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Overview & history of beliefs about Purgatory

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This section has been reorganized. The text on Eastern Orthodox and Protestant beliefs about Purgatory has been relocated to another essay. Roman Catholic beliefs are here.


Purgatory is a belief that is almost unique to the Roman Catholic Church.

  • The Catholic church teaches that salvation involves a gradual process of sanctification over time. Believers can lose their salvation and become isolated from God. But they can regain it through church sacraments. Few people can be accepted directly into Heaven at death. Those who are in a state of mortal sin at the time of their death are sent to Hell. Purgatory cleanses the remainder from the temporal consequences of the sins that they have collected during their lifetime on earth. Eventually, the latter will be eligible to be transferred to Heaven.
  • Conservative Protestants generally believe that salvation is achieved by a person repenting of their sin and trusting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Once this is done, they are assured that they will attain Heaven at death. Unsaved persons -- perhaps including those who have never heard of Jesus or Christianity or the process of salvation -- will spend eternity being tortured in Hell. Purgatory does not exist.
  • Liberal Protestants, progressive Christians, Agnostics, Atheists, Freethinkers, etc. generally reject the idea of Purgatory and Hell because the concept of imprisoning people for thought crimes (e.g. believing in the wrong God), and torturing them there for all eternity is incompatible with their interpretation of the Bible and of the nature of God.

With effort, all three concepts of Purgatory, can be justified from biblical passages. This is even easier if the Septuagint translation of the Bible is used; it is the Greek translation that was used by the earliest followers of Jesus.

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History of beliefs in Purgatory:

Some of the early Church Fathers wrote about an intermediate state after death; a way station on the path to Heaven. Many wrote about the importance of issuing prayers for the dead. Such prayers only make sense if a third state - one other than Heaven or Hell - exists. After all, if the person who died is in Heaven, prayers would be meaningless; if the person was in Hell, then they are already lost and prayers would not help them.  These early Christian writers included "Fathers Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Lactantius, Eusebius, Cyril, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius, Jerome, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Venerable Bede and second-millennium theologians such as Anselm, Bernard, Aquinas and Bonaventure..." 1,2  Prayers for the dead are also found in early Christian catacombs and in early church liturgies. 

Both purgatory and prayers for the dead were upheld by many early Church councils, beginning with the Council of Carthage in 394 CE.

Belief in Purgatory became a formal church 'dogma' only in the 16th century. The historical emphasis of the church had been that Purgatory is a dreadful place of painful, long-lasting punishment with fire. More recent references by the Pope imply that Purgatory is not "a place but [rather] a condition of life."

The Church defines Purgatory as: "a state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God's friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven." (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] Page 896).

During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther initially accepted the belief in Purgatory. In 1519 he said that its existence was undeniable. By 1530 he had changed his mind; he said that Purgatory could not be proven to exist from biblical passages. Later that year he rejected the concept of Purgatory entirely. Since that time, to our knowledge, no Protestant denomination has taught belief in Purgatory.


The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Robert A. Sungenis, "Purgatory," at: http://net2.netacc.net/
  2. "Purgatory," part of "Catholic Biblical Apologetics," at: http://www.cbn.org/

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Latest update and review: 2006-DEC-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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