Purgatory is a doctrine taught by the Catholic Church. We cover some of the biblical reasoning for this teaching, and consider the related Jewish practice of prayers for the dead (important because Jesus and most of the Apostles were practicing Jews), and finally we include some relevant quotes from the early Christian Church Fathers from the first couple of centuries AD.
First what is Purgatory? An Analogy
Purgatory is considered a place or state of purification for saved souls forgiven by Jesus of eternal punishment yet needing further expiation (for unsatisfied temporal punishment). The incomplete expiation of a repentant sinner is analogous to that of a child breaking a neighbour’s window and who then says sorry to the neighbour who forgives the child for breaking their window. although the child is forgiven, the window still needs repairing … sooner or later. The ‘repairing’ of this damage to the soul is done by the repentant sinner doing penance (ie doing prayer, and/or certain Christian acts of asceticsm such as fasting and/or charitable acts) ideally in this world but if the repair is incomplete when we expire, the saved soul will need purification in the next world to the full satisfaction of God – for nothing unholy can enter his Kingdom. All who enter Purgatory have died in a state of grace and are therefore saved and are assured a place in Heaven when God deems that their soul is entirely pure. The Catholic faithful alive on earth (church militant) are encouraged to pray for those in purgatory (church penitent) so that their souls may by God’s mercy be purified swiftly and enter heaven expediently (church triumphant).
(Today Catholics rather like the Jews of Jesus’ time (see Jewish prayers and the Jewish biblical book of Maccabees below) pray especially for their loved ones appealing to God’s tender mercy. One communal prayer typically said before Catholic Mass for the repose of a soul(s) is ‘Eternal rest grant upon [name] O Lord and let perpetual shine upon them, may [name] and the souls of all the faithfully departed through the mercy of God rest in peace amen’).
Biblical reasoning for Purgatory.
The first thing to say is the term ‘Purgatory’ is not in the bible but neither is the term ‘Holy Trinity’ or ‘Incarnation’ or ‘Pope’ these are terms adopted by the early Christian church as short hand to reference their respective theologies.
Christ in the New Testament refers to the sinner who “will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come” (Matt. 12:32), suggesting that one can be freed after death of the consequences of one’s sins. Similarly, Paul tells us that, when we are judged, each man’s work will be tried. And what happens if a righteous man’s work fails the test? “He will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15). Now this loss, this penalty, can’t refer to consignment to hell, since no one is saved there; and heaven can’t be meant, since there is no suffering (“fire”) there. The only explaination for this passage is the Catholic doctrine of purgatory.
Then, of course, there is the Bible’s approval (the catholic canon for the OT as determined in the 4th century church councils) of prayers for the dead: “In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the dead to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin” (2 Macc. 12:43–45).
What the Jews think about prayers for the dead
Prayers for the dead form part of the Jewish services. The prayers offered on behalf of the deceased consist of: Recitation of Psalms; Reciting a thrice daily communal prayer in Aramaic which is known as Kaddish. Kaddish actually means “Sanctification” (or “Prayer of Making Holy”) which is a prayer “In Praise of God”; or other special remembrances known as Yizkor; and also a Hazkara which is said either on the annual commemoration known as the Yahrzeit as well on Jewish holidays.
The form in use in England contains the following passage: “Have mercy upon him; pardon all his transgressions … Shelter his soul in the shadow of Thy wings. Make known to him the path of life.”
El Maleh Rachamim is the actual Jewish prayer for the dead, although less well known than the Mourner’s Kaddish. While the Kaddish does not mention death but rather affirms the steadfast faith of the mourners in God’s goodness, El Maleh Rachamim is a prayer for the rest of the departed. There are various translations for the original Hebrew which vary significantly. One version reads:
Furthermore The early church cannon of the Old Testament (still used today by the Catholic Church) includes the books of Maccabees 1 and 2, catholicsm believes these books were used by jesus and his fellow Jews of the time in the Jewish Bible the Septuagint, see above for more on Maccabees.
What the early Christians said about purgatory.
Acts of Paul and Thecla
And after the exhibition, Tryphaena again receives her. For her daughter Falconilla had died, and said to her in a dream: “Mother, thou shalt have this stranger Thecla in my place, in order that she may pray concerning me, and that I may be transferred to the place of the just” (A.D. 180).
Clement of Alexandria
The believer through discipline divests himself of his passions and passes to the mansion which is better than the former one, passes to the greatest torment, taking with him the characteristic of repentance for the faults he may have committed after baptism. He is tortured then still more, not yet attaining what he sees others have acquired. The greatest torments are assigned to the believer, for God’s righteousness is good, and His goodness righteous, and though these punishments cease in the course of the expiation and purification of each one, “yet” etc. (Stromata 6:14 [A.D. 202]).
If a man departs this life with lighter faults, he is condemned to fire which burns away the lighter materials, and prepares the soul for the kingdom of God, where nothing defiled may enter. For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones (I Cor., 3); but also wood and hay and stubble, what do you expect when the soul shall be separated from the body? Would you enter into heaven with your wood and hay and stubble and thus defile the kingdom of God; or on account of these hindrances would you remain without and receive no reward for your gold and silver and precious stones? Neither is this just. It remains then that you be committed to the fire which will burn the light materials; for our God to those who can comprehend heavenly things is called a cleansing fire. But this fire consumes not the creature, but what the creature has himself built, wood, and hay and stubble. It is manifest that the fire destroys the wood of our transgressions and then returns to us the reward of our great works. (Homilies on Jeremias 13: 445, 448 [A.D. 244]).
The citizen of a prominent city, I erected this while I lived, that I might have a resting place for my body. Abercius is my name, a disciple of the chaste shepherd who feeds his sheep on the mountains and in the fields, who has great eyes surveying everywhere, who taught me the faithful writings of life. Standing by, I, Abercius, ordered this to be inscribed; truly I was in my seventy-second year. May everyone who is in accord with this and who understands it pray for Abercius (Epitaph of Abercius [A.D. 190]).
The faithful widow prays for the soul of her husband, and begs for him in the interim repose, and participation in the first resurrection, and offers prayers on the anniversary of his death (Monogamy 10 [A.D. 213]).
Cyprian of Carthage
It is one thing to stand for pardon, another thing to attain to glory; it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire; another to have purged all sins by suffering. It is one thing, in fine, to be in suspense till the sentence of God at the Day of Judgment; another to be at once crowned by the Lord (Letters 51:20 [A.D. 253]).
Cyril of Jerusalem
Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition, next, we make mention also of the holy fathers and bishops who have already fallen asleep, and, to put it simply, of all among us who have already fallen asleep. For we believe that it will be of very great benefit to the souls of those for whom the petition is carried up, while this holy and most solemn sacrifice is laid out (Catechetical Lectures 23:5:9 [A.D. 350]).
We beseech you also on behalf of all the departed, of whom also this is the commemoration (after mentioning the names) Sanctify these souls, for You know them all; sanctify all who have fallen asleep in the Lord and count them all among the ranks of your saints and give them a place and abode in your kingdom (Anaphora 13:5 [A.D. 350]).
Basil the Great
I think that the noble athletes of God, who have wrestled all their lives with the invisible enemies, after they have escaped all of their persecutions and have come to the end of life, are examined by the prince of this world; and if they are found to have any wounds from their wrestling, any stains or effects of sin they are detained (Homilies on the Psalms 7:2 [ante A.D. 370]).
Epiphanius of Salamis
Furthermore, as to mentioning the names of the dead, how is there anything very useful in that? What is more timely or more excellent than that those who are still here should believe that the departed do live, and that they have not retreated into nothingness, but that they exist and are alive with the Master. And so that this most august proclamation might be told in full, how do they hope, who are praying for the brethren as if they were but sojourning in a foreign land? Useful too is the prayer fashioned on their behalf (Against all Heresies 75:8 [A.D. 374-377]).
Gregory of Nyssa
If a man … after his departure out of the body, gains knowledge of the difference between virtue and vice, and finds that he is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by the purifying fire (Sermon on the Dead [A.D. 383]).
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice [Job l:5), why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them (Homilies on First Corinthians 41:5 [A.D. 392]).
Ambrose of Milan
Give perfect rest to thy servant Theodosius, that rest which thou hast prepared for thy saints… I have loved him, and therefore will I follow him into the land of the living; nor will I leave him until by tears and prayers I shall lead him wither his merits summon him, unto the holy mountain of the Lord (Funeral Sermon of Theodosius 36-37 [A.D. 395]).
Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment (The City of God 21:13 [A.D. 419]).