Thursday, March 29, 2007


In his reply to Steve Hays, Philip Blosser repeatedly mentions the doctrine of Purgatory. He claims that it had widespread patristic support. But some of the sources he mentions can only be said to have believed in Purgatory if the doctrine is significantly redefined.

The apostle Paul knew he was imperfect both in knowledge of himself (1 Corinthians 4:4) and in sanctification (2 Corinthians 3:18, Philippians 3:12). Yet, he said that he would go to be with the Lord if he died (2 Corinthians 5:1-8, Philippians 1:23). Scripture repeatedly refers to all believers being at peace, having joy, going to be with the Lord, etc. whenever this life ends (Psalm 49:15, 73:24-25, Isaiah 57:1-2, Daniel 12:13, Matthew 25:34, Luke 16:22, Luke 23:42-43, John 14:2-3, 2 Corinthians 5:1-8, 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, Revelation 7:14-17). Purgatory is never mentioned, but instead is repeatedly contradicted by references to every believer going to Heaven. The afterlife is a frequent theme in scripture, but Purgatory isn't part of the landscape.

The same is true of the earliest patristic sources. When Clement of Rome refers to deceased believers, he always refers to them being in Heaven, never Purgatory (First Clement, 5-6, 44, 50). The same is true of other early sources, such as Polycarp (Epistle To The Philippians, 9) and a document written by the church of Smyrna after Polycarp's martyrdom (The Martyrdom Of Polycarp, 19). Other early sources refer to all believers going to Heaven or a heavenly region of Hades that doesn't have the suffering associated with Purgatory: Justin Martyr (Dialogue With Trypho, 5), Athenagoras (A Plea For The Christians, 31), Irenaeus (Against Heresies, 5:5:1, 5:31:2), Hippolytus (Against Plato, On The Cause Of The Universe, 1-2), Cyprian (Treatises, 7, On The Mortality, 6-7, 26), etc. It should be emphasized that when somebody like Irenaeus refers to all deceased Christians being in Paradise, such a view isn't just an undeveloped seed form of Purgatory. It's a direct contradiction of Purgatory. Also worth noting is that Irenaeus cites the elders of an earlier generation, who knew one or more of the apostles, in support of his anti-Purgatorial views.

Catholics sometimes appeal to comments made by fathers such as Tertullian and Origen, and they appeal to apocryphal documents and catacomb inscriptions, for example. But all of these arguments are problematic. The catacomb inscriptions, for example, are from people we don't know much about, such as just how orthodox they were or how widespread their views were. Many of the inscriptions are late or can't be dated. And when somebody like Tertullian advocates praying for the dead, the doctrine of Purgatory doesn't logically follow. If an increase in the blessings of Heaven were expected from these prayers, then they can't be cited as evidence for Purgatory. The historian Philip Schaff wrote:

"These views of the middle state in connection with prayers for the dead show a strong tendency to the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, which afterwards came to prevail in the West through the great weight of St. Augustin and Pope Gregory I. But there is, after all, a considerable difference. The ante-Nicene idea of the middle state of the pious excludes, or at all events ignores, the idea of penal suffering, which is an essential part of the Catholic conception of purgatory. It represents the condition of the pious as one of comparative happiness, inferior only to the perfect happiness after the resurrection. Whatever and wherever Paradise may be, it belongs to the heavenly world; while purgatory is supposed to be a middle region between heaven and hell, and to border rather on the latter. The sepulchral inscriptions in the catacombs have a prevailingly cheerful tone, and represent the departed souls as being 'in peace' and 'living in Christ,' or 'in God.' The same view is substantially preserved in the Oriental church, which holds that the souls of the departed believers may be aided by the prayers of the living, but are nevertheless 'in light and rest, with a foretaste of eternal happiness.' Yet alongside with this prevailing belief, there are traces of the purgatorial idea of suffering the temporal consequences of sin, and a painful struggle after holiness. Origen, following in the path of Plato, used the term 'purgatorial fire,' by which the remaining stains of the soul shall be burned away; but he understood it figuratively, and connected it with the consuming fire at the final judgment, while Augustin and Gregory I. transferred it to the middle state." (section 156 here)

The Purgatory scholar Jacques Le Goff, when commenting on the views of Cyprian in the third century (a church father who is often misrepresented as having believed in Purgatory, even though he rejected the concept), remarks that the doctrine of Purgatory "did not yet exist" (The Birth Of Purgatory [Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1986], p. 58). Regarding appeals to the catacombs, apocryphal documents, Origen, etc., Le Goff explains:

"The abundant epigraphic and liturgical evidence available for the first few centuries of the Christian era has often been used to prove that belief in Purgatory is very ancient indeed. But it seems to me that the interpretation goes beyond the evidence. The favors that God is urged to grant the dead essentially involve the pleasures of Paradise, or at any rate a state defined by pax et lux, peace and light....A Greek apocryphal work from the late second century, The Acts of Paul and Thekla, speaks of prayers for a dead young girl. The pagan queen Tryphena asks her adopted daughter, the Christian virgin Thekla, to pray for her real daughter Phalconilla, who has died. Thekla prays to God for eternal salvation for Phalconilla....The importance of the Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas in the prehistory of Purgatory should neither be exaggerated nor minimized. It is not Purgatory as such that is being discussed here, and none of the images contained in Perpetua's two visions recur in medieval imagery associated with Purgatory. The garden in which Dinocratus [the dead boy being prayed for] finds himself is almost paradisaical in nature; it is neither a valley nor a plain nor a mountain. The thirst and feebleness from which he suffers are described as psychological rather than moral defects. He suffers psychic and physical pain rather than the pain of punishment for a wrong, labor rather than poena, whereas the texts that foreshadow Purgatory or that concern Purgatory per se prefer the latter term to the former. The Passion makes no mention of either judgment or punishment....In this vision of the other world [advocated by Clement of Alexandria and Origen] a number of ingredients of the true Purgatory are lacking, however. No clear distinction is made between time in Purgatory and the time of the Last Judgment. This confusion is so troublesome that Origen is forced both to expand the end of the world and to collapse it into a single moment, while at the same time making its prospect imminent. Purgatory is not really distinguished from Hell, and there is no clear awareness that Purgatory is a temporary and provisional abode. The responsibility for postmortem purification is shared by the dead, with their weight of sin, and God, the benevolent judge of salvation; the living play no part. Finally, no place is designated as the place of purgatory. By making the purifying fire not only 'spiritual' but also 'invisible,' Origen prevented the imagination of the faithful from gaining a purchase on it." (pp. 46, 50, 57)

Regarding Tertullian:

"Between Tertullian's refrigerium interim [a region of the afterlife some believers go to] and Purgatory there is a difference not only of kind - for Tertullian it is a matter of a restful wait until the Last Judgment, whereas with Purgatory it is a question of a trial that purifies because it is punitive and expiatory - but also of duration: souls remain in refrigerium until the resurrection but in Purgatory only as long as it takes to expiate their sins." (pp. 47-48)

Tertullian sees some believers going to a different region within Heaven, a place of enjoyment that lasts until the time of judgment. Purgatory, on the other hand, is a place of suffering that can end before the judgment. Tertullian writes:

"there is some determinate place called Abraham's bosom, and that it is designed for the reception of the souls of Abraham's children, even from among the Gentiles (since he is 'the father of many nations,' which must be classed amongst his family), and of the same faith as that wherewithal he himself believed God, without the yoke of the law and the sign of circumcision. 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.'" (Against Marcion, 4:34)

Did Tertullian believe in different regions within what we commonly consider Heaven? Yes. Did he believe in praying for the dead and offering sacrifices for them? Yes. He didn't believe in Purgatory, however.

Augustine is widely regarded as the father of the doctrine of Purgatory. Roman Catholics often quote him referring to something similar to the modern Catholic doctrine. But what these Catholics don't explain is that Augustine acknowledged that he was speculating. In other words, he wasn't passing on some tradition handed down in unbroken succession from the apostles. Rather, he was speculating about what might happen in the afterlife. Jacques Le Goff explains:

"[Joseph Ntedika] has put his finger on a key point, showing not only that Augustine's position evolved over the years, which was to be expected, but that it underwent a marked change at a specific point in time, which Ntedika places in the year 413....In the Letter to Dardinus (417) he [Augustine] sketches a geography of the otherworld which makes no place for Purgatory." (The Birth Of Purgatory [Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press, 1986], pp. 62, 70)

In other words, Augustine's views on the subject developed over time, and he was inconsistent. George Salmon explains the significance of these facts:

"In like manner, when Augustine hears the idea suggested that, as the sins of good men cause them suffering in this world, so they may also to a certain degree in the next, he says that he will not venture to say that nothing of the kind can occur, for perhaps it may. Well, if the idea of purgatory had not got beyond a 'perhaps' at the beginning of the fifth century, we are safe in saying that it was not by tradition that the later Church arrived at certainty on the subject; for, if the Church had had any tradition in the time of Augustine, that great Father could not have helped knowing it." (The Infallibility Of The Church [London, England: John Murray, 1914], pp. 133-134)

Here's an example of Augustine expressing his uncertainty:

"And it is not impossible that something of the same kind may take place even after this life. It is a matter that may be inquired into, and either ascertained or left doubtful, whether some believers shall pass through a kind of purgatorial fire, and in proportion as they have loved with more or less devotion the goods that perish, be less or more quickly delivered from it." (The Enchiridion, 69)

Although people like Augustine were speculating about something like Purgatory, other fathers continued to make comments more consistent with the Biblical and earlier patristic view:

"'Knowing therefore that whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord: we are of good courage, I say, and willing to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord.' Seest thou how keeping back what was painful, the names of death and the end, he has employed instead of them such as excite great longing, calling them presence with God; and passing over those things which are accounted to be sweet, the things of life, he hath expressed them by painful names, calling the life here an absence from the Lord? Now this he did, both that no one might fondly linger amongst present things, but rather be aweary of them; and that none when about to die might be disquieted, but might even rejoice as departing unto greater goods....'We are of good courage, I say, and willing.' Wonderful! to what hath he brought round the discourse? To an extreme desire of death, having shown the grievous to be pleasurable, and the pleasurable grievous. For by the term, 'we are willing' he means, 'we are desirous.' Of what are we desirous? Of being 'absent from the body, and at home with the Lord.'" (John Chrysostom, Homilies On Second Corinthians, 10, vv. 7-8)

And some sources continued to advocate views that are inconsistent with both Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism (Lactantius, The Divine Institutes, 7:21; Aphrahat, Demonstrations, 6:14, 8:20, 8:22-23, 22:9). But the Evangelical concept that all believers go to a place of peace and joy, without the sufferings associated with Purgatory, is the Biblical view and the view of the earliest church fathers and some of the later fathers.


  1. I was going spend time in purgatory, but then I got high.

  2. I'm surprised that someone here hasn't drawn the connection between Neo-Platonism, Origenism, and Purgatory. Is purgatory the result and influence of Hellenism? Absolutely. There's no basis in the bible or in the Fathers for this dogma.

  3. Excellent scholarly compilation that you have built up, Jason. I also have some historical research on Purgatory which some of your readers might find interesting: