Overview & history of beliefs about Purgatory
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
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,
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.
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
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,
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.
- Robert A. Sungenis, "Purgatory," at:
- "Purgatory," part of "Catholic Biblical Apologetics,"
Copyright © 1998 to 2008 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2006-DEC-05
Author: B.A. Robinson