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Degrees of Punishment and Purgatory

Christians have always had a wide variety of beliefs about the afterlife, and just about everyone (who chooses) is able to find biblical support for their views.  The Bible itself has an enormous range of views.

Among other things, there have always been Christians who have thought that there must be varying levels of punishment for sinners in the afterlife.   The guy on the street who does his best but is not always a very good father surely doesn’t get punished to the same degree as Hitler.

Among such believers who are convinced that there are different levels of punishment I would certainly class those who believe in purgatory.   Even though it is a view almost universally rejected by Protestants, purgatory can make a lot of sense even to some of them.   The afterlife is not just black and white, one thing or the other, either/or – it is not either eternal bliss for all the saints and eternal torment for all the sinners.  There must be gradations, right?

And purgatory is a way of implementing the gradations.   Only a few people go straight to their heavenly glory.  Those are the true saints, for example, the martyrs who are tortured and killed for standing up for their faith.  The rest of the saved have to pay a price for their transgressions and unfaithful behavior.  Purgatory is a way to imagine how that happens.

One passage that can be appealed to in support of some such view …

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Is There a Time and Place for Heaven and Hell?
Who Invented the Idea of a Suffering Messiah?



  1. Avatar
    ask21771  April 9, 2018

    When you say a book had to be written by an apostle to be considered canon are you talking about one of the original 12 apostles?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2018

      No — in would include Paul, who also saw Jesus and believed himself to be commissioned to preach the Gospel, as well as anyone else like that (Barnabas, e.g.?)

  2. Avatar
    Anton  April 9, 2018

    But jesus took the one criminal on the the cross with him to paradise, no purgatory for him.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2018

      Lucky guy afterall….

      • Avatar
        crucker  April 10, 2018

        While it seems that Jesus typically referred to the eventual resurrection of the dead as opposed to people immediately going to heaven or hell upon death, this instance in Luke 23:43 seems to run contrary to that idea.

        1.) Is Jesus telling this thief that he will immediately go to heaven upon his death? Or is something else implied here?

        2.) Is it safe to assume this saying doesn’t go back to the historical Jesus, since this account is unique to Luke and when the thieves are mentioned elsewhere we get a different story that doesn’t include a repentant thief?

  3. Avatar
    RVBlake  April 9, 2018

    Interesting that those who are unaware of Christ and what he requires still get punished.

  4. Avatar
    fishician  April 9, 2018

    If Jesus and his original followers envisioned a kingdom of God here on earth, it may have been easier to envision a just outcome for all, as the less-than-perfect still enter the kingdom, but there may be some punishment or refinement involved while living in the kingdom under God’s rule. But if later followers made it an all-or-nothing matter – eternal bliss in heaven or eternal torment in hell – then it is harder to justify that as a just and reasonable system. So, I can see them trying to modify that by introducing a purgatory before you get to heaven, the place of eternal bliss. But it wouldn’t be necessary if you’re living in an earthly kingdom where punishments and rewards can be administered as needed.

  5. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  April 9, 2018

    This thread on purgatory has been difficult for me to follow. I’m not quite sure I get it, but if Jesus said that a person could enter the Kingdom of God maimed—one foot, one hand, one eye, a slave who was beaten— then it seems that purgatory was to be on earth. You could go to prison, but get out eventually. On the other hand, if you lose both your feet, both hands, go completely blind, or lose your (salt) flavor, then there’s no coming back from that—hell (death) is the consequence?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2018

      I’m not sure the “one-foot” option is referring to purgatory.

  6. talmoore
    talmoore  April 9, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, oddly enough, Islam also has such “gradations” of punishment. In fact, one of the common tenets amongst fundamentalist Muslims, such as the Salafis, is that Muslim martyrs get fast-tracked to Paradise, and that is one of the primary marketing tactics for recruiting suicide bombers. And I think that this ultimately goes back to 1st century BCE revolutionary Judaism. For one thing, Rabbinic literature, in particular the Talmud, portrays earlier Jewish martyrs, such R. Akiva — who was literally flayed for his support of Bar Kokhba — as Qodeshim (“Saints”) who will receive the greatest status in ‘Olam ha-Ba.

    Now, I know that Akiva flourished in the 2nd century, but his martyrdom was anything but novel, since he was following in a long line of Jewish martyrs going back through the Zealots, who died in the Siege of Jerusalem in 70, all the way back to those Jews who are portrayed as holy martyrs in 1, 2, 3, and 4 Maccabees. (Indeed, I had an argument with Jewish family members on Passover over whether Antiochus Epiphanes forbade the studying of Torah; while I insisted that the historical context precluded such a preposterous ban, they insisted that such forms of persecution were typical for a “holy” people. Anyway…)

    This idea that there are especially holy Jews who receive special treatment on Judgment Day — indeed, being allowed to skip the whole judgment process itself and simply go straight into Paradise — that is an idea literally found in all three Abrahamic faiths! For Jews, the Qodeshim (“The Saints”) who are willing to die to preserve the Temple, and later the Torah, receive such special treatment. For Christians, those who are willing to die for Jesus receive such special treatment. And for Muslims, those who are willing to die in defense of the faith receive this special treatment.

    • Avatar
      Steve  April 11, 2018

      Talmoor….May I ask you…..when in history did the Jewish faith stop sacrificing animals as atonement for sin? And what is the atonement in today’s Jewish faith. I appreciate your insight and knowledge.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  April 11, 2018

        Well, obviously, since the destruction of the Temple in the year 70 all official sacrifices have effectively ended. But some orthodox Jews still sacrifice a small animal — usually a dove — on Yom Kippur in lieu of the proper sin-offering. But for the most part, sacrifices have been put on hold until the construction of the Third Temple (which the more religions Jews assume will come with the Messiah), and in lieu of the traditional Tamid sacrifices (those sacrifices performed daily at the Temple in Jerusalem), most observant Jews instead pray a standard daily prayer (called the Amidah or the Shmoneh-‘esreh) during those traditional times everyday (that’s what those Hassidic Jews are doing when they are bobbing up and down out in public) — morning, afternoon and evening (plus a fourth time on special occasions, called the Mussaf). Those prayers effectively take the place of the sacrifices until the Temple is rebuilt.

        Hope that answers your question.

        • Avatar
          Steve  April 13, 2018

          Yes, thank you. My email is: stevew851@gmail.com. May I ask you some Jewish doctrinal questions without interrupting the blog and Bart’s topic threads? Thanks again.

  7. Avatar
    dagrote  April 9, 2018

    “Others will receive an amazing award, but not *that* good.” I seem to recall an expression along the lines of, “In heaven every cup is filled, but some cups are bigger than others.”

  8. Avatar
    Hume  April 9, 2018

    Hell does not appear until the New Testament and Sheol is the shadowy underworld in the old testament. Was heaven a destination in the old testament as it is for the righteous in the new testament?

  9. Avatar
    darren  April 9, 2018

    One thing I’ve wondered about since I was a young Catholic is how the church explains why Jesus still hasn’t returned. Is there literature on what is causing the delay or the conditions that will lead to the return? I know there’s periodic apocalyptic expectations — 2012, 2000, 1984, etc. — but those aren’t endorsed by mainstream churches and always turn out to be wrong. What has the church (and churches, later on) traditionally said about his absence? And did the lack of a return within the first generation after Jesus cause a discernible ripple among the early faithful?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2018

      It’s one of the major issues of theological thought since the first century. And yes, the lack of a return forced the Christian church not only to change its expectations but its entire theology. The apocalyptic views of Jesus were transformed as a result. That’s one of the reasons the preaching of Jesus in John is so different from that in the Synoptics. You can start seeing “explanations” for the failure of the parousia in books like 2 Peter (where one argument is that God is delaying the return to give people a bit more time to repent) (I can’t imagine the author thought 2000 years later people would *still* be coming up with reasons!)

      • Avatar
        meohanlon  April 12, 2018

        Dr. Ehrman, are there branches of Christianity that hold that he has already returned in some form, perhaps even in a metaphorical sense?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 12, 2018

          There are some people who think he has been incarnated on one or another of our politicians….

        • Bart
          Bart  April 12, 2018

          Oh, sorry, but as to your question. I’m not sure! I can’t think of any off hand.

          • Avatar
            meohanlon  April 12, 2018

            Actually, you’re right. When you mentioned politicians, I immediately thought of Haile Selassie who the Rastas believe was the second coming. Although the man himself denied being Christ, and he died, and it doesn’t look like the kingdom of God arrived with him.

            But on a less literal note, I’m wondering if there are movements that take the second coming to refer to inner transformation of individuals towards Christ consciousness (“greater things you will do), that by its nature would usher in the kingdom, if enough were transformed. And the eschaton to precede it and set the stage would actually be the all of the trials mankind has had to face since the first coming, in order to necessitate a transformation (or face self-destruction) – thus the purpose of the first was to demonstrate the miraculous healing powers that await us when we get there.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 15, 2018

            I’m afraid I don’t know.

        • Avatar
          SidDhartha1953  April 19, 2018

          Some Jehovah’s Witnesses’ literature – I don’t know if it reflects current teaching – claims Christ returned invisibly in 1914. I suppose the onset of the Great War seemed like the end of history at the time.

  10. Avatar
    The Agnostic Christian  April 10, 2018

    We’re not getting tweets about new posts to the blog anymore? I can see the last “new post” tweet was for the 6th anniversary post.

  11. Avatar
    4Erudite  April 10, 2018

    One thing that has always confused me…NT and scriptures say Jesus will come again to judge everyone and all will be judged at that time, but most christians and preachers think people who die “have gone to heaven”…right now…but that means they haven’t been judged. What does the NT actually say, or suggest, about when one gets into Heaven…are they judged immediately upon death and location assigned appropriately, or are all in suspence until Jesus comes again to judge then, and all?

  12. Avatar
    Eric  April 13, 2018

    Dante places his Purgatorio on Earth (at the antipodes of Jerusalem), a physical mountain, capped with the Earthly paradise (Eden — not Heaven).

    As you say, Purgatory is in a sense infinitely closer to heaven than to Hell (infinite because eternity is infinite.)

    Dante says something like all souls arriving on the shores of Purgatory rejoice, for they know they are eternally saved.

  13. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  April 16, 2018

    I see nothing in Lk. 12:41-48 to indicate the venal slave survives the chopping up, or cutting off, according to a NRSV footnote. Does cutting off have the connotation of killing in Greek, as in Hebrew? If they were still living, one would expect the unfaithful to be wailing and grinding their teeth a little, but there’s no mention of that either. Is Luke an extinctionist maybe?

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