the Cause of the Universe 1 (ANF 5:221).
  6. Tertullian, On the Soul 58 (ANF 3:234).
  7. Tertullian, On the Soul 58 (ANF 3:235).
  8. Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.34.4 (ANF 3:406).
  9. Tertullian, Against Marcion 4.34.4 (ANF 3:406).
  10. Origen, Homilies on Judges 3.5.
  11.  Origen, Homilies on Luke 35.10, trans. Joseph T. Lienhard, SJ (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 147.
  12. Origen, Homilies on Luke 35.11, trans. Lienhard, 148.
  13. Origen, Homilies on Luke 35.11, trans. Lienhard, 148.
  14. Origen, Homilies on Luke 35.14, trans. Lienhard, 149–150.
  15. Origen, Homilies on Psalms 36 3.1.
  16. Origen, Homilies on Psalms 36 3.1.
  17. Origen, Homilies on Jeremiah 19.15.8.
  18. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 7.16 (ANF 2:553).
  19. Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 6.6 (ANF 2:490–491).
  20. Apocalypse of Zephaniah 11.1–11.6.
  21. Testament of Abraham, Long recension, 14.
  22. Acts of Andrew 28, in The Apocryphal New Testament, trans. Montague Rhodes James (Oxford: Clarendon, 1953), 34.
  23. Tertullian, On Monogamy 10 (ANF 4:67).
  24. Tertullian, De Corona 3 (ANF 3:94).
Dr. David W. T. Brattston About Dr. David W. T. Brattston

Dr. David W. T. Brattston is a retired lawyer residing in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada. His thirteen books and over four hundred articles synthesizing early and modern Christianity have been published by a wide variety of denominations, including Catholic magazines and journals in Australia, Canada, Japan, South Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Comments

  1. Avatar Fr. Anthony J. Mastroeni JD, STD says:

    Commendable indeed are Dr. Brattston’s efforts to find additional solid reference to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory in the early Christian centuries. However, notwithstanding the tremendous value of Origen’s contributions to theology, it must be said that Origen was a universalist, believing in the Apocatastasis or final salvation of all, including even the devil and his fallen angels, thus making hell a temporal stage of chastisement. The many quotations from Origen in the essay do not appear as reliable and authoritative sources of a Catholic understanding of Purgatory, because they cannot easily be distinguished from Origen’s views on the temporality of hell. Father Anthony J MASTROENI J.D., S.T.D

    • Avatar James Ignatius McAuley says:

      Father,
      Dr. Brattston was kind enough to provide cites to his sources, and cites 2 through 24 are all to primary sources. Where is the primary sources cite for your allegation?
      Second, you completely ignore the value of Dr. Brattston’s work. He is looking at early sources, not a developed theology as articulated by Ott, or the Council of Florence. By the logic of your approach, we should certainly throw Cyril of Alexandria’s letters at the time period of the Council of Ephesus into the garbage because at times the christological content of Cyril’s letters “cannot be easily distinguished” from the the monophysite views of Eutyches at the time of the Counicl of Chalcedon.
      Third, I do not know what you are reading, but for the most part what Origen wrote on post death purification can be distinguished from the theory of apocatastasis.
      Fourth, If any fair criticism is to be lodged at Dt. Brattston, it is that most of his cites are to older, non-critical editions, excepting that of Joseph T. Lienhard, SJ from 1994. In that sense these cites are not “reliable and authoritative sources.”
      Fifth, I will do you the favor here, the best cites for any alleged belief by Origen in the apocatastasis would be found in his Peri Archon (On First Principles), with the current edition by John Behr of Oxford University Press being the best. However, do you realize this was an early work of Origen’s? Origen, like Jerome or Thomas Aquinas, engaged in theological development. At the beginning, in his Commentary on the Sentences, Thomas favored the Immaculate Conception, but in his latter work, the Summa Theologia, he opposed it. Or, to bring up Jerome, in his Commentary on Ephesians, this is an early work of his, before the so called First Origenistic Crisis, after which Jerome wrote differently.

  2. The Old Testament is very clear about there being a Purgatory.
    The Book of Machabeus, (Mach. 12:43-46, states that “It is a holy and wholesome thought,
    to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.”

  3. Avatar James Murphy says:

    Purgatory is a place of love that we don’t completely understand. But it is like this: we as parents will endure great pain and even death itself for our children. We as children in our mature state will also endure great pain and even death for our parents. When we come into the full love of our creator–us for Him and understanding a tiny little bit of His for us–we out of great love would not dare meet Him or enter into heaven without being dressed as beautifully as possible. Would the Bride or the Groom show up at the wedding dressed in rags? Never. Not a chance. What a beautiful, beautiful gift we are given to be able to put on the finest of clothes and be washed clean to a brightness we never thought possible.

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