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The Birth of Purgatory

I am interested in the question of where the idea of purgatory came from.   Roughly speaking purgatory is a kind of third place, between heaven and hell.   The abject sinners (or those who reject Christ, or whoever you think is destined for punishment) go to hell; the righteous saints go to heaven.  But what about those who will ultimately be saved but who have not lived a good (enough) life?  They go to purgatory.   This has been the standard teaching of the Catholic church since the 12th or 13th century.

The classic study of the phenomenon is Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory  (1984; an English translation of the 1981 French original).   Le Goff was a medieval historian who was interested in the question from a purely historical, rather than theological, perspective (he was not a believer himself).   He shows that the term purgatorium was minted only in the 12th century.   It referred not to a state of being in the afterlife but to an actual place that people went – most people – in order to be “purged” of their sins before being allowed into paradise.

This doctrine came to be …

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The First Intimation of Purgatory?
The Martyr Perpetua and Her Estranged Family



  1. Avatar
    Adam0685  March 29, 2018

    I accidentally pressed the fourth star when rating the post on my phone, now it won’t let me change it to 5. 🙁

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2018

      Yeah, students do that all the time on my course evaluations. 🙂

  2. Avatar
    RVBlake  March 29, 2018

    Since the Kingdom of God is supposed to be an earthly institution, am I correct in assuming that all the Church’s talk of Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory is mistaken? Since you state that Jesus never preached on the matter? This is fascinating in light of the fact that the Church has developed such a complex area of theology around the Afterlife.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2018

      You’d have to ask a theologian about what *really* happens with respect to heaven, hell, and purgatory! As an atheist, I don’t believe in any of the three.

      • Avatar
        RVBlake  March 29, 2018

        I’m aware of your position, but what I’m asking is, does the Kingdom of Heaven as described by Jesus contradict the Church’s preaching about Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell? I may be off, but I see a contradiction.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 30, 2018

          Yes, my view is that Jesus did not believe or preach about what Christians today call heaven, hell, or purgatory.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 30, 2018

      “Mistaken” is not an appropriate term for these ideas. They are different views, and at most one of them could turn out to be correct. But that’s untestable here on earth.

      The kingdom of God / kingdom of heaven is a different, unrelated idea. The phrase had a specific, well-understood meaning in Second Temple Judaism. Rome didn’t follow Jewish practices. Most Jews were content with that, just as they were content living in Babylonian Diaspora. But some weren’t content. If we weren’t ruled by Rome (but could instead rule ourselves), then we could rule ourselves according to Torah. The kingdom of God meant that.

      The Platonic idea of eternal forms (including an eternal soul) were incorporated later into Christianity, when it became obvious that the apocalypse didn’t happen on earth within a couple of generations, as they expected. They were incorporated into Judaism by Philo of Alexandria (ca 20 BCE – 50 CE).

  3. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 29, 2018

    Fascinating! But I think most Catholics today – while they may theoretically “believe in” hell, purgatory, and limbo – only *think about* heaven, where they expect new arrivals to be reunited with loved ones who are already there.

    I’ve begun thinking it’s really puzzling that non-Catholic Christians, avid readers of the Bible, respond to it in the way your younger self did. I see Catholics believing what they’ve been taught all their lives, usually in religious schools, precisely because they *don’t* read the Bible and realize how unbelievable Christianity is.

    • Avatar
      RVBlake  March 29, 2018

      Traditionalist Catholics will be happy to inform you exactly what your options are after death. Over on one of their websites the other day, commenters were discussing the hideous death of a brave French Gendarme who voluntarily took the place of a hostage of a Muslim terrorist. The focus of many of the commenters was the officer’s civil marriage, not yet sacramental, thus in their eyes living in sin, and the fact that he was a Freemason.

    • Avatar
      ardeare  March 29, 2018

      Wilusa, as I’ve said to many an atheist, prove to me through scientific, biological, historical, archeological, etc. means that you love your children, parents, or spouse. When something indelibly changes your life, you have a rational reason for believing, not denying, what is true. The implausible becomes mas plausible and the irrational becomes more than an evolutionary tract to survive or ensure the survival of those closest to you. I am still waiting for my first plausible explanation as to how an atheist can prove they love their family when held against the same criteria we use to judge the rationality of how Christians can believe in God.

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 29, 2018

      My own religious upbringing didn’t go heavy on the afterlife. Purgatory was explained to me–once–but not very well. I was never told to pray for the souls in Purgatory. Nobody got very specific about the afterlife. It was more important what you did in this life. Let the next one take care of itself.

      As I learned about history in school, obviously I found out about the sale of indulgences, that bothered Martin Luther–not because he was bothered by the corruption, nearly so much as that he found it unsatisfying. Luther was haunted by a very deep fear of eternal damnation. He needed to reshape his religion to reassure him he was saved and not damned. The notion of a temporary hell you could get prayed or purchased out of–did not work for him. He was not a man for compromises. No middle ground in him. You pass or you fail. No grading on a curve.

      However, since the middle class then, such as it was, often went in big for Protestantism, and the peasants tended to stay Catholic, I think Le Goff’s explanation of Purgatory doesn’t track.

      Purgatory makes sense to me. Not as something I literally believe in. Just that how could anyone commit so many sins in a short lifetime as to merit eternal damnation or salvation? You do a stretch to think about what you did, then you go back and try again. When you get it right, you go to heaven.

      So something in-between Catholicism and Buddhism would apparently be my position.

      But sometimes I do find myself wondering if (to paraphrase some Belfast graffiti) there’s life before death.

  4. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 29, 2018

    Great post! I was considering adding Jacques Le Goff’s book to my “books to buy” list. Appears I won’t have to. Thanks again Bart.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  March 29, 2018

    The term “Hades” is used in the NT, but it seems a temporary place rather than permanent (e.g., in Revelation Hades is then tossed into the lake of fire). Do you think in the NT the term Hades relates to purgatory, hell, or something else?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2018

      I’ll be getting to that! (Short story: it’s not used much, but seems to mean different things in different contexts. Sheol. Place of punishment).

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2018

      I like this pope. I don’t agree with some (lots?) of his stands on social issues, but he has a good heart and is such a breath of fresh air from the Vatican.

      • Avatar
        hoshor  March 30, 2018

        I totally agree!

      • Avatar
        bradseggie  March 30, 2018

        Which is better: Catholics (and, more generally, Christians) who have integrity by “keeping the faith” (eg, Hell, anti-gay), or those who selectively and hypocritically twist their religions to fit their personal preferences?

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  March 30, 2018

      Ah, but what he said was that the souls of “bad” people would simply be annihilated, rather than being subject to eternal torture. And even that was expressed as his opinion, not pronounced in a form that believing Catholics would accept as “infallible.”

      I remember having read, years ago, that some Catholic theologian had said the only souls who go to Hell are those who have, in a sense, freely chosen it by rejecting God. (I don’t recall the exact wording, but that was the point.) They don’t “suffer” at all, don’t think they’re missing anything! But the souls in Heaven, in the presence of God, experience a bliss the others couldn’t imagine.

  6. Avatar
    jrhislb  March 29, 2018

    From your description, the connection of purgatory with the rise of the middle class seems a little fanciful. Surely people were aware of the general idea of intermediate states even if they only knew of two economic classes? And even without a middle class as such, there were differences of wealth and status.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2018

      I’m not going to defend the view! But if you’re interested in seeing the evidence, read Le Goff.

  7. Avatar
    Apocryphile  March 29, 2018

    One could argue that our earthly existence is itself a form of purgatory, in that a great deal of it involves suffering in greater and lesser degrees. Though most people of a rationalistic bent in the modern world (including many who would identify with a particular religion) probably view suffering more as an epiphenomenon – something that is simply a result of living a material existence in a universe ruled by laws of cause and effect, I tend to the notion that if there is any meaning to it all – at all – the term purgatory is probably the closest we can get to a word to describe our situation. I’m a scientist, but also a Platonist like others such as Sir Roger Penrose and Max Tegmark, who believe there is a much larger reality ‘out there’, and that we experience but a small (perhaps imperfect) slice of it. Like Mulder on the X-Files, I ‘want to believe’ there is a much grander purpose to it all.

  8. Avatar
    Hormiga  March 29, 2018

    Checking out what late Second Temple Judaism in its various forms had to say about the afterlife and its possible gradations might be worthwhile. That’s where Christianity came from and I suspect that the influences lasted a long time, even well into the early Christian centuries..

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2018

      Yup, it’s where I”ve devoted a big chunk of my research — reading what every second-temple Jewish text says about the afterlife!

  9. talmoore
    talmoore  March 29, 2018

    So that means when Dante started writing The Divine Comedy at the beginning of the 14th century, the Church itself had only formally institutionalized Purgatory itself within his lifetime? (If we assume he started composing it in 1308, and he was born ca. 1265). So that means Dante was able to fully realize Purgatory with equal detail to Heaven and Hell less than 40 years after the Church officially recognized its existence.


    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2018

      Of course the idea had been around a long time, and it was widely accepted before being formalized into a doctrine of the church, the word itself being used already in the 12th c.

  10. Avatar
    Todd  March 29, 2018

    In your book are you going to address the term Jesus uses for hell (Ghenna) that, as I understand it, refers to a burning garbage dump outside the walls of Jerusalem ( using once the Greek Idea of hades).

    I realize that these were not words spoken in the language of Jesus, but were those used by the gospel writers in Greek. None the less, In my reading of the NT, I do not see where Jesus teaches a literal physical heaven or hell but, rather, the Kingdom of God and the ressurection of the dead.

    Any thoughts on that?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2018

      Yup, that’s pretty much my view too!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 30, 2018

      Just in case there’s any confusion, Gehenna comes from the Hebrew Gei-Hinnom (from Gei Ben-Hinnom, “Valley of the Son of Hinnom”), which is the name of the ravine just south of Jerusalem, where it seems rubbish was incinerated (why? probably because during the rainy season the ashes would be washed down into the Kidron wadi and out into the Judean desert).

      But Gei-Hinnom was also the place where, purportedly, sacrifices were made to the Canaanite god Malkam — particularly child sacrifices, as refered to in 2 Kings 23:10 and Jer. 32:35 (cf. Lev.18:21; 20:2-5). The tradition by that time of Jesus appears to have been that, while the righteous before God were rewarded eternal life in the New Kingdom, the wicked before God were instead sent to eternal conflagration in Gehenna — either the literal valley or a different place that Gehenna symbolized.

  11. Avatar
    Tempo1936  March 29, 2018

    Heaven, hell and purgatory is all about controlling and manipulating Individuals using church doctrine for the benefit of church leaders.

  12. Avatar
    mikezamjara  March 30, 2018

    One day I was thinking about christianity and the fights between protestants and catholics. Many teachings of Catholic church like purgatory, the cult for virgin mary, child baptism and ritual eucharisty seemingly had their origins before a formal canon of scriptures was stablished. And the canon was produced by the people that few years after would become the catholic church. son my question is : why do you think the pre-catholic autorities chose books that do not support their views instead of other books that would do? If they had chosen”catholic like” books then chistianity would not be divided by doctrinal problems today (only political probably). But maybe I am just a crazy guy.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2018

      I would say that these ideas are later formulations; most of the Christians by the end of the fourth century has a relatively consistent view of which books would be considered scripture, even if there were a lot of outliers, and among their criteria for inclusion were antiquity and connectoin with an apostle.

  13. Avatar
    Wainwrightr  March 30, 2018

    Sorry not on topic. I’m in the Uk and wondering when the new book will be available on audible? Appears to be available in the US but not here.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2018

      Not sure: it’s definitely on audible here, and available hard copy in UK. I just assumed audible was available there as well.

      • Avatar
        Wainwrightr  April 2, 2018

        Ah. I can’t understand it either. Three kids under 4 makes reading text off a page very hard. Hence the preference for audiobooks.

  14. Robert
    Robert  March 30, 2018

    “I’m interested, instead, on whether there were forerunners of the idea of purgatory in the early centuries of Christianity.”

    Why not also consider the seeds of ‘parallel’ development in Jewish rabbinic circles? For example, the school of Shammai tradition I cited a couple of days ago:

    “The House of Shammai say, “[There will be] three groups on the Day of Judgment [when the dead will rise]: one comprised of the thoroughly righteous, one comprised of the thoroughly wicked, and one of middling [people].

    “The thoroughly righteous immediately are inscribed and sealed for eternal life.

    “The thoroughly wicked immediately are inscribed and sealed for Gehenna, “as it is written [Dan. 12: 2]: ‘And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to eternal life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.’

    “Middling [people] go down to Gehenna, scream [in prayer], and rise [again], “as it is written [Zec. 13:9]: ‘And I will put this third into the fire and refine them as one refines silver and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will answer them.’”

    (Bavli Rosh HaShannah 16b-17a, Jacob Neusner’s translation)

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2018

      Yup, very interesting. Not sure when Neusner dates the tradition. (He does not think that traditions ascribed to Shammai necessarily go back to him)

      • Robert
        Robert  March 30, 2018

        “Not sure when Neusner dates the tradition. (He does not think that traditions ascribed to Shammai necessarily go back to him)”

        Of course the dating of rabbinic texts and earlier traditions is notoriously difficult, but I am very impressed with the work of scholars who have started exposing progressively more interaction and dialogue between Jewish and early Christian sphere’s of thought than has been previously recognized. As for Neusner’s view, you might start with his own chapter on Judaism in the anthology he also edited, Death and the Afterlife, Pilgrim Press, 2000.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 1, 2018

          Yes, I’ve read that book very carefully!

          • Robert
            Robert  April 1, 2018

            “Yes, I’ve read that book very carefully! … Yup, read that one too.”
            So when does Neusner date the purgatory tradition of the school of Shammai?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 2, 2018

            I don’t remember. If you know, I’d be interested. I’ve asked a rabbinic scholar who tells me that the tradition is late.

          • Robert
            Robert  April 2, 2018

            “I don’t remember. If you know, I’d be interested.”

            I’ll look it up next time I get to the theology library. Don’t hold your breath.

      • Robert
        Robert  March 30, 2018

        “As for Neusner’s view, you might start with his own chapter on Judaism in the anthology he also edited, Death and the Afterlife, Pilgrim Press, 2000.”

        For more in depth reading on Neusner’s view of these rabbinic traditions, see his “Death and Afterlife in the Later Rabbinic Sources: The Two Talmuds and Associated Midrash-Compilations,” pp 267–291, in Alan Avery-Peck and Jacob Neusner (eds), Judaism in Late Antiquity 4. Death, Life-After-Death, Resurrection and The World-to-Come in the Judaisms of Antiquity, Series: Handbook of Oriental Studies. Section 1 The Near and Middle East, Volume: 49, Brill, 2000. https://brill.com/abstract/book/edcoll/9789004294141/B9789004294141-s013.xml

        Other chapters in this book also look quite interesting for scholarly treatments of the various Jewish traditions.

      • Robert
        Robert  April 3, 2018

        Haven’t had a chance to look up Neusner’s dating of these traditions, but I did note that in this context the Bavli also attributes something very much like the position of Jesus on forgiveness on those who forgive others. The rabbis are mostly interested in trying to understand how to understand God’s mercy on the middling group. There is extended discussion of how to understand who is meant by the middling people and how Hillel’s God is merciful to them. As an afterthought, one 4th c rabbi (Rava) understands Hillel similarly to Jesus:

        “Rava understood this verse differently and said: With regard to whoever forgoes his reckonings with others for injustices done to him, the heavenly court in turn forgoes punishment for all his sins, as it is stated: “He bears sin and forgives transgression” (Micah 7:18). Whose sins does He bear? The sins of one who forgoes his reckonings with others for injustices committed against him.”


    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 30, 2018

      I think those are mostly talking about a resurrection (to mortal life on earth), not to a disembodied afterlife.

      • Robert
        Robert  April 1, 2018

        Of course. I”m talking about a rabbinc tradition about purgatory, not about disembodied afterlife. You might find something like that in Philo of Alexandria, but not typically in the early rabbinic traditions.

  15. Avatar
    Morphinius  March 30, 2018

    Professor Ehrman, I understood purgatory to be more than a place of punishment. It is a means of purification. Imagine a pristine glacial lake made the purest water. Above this lake is a cesspool. One day someone decides to remove the cesspool so they build a channel from it to the lake. Will the lake not become defiled? Look around you the next time you are in a church or with a group of Christians and ask yourself, “Do the souls around me, however forgiven, possess the holiness of the angels in heaven?” What will happen to heaven the moment they are let in? Will heaven itself not become contaminated? Or, in the resurrection, does God gut human free-will and make them automatons? If God can do this after their death then why did he not do so before he made Adam and Eve and save millions of souls?

  16. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 30, 2018

    With regard to purgatory,”The Catholic Catechism” refers to First Corinthians 3:15 and First Peter 1:7. How they get to the doctrine of purgatory (cleansing fire) from these two verses is a mystery to me. The Catholic catechism also refers to the 1439 Council of Florence and the 1563 Council of Trent. Humans I am afraid have a huge capacity to just plain make up stuff and then have others fervently believe this made up stuff.

  17. Avatar
    steelerpat  March 31, 2018

    Lords prayer “our father who art in Heaven.” Where was he referring to?

  18. Avatar
    AlbertHodges  March 31, 2018

    Christians have always believed in a state of purgation after death.

    If people die, there is judgment. If they are going to heaven, prayers for them are not needed.
    If they are going to help, prayers for them accomplish nothing.

    From the first centuries, there are writings, inscriptions, etc. offering or asking for prayers for the dead.

    James in his Letter in the NT, talks about “sin that is not deadly” what we call venial sins.

    Our walk with the Lord is like being invited to a wedding feast. Some receive the invitation but say no.

    Some prepare for the wedding and buy gifts, put on their best clothing and upon entry, are seated right away.

    Others prepare little or experience hardships along the travels there. Upon entry, before taking their place, they retire to the bathroom to clean the food off their shoes, to comb their hair, to re-apply their make up. They never doubt they will be seated; however, they do not want to be seated until they are cleaned up.

    Such is purgatory…a place we clean up before we take our place among the saints.

    • Avatar
      godspell  April 1, 2018

      Well, if there was a Purgatory, the souls there might take comfort in a few prayers. Like prisoners awaiting parole like getting letters from home.

      The only way to know is to go.

      And nobody seems in much hurry. Except suicides. Who perversely are told they’re going to be punished for being so eager to quit this mortal coil. Tim Burton said they’d have to be civil servants, which seems unduly harsh.

      Consider me skeptical there is anything all Christians have always believed. Up to and including the divinity of Jesus.

  19. Avatar
    Duke12  April 2, 2018

    Purgatory never became a doctrine in the Eastern Orthodox Church (or other non-Roman Catholic churches such as the Coptic Church). Rejection of purgatory was one of the reasons Mark, the Archbishop of Ephesus, would not agree to union with the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Florence in the 1430s.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2018

      Yes, generally, for reasons I haven’t figure out yet, it was always a popular doctrine in the western church but never the eastern (our earliest hints of it are all Latin authors, not Greek)

      • Avatar
        Duke12  April 4, 2018

        Sadly, I’m no scholar on this. There is a podcast called “Paradise and Utopia” on Ancient Faith Radio where a Father John Strickland (college professor, can’t verify his credentials beyond that) ascribes some of the “problem” in the west to what he calls “anthropological pessimism” (I don’t believe the term originates with him). Its a _very_ long series, but he does have an episode on the early history of Purgatory (titled: “A new Christendom 1,” dated July 20, 2014). He sometimes quotes from primary and scholarly sources, so you might find some additional material to research.

        • Avatar
          Duke12  April 4, 2018

          Shorter and even less scholarly answer: Orthodox Christians tend to “blame” western Christian anthropological pessimism in both the Catholic and Protestant churches on the West’s tendency to use the Latin-writing St. Augustine as their sole Church father source. There was enough variety among the Greek Church fathers for problematic theological matters to cancel each other out in the East.

          • Avatar
            The Agnostic Christian  April 8, 2018

            No. That’s not completely true. There is a tradition of a kind of purgatory in the East. Father Seraphim Rose taught it, and showed historical passages from previous authors to support it. Though some (many?) accuse him of heresy because of it.

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