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In Roman Catholic theology, Purgatory is a process of purification after the particular judgment and before entry into Heaven. One of the first documents to mention purgatorium was a letter from the Benedictine Nicholas of Saint Albans to the Cistercian Peter of Celle in 1176 (Haggh, 1997).


Theology and history

After death, persons who had repented of their sins but had not expiated them are purged before entering Heaven. Everyone who enters Purgatory will eventually reach Heaven, therefore it is not some lesser form of Hell. Prayers for the dead and indulgences can shorten one's own or loved one's stay in Purgatory: "We believe that alms, sacrifice, and other benefits can be of help to the dead" (Denziger 427, 1208). In Catholic theology, some sins — i.e. those against the Holy Spirit — may not be forgiven "neither in this life nor in the future" (Mt 12:32); whereas "fire will test the work of each one [i.e. individual person], of what kind it [the work] is" (1 Cor 3:13), so that a kind of after-death processing may be assumed to exist, assuming that one accepts the Scriptures as part of their religious faith. The dogma of Purgatory was clarified by the Catholic Church in 1254 (see Denziger 456: "[W]e, since they say a place of purgation of this kind has not been indicated to them with a certain and proper name by their teachers, we indeed, calling it purgatory according to the traditions and authority of the Holy Fathers, wish that in the future it be called by that name..."). Before that time the essential concept was referred to by Clement of Alexandria (202)¹, Tertullian (c. 210), Cyprian of Carthage (253), Lactantius (307), Cyril of Jerusalem (350), Gregory of Nyssa (382), St. John Chrysostom (392), and St. Augustine (411),² among others. Christian doctrine is normally clarified in this fashion, with concepts having clear roots being given explicit names by dogmatic decree at a later time (see papal infallibility for another example). Various additional Scripture verses cited in support of a period of purgation after death and/or efficacy of prayers for the dead include Dan 12:10; Zech 13:9; Mal 3:2-3; 2 Mac 12:42-45; Mt 5:26; Lk 12:47-48; Lk 12:58-59; 1 Cor 3:13-15; Apoc 21:27; and others.

Traditional Christian spirituality

Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox both consider it to be a fact of great beauty that God provides a means of purification after death, considering it "a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from sins" (2 Mac 12:39-46). The Eastern Orthodox church, separate from the Roman Church since well before 1054 (see East-West Schism), has no explicit recognition of the term "Purgatory" nor acceptance of such a state distinct from being "asleep in the Lord". Yet belief that the dead may be loosed from sins, defined with differing levels of explicitness as mentioned, plays a very large part in the spiritual life of devout Catholics and Orthodox, as numerous prayers and liturgical actions, many dating from the earliest Christian times, assume that purification after death is possible for those who do not die in a state of mortal sin, whom the Eastern Orthodox might refer to as "the righteous dead".[1] The traditional Roman Catholic Grace after meals includes a reference to the alleviation sought: "...and may the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace, Amen." In addition to the everyday and liturgical spiritual life of the Catholic, there exist Purgatorial societies³ which regularly offer prayer, especially the Mass, for the deceased. None of these ceremonies or doctrines, however, are intended to become a license for sin; a Catholic would consider that to be "tempting God" (cf. Lk 4:12).

Divergent theological stances

Protestant churches largely reject explicit belief in Purgatory. As 2 Maccabees is a deuterocanonical book, most Protestants consider it to be apocryphal, and do not consider that the other Scripture verses mentioned admit of a belief in Purgatory. Many Protestants claim that belief in Purgatory has been used, by unscrupulous priests if not by the Catholic Church itself, to terrify parishioners into donating money to fund Church projects, on the pretext that they might effectively buy their loved ones out of the torment of Purgatory. Many Catholics agree that the belief has occasionally been used to fleece the flock, but challenge the notion that the dogma is rooted in avarice.

Some Eastern Orthodox sources, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate, consider Purgatory to be among "innovations proclaimed in the West" that are not acceptable within Orthodox doctrine,[2] and hold to a "condition of waiting"[3] as a more apt description of the period after death for those not borne directly to heaven.

Jewish theology

The Jewish Talmud may be thought to indicate Purgatory in Sabbath 33b and Rosh HaShanah 16b-17a; a similar belief in the efficacy of prayers for the dead is manifest in the Mourner's Kaddish which is prayed for 11 months after a loved one dies. The Septuagint Scriptures do include the Maccabees which incorporate prayer for the dead (2 Mac 12:42-45). However, Jewish theology is inconclusive about Jewish teaching in this area, as indeed it is about almost all life-after-death teachings.

Purgatory in literature

Purgatory or Purgatorio is the second book of Dante's Divine Comedy.

See also

Heaven, Hell, Limbo, Exegesis



  • Barbara Haggh (1997). "The meeting of sacred ritual and secular piety: endowments for music", Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198165404.

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Last updated: 10-25-2005 08:50:24
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