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Catholic “Inventions”: Purgatory’s Roots

August 23, 2011

Looking online for information about Purgatory will bring you no shortage whatsoever of apologetic information about this controversial subject.  In fact, there is no shortage of information about any of the ‘controversial’ subjects of Catholicism online.  I generally don’t want to add to the noise by reverberating all of the fantastic information out there regarding the subject of Purgatory, however, the need to help people understand it or get information on it that may not be otherwise found is important to me also.  After all, this blog is supposed to be a collection of the sources I’ve found myself which I want to put together in one place.  So I’ve decided on the topic of Purgatory today.

First, let me define what exactly Purgatory is for those who may be unsure exactly what the Church teaches.  Far from what even most Catholics may say it is along with an ancient popular idea, Purgatory is not necessarily a physical place.  The Roman Catholic Church does not teach that the state of Purgatory is an actual place.  That is not a part of its doctrine.  Purgatory is a state of being.  I will explain that in further detail later.  Purgatory is also not a way for those who are damned to Hell to get into Heaven.  Those who have damned themselves and for whom the eternity of Hell is their fate cannot get into Purgatory to get into Heaven.

The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. (CCC 1031)

What Purgatory is then can be a complicated concept to explain to those for whom sin and forgiveness are linear ideas.  For instance, the idea of the sin/forgiveness relationship between man and God, for Protestants, is singular and without variable.

Man sins —- God disapproves —- man feels the weight of sin —- asks God’s forgiveness —- God forgives.  The end.

Catholic’s view of sin takes a different approach.  In addition to the process on the sin/forgiveness line above, Catholics teach that even when God forgives, the effects of the sin still remain and must be addressed.  A great illustration of this is one of a son and a father.  The son comes to the father with guilt on his heart.  He tells his father, ‘I’ve done something wrong and I need to tell you about it.’  The father already knows what the son is going to say, but he listens anyway.  ‘Dad, I broke the neighbors window with a rock and I’m sorry.’  The father says to his son, ‘I love you.  Thank you for admitting that to me.  I forgive you for doing something wrong.  Now we need to decide what you’re going to do in order to make up for your wrongdoing.’  The son then does chores or works for the neighbor in order to pay off the cost of replacing the window.  Another illustration of this is when you do wrong in life on a secular level there remains temporal punishment for that like when you steal a car.  When you’re caught you spend time making reparation for that, you don’t get to keep the car.

This is how Purgatory works.  Any temporal effects of sin that remain when an individual dies must be cleansed from the soul before that soul is allowed to enter Heaven since the Bible tells us that nothing unclean will enter Heaven. (cf Rev. 21:27)  The argument many Protestants make is that Purgatory negates the saving power of Christ on the Cross and his all atoning sacrifice to remit sin.  Let me be perfectly clear here: Purgatory does NOT remove sin.  It removes the effects of sin.  There is a very clear distinction between being in a state of sin and needing forgiveness for sin and the remaining effects of sin on a life.  There is always a ‘ripple’ effect present that is created when an individual sins.  What Purgatory does is to remove the remaining effects of sin from the individual’s soul so that they may be purified and able to enter into Heaven.  Many quote the words of Paul in Corinthians to help clarify this process:

“The work of each will builder will come to light, for the day will disclose it.  It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each one’s work.  If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage.  But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss, the person will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)

This is why the Catechism states,

The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire (1 Cor. 3:15, 1 Pet. 17): As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire… From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come (Matthew 12:31). CCC 1031

Let’s then turn to a contemplation of Jesus death and descent “into hell” as recited by many Protestants in the Apostles Creed, or as St. Peter writes about it, “the souls in prison.” (1 Peter 3:18-19) to whom Jesus preached.  The old Bible translations commonly translated the Jewish term ‘Sheol’ into the Greek word ‘hades’ and then to the English word ‘hell’.  Hades isn’t the English concept of ‘Hell’ proper as it was understood by the Greeks, therefore Hades was simply an underworld.  A lower area or ‘holding area’ for souls.  All souls were just in a place described as a sort of ‘waiting area’.  When the English translators were writing out the Bible for the English speaking world, they used the word ‘hell’ to describe the Greek word ‘hades’ in the Septuagint.  A lower holding place of souls.

When Peter speaks of Jesus dying in the flesh and in spirit preaching to the “souls in prison” this is the correlating passage to what is recited in the Apostle’s Creed as “He descended into Hell” and referrers to the belief that Jesus preached to the souls in Purgatory and they were set free to enter into Heaven… or that the gates of Heaven were opened to them.

Unfortunately, many Protestants have been misinformed about the idea of where Purgatory came from.  So often they are told that Purgatory was an invention created in the Middle Ages as some sort of afterlife ‘safety net’ for those who die to ‘have one more chance’.  They think of it as a ‘third place’ of going when we die.

Most non-Catholics mistakenly believe that much of the doctrine of Catholicism was ‘created’ or ‘invented’ in the Middle Ages or Medieval times for one reason or another.  Most often things like the Papacy, Papal Infallibility, Indulgences or any number of so-called ‘divergent’ beliefs to Christian faith.  The truth is that all of these ideas were held from the beginning of Christianity and many times carried over from the Jewish faith.  Perhaps I’ll cover those some other time, but Purgatory is no different.

In order to give clarity to this statement we must look back in Biblical history to understand the Jewish ideas and traditions of praying for the dead.  The concept of Sheol is peppered all throughout the Old Testament, but the Jewish place of purgation is Gehennom (the English word Gehenna).  In the Jewish faith there is no “official theological doctrine” about what happens in the afterlife, therefore, there no properly developed overarching definition of a Heaven or a Hell.  However, there are Jewish teachings on a “heaven”-like place where the righteous go when they die.  There is also an ancient belief in a place of purgation which they call Gehennom.  It is a ‘holding place’ of souls to be cleansed of their wickedness. Because they believe most souls do go to Gehennom, they are prayed for.  The Mourner’s Prayer or the Kaddish is something Jews do even to this day and after twelve months here on earth the soul is released.  The book of Maccabees is popularly cited to show that the Jews of the Old Testament held this tradition to be a matter of faith.

And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection.  (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead), and because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them.  It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.  (2 Maccabees 2:43-46)

Maccabees is an historical book contained in the Greek Septuagint which was a part of the canonized Bible until the Protestant Reformation removed it from their Bibles.

In the early history of Christianity we have copious examples of this belief and the idea of praying for the souls of the dead.  (Again, another reason to study the history of the early Church and its beliefs and teachings instead of just taking the word of your faith.)

“The earliest Christians prayed for the dead, including Church Fathers such as Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine (between 200-500 A.D.)  Prayers for the dead were inscribed on the tombs of the early Christians buried in Catacombs.  There is no evidence in early Christian writings that there was a struggle with this belief, it was accepted and well known.  The only reason someone would pray for the dead is because the person they were praying for was not yet in Heaven.  And we know from Scripture that if someone is in hell there is nothing that our prayers can do for them.  Therefore, the earliest Christians believed in a place that was not Heaven and not hell.  Later we defined that place as Purgatory.” ¹ (emphasis mine)

The concept of praying for the dead who were in a ‘holding place’ is not a middle ages invention, it is an ancient Jewish belief that carried into the early church and was held throughout history until the Protestant Reformation dropped the idea from its concepts of belief.

Like many erroneous Protestant claims, the Middle Ages was not the time when doctrine was developed or invented, it was a time when the Church clarified its beliefs or defined what exactly something was or was not.  An important thing to know about the Catholic Church is that its teaching authority or Magisterium works on what is known as a ‘negative rule’ basis.  The Church cannot create new doctrine it can only define what doctrine is by clarifying established belief.  Until the Council of Vatican II the primary reason councils were convened was to address errors in the Christian community’s beliefs or to address errors other people were preaching about the Christian faith.  Councils have always defined what faith is not and clarified what the Church has always believed, but it cannot ‘create’ new doctrines.

It is also important to understand that within the Catholic Church there is the belief in what is called the “development of doctrine”.  The beliefs of faith have always existed in the church, however, through the passage of time and studious examination of Scripture, Christian history, and the writings of the Church Fathers, the truths of these elements help us understand Christianity more clearly than previous generations.

For instance, when you were little you read Mother Goose’s nursery rhymes.  The iambic pentameter would lull you into its comforting and inventive phraseology and you just had cute thoughts in your head of children holding hands and skipping in a circle as they sang, “Ring Around the Rosy” or of a boy and girl tumbling down a hill when you heard “Jack and Jill Went Up a Hill.”  Little did you realize at the time that “Ring Around the Rosy” was a song about the Bubonic Plague and Jack and Jill is actually a violent poem recounting the fall of King Louis XVI (lost his crown) and Marie Antoinette (who came tumbling after).  As you got older, studied more, and learned more, the poems opened themselves up to you and you came to understand that they were not just what you initially learned or even more, what you read just on the surface.  Plumbing the depths of the rhyme, reading history, and growing in knowledge helped you to define the rhymes with the deeper meanings infused within them.

Such as it is with the truths of the faith.  The concept of Purgatory has always existed within the Christian faith, yet the definition of the formal doctrine was made at the Second Council of Lyon (1274).  Definition of doctrine which has always been believed by the Church, as proven from the annals of Christian history, is much different that ‘invention of doctrine’.

Incredibly, although Protestants may not call it Purgatory some do have a concept of belief which would be defined as Purgatory.  I believe it was John Martignoni who really pointed this out to a lady who insisted on arguing with him via e-mail about the concept of Purgatory.  He pointed out to her that if she didn’t think she was perfectly holy on earth, which she admitted she wasn’t, and if she couldn’t enter into Heaven without being perfect, which she admitted she couldn’t, then there had to be some point between being on earth and going to Heaven which would constitute being purified into Holiness so that one could enter Heaven.  Even if it was ‘instantaneous’ (inasmuch as there is really no time in the afterlife) it would still be a purgation of the soul.  In fact, a recent Protestant publication even states (without specifying how), “God will indeed redeem us and cleanse us from all our sins and we will be readied for heaven…”

Sometimes, in validating their own practices, Protestants will  point out the doctrinal differences that lie between them and the Catholic Church, yet sometimes when validating those practices they mistakenly characterize Catholic practices.  Pointing out the differences is fine, although to do so with mistaken information vilifies, even if done so fortuitously, the Church and her practices. Purgatory is no exception and yet more Protestants will probably agree with the act of Purgatory without ever consciously agreeing with its formal characterization as such.

I would challenge every Protestant to study unfiltered Christian history, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and read Catholic apologetics websites before accepting the information they’re given about where doctrines of the Church came from.  I am thankful for all the members of the Body of Christ in or out of His Church.  We can disagree about theological concepts, I encourage discussion on all of it, however, I certainly encourage the facts to be present first.

_____________________________

1. David McDonald’s Apologetic site

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