A long time ago now I was pursuing a thread on the development of the Christian views of the afterlife but I got side tracked. And then I got side tracked from my side track. And then … well, it’s been a long time. The thread died. I need to bring it back to life. So I’m hoping now to begin on the afterlife of the thread on the afterlife.
Over all these months I have continued to read, think, and sketch my thoughts on where the Christian ideas of the afterlife came from – especially the view so common today that when a person dies, their soul goes to heaven for an eternal reward or hell for eternal punishment. That is not the view of the Old Testament and it is not what the historical Jesus preached. So where did it come from? That is the ultimate issue I will be pursuing in my book.
But there are other topics of interest as well, such as where did the idea of “purgatory” come from. And what about the old Christian teaching of the “Harrowing of Hell” (where Christ goes to the underworld to redeem the saints who died before his incarnation)? And what about the teachings of reincarnation in the early church? Or the universalist notion that everyone will ultimately be saved – even the devil? And, well, and lots of other things.
I’ve decided to plunge right in where I am right now in my reading. Just yesterday I finished reading a book on the “Rise and Function” of the idea of “Purgatory” by Adreas Merkt, Das Fegefeuer: Entstehung und Funktion einer Idee. And so I’ll start there.
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 scott-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 …
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