I was recently asked about “purgatory, a concept misunderstood by most people I’ve ever met, including nearly every Protestant (!) but also some lifelong Catholics. I had done a series of posts on the issue years ago, while I was doing research for my book on Heaven and Hell. I had just read an interesting book that dealt with the “Rise and Function” of the idea of “Purgatory” by Adreas Merkt, Das Fegefeuer: Entstehung und Funktion einer Idee. Purgatory itself did not become as solid idea until the 12th and 13th centuries, but there were antecedents to it in much earlier times, including in one of the most intriguing accounts of a Christian martyrdom from the early 3rd century.
That is how I started my thread:
Purgatory never made it big in Protestant Christian circles. But it is an age-old doctrine, the idea that a person needs to suffer for their sins before allowing into heaven for a blessed eternity. It is kind of a temporary hell. No one can get off scot-free. But the saved will be saved. First, though, for most people, there will be suffering.
To make sense of the origin of the idea, I have to talk about the dreams of the woman martyr Perpetua, who was executed for her faith in 203 CE in Carthage, North Africa. And to do that, I need to give you some information on the surviving account of her last days and martyrdom, a book called the Passion of Perpetua.
This a flat-out fascinating book, for all sorts of reasons. The issue of purgatory is very much a secondary issue for the book. Less than that. It’s a tertiary issue. But since it’s what I want to talk about, I have to say a few things about the book first.
Here I give the Introduction to the text found in my book After the New Testament, and the first few chapters of the book in a modern translation (the book is written in Latin), just to give you a taste of what it is like. (This opening section does not involve purgatory – the part I’ll be dealing with next does.)
An account filled with gripping pathos, “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas” records the arrest, imprisonment, trials, and execution of a young Roman matron, Perpetua, and her female slave, Felicitas. Remarkably, the first part of the account claims to be based on Perpetua’s own diary, kept while she was in prison and edited by the anonymous author who provided the concluding story of the martyrdom itself. The action takes place in