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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
    The Agnostic Christian  April 4, 2018

    I got a lot of my understanding of the early Church from David Bercot. Are you familiar with him?

    It seems the early Church believed in an intermediate state of the dead. That Christians did not go straight to heaven, but went to Abraham’s bosom. Even when Christ told the thief that today he would be with him in paradise it was understood that he was not referring to heaven, because Christ didn’t ascend at that time, but went to preach to the spirits in prison. He only went to heaven in Acts. At least that’s my understanding of things in the early Church.


    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2018

      No, I’m not familiar with him. On these passages in Luke, one question is whether they actually go back to the historical Jesus or not. I think not, for reasons I’ll be explaining on the blog.

  2. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  April 5, 2018

    I recall a religion professor at North Greenville College who believed the souls if the dead go into a state of dormancy until the general resurrection, since the modern view if heaven and hell are not in the NT. The only exceptions I can think of are in Luke/Acts: Lazarus and the rich man – and Abraham (a parable to all but the most obstinate Fundamentalists); the repentant thief on the cross; and Stephen (Lord Jesus, receive my spirit). Did Luke have some notion that persons who had suffered extraordinarily for their faith or had come to faith in the midst of suffering would be exalted with Christ without awaiting the resurrection of the dead?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2018

      Yup. Note what he says to the repentant thief, as you point out.

  3. Avatar
    11thStory  April 9, 2018

    Could purgatory originate from the idea that God is a consuming fire that both purifies and destroys? A baptism or trial by fire?

    1st Corinthians 3:13-15 Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.

    Matthew 3:11-12 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that comes after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire:
    Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.

    Fire seems to be referenced with the presence of God, not absence.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2018

      Interesting idea. The fires of hell, though, seem to be on the other side…

  4. Avatar
    Bamayorgo  November 27, 2018

    Reading past posts again.
    As a Catholic, I think the best idea of purgatory in the Bible is 1 Corinthians 3:11-15. It seems the perfect parallel to our idea of purgatory. Whether St. Paul thought he was promulgating a “place between heaven and hell”, I’d say that’s somewhat unlikely but maybe. But still, I think it’s the best Biblical defense of purgatory we have!

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