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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

9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 20, 2014 11:52 am

    I am Catholic but the fact is that there is no scriptural evidence of purgatory in either the old or new testament. Jesus never mentioned the word “purgatory” in his words and teachings. He mentioned heaven and hell only. In all of the documented cases of near death experiences, the person had either of vision of going to heaven or hell in their spiritual journey. Not one time has anyone ever reported of going to a middle ground called purgatory and coming back to talk about it. The Catholic church developed the doctrine of purgatory in the in the 11th century for those who were righteous but were not yet baptized in the faith and their own interpretation of scripture found in Maccabees and Corinthians. More and more modern Catholics are dismissing the doctrine of purgatory because of misinterpretation of scripture and for the fact that Christ’s death alone was a complete and total sacrifice of mankind’s sins for those who are righteous and who believe in the Lord.

    • August 21, 2014 1:17 pm

      Your argument against Purgatory makes me wonder if you actually even read the blog at all or if you simply posted a reply trying to argue your own Evangelical Protestant beliefs. I would encourage you, if you truly are Catholic, to study and research what your own Catholic Church says about the doctrine of Purgatory. You might also try reading this tract from Catholic Answers If one claims to be Catholic one cannot adhere only to those doctrines which one chooses to agree with. If you have an issue with doctrine I encourage you to study it from the source which proclaimed the doctrine: the Catholic Church. The magisterium (the Pope along with the Bishops – those who have authority) work from both Tradition and Scripture and their teachings are a consistent historical approach to the belief in Purgatory. A faithful Catholic may struggle to understand a teaching of the Church but they cannot be considered in good standing with the Church if they reject the proclaimed dogmatic teachings of the Church. (And I might add that if you’re taking Communion when you say “Amen” to receive it it is a statement that you are in full communion with the Church and identify with all She holds as true. – which is why, incidentally, people are calling for folks like Nancy Pelosi not to receive Communion because she doesn’t hold to the Church’s teachings about the sanctity of life.) Folks of this nature are often colloquially referred to as “Cafeteria Catholics” since they simply “pick and choose” what they want to believe and follow in the Church. I would certainly invite you to study the doctrine more from a Catholic source and speak with a priest if you’re struggling with this doctrine or any other Catholic doctrine. Especially, if you’re going to take Communion. If you have such a low opinion of Catholicism then perhaps you should ask yourself why you’re still identifying as Catholic. I would encourage you to study your faith, attend RCIA classes, and research Catholic doctrine from their own lips as to why the believe what they believe. God Bless.
      For further discussion or inquiries feel free to email me at:

      • August 21, 2014 1:49 pm

        Christine, I do not have a low opinion on the Catholic faith and never implied that I did. I was born and raised Catholic and attended a Protestant church for 7 years before I returned to the Catholic faith because of a feel of emptiness in my heart which was rekindled when I returned to the church. I do not believe in praying for the dead, and indulgences were created by corrupt bishops back in the days of re-building the Vatican to help fund the project because the church was running out of money. Look this up because this is a fact. There are thousands of documented cases of people who were revived after being clinically dead and told their stories. In 100% of the cases, they either report of going to heaven or hell. No-one ever reported of going to a place of limbo or purgatory waiting to get into heaven. It took the Catholic church 1200 years to come up with the doctrine of purgatory. Look that up too because that is a fact as well. Jesus never spoke of a “middle ground” and if it was so important that this place existed then Jesus most assuredly would have would have warned us about it 2,000 years ago just as he warned us of hell.

      • August 21, 2014 7:20 pm

        Not meaning to argue with you more Christine, but this purgatory you are mentioning when Christ descended into hell was known as Abraham’s Bosom. That was an intermediary state in the upper level of hell where the righteous were held prior to the death and resurrection of Christ. Once Christ died, he rescued the souls in Abraham’s bosom. They ascended into heaven and Abraham’s bosom ceased to exist because there was no longer a need for it. Christ was, once and for all, the atonement for all future sin.

        I was at my father’s bedside when he died 22 years ago. He was Catholic and a sinner just like the rest of us. He died of pancreatic cancer and was unable to speak. He had a dramatic change come over him when he died. His eyes became as big as saucers and his eye color was transformed to a bright sparkling blue. I have never seen eyes that blue in my entire life. What I believe my father saw was angels descending upon him as they lifted his soul up to heaven at that very moment and that his eyes and only his eyes could see it. The angels did not descend upon him to take him to a purgatorial state. I firmly believe that those who are righteous, faithful and believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, that the remaining sin present on a person’s soul at the time of death is purged at that very moment and that person’s soul ascends into heaven immediately. The heart may continue to pump and the person may be able to breathe for a very short time after death but the soul is already long gone. Your argument for purgatory seems weak because I saw a Catholic soul and a sinner’s soul rise to heaven right in front of my very eyes. It was God’s gift to me, comforting me by showing me that my father was now in heaven and in the presence of God.

  2. August 26, 2014 11:22 am

    I don’t wish to argue with you either, David. I think that while you may attend a Catholic Church because of what it provides which you cannot find in a Protestant church, your arguments for a lot of her doctrine are set quite against her and are very Protestant leaning. I have difficulty understanding the mindset of an individual who comes to Catholicism yet criticizes and categorizes her as having been corrupt, inventing doctrine, and who refuses to believe in her different teachings. Metaphorically speaking it reminds me of a man who gets married because it fills his heart, but criticizes his wife as being a liar, a cheat, and a storyteller. I have a difficult time understanding how someone can pick and choose what they want out of a faith or better still why they would “put up with” all these things they don’t believe in just to get what they want out of it. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m glad you’re in the Church and I pray very much that you continue to grow in what she has to offer. I pray you study what she teaches and grow in that faith because I believe it to be the right path, I just think your mind is set against it and is very Protestant minded except in what it can benefit you, then it’s Catholic. I never said, nor does the Church teach that Purgatory is necessarily a third place or level of existence. Purgatory may well be an instantaneous cleansing of the soul before they cross the threshold of Heaven. I don’t know, but from everything I’ve read from the Church and from early Christian and Jewish beliefs they teach it as a state some souls cross through before Heaven. One either supports and believes the anti-Catholic teachings which state everything you’ve mentioned or they believe something benign but disbelieving about what the Church teaches or they believe it. As a faithful Catholic taking the Eucharist means you are in communion with the Church and her teachings and if I were going to call myself anything but I would have serious reservations about identifying with a practice whose ideas I found to be less than reputable.

    • August 26, 2014 11:45 am

      Christine, I have great news. I took your previous comments to heart and prayed that the Lord would direct me to a definitive source of truth. I found a Catholic apologist on YouTube by the name of Karlo Broussard. He has a Master’s of Catholic theology and a series of lectures to help Catholics better understand those doctrines which are shrouded in mystery and difficult to understand. He explains the doctrine of purgatory (and other doctrines) in a clear and precise manner and digs deep into biblical scripture to help explain it’s existence. He explains it so clearly and in so much biblical detail that it is difficult to refute it’s existence. After watching his videos, I am now a believer and will be sharing the video with my wife over the weekend. Thank you for opening my eyes and I thank the Lord in leading me to a definitive source of truth 🙂 I was lost, but now I am found!

      • September 2, 2014 11:35 am

        A prayer which one prays asking to be lead to the truth takes a lot of guts to pray and I think that those who pray it display a bravery of heart since, if it is prayed in earnest, has the potential to redefine the very core beliefs we hold to as people. I have heard of Karlo Broussard but don’t think I’ve heard him speak. I am grateful for apologists who can speak from the Bible since many non-Catholics regard that as a singular source of Authority. I invite you to listen to some of Tim Staples talks too as he is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to his Bible and the verses he uses to help explain Catholic doctrine. I have prayed for you and I will continue to pray that God will always draw you closer to Him and closer to the Church as I think the richness and joy you can gain from it cannot be duplicated anywhere else. Thank you for your follow-up reply. God Bless!

      • September 2, 2014 12:57 pm

        Thank you Christine. Mr. Staples is a very good speaker and it’s always refreshing to hear when Protestants are converted to Catholicism. Tim’s debates with the Protestants are interesting and informative. Karlo preaches with a bit more fire and one of his lectures is about the order of the mass and how it correlates directly with St. John’s revelation of heaven. It’s fascinating. It helped me to appreciate what goes on in the mass and to understand why things happen as they do during the course of the mass. Both speakers are very good. You can check out his lecture series on YT and I am sure you will agree that Karlo is one of the best. Please let me know what you think. Also his website is the God Bless – David


  1. Catholic “Inventions”: Purgatory's Roots « Catholic Expression | Nail It To The Cross

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