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Did Jesus Teach About Purgatory?

The topic I’m dealing with on this destined-to-be-a-very-long thread seems to me to be particularly important.  Most of my scholarship is of interest mainly to people concerned about the life and teachings of Jesus, the New Testament, the history of Christianity, and so on; but this is of interest to *all* of us.  What happens when we die?  Or more specifically, what happens to *me* when I die?

My current discussion of purgatory may be of little interest to people, until they think about it for a second.  Do most people have to go through horrible suffering after death, even if they are not destined for the eternal flames of hell?   I for one don’t look forward to getting a tooth ache or ending up in the hospital.  What if there are years, decades, centuries of physical torment ahead for me?   Shouldn’t I want to know about that and, well, make some preparations?

But it’s a topic most of us don’t think about.  Those of us raised in a Protestant tradition simply don’t buy it (whether we’re Christian or not); many Catholics do buy it, but don’t devote a lot of thought to it.  But either way, is it true?

I have no way of knowing of course, so I’m not going to give you an answer.  But I do want to pursue the question of where the idea came from.  Is it taught, for example, in the New Testament?   Supporters of the doctrine claim that it is, deniers say it isn’t.  What’s the evidence?

I’ll mention four passages that seem most relevant.  Actually, the first I’ll mention …

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The Unforgivable Sin and Purgatory
The First Intimation of Purgatory?



  1. Avatar
    Boltonian  April 2, 2018

    Off topic: there’s a nice review of ‘Triumph,’ by one of my favourite historians, Tom Holland, in this week’s Spectator (I think it might also appear in the US edition).

  2. Avatar
    Hon Wai  April 2, 2018

    Do you think Matt. 5:21-22 came from the historical Jesus, or early Christian traditions?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      It’s hard to say. The fact that the Aramaic term “RAKA” occurs in teh passage (= you fool) indicates that whoever came up with the saying, it wsa from Aramaic-speaking Palestine. So there’s a good chance, at least, that it goes back to Jesus.

  3. Avatar
    Todd  April 2, 2018

    Thank you for explaining the word used for hell by Jesus…Gehenna. I think it is a key to understanding what Jesus mean by Judgment and Purgatory.

    Our heaven and hell is now…in how we live and in how we treat others. No one has ever been to heaven and returned, no one has ever seen God (1 John 4:31ff) so our duty is to live god’s kingdom now and to be the love and compassion that Jesus taught.

    Just my opinion. All I know for sure is how much I don’t know and the afterlife will be whatever it will be. All or nothing. No one knows.

    You have the start of a good book. Thanks for sharing.

    • Telling
      Telling  April 4, 2018

      Re: “No one knows.”

      There are actually quite a good number of books written by non-physical beings from beyond the grave. The Christian teaching has — from the beginning and right up to this day — been that you should avoid such influence, for it is their turf, reading it is forbidden. but I didn’t heed the call and have learned things we are only supposed to be learning from the Church. So be it. It’s a discipline called new-age spiritualism and metaphysics, and can be found in any major bookstore.

  4. Avatar
    Wilusa  April 2, 2018

    Very OT: I just remembered that several months ago, I asked if you had an opinion about the newly opened Museum of the Bible in Washington. And you said you’d tell us what you thought about it after you’d seen it…which was going to be in *February*!

    Of course, you still haven’t told us how you became convinced that “Cephas” and “Peter” are one and the same…

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      Yeah, a lot of things I’m behind on. ANd now I’ve started a thread on something completely different. Ai yai yai…. Funny how I once thought I’d run out of things to talk about on the blog after about 8 months….

      • Avatar
        SidDhartha1953  April 10, 2018

        Maybe eternity won’t be so boring after all?

  5. Liam Foley
    Liam Foley  April 2, 2018

    Interesting. I was raised Catholic and below is a link to Catholic Answers that gives some scriptural justification for the doctrine of Purgatory.

    Although I’m no longer a believer of any of this but in some ways the concept of purgatory makes sense. Protestant Christians believe that Jesus paid for your sins and by placing faith in Jesus your sins will be forgiven and you’ll go to heaven when you die. So that means any sin the believer commits will be forgive and there will be no punishment. I’ve always wondered where is the Justice in that? If a believer commits a grevious sin, adultery or even murder, but latter repents there will be no punishment? So a believer could literally get away with murder as long as they had faith….I’ll leave that one to the theologians.

    My question. I guess Jesus did believe in an afterlife but I understand certain sects of Judaism did not believe in an afterlife? Was the concept of an afterlife a new concept within Judaism at the time of Jesus?


    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      Jesus, like others in his day, believed that at the end of this age there would be resurrection of the dead, where the righteous would be brought into God’s eternal kingdom (here on earth). The wicked would perish.

    • Avatar
      RVBlake  April 3, 2018

      When I was in RCIA, a priest who spoke to our class explained this issue. He posited that Hitler would most likely never leave Purgatory till he’d apologized to every single family adversely affected by World War II, including German families of soldiers who’d been killed fighting for him. In other words, Adolf would probably spend eternity in Purgatory. It wasn’t till later that I began to wonder how someone in Purgatory would apologize to living people.

  6. Avatar
    fishician  April 2, 2018

    If you think about it, if a human legal system had only two verdicts for all crimes – complete exoneration or the death penalty – we would think that a very unjust system. So I can understand why people look for some additional options, to make sense of a system that doesn’t seem to make sense. (Also glad to hear your comments about Mark 9:48, which alludes to Isaiah 66, since many Christians mistakenly use that passage to justify their idea of eternal torment.)

  7. Avatar
    madmargie  April 2, 2018

    Since I don’t believe in an afterlife, that doesn’t cause me any fear.

    I too believe Jesus was talking about this life. Forgiving others does make this life easier. It helps eliminate hostility.

    I also believe the mistakes we make in this life can be taken as life’s lessons…if we listen to life.

  8. talmoore
    talmoore  April 2, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman, you didn’t address the comments I made in the previous post concerning a Jewish purgatory, so I’m not sure if you think I’m on the right track or not. Having said that, what you have written in this post seems to confirm much of what I said.

  9. Avatar
    joncopeland  April 2, 2018

    Does the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” described in Matt 24:51 describe posthumous punishment? The author says the master will cut the slave into pieces, but also says they will be placed with the hypocrites. Are they dead or alive?

    A similar kind of thing is going on in Matt 25:30, where there is weeping and gnashing, and the slave is thrown into “outer darkness.” Is this also punishment in the afterlife or in waking life?

    PS: congrats on your new grandchild. I hope they’re doing well.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      Yes, I think that all these images are metaphorical and can’t be pressed for a literal sense — otherwise they don’t make any sense at all!

  10. Avatar
    ddorner  April 2, 2018

    Am I understanding correctly then that Jesus’ view was likely that the faithful could live forever in God’s coming kingdom, but the unrepentant died and burned away?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      That’s my view.

      • Liam Foley
        Liam Foley  April 3, 2018

        That does make sense too from reading the Gospels. Jesus teaches about inheriting eternal life which implies not everyone will live for eternity and those that do not inherit eternal life will be annihilated, which I think is the metaphor Jesus describes when referencing Gehenna, Today’s Christian theology states all have eternal life but what is at stake is your eternal destination…eternal bliss in heaven or eternal punishment in hell.

        My question is, did this now traditional Christian teaching originate with Paul or did it develop later?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 4, 2018

          Paul, interestingly enough, never talks about eternal punishment. So I think the idea arose later.

  11. Avatar
    ask21771  April 2, 2018

    Is there actual evidence that Jesus was considered enough of a political threat that the Romans wouldn’t have allowed the Jews to bury him

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      It’s not that he was a threat. It’s just that they didn’t allow decent burials for crucified victims. That was part of the punishment.

  12. Rick
    Rick  April 2, 2018

    So Professor, was the burning trash heap in the Valley of Gehinnom so well known it would be known in the Gallilee at that time? Or, is this evidence of story embellishment?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      You know, I was wondering exactly the same thing (for the first time ever) when I was writing the post! I have to think about it a good deal and see if anyone has a plausible solution to the problem.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  April 3, 2018

      By Jesus’ time I’m sure Gehenna ceased to be just a direct reference to the valley of Gei Hinnom south of Jerusalem, and, instead, became a symbol or metaphor for the condemnation of the wicked. It’s possible, however, the physical place itself was seen as one of three things.

      1) The place where the bodies of the slain wicked would be dumped after the great end times battle in the Qidron valley just to the east of Jerusalem, all of which would then be burned. Note that Jesus, along with other apocalypticists (4 Ezra, 2 Baruch) frequently talk about “worms” in the bodies of the dead, suggesting exposure to the open air, meaning the bodies are not given a decent burial in a tomb. The place those bodies would be exposed, presumably, is the literal valley of Gehenna/Gei Hinnom

      2) A portal or gateway to a subterranean region (think Korah’s Rebellion) through which the bodies of the wicked are dropped into the so-called “lake of fire”.

      3) The location where Satan’s army of demons and wicked humans take their last stand during the final battle and fall, either metaphorically or literally into the conflagration.

      I’m sure apocalyptic Jews such as Jesus and his disciples would have understood Gehenna to mean one or all of those things.

  13. Avatar
    Franz Liszt  April 2, 2018

    Bart, I recently ran across an argument by Richard Carrier that the “render unto Caesar” episode is almost certainly not historically accurate, as denarii weren’t circulated in Judea until after 70, and therefore it’s unlikely that Jesus or anyone around him would have had a denarius on him for his famous saying. Carrier also claimed that Jews did not pay Roman taxes in coins until after the war, so the saying doesn’t make sense in a pre-70 environment. I was wondering if you’ve looked into it this at all and whether you buy the argument or not.


    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      Interesting. I don’t know — I’d have to look into it. I wonder what evidence he cites.

  14. Avatar
    Hume  April 2, 2018

    When I was in Jerusalem last summer I think alked through Gehenna. It’s lovely now. I asked our guide if Jesus meant Hell or Gehenna, she said she didn’t know. I said I’m hedging my bets, so I hope he meant Gehenna! Why do you never say that child sacrifices were occurring to the good Molech? As is stated in Jer. 2: 23. — Also can I go to Jerusalem with you?!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      Yes, the Molech traditions are important. Jerusalem: I’m leading a trip in October; not sure if it’s sold out yet or not. Check out the UNC General Alumni Association page.

  15. Avatar
    TravisA  April 2, 2018

    Without having read the blog post. I’ll proffer the following, Dr. Ehrman.

    There must be a space between death and the resurrection.

    Luke 16 contains the parable of the wealthy man and Lazarus. Principally, Lazarus is dead and finds himself in “The Bosom of Abraham” or a gulf, space between. The rich man, on the other hand finds himself able to see Lazarus and “in torment”. Neither have receive the promised resurrection, for it has not yet occurred. If Jesus was “the resurrection” as indicated by John’s Gospel, he would not have declared a parable that taught the people a false ideal.

    Additionally, while on the cross, Jesus is recorded as declaring to the penitent thief, “Today with me thou shalt be in the paradise.” If “paradise” was the traditional notion of Heaven two problems occur in other texts.

    1. The Epistle of Peter is out of place when it refers to the Gospel being preached to “spirits” while in “prison”. This idea of an intermediary locale between death and final judgment, wherein those who do not “die in the Lord” are “preached” the Gospel (as we see with the parable in Luke 16) and the righteous are in the bosom of Abraham.

    2. Also, this idea bears out when, again, Jesus’ informs Mary in the Garden, “Don’t hold me, for I haven’t yet ascended to my Father”. Where was Jesus if he went to “paradise” with the their but also to a locale with the dead, separated by a “gulf”?

    If Jesus went to a separate place, not “heaven” these passages begin to hold meaning. We also see the idea of a God who has made allowances for those ignorant of the “Christian” message, not condemned in ignorance as Paul indicates in Romans 2, each of us Judged according to the “law written on our hearts”.

    This would allow those who, for whatever reason, were preached a “Gospel in Prison” as indicated by 1 Peter 4:6. This might also allow for the possibility of repentance and release.


    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      My sense is that you should read something before commenting on it!!

      • Avatar
        TravisA  April 3, 2018

        I read the post after, carefully. It appears there is a teaching relevant to an intermediary place between death and the final abode of the believer, perhaps a period of temporary punishment from which a person may be released. These passages cited seem to support the idea, particularly from Peter and the authors of Luke and John that a temporary place, perhaps a “purgatory” was taught by Jesus. As you indicated, there “may: be a reference in the Matthew text, I feel the idea is sured up by the passages I referenced. Is that totally off base?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 4, 2018

          It’s an interesting phenomenon that Catholic interpreters have traditionally been convinced that the answer is yes, and Protestants that it’s no! I’m not a Christian, but my sense is that the idea of purgatory is a later development, after Jesus and Paul, and probably after the NT. But I’m open to thinking through the passages. I”ll be dealing with them anon.

          • Avatar
            TravisA  April 4, 2018

            I also am not Christian. I was just attempting to consider what evidence may exist in the text to support both the idea of a temporary intermediary between death and hell, one that is not as definitive as Evangelicals indicate or as vague as Catholicism seems to suggest. From the passages I referenced, do you think a valid argument exists to support the idea early Christians did not simply consign the dead to either “Heaven” or “Hell”? In the John text, the author has Jesus speaking of “many mansions” (John 14:2) and Paul, referring to himself, states “such an one being caught away unto the third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12:2). I know it is debated among scholars, whether the traditional “heaven/hell” is a later addition or is found in our earliest sources. Taking the Sadducees (who seemingly reject an afterlife) as well the more neutral ideal of “Sheol” being a more neutral abode of the dead. It is possible this concept would have carried into the first Christian thinkers, including Jesus, as seen in his parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus,building on the traditional understanding and instructing that this “Sheol” is a middle ground, prior to the resurrection and identifying a division between “good” and “evil” or just and unjust. This concept was later changed to articulate the Heaven/Hell concept as “eternal” we see in Christianity today. I’m just ruminating, or making an attempt. Thanks.

          • Bart
            Bart  April 6, 2018

            No, I don’t think either John 14:2 or 2 Cor. 12:2 indicates that there was some kind of third place (I think that’s what you’re asking)

  16. Avatar
    TravisA  April 2, 2018

    By the way, loved your new Book.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      Hope you read it. 🙂

      • Avatar
        TravisA  April 3, 2018

        I did. I’ve read all your books a couple times.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 4, 2018

          Ah, *you’re* the one!

          • Avatar
            TravisA  April 4, 2018

            They really are very good. I also enjoy Dr. James D. Tabor’s writings about Paul.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 3, 2018

    Looking for scriptural evidence for purgatory reminds me of looking for Old Testament prophecies of the “Messiah,” in that you really, really have to want to see it to see it….

    Again, another example of Christianity being based on believing what people said 2,000 years ago and they also said different things.

  18. Avatar
    jrhislb  April 3, 2018

    Love this series on purgatory. I think the later development of Christian doctrine is very fascinating and how it lead up to medieval Christianity. So many ideas that were not part of original Christianity were projected backwards in fascinating ways.

  19. Avatar
    godspell  April 3, 2018

    It’s good advice, but while most of us tend to over-indulge in anger (never more than when online, and there’s little adherent risk to expressing it), I do think it serves a purpose. There are times when it is justified, even necessary.

    This all ties into Jesus’ idea that the Kingdom is coming soon. Why get angry? God and the Son of Man will settle all accounts for you. Just keep it cool, boy. Real cool. Perhaps the first-ever linking of this teaching of Jesus with the teachings of Steven Sondheim. Well, they’re both nice Jewish boys. 😉

  20. Avatar
    caesar  April 4, 2018

    Did other NT teachers teach a literal fiery hell? It seems like Revelation teaches this. If so, do you think John (of Revelation) misunderstood Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2018

      He doesn’t appear to be basing his views on the teachings of the historical Jesus (but on visions he had).

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