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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. tompicard
    tompicard  April 4, 2018

    “Jesus is telling people how to live in this present life. He’s not at *all* talking about the afterlife.”
    That is good description of his ministry. There dont seem a lot of passages where he makes clear his views on the afterlife.
    Even the famous discussion regarding the 7 brothers in the afterlife with same wife wasn’t a topic he brought up himself, i.e it probably wasn’t part of his regular preaching; he only addressed it then because of a challenge. Prior to your blogging on this topic I would have said Jesus understood afterlife as the commonly conceived heaven and hell. but now, whether he believed in heaven/hell or shadowy sheol or some bodily resurrection iseems pretty speculative.

  2. Avatar
    anthonygale  April 4, 2018

    Even when I was a believer, and I was raised Catholic, I had a hard time accepting the idea of Purgatory. The lack of clear Biblical support was largely why. Now that I think about it though , I find my skepticism (and those of other believers) suprising for two reasons.

    One, there are so many things not in the Bible that people accept. How the apostles died. Names of the three wise men. I realize those are relatively minor issues not accepted by everyone. But still, if one can accept other thing not in the Bible, why not Purgatory?

    The other is that the idea is very appealing and seems to make more sense than just the notion of heaven and hell. Who deserves to be tormented forever for being a bit naughty or not believing the right thing? Save maybe a few of the most horrible people in history, how could a loving God do that to anyone? But the idea of a temporary punishment doesn’t seem like such an injustice. Why only to two extremes? My objection might be why the idea developed in the first place. But why is it so unappealing to so many?

    • Avatar
      TravisA  April 4, 2018

      I think the idea is “unappealing” to many Evangelicals because of various levels of fundamentalism. Ideas not “found” in the Biblical texts, which are not traced back to the Early Fathers, are discounted. Ironic, considering Sola Scriptura and the Triune, Ontological, nature of God are also absent.

      • Avatar
        The Agnostic Christian  April 8, 2018

        Purgatory isn’t found, but an intermediate place of the dead is. Protestants claim Sola Scriptura, but they don’t even practice or believe what’s actually there in many cases.

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    The Agnostic Christian  April 4, 2018

    Will you be addressing the story of Lazarus and the rich man in a later post in regards to the idea of purgatory? I think in regards to the Early Church that’s probably the most important one for it’s development. Also 1 Peter 3:15-19 touches on this idea of some kind of intermediate state. There is a very scholarly work by Bo Reicke which I have, entitled “The Disobedient Spirits and Christian Baptism: A Study of 1 Peter 3:19 and Its Context”. I found it hard going since it refers so much to the original langauges, which I can’t read. But I’m sure you would probably derive much from it.

  4. Lev
    Lev  April 7, 2018

    So Bart, the question I think everyone wants to ask is, if purgatory turns out to be real, how long do you think you’d have to stay there for? 😀

    More seriously though, did any early Christians devise a list of sins and corresponding punishments? Was there a medieval menu of wickedness with the price you pay listed against each one?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2018

      I’m hoping for five seconds.

      IN some apocalpyses certain sins are given specific punishments.

      • Avatar
        Sixtus  April 21, 2018

        I think I would be cool if in your new book you could compile a list of sins and punishments or purgatorial layover durations (with sources cited of course). All these could be put in tables or an appendix.

  5. cheito
    cheito  April 8, 2018

    DR Ehrman:

    Your Comment:

    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 seems the least relevant of the four, but it’s the one that appears to have been cited most frequently, from what I can tell, by later supporters of the reality of Purgatory. It comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (found in Matthew 5-7).

    My Comment:

    DR Ehrman, as you have stated: You’re a scholar of the the “life and teachings of Jesus, the New Testament, and the history of Christianity.

    I think, DR Ehrman, that you know very well, that the author of Matthew fabricated his own Jesus. Therefore, I don’t understand why you persist on asserting on quoting the author of Matthew. With all do respect DR Ehrman, I think you’re incorrect, when you assert and quote the author of Matthew, as though the author of ‘Matthew’ has chronicled for posterity what Jesus in fact believed and taught.

    I believe that ‘Matthew’s’ version of the sermon on the mount could’ve, and most likely was, invented by the author of Matthew, just as the author of ‘Matthew’ made-up the narrative of the nativity. Yes we know Jesus was born, but, was Jesus born under the circumstances that the the author of Matthew records for us? The author of Matthew clearly puts words in Jesus’ mouth?

    Who was the author of Matthew? Do we know who this person was?

    Whoever He was — he was not an eyewitness of the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus. Whoever he was — the author of Matthew is not a historically reliable source of what Jesus in fact taught and did. The author of ‘Matthew’ lies, invents stories and uses fables and legends. The author of ‘Matthew’ misinterprets OT passages, such as Isaiah 7:14 and Jeremiah 31:15. (look at Matthew (1:21-23) (Matthew 2:18)

    Some other stories in Matthew are also contradicted by Luke, such as the story of the two criminals crucified next to Jesus, on either side of Jesus.

    We can NOT KNOW what Jesus really said, or if Jesus said anything at all to the the criminals crucified on that day with him.

    WE CAN ONLY KNOW FOR SURE THAT JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED and that two criminal also were crucified with him.

    We CAN NOT KNOW if both criminals insulted Jesus as Matthew says, or if one criminal insulted Jesus and the other criminal defended Jesus, as Luke says.

    Of course, as you well know, DR Ehrman, the work of the author of Matthew, and also the work of every other author in the NT has been redacted by the scribes and copyists, who throughout the centuries, when copying a new scroll, changed and/or added words, sentences, and other stories not found in certain earlier copies of the NT manuscripts we currently have.

    I, personally think, that what WE CAN KNOW what Paul thought about what would happen to Him when He died. Paul, to me, is a more trustworthy person than the author of Matthew. Paul’s ideas about what would happen to him when he died and to believers in general when we die, are authoritative and can be trusted to be what Jesus Himself taught Paul.

    I personally believe Paul is telling the truth when he testifies that Jesus literally appeared to him and spoke to him, and told him exactly what to teach the churches.

    I personally believe that the reason why Paul was so sure about what would happen to him when his time came to ‘depart’ and be with Christ, as he states it in Philippians, is because Paul did in fact, literally, see the resurrected Jesus, and Jesus answered Paul’s questions on the matter of what would happen to Paul on the day of his death.

    To understand the mind of Paul concerning what would happen to Paul on the day of his death, we must consider that Paul claimed to have seen Jesus, just as Peter, John, James and many others claimed to have seen Jesus alive after His death by crucifixion.

    We must also consider that Paul personally met Peter, John and James, who themselves also claimed to have seen Jesus alive after his death by crucifixion, and who also themselves claimed that Jesus had literally risen from the dead.

    Was Paul lying to Peter, John and James, and were they Lying to Paul about seeing Jesus alive?

    When quoting Paul, or any other book in the bible, we need to do our homework. We should have a knowledge of the controversies concerning the book, or the particular passage we are quoting from, to make certain we are not quoting a disputed passage or a passage that is not in the oldest NT manuscripts.

    Anyone can speculate about what happens to a person when and after they die. I don’t think Paul was speculating about what would happen to him on the day of his death, I think Jesus himself told Paul what to expect. As a believer that God raised Jesus from the dead with the body and the spirit, I accept what Paul has to say about what happens to faithful believers and to not-so-faithful believers.

    Paul also has very important insights, from the Lord Himself, about what happens to remorseless and impenitent unbelievers.

    I do believe that the writings of Paul are the words of Jesus, and are words from God’s own mind.

    I do not believe, nor do I consider the words of the author’s of the synoptic Gospels to be historically accurate, nor do I believe that their words should be considered Jesus’ words, nor God’ teaching.

    The knowledge I have of the afterlife and what will happen to me and to other people when they die, is both objective and subjective. I know many things by faith. By faith I know that God created my body and designed me. By faith I understand that God created our planet Earth and the entire universe. By faith I know that God is Love and that God will honor my faith and He will do the right thing for me on the day on my death. I can’t prove to you that God exists and that He is a loving God!

    However, it is also true, that you CAN NOT PROVE TO ME that God doesn’t exist and that the universe created itself.

    For now, I Live my life by Faith in Jesus and by trusting in God. I’m satisfied with the evidence God has provided me for His existence, and by faith, I choose to believe that God is LOVE and that God is a Good being, and in Jesus, God is a loving person.

    At the end of my life I will know for sure if I was correct or incorrect about God and the afterlife.



  6. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  April 10, 2018

    I’ve long found it odd that RC references to purgatory focus on how many years, centuries, millennia, etc. one might suffer or have knocked off with the right indulgences. Do they think the masses are too dumb to realize the perception of time varies according to it’s absolute limit: the interval between birth and now, as well as the inevitability of death?. Take an end out of the equation and “a day is as a thousand years” etc. Do you think the times in purgatory are intended as a metaphor for the severity of the punishment, rather than its duration?

  7. Avatar
    Jana  April 21, 2018

    How do you determine a statement made by Jesus is literal or metaphorical Dr. Ehrman? Are there rules? When I am reading my own mind vacillates between the two perspectives. I just don’t know, Dr. Ehrman, as I bounce back and forth. Personally, as a long time Buddhist and yoga student, the consequences of one’s thoughts including base emotions such as anger are a daily if not minute to minute awareness and subject to conversion (depending on mental strength). And from a strictly Buddhist/yoga view/ we or I wouldn’t agree that none of us can go through life without etc. etc. That perfected state being Self Realization. It’s a blessing to be able to read your writing, Dr. Ehrman. Thank you. I find reading your wisdom thrilling.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 22, 2018

      Yes, great question. My approach is to assume he means something literally unless there is some indication that he means it other wise (as when he says “There was a man who went out to sow seeds….”)

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