Purgatory in Historical Perspective

Isabel Moreira

Purgatory is a place, state, or stage in the Christian afterlife where, after death, the soul is purged of minor, unexpiated sin so that it can be fit for heaven. ‘Purgatory’ derives from the Latin purgare (to purge) and hence as the noun purgatorium it is a place of purgation and purification. Purgatory is also (and earliest) referenced in adjectival form as in, for example, ignis purgatoriis, purging fires. In modern scholarship, a distinction can be made between capitalized ‘Purgatory’ that references official Roman Catholic doctrine, and lower-case ‘purgatory’ that references a place or space of purgation in a non-specific doctrinal or denominational context. In Catholic theology, Purgatory is a temporary abode; a soul in Purgatory is considered ‘saved’ and destined for heaven at, or sometimes before, the Last Day, the Day of Judgment. Historically, sources differed on the degree to which the soul’s pain in Purgatory was divine retribution, psychological torment, penance, and education. Traditionally, the soul’s torment in Purgatory is described as physical pain in early sources, but it is the soul that is understood to be cleansed. The duration and intensity of pain reflects the quality and degree of human sin that must be expunged before the soul can enjoy the beatific vision.

Purgatory’s place and function in Christian belief and teaching is complex and has evolved over the centuries. Modern Catholic teaching on Purgatory rests on both scripture and tradition as articulated at the Second Vatican Council (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 4212). Thus, in addition to scriptural proof, modern believers give authority to theological and historical interpretation in asserting the existence of Purgatory and its salvific efficacy. However, the idea of postmortem purgation is ancient and is attested widely in many religious systems. Purgatory’s origins and history in Christian thought continues to be debated in modern scholarship. Sources for understanding the theology and practices associated with a belief in Purgatory include: scriptural interpretation, theological argument and speculation, visionary literature and apparitions, cultural traditions, anti-heretical affirmations, and papal and conciliar pronouncements. Belief in Purgatory involves the believer in intercessory practices aimed at establishing a continuing and beneficial relationship with the dead, and encourages a close connection between the believer and the liturgical services and pastoral guidance that the church provides.

Yet even within Catholic theology there is a longstanding note of caution about claiming knowledge of the afterlife. As expressed in the ‘Letter on Certain Questions Concerning Eschatology’ published by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1979, confirmed by Pope John Paul II, ‘[n]either Scripture nor theology provides sufficient light for a proper picture of life after death’ (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 4659). For this reason, Purgatory’s existence and mode of operation is open to many interpretations. A long history of developing thought about many aspects of Christian life undergirds such a belief. Scripture and tradition (or history) guides any discussion of Purgatory as a theological belief. Historically, most of the basic elements of Purgatory were forged in the Middle Ages and so much of this article focuses on medieval theology; later approaches are largely refinements or modernizations of medieval views. This article approaches the evolution of the theology of Purgatory from three directions: an explication of Purgatory’s origins and functioning as explained in early theological writings (sections 1–5); how Purgatory achieved doctrinal status and how it influenced religious belief (section 6); and the reception of Purgatory in the modern era (sections 7–8).

1 Origins and modern debates

Purgatory is not directly referenced in Christian scripture. Whether it is referenced indirectly is a matter of personal judgement and thus a wide variation of interpretation exists on this matter. Catholic theology views Purgatory as an essential element of the soul’s journey to God and intended for Christian purification, even if not adequately noted in ancient sources. In modern Catholic theology, the necessity for Purgatory in some form is not in doubt and has been affirmed by modern theologians such as Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). However, there is also a long history of resistance to the idea. The most significant break was when Reformation Protestants denied Purgatory’s existence altogether, although postmortem purgation on the Last Day continues to have a place in modern Protestant theologies. The Greek and Russian Orthodox churches mostly accepted the idea of postmortem purification, but the idea did not evolve with the complexity that it did in the Latin West.

Christian scriptures affirm that prayer and concern for the dead was ancient, as is the belief that the soul requires purification to be admitted to heaven. Scriptural support rests largely on the belief that prayer for the dead was intended by God to establish a relationship between the living and the dead, and that prayer for the dead was offered in the hope or expectation that some good would come of it. Belief in the piety of prayer for the dead is ancient and well-attested in scriptural sources, and thus the question of Purgatory’s existence, non-existence, or beginnings is fundamentally linked to what precisely prayer for the dead is for. Protestant views generally downplay the notion that prayer for the dead or sacramental offerings bring specific benefits to them, or that the dead are actively engaged in helping the living. Conversely, the efficacy of penance, intercession, the mass, and the communion of all saints are all tied to Catholic interpretations of Purgatory’s function today, as they were in the past, although the emphasis placed on these elements individually has changed over time.

For those who believe in it, Purgatory is an appealing and consoling theology. A consistent theme is the hope that family and friendship ties endure beyond death. In many ways it is this hope of connection that drove and sustained the way people came to think about the afterlife, as much as fear of what lies beyond. Purgatory is a realm of the dead still accessible to the living. It provides the opportunity for continued actions – intercessory acts – to be performed for the beloved dead. From the later Middle Ages onward, Purgatory was understood as a last chance alternative form of penance for those who had not made full reparation in this life. For those still alive, Purgatory offered a last chance to help loved ones. There has always been an element of retributive justice in the notion of postmortem purgation, leading the imagination into darker realms of torment and fear as witnessed especially in moralizing texts, such as visions of the afterlife. Yet Purgatory is also an opportunity for hope, love, and reconciliation. As Dante explained so perceptively, Purgatory is where distortions of love must be corrected. Love can only prevail if there is harmony and social reconciliation (Volf 2000). Ultimately, as a realm that is thought to operate within a human, temporal environment, reflections on Purgatory and what purification means for the human experience appear more accessible to the imagination, more open to humanistic inquiry and the consideration of social questions than heaven does, the divine realm that is beyond human understanding.

Thus, Purgatory is an appealing theology because it is a way to maintain social connections of love and aid. The notion that humans retain their affective ties with family and friends in the interim period between death and resurrection, and that communication and help is reciprocal across the threshold of death, is intensely consoling for those who grieve. The hope of seeing loved ones and the ability to maintain bonds of love beyond death endured in popular notions of the afterlife over centuries. Indeed, modern theologians have looked to ties of love, the integrity of the family, and the interconnection of humans with those around them, to promote a positive view of Purgatory (Ratzinger 1988: 232–233). The centrality of family (however configured) and affective bonds to the Christian afterlife have developed broadly over time among Catholic and Protestant denominations, and even more explicitly for more modern groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for whom Purgatory is not a doctrine but the centrality of family is.

The theology of Purgatory is intimately tied to its history as an idea that emerged and evolved over time, with essential aspects of its theology refined in response to historical events and debates. In a landmark study, Jacques Le Goff (1984) situated the ‘birth’ of Purgatory in the twelfth century, based on various factors including: the emergence of ‘Purgatory’ as a noun (purgatorium); the work of international theologians connected with the University of Paris to elucidate its form and function; and the structures of feudal society that supported a tripartite view of the afterlife. This dating formula is challenged by modern scholars. Long before Purgatory was given official recognition by the papacy at the First Council of Lyon (1245) the idea of postmortem purification was an important element in Christian thought. A robust literature identifies earlier texts and debates (Touati 2012; Merkt 2005; Moreira 2010; Brown 2015) while other works examine key texts as an expression of the ‘rescue from hell’ motif (Trumbower 2001; Bernstein 2017).

1.1 Ancient ideas of postmortem purgation

That the soul requires purification after death to bring it perfected to the divine realm is an idea attested in ancient writings; these have formed both the basis of, and a point of distinction for, Christian beliefs. Purification through reincarnation or metempsychosis is also widely attested in ancient religions but was firmly rejected by early Christian theologians. Indeed, Origen of Alexandria (c.185–c.253) was condemned for incorporating modified versions of such beliefs into the Christian afterlife in his First Principles (Origen of Alexandria 1973). Purification was instrumental to Neoplatonism’s religious philosophy with suffering of any kind being viewed as purifying the soul, whether in life or the afterlife (Plotinus [204/5–270] 1991). Indeed, there is ample evidence for purgatorial thinking among religious and philosophical sects in antiquity (Mihai 2015). Texts and concepts from Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome informed Christian ideas and images of hell (Bernstein 1993). As Purgatory was viewed as attached to or sharing space with hell, ancient persons and images infiltrated descriptions of Christian Purgatory, as is so well-evidenced in Dante’s Purgatorio. Jewish apocrypha gave authority to the widespread idea that the souls of the dead lived in underground receptacles (receptacula, habitacula). Christian texts envisioned many ‘rooms’ or ‘mansions’ (John 14:2–3). Early Christians imagined the bodies and souls of the dead lying in a sleep-like state awaiting an imminent Day of Judgment, while martyrs were admitted directly and painlessly to heaven. Prayer for the dead, a practice that transcended all religious groups, was regarded as an act of piety that was beneficial to the peace of the dead. The martyr Perpetua’s belief that she could improve the condition of her pagan dead brother Dinocrates tapped into ancient thoughts about the rescue of loved ones from the torments of death and hell (Bernstein 1993; Trumbower 2001; Merkt 2005). Accounts of visionary travel to the afterlife were also fundamental to developing ideas of the afterlife as a place of divine retribution and soul travel.

1.2 Scriptural evidence

As it became clear that the end of time was not necessarily imminent, prominent theologians such as Ambrose of Milan (d. 397), Jerome of Stridon (c.342/347–420), and Augustine of Hippo (354–430) pushed back against cruder elements in Christian millenarianism; now the time between mortal death and the final judgment loomed longer in the religious imagination. Simultaneously, as Christianity was legalized, and then made the official religion of the Roman Empire, ordinary Christians no longer faced the daily fear of state-sanctioned persecution and martyrdom that was thought to cleanse sin quickly. Ordinary Christians might be physically safer, but were viewed as more prone to sin. As new generations of Christians died in the hope of heaven, the likelihood that some form of pre-emptive judgment would intervene (painful or pleasant) between death and the final judgment prompted theologians to consider what preparation or amelioration was needed for the soul to be admitted to heaven. As the soul’s time after death yawned ahead, peaceful or purgative, the value and purpose of prayer as intercession for the dead came into sharper focus.

While purgatory was not referenced directly in Christian scriptures, those seeking scriptural traces of the doctrine believe that purgatory’s existence can be implied through a purposeful interpretation of certain Christian texts. Three main scriptural texts guided discussion in patristic sources and beyond: 2 Macc 12:41–46; Matt 12:31–32; and 1 Cor 3:11–15. The latter two texts were central to the official papal statement on Purgatory at the First Council of Lyon (1245).

Second Maccabees 12:41–46 relates that the religious leader Judas Maccabeus sent two thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem as a sin offering for his fallen soldiers who had worn pagan talismans under their tunics. ‘Taking account of the resurrection’, Judas ‘made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin’. The episode implied that the dead soldiers could be resurrected only if their sin was atoned for by means of a pious offering. But whether this was rescue from Purgatory or from hell is not clear. The book is apocryphal/deuterocanonical dating from the second century BCE, accepted as authoritative by the Catholic Church, but not by Protestants.

Matthew 12:31–32 states that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven ‘either in this age or in the age to come’, implying that forgiveness is yet possible in the afterlife. This passage is widely cited in discussions of Purgatory.

First Corinthians 3:11–15 describes a structure built on the foundation of Christ. The building is variously interpreted as the institutional church and as the soul of the individual Christian; the foundation is Christ or faith. In this metaphor, every Christian builds on the foundation of Christ, but how they build on it is indicative of their spiritual worth. The building may consist of gold, silver, and precious stones (durable materials or virtues that survive incineration), or alternatively of wood, hay, or straw (flammable and insubstantial), but

the Day [of Judgment] will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor 3:11–15)

Initially understood as the fire of the Last Judgment through which the elect must pass, over time the probative, cleansing fire came to be interpreted as the protracted fire of Purgatory. This is the text foremost and most consistently referenced by proponents of Purgatory.

Additional biblical texts were important but less commonly referenced, such as the prophecy of Mal 3:2–3 in which the Lord’s coming was described as purifying the sons of Levi in a refiner’s fire, and like a fuller’s soap refining gold and silver.

The centrality of 1 Cor 3:11–15 to discussions of Purgatory was so evident to Le Goff that he noted that one could trace Purgatory’s development just by following subsequent exegesis of this passage (Le Goff 1984: 43). Such studies exist (Landgraf 1924; Gnilka 1955). The problem here is that not all seminal thinkers on Purgatory referenced this passage when discussing Purgatory. Bede, for example, did not. Bede’s most important contribution, his theological justification for Purgatory, arose from his commentary on Prov 11:7 (Bede 1983; Moreira 2010). Furthermore, the passage is not universally understood to refer directly (‘naively’) to Purgatory. Ratzinger adapted Joachim Gnilka’s observation that the passage refers to the coming of the Lord to be rather a confirmation of Purgatory:

If one presupposes a naively objective concept of Purgatory then of course the text is silent. But if, conversely, we hold that Purgatory is understood in a properly Christian way when it is grasped Christologically, in terms of the Lord himself as the judging fire which transforms us and conforms us to his own glorified body, then we shall come to a very different conclusion. (Ratzinger 1988: 229)

1.3 Patristic discussion

Medieval theologians pondered the fate of the ordinary Christian prefigured in the wood, hay, and straw of the building metaphor in 1 Cor 3:11–15. This Christian was destined for heaven but, at the point of death, encumbered by minor sins that could be expunged by divine fire. In his Enchiridion, Augustine of Hippo described this Christian as being neither so good, nor so bad, that the prayers of the living would not benefit him after death (Augustine of Hippo 1947). But only if sufficient merit was gained in life would he receive this intercession. Intercession might be offered for the very good or for the wicked but neither had need of them, unless perhaps to mitigate the pains of souls in hell. Augustine viewed prayer for the dead as an act of piety and as solace for the living. Later theologians cited Augustine as an authority on Purgatory although Augustine was guarded on the matter.

The evidence for Purgatory, scant as it is in early patristic writings, emerges primarily in two contexts: the events of the Last Day, and the benefit of suffrages for the dead (prayers, masses, and offerings to mitigate or eradicate sins). In sermons, Bishop Caesarius of Arles (d. 542) preached that only minor sins, such as gluttony or irritableness, would be purged by fire lest the hope of purgation and delay in penance encourage present sin. Caesarius rejected a middle place in the afterlife; rather, he viewed the fires of the ‘Day’ of Judgment as having a longer duration than a human ‘day’ to accommodate severe punishment. This was not yet the medieval doctrine of Purgatory, but it functioned in a way that could later be understood to lend authority to it. The benefit of prayers, masses, and offerings for the dead was increasingly advanced in the works of early medieval authors including Pope Gregory I (540–604), Isidore of Seville (d. 636), Julian of Toledo (642–690), and Bede ‘the Venerable’ (d. 735). Alongside Augustine, these early works supplied authoritative statements that supported key elements of Purgatory. Bede provided the first detailed description of Purgatory as a geographical place with a clearly articulated purpose in his Ecclesiastical History, preached its existence in homilies, and addressed its theological validity in his Proverbs on Solomon, but it was long before such beliefs penetrated deep into lay religious belief (Bede 1990; 1991; 1983; Moreira 2010).

Early patristic notions of postmortem purgation were hampered by the perceived danger of the teachings of Origen that viewed the postmortem soul as amenable to further education and progress. By setting a firm boundary around hell so that no rescue was possible and setting the time of purgation before the general resurrection rather than after it, Purgatory could develop as a ‘place’ where the soul was prepared for heaven through punishment. Still, while the soul in Purgatory might be aided by masses, prayers, and the intercession of the church and its saints, Purgatory was not a place where salvation was obtained: salvation was determined before death and all merit accrued on Earth. Once in Purgatory, souls were considered saved.

Later medieval theologians further interrogated the dependent elements that made Purgatory a functional idea. Like a well-oiled machine, all components must interconnect and operate so that the spiritual value and integrity of accepted salutary practices align: penance, mercy, prayer, offerings and almsgiving, masses, a knowledge of scripture, and a present understanding of the universe. Still, critical questions remained. Penance may purge the soul in life, but what happened if penance was incomplete? Prayers may help the dead, but what if the soul was beyond its help? If the fire is corporeal, how does it burn spiritual souls? Can the living help the dead? Can the dead help the living? Such questions were answered variously but doggedly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, resulting in views of Purgatory that survived for centuries and that changed only minimally thereafter (see section 6).

1.4 Sin, original sin, and expiation

If minor sins were removed in Purgatory’s fire, what about more serious sins? While most believed Purgatory cleansed only minor sins, especially in pastoral contexts, there were others who imagined that even more serious sins might be purged there. Could a longer and more tortuous postmortem purgation address the burden of serious sin? Bede was the first medieval author to express the radical thought that serious crimes (he terms them ‘scelera’) could be purged after death. In his description of Drythelm’s vision (Bede 1990: Book 5.12) criminal Christians could gain heaven after time in Purgatory. These were a particular category of souls that had delayed restitution, yet because these sinners had repented and confessed on their deathbed, they would enter heaven. Additionally, the prayers, alms, and masses offered by the living could lessen their time in Purgatory. Medieval theologians who offered this kind of hope to sinners imagined that Purgatory was a capacious and crowded place. Officially, however, mortal sins that were not remitted through penance prior to death were not considered eligible for purgation in Purgatory as affirmed at the Council of Lyon in 1245 (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 838).

While baptism cleansed the soul of original sin, almost any conduct of life thereafter had the potential to damage or pollute the soul, leading to an expectation that all Christians would pass through a cleansing fire before being admitted to heaven, whether they were tortured by the fire or not. The Second Council of Lyon of 1274 asserted that souls that had contracted no stain of sin, or else had expiated sin while on Earth, would be admitted directly to heaven (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 859).

What happens to souls whose debt is expiated in Purgatory before the Last Day? The prevailing opinion expressed, past and present, is that the soul proceeds directly to heaven.

1.5 Purification through spiritual education/punishment

Origen understood purification as a process achieved through education, with a soul advancing in holiness through a succession of lives and planetary experiences (Origen of Alexandria 1973). Reportedly he even promised that the devil could be saved if he repented, with the logical consequence of hell’s dissolution. Origen’s challenge to the eternity of hell was condemned by successive church councils in the Latin West; from 400, Origen was anathema to the Church. Avoiding any suspicion of Origenism became essential thereafter. Instead, a different model of education and amelioration prevailed based on correction. Pain and punishment as a tool of education was ingrained in ancient ways of thinking. By analogy, the sinful soul was like a child needing correction by a parent, or a slave needing correction by a master (Moreira 2010). Augustine held that punishment was a debt owed by the soul from inception, and that the opportunity for baptism and penance stopped at death. Excepting rare instances, it was only much later, in the thirteenth century, that authoritative support was given to the idea that Purgatory was a continuation of earthly penance and thus not entirely punitive (see 5.1.2). However, Purgatory’s pains and punitive methods were not seriously challenged before the modern era.

1.6 Infernal imagery: fire, water, and torture

Whereas the fire of hell was generally understood to be real, rather than spiritual or metaphorical, medieval sources expressed uncertainty about the nature of the fire of Purgatory. Fuelled by speculation on Purgatory’s location, timeframe, nature, and duration, purgatorial fires were imagined variously. Early theologians commenting on 1 Cor 3:11–15, especially those drawn to the millenarian imagery of the Book of Revelation, associated purification of the soul with the conflagration of the Last Day (2 Pet 3:7). The fire that will destroy the ungodly will also cleanse the Earth so that it is a fit place for the purified whose bodies are transformed and elevated so that they will not be harmed by fire (Augustine of Hippo 1984: 20, 16–18). This image of fire remained an important point of reference even as, in later sources, the soul’s time of purgation was increasingly understood to occur directly after the death of the mortal body and before the final judgment.

Purgatory’s fires were generally imagined as an offshoot of hell’s fires but experienced temporarily rather than eternally. The fire that tortured the damned was the same fire that purified the Christian soul: both processes were understood to be unimaginably painful but with Purgatory’s fire having a different purpose and outcome. In the Middle Ages, there was a push to further distinguish the fires of Purgatory from the destructive fires of hell, leading to the argument that there were two fires (Le Goff 1984: 247): the first fire was the fire of Purgatory experienced immediately after death; the second fire was the conflagration of the last day. Furthermore, the fire of Purgatory was directed by God and his angels, whereas the fire of hell was directed by demons.

How was the immaterial soul tormented by fire? Is the fire of Purgatory material or spiritual? Does the soul inhabit a likeness of the body that allows for sensory torment? Is the fire a metaphorical expression of the soul’s psychological torment from guilt and conscience, as posited by William of Auvergne (Bernstein 1982)? Predominantly, the fire of Purgatory was viewed as a material fire that burns but does not destroy the insubstantial ‘bodies’ of the dead (Dante 1985: Canto 27). In keeping with ideas about commensurate justice, the intensity and duration of the fire’s burning depended on the nature of the sin and the level of malice that had occasioned it, just as hell’s tortures were gradated.

Although fire was the essential feature of spiritual cleansing after death, there were other images associated with Purgatory, for example, water. Those who argued that all must pass through fire, even martyrs and saints, explained that the passage of the latter through the fire would be as refreshing as passing through water. Water features in Bede’s description of Purgatory too, popularizing the notion that snow and ice, or extreme cold, is among the sensory tortures in Purgatory; such images continue in popular culture, but purgatorial ice was rejected by theologians who, like Albertus Magnus (d. 1248), placed a greater focus on biblical texts. Other forms of torture joined fire as punishment, mirroring the differentiated tortures of hell (section 6), but again, theologians and the papal statements on Purgatory tended to view fire as the required or only means of divine purification. Others maintained that the pain of Purgatory was the psychological pain of acknowledged guilt, or that it was the pain of distance from God (see section 6).

Influentially, Dante incorporated both the fire and water in his poetic description of Purgatory; the fire as a wall of flames, and water in the form of the two rivers, Lethe (the river of forgetfulness) and Eunoë (the river of good memories). In the Purgatorio, the fire is the culmination of an arduous journey of education and purification, a barrier before the pilgrim soul reaches the entrance to the earthly paradise. After the soul’s sins have been purged, and before it can enter the earthly paradise, an angel speaks: ‘Holy souls, no further can you go / without first suffering fire’ (1985: Canto 27). However, the fire is not as other fires are: ‘there may be pain here, but there is no death’. Virgil urges Dante to enter it without fear. On the other side of the flames, the soul is cleansed of its memory of sin in the River Lethe while ‘the memory of good deeds is restored’ in the River Eunoë (1985: Canto 28, ll.127–129).

2 The location and structure of Purgatory

The location of Purgatory was debated over the centuries with competing conceptualizations of Purgatory reflected in the geography of the afterlife. Before the modern era, Purgatory was often understood quite concretely as a physical place, a region in the afterlife that had to be accommodated between a physical heaven and a physical hell. Purgatory was most often imagined as a subdivision of hell and thus located below ground. However, it was also understood as an antechamber to heaven, and that souls in Purgatory are ‘above’ those living on Earth with respect to their state. Consequently, there was a strong notion that Purgatory was a ‘middle place’; an intermediate location between heaven and hell. In the absence of secure scriptural guidance, any view of Purgatory as an interstitial space or physical place was rooted in theological deduction; Purgatory’s location had to be deduced by considering the state of the soul in Purgatory, its habitat, and its boundaries. Visions of the afterlife did much to consolidate these views and offered a general (though not consistent) understanding of Purgatory’s location.

The idea that Purgatory was located on the Earth or close to its surface had a long and venerable history. Early Christian descriptions of the fate of the dead supposed that the souls of the saved were in a state of stasis or sleep, in the grave until the resurrection on the last day. Tertullian described the souls of the dead inhabiting a cubicle, a place of refreshment, until the last day (Tertullian 1972). The soul was then tested by the fire of the last day revealing divine judgment on it. If purgative fire was a feature of the last day, its location aligned with the expectation of a great conflagration of the Earth. Thus, Purgatory was understood to occur on or close to Earth, as an extension of the soul’s life and death on Earth. This proximity to Earth was supported by inhumation practices that placed the body under the Earth. Thus, in death the soul descended either to the depth of Purgatory, or further to the depth of Hell: expressed as a distinction between an upper hell or Hades (temporary and purgatorial) and a lower hell or Gehenna (punitive and eternal; Pope Gregory I 1959).

In the eighth century there was further refinement. Bede described a geography of the afterlife that featured a high wall: on one side was heaven and paradise, on the other was hell and Purgatory. When purged, souls in Purgatory passed over the wall to paradise, a meadow, where the pains of cleansing had ceased but where the soul continued its preparation for heaven (Bede 1990). For Bede, then, the soul’s preparation for heaven occurred in two distinct areas, divided by a wall: a place where the soul was punished by fire, and a paradisical place of rest and progress but not yet heaven. This meant there were four geographic locations in the afterlife: an upper and lower heaven, and an upper and lower hell. Upper hell and lower heaven formed part of the same function of preparing the soul for heaven. This construction aligned with earlier views of the soul being able to rest before the last day. A quadripartite view of the afterlife continued in later works, such as an account written in the late twelfth century that described the experience of a knight, Owen, in a cave in Lough Derg in Ireland, ‘St. Patrick’s Purgatory’, and that became a pilgrimage site for those who believed that the entrance to Purgatory was to be found there and could serve as a purgatorial penance before death (Zaleski 1985; Easting 1991; Pasulka 2015: 52–58).

It was not until the thirteenth century that some theologians promoted a strictly tripartite afterlife whereby Purgatory was ‘placed’ between heaven and hell, although debate continued regarding whether Purgatory was closer to heaven or to hell, and whether it was under or on the Earth. For others the afterlife continued to have four or even five locations to accommodate different conditions of the dead. By the thirteenth century, the Limbo of unbaptized children had also to be accommodated into afterlife geography on the lip of hell – a region of hell without pain. Around the same time the Limbo of the patriarchs fell away from the Christian afterlife with the argument that these places had ceased to exist after Christ’s descent to hell. Abraham’s Bosom, sometimes equated with Purgatory or paradise, was identified as the Limbo of the patriarchs in the late Middle Ages and this view was retained in Catholic thinking while Protestants largely equated it with heaven or its environs (Marshall 2000). Purgatory’s topography within a tripartite structure was further solidified in public imagination (and eventually in art by Dante’s Purgatorio [Dante 1985]). Dante described Purgatory as having a three-fold internal structure: a region of ante-purgatory where souls have yet to begin their journey, the Mountain of Purgatory with its terraces where sins are remedied and purged, up to the highest region of the earthly paradise at the top of the mountain.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformers denied Purgatory’s existence and reverted to a bipartite structure of heaven and hell with the work of postmortem purification reverting to a divine process on the last day. Reformers attacked the complex geography of the afterlife that formed Catholic belief and which, since the thirteenth century, had included the additional regions of the two Limbos. At this time Catholic thinkers also debated whether Purgatory was under the Earth (Marshall 2000). Advances in geographic and planetary knowledge led to an increasing diffidence among theologians to situate Purgatory in a geographic space. Increasingly, such speculation was viewed as ‘a vulgar misconception’ and led to a ‘de-spatializing’, ‘abstracting’, and ‘internalizing’ of the afterlife (Marshall 2000). But this was probably a minority view as devotional works continued to assert the notion of Purgatory as a physical space, both as the direction to which prayers of intercession are directed, and from which the suffering souls of those in Purgatory can appeal for help. The crudeness of these attempts to assert the real existence of Purgatory and its tortures is evidenced in the charred artifacts (furniture and clothing) that were kept as souvenirs of visitors from Purgatory in religious, especially monastic, establishments (Aardweg 2009). Examples of these artifacts can be found today in Rome’s Museo de Purgatorio.

3 The time of Purgatory

Purgatory is imagined to exist in the time between an individual’s death and the general resurrection and exists according to a human understanding of time. The soul in Purgatory is often described as ‘waiting’ or being ‘delayed’, with purification coming ‘before’ the Last Judgment. While the concept of purgatorial time was current in the Middle Ages, it was given official status in 1274 at the Second Council of Lyon when postmortem purification was formalized as a sequence of events: ‘their souls are cleansed after death by purgatorial and purifying penalties’ after which ‘they are received immediately into heaven’ (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 856). As Purgatory’s existence is temporary rather than eternal, the final judgment would bring an end to all human notions of time.

Although medieval images of Christians in Purgatory showed them as embodied souls, theologically it was the soul (and perhaps the senses) that experienced purification in Purgatory, not the physical body; after purification was complete the purged soul awaited the last day for its body to be resurrected and transfigured. This waiting place was sometimes imagined as a garden, an earthly paradise. In this temporary heavenly realm souls achieved rest and happiness and even without the completed joy of the soul’s reunification with the body, would see God. The Retraction of Pope John XXII in 1334 states this most clearly:

We therefore confess and believe that the purified souls separated from the body are gathered together in heaven, in paradise and the kingdom of heaven, with Christ in the company of angels, and that they, according to the common precept, clearly see God and the divine essence face to face, insofar as the state and the condition of the separated soul allows. (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 991)

Purified souls are here understood to have achieved a vision of God and are not in some form of hiatus until the general resurrection. However, their joy cannot be complete until the soul is reunited with the body. This level of clarity on the state of the purified soul is hard to find before this date as some had believed that the soul in Purgatory would have to wait until the Last Day to enjoy the beatific vision. However, two years later in 1336 a new pope, Benedict XII, affirmed his predecessor’s concession that ‘already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgement, have been, and are, and will be with Christ in heaven’ (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 1000). Furthermore, this vision of God is without mediation, for these souls ‘see the divine essence with an intuitive vision and even face to face’ (2012: 1000).

Contemporary theologians and philosophers are re-engaging with the connection of Purgatory and time. Allowing that the imperfect soul must be perfected before it can be in company with God, Protestant emphasis on Christ’s sacrifice as sufficient for salvation had traditionally lent itself to the notion that the imperfect human soul would be transformed instantaneously into something pure and holy after death (the ‘zap theory’, Baggett and Pruitt 2017). However, more recently some Protestant theologians have returned to the needful imperative of time after death as a means of allowing for the continuing moral transformation and sanctification of the soul (Walls 2012). Personal, moral transformation takes time (as psychology instructs us) and so a modern, psychological view of spiritual and moral transformation (even if understood as being divinely directed) is predicated on the necessity of postmortem time. An ancient idea is recalibrated for a new age.

4 The work of the church

4.1 Intercession, suffrages, and the liturgy

The efficacy of intercession for the dead is the fundamental idea that undergirds belief in Purgatory. It is affirmed by the church fathers and mothers, but only if the dead are already saved during their earthly existence. Initially, intercession was made so that the soul would enter heaven directly, as expressed in the earliest prayers for the dead. As a penitential culture developed and sins were classified with greater precision, souls were differentiated in terms of the degree of corrective detention they must experience before release; suffrages were offered in the hope of lessening the time souls spent in Purgatory’s pains. Augustine supposed, and Caesarius of Arles affirmed, that only slight post-baptismal sins could be purged after death: mortal sins were expected to lead a person to hell, unless divine amnesty intervened. By the seventh century it was clearly expressed that intercession comprised prayer, masses, almsgiving, and good works. Tears were often added, a sign that the person making the intercession was sincere. However, the sinful were not discouraged from making intercessions for the dead.

4.2 Prayer for the dead

Prayer was the bedrock of Christian practice from the earliest times, practiced by individual Christians and conducted by the clergy on behalf of their flocks. Such prayer encapsulates the hope that the souls of the dead will fare safely on their journey to heaven. Ordinary Christians prayed for their own dead, and churches remembered the dead in the eucharistic liturgy. Graveside prayer for the dead by the clergy was probably not universally common in the early church, but became more so in subsequent centuries as communities could rely on the presence of a cleric to perform the service.

What precisely did prayer for the dead obtain for the deceased? There are two camps: those who believe that prayer for the dead must always and logically imply that the dead could receive some benefit or result for it, and conversely, those who believe that prayer for the dead can be an expression of hope and care for souls considered saved, and therefore not necessarily tied to specific concerns about the soul’s journey to the beyond. The former view situates the roots of purgatorial thinking in the earliest church teachings; the latter view sees an extended purgatorial stage in the afterlife as a medieval development.

Prayer for the dead is at the heart of the Catholic logic of Purgatory. Vatican II states that the Christian community has always ‘from the very first ages […] cultivated with great piety the memory of the dead and […] also offers suffrages for them […] [the Church] has always venerated them with special devotion’, and with respect to Christ, the Virgin Mary, the apostles, martyrs, and the holy angels ‘the Church has piously implored the aid of their intercession’ (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 4170). Yet prayer for the dead and memorialization of the dead operates without a developed sense of Purgatory in Protestantism. Thus, studies of the history and theology of prayer for the dead often address central questions on the existence of Purgatory (Ntedika 1971; Kotila 1992).

4.3 Eucharistic mass

Prayer for the dead was introduced into the mass either before or after praying the collect, with an emphasis on the dead being part of heaven’s citizenry (Rose 2017). The efficacy of the mass for the rescue of the sinful dead was given lasting authority in the writings of Pope Gregory I, especially in his account of the monk Justus in the Dialogues. Justus was released from suffering thirty days after being ritually excommunicated (Pope Gregory I 1959: 4.57); the monk’s place of suffering was interpreted as Purgatory by later authorities. The efficacy of the mass for giving solace or release to souls in Purgatory underlay the entire edifice of the church’s approach to Purgatory. Yet, by the central Middle Ages, there was tension surrounding the efficacy and needfulness of the church’s prayers for the dead, and there were dissenting views on the matter. We can see this in Thomas Aquinas’ (1225–1274) discussion of the sacraments as remedial agents in the context of salvation. While acknowledging the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice, Aquinas affirmed the place of the sacraments:

The death of Christ is the universal cause of man’s salvation: but a universal cause has to be applied to particular effects. Thus, it was found necessary for certain remedies to be administered to men by way of bringing Christ’s death into proximate connection with them. Such remedies are the Sacraments of the Church. (Summa Contra Gentiles [SCG] 1.4.56; Aquinas 1975)

4.4 Confession, penance, extreme unction, and absolution

Only Christians in good standing were considered eligible for Purgatory. Historically, penance had been an early remedy for those who had strayed from the teachings of the Church, providing a pathway for those who lapsed during persecution to re-enter fellowship after the legalization of Christianity (Peace of the Church). The Council of Ancyra in 314 set out the terms of penance, requiring that penance be supervised by a bishop. Such penance was public insofar as its restrictions were unavoidably observed by others.

By the turn of the fifth century, ordinary Christians who were no longer persecuted were made more aware of personal sin, both innate (original sin) and sins acquired after baptism. Visions of the afterlife taught Christians that every sin was counted against them by God and that sins overlooked would be recalled at the seat of judgment. No Christian could be sure that all their sins were accounted for. Supervised penance was a resource for spiritual cleansing increasingly advocated by the clergy and in time, as the penitential movement got underway and the laity were increasingly drawn into this way of thinking, priests were authorized to supervise penance alongside bishops and to grant absolution. Penitentials (books that set out penitential tariffs for various sins) offered guidance to priests who were now dispensing penitential remedies to monastic and lay communities. The implicit suggestion was that sins that were not purged on Earth through penance would count against the sinner at Judgment. There was a developing sense that penance in life was tied to mitigation of pains in Purgatory, but in the early church purgatorial cleansing was not viewed as postmortem penance. This would change by the thirteenth century.

In the ninth century, ecclesiastical reformers of the Carolingian empire set guidelines for how the deathbed was to be managed by the parish priest: the dying must confess their sins, promise amelioration through penance, and receive the last rites. Christians who had not lived to complete penance were to be consoled since their ultimate salvation was assured. The First Council of Nicaea of 325 considered it already ‘ancient law’ that those who are dying should not be deprived of communion that signalled reconciliation. Pope Gregory I added that the fear of death had purgative value and that repentance even on the deathbed was sufficient for a Christian to be saved. The power of sickness and the proximity of death to bring the sinful soul to self-reckoning was encapsulated in the value given to the last rites, or extreme unction. Aquinas noted of extreme unction:

This Sacrament is a wholesome provision for completing the sinner’s cure, delivering him from his debt of temporal punishment, and leaving nothing in him at the departure of his soul from his body to hinder his reception into glory. This Sacrament is not to be given to all sick persons, but only to such as seem to be near to death from sickness. If they recover, this Sacrament may be administered to them again, if they are again reduced to the like state. (SCG 4. 73; Aquinas 1975)

Thus, completion of penance was not required for the Christian to be saved, extreme unction could be repeated if needed, and postmortem purgation served to cleanse those sins that remained.

Penance relied on a confession of sins by the penitent to a priest. Regular confession was slow to take root among the laity; it is seen earliest in monastic communities. The seventh-century nuns of Faremoutiers in northern France were expected to confess daily, but they were probably outliers. Ongoing confession was never routine for the laity in the Middle Ages or thereafter, although it was promoted in councils. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 proclaimed that every Christian should confess their sins to a priest at least once a year, do the penance imposed, and take the Eucharist at Easter (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 812). The penalty for failing in this was to be removed from the church and denied a Christian burial, which was tantamount to eternal damnation because reconciliation with the Church was required for purgatorial cleansing. The high stakes of postponing confession were often repeated: ‘It is necessary for salvation to confess all mortal sins completely and distinctly’ (Letter Super quibusdam to the Mekhithar, Catholicos of the Armenians, 1351; Pope Clement VI 2012).

One great benefit of confession was affirmed at the Council of Trent with a notable assurance for anxious sinners: forgotten sins were implicitly ‘included in a general form in the same confession’ (Session 14, 25 November 1551 CE; Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 1682). Yet a penance that deliberately disregarded certain sins was deemed ‘false penance’ that would leave the layman to be ‘dragged off to hell’ (Second Lateran Council of 1139, Canon 22; Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 717). Likewise, penance that engaged the external ritual without reforming the internal being was no bulwark against damnation. Using the medical metaphor that was traditional in the discussion of penance Aquinas noted:

Now a bodily cure is sometimes worked entirely from within by the mere effort of nature; sometimes from within and from without at the same time, when nature is aided by the benefit of medicine. But the cure is never wrought entirely from without: there still remain in the patient certain elements of life, which go to cause health in him. A spiritual cure cannot possibly be altogether from within, for man cannot be set free from guilt but by the aid of grace. (SCG 4. 72; Aquinas 1975)

On completion of penance, sinners were considered to have made satisfaction for their sins and could be absolved by the bishop, at which point salvation ‘as through fire’ was possible.

The view that souls in Purgatory are in a state of penance and that penances can be done there, was a relatively late and not universally accepted development, since patristic sources wished to maintain a strict boundary against Origenism. Vatican II affirmed the common fellowship of those in heaven, those on Earth (the Pilgrim Church) and those who ‘having died are still being purified’, confirming the decrees of earlier councils (Council of Lyon [1274], Council of Florence [1439], and the Council of Trent [1563]). However, while the councils of Lyon, Florence, and Trent affirmed that souls in Purgatory are aided by the living who offer intercession, these councils did not specify that souls in Purgatory could pray and intercede for the living. Nor did Vatican II state this. The idea that souls in Purgatory can intercede for the living is nevertheless attested in other writings (5.3.1) and embraced in modern papal theology by Ratzinger (section 8).

4.5 Indulgences and jubilees

Papal indulgences, developing in the later Middle Ages, opened another avenue of aid to souls in Purgatory. An indulgence was framed as analogous to suffrages offered by the faithful, yet distinct from it. A plenary indulgence could bring about an immediate release of a soul from Purgatory or shorten its time there. Indulgences were authorized and published by the sitting pope. The mechanism for releasing souls from Purgatory, according to papal theological reasoning, was a controlled release of banked merit to Christians who undertook to meet certain stated conditions. Envisaged as tapping into a treasury of merit accrued by Christ’s sacrifice, the virtues of the church and of the saints (or the ‘just’), the church’s ability to forgive and absolve the debt of sin was now deployed in a powerful way for the benefit of the living and the dead. Indulgences for lay Christians evolved from crusading theology that arose in the eleventh century and promised full remittance from sin for those willing to fight in Christ’s army. The idea of a storehouse of merit was behind the indulgence proclaimed on 27 January 1343 by Pope Clement VI in his Jubilee Bull, Unigenitus Dei Filius (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 1026–1027). This ‘treasury of merit’ explanation was also invoked by Pope Sixtus IV to explain an indulgence offered to benefit the church of St Peter of Saintes in 1476 and again in 1477 (Bull Salvator noster, Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 1398; papal encyclical, 27 November 1477; Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 1405–1407), and by Pope Leo X in response to Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses.

An indulgence was viewed as a more powerful form of intercession than an ordinary suffrage. Indulgences were purchased just as suffrages were, but the financial commitment was much higher, and the funds were directed to a specific holy project. Pope Sixtus IV’s project in 1476 was the repair of the church of St Peter at Saintes (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 1398) and those who wished to avail themselves of it made a funding commitment for a ten-year period. This papal bull quickly led to ‘various scandals and dangers’ we are told, and further clarification was provided a year later (papal encyclical, 27 November 1477; Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 1405–1407). However, as indulgences became more popular, they increasingly lent themselves to abuse, and to the perception of abuse. Indulgences came under the focused fire of sixteenth-century Reformers, especially by Luther in his ninety-five theses published in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, which took aim at the 1477 papal bull noted above and subsequent abuses (Luther 2012). Luther questioned whether the Pope had the authority of the keys in Purgatory (article 26) and the efficacy of indulgences for the dead, and queried why the Church – if it could tap into the merits of Christ, the Church, and its saints – would not provide this boon to the faithful for free (article 82). For Luther, a focus on indulgences risked a misplacement of Christian charity: ‘Christians are to be taught that the one who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than one who buys indulgences’ (article 43). Pope Leo X’s response a year later asserted papal authority to grant such concessions as vicar of Christ with the ‘power of the keys’ of heaven, explaining that indulgences were essentially an extension of existing powers of intercession for which the church had traditionally drawn on the treasury of merits accrued from the superabundance (superabundantia) of the merits of the saints. Pope Leo X’s bull of 9 November 1518 asserted that indulgences could mitigate or absolve temporal punishments for a person’s actual sins (pro peccatis suis actualibus), by which he meant sins committed after baptism, not original sin. Temporal sins were absolved ‘in a measure equivalent to the indulgence granted and acquired’ (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 1448).

Jubilees are special holy years in the Catholic religious calendar proclaiming an amnesty or pardon for sins. The Jubilee had biblical precedent and was celebrated every fifty years (Lev 25: 10): ‘Thou shalt sanctify the fiftieth year, and shalt proclaim remission to all the inhabitants of thy land: for it is the year of jubilee’. The idea of proclaiming a jubilee year was revived in the Middle Ages by Pope Boniface VIII (pope 1294–1303) who tied it to the use of plenary indulgences. Initially after their return, jubilees were to be celebrated every 100 years; in 1345 Pope Clement VI shortened this to fifty and proclaimed 1350 as a jubilee year. Thereafter, jubilees have been held at different intervals and are supplemented by ‘extraordinary’ jubilees which fall outside the normal schedule. Today, jubilees are tied to penance, prayer, and pilgrimage. Jubilees also provide remission of sins for the living who hope thereby to lessen their time in Purgatory.

5 The work of the Christian

5.1 After baptism: orientation to death and afterlife

Baptism washes away sin. It is the sin contracted after baptism that is counted against the soul at judgment. Baptism is thus a pre-requisite for eligibility for Purgatory. If the Christian dies directly after baptism without contracting sin, they go directly to heaven. Baptism allows those who have not been fully purified on Earth to be purified in Purgatory, after which the soul is granted access to heaven. However, even the baptized will go to hell if they die in mortal sin or original sin (II Lyon, 1274, session 4; Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 857–858). This means that after baptism, the Christian must account for any sins accrued. Recognizing that most people will accrue post-baptismal sin, the church encouraged Christians to turn their minds to God, death, and the afterlife. Sin in this life can be counter-weighted by external actions (charitable deeds and almsgiving), internal reflection (spiritual orientation, prayer, confession), and by participating in the propitiatory rituals of the church (penance, prayer, intercession). After death, the church and Christian community can offer aids and suffrages for the soul.

5.1.1 Almsgiving

Christians are warned that accumulation of wealth and possessions are a danger to the soul’s salvation: ‘And Jesus said to his disciples, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God”’ (Matt 19:23–24). The remedy is to look to the needs of the poor by giving alms: ‘It is better to give alms than to treasure up gold. For almsgiving delivers from death, and it will purge away every sin’ (Tob 12:8–9). Consequently, almsgiving works for the grace of the living soul, and as intercession for the dead alongside prayer, the sacrifice of the mass, fasting, and other suffrages. The power of almsgiving to secure salvation was promoted at a time when Purgatory was emerging as Christian belief (Brown 2015).

5.1.2 Confession, penance, absolution, and satisfaction

Any steps towards purifying the soul on Earth can be considered preparatory to postmortem purification. Christians are expected to examine their souls and their conduct to identify sins that require absolution. The first step is to confess these sins to a priest who provides a penitential regimen whose completion is aimed at the soul’s purification. The bishop, and later the priest, could verify that the terms of penance were carried out and could provide absolution. In the case of major sins, or cases where the penitent had been excommunicated, the bishop’s absolution allowed the Christian to re-enter the community of the faithful.

The Church recognized that not all Christians were equally capable of attaining knowledge of God through reason, making faith alone on some matters a necessity, as Thomas Aquinas explained in his Summa contra Gentiles:

For there are three reasons why most men are cut off from the fruit of diligent inquiry which is the discovery of truth. Some do not have the physical disposition for such work. […] Others are cut off from pursuing this truth by the necessities imposed upon them by their daily lives. For some men must devote themselves to taking care of temporal matters. […] Finally, there are some who are cut off by indolence. (SCG 1.4.3; Aquinas 1975: 66–67)

Penance might not be fully completed before death, especially if death comes unexpectedly, but in cases that did not involve capital sins the soul should still have its reward (a view articulated as early as 442 at the Council of Vaison canon 2 [see 1963] which stated that the mass and a Christian burial should be provided under such circumstances). Time in Purgatory was the solution for these busy or indolent souls:

but it does at times happen that such purification is not entirely perfected in this life; one remains a debtor for the punishment, whether by reason of some negligence, or business, or even because a man is overtaken by death. Nevertheless, he is not entirely cut off from his reward, because such things can happen without mortal sin, which alone takes away the charity to which the reward of eternal life is due. (SCG 4.91.6; Aquinas 1975: 336)

Thus the church recognized that sometimes a person would die before they had completed their penance. In such cases, clerics were urged to be merciful to the dying, provide hope of absolution, and in some cases accept other forms of charity, such as almsgiving or donations, in lieu of complete penitential satisfaction. In other cases where repentance came at the very last, deathbed repentance, if it was sincere, ensured that the soul would be saved from damnation, although the trek through Purgatory would be long and hard (Dante 1985: Canto 5).

5.2 Prayer groups and confraternities

While Christians pray to God for the forgiveness of their sins, they must also forgive the sins of others to be forgiven themselves, according to The Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:14). Accepting sinfulness and forgiving the sin of others brings the Christian to the work of aiding the dead. Since prayer for the dead is seen as beneficial to the person who prays, and propitiatory for the soul prayed for, prayer for the dead by the faithful became a mainstay of Catholic religion and culture. Family, friends, and clients (tenants, vassals, employees) of the dead person would continue to pray for the dead person’s soul, and the dead could also bequeath the financial means to have this prayer continued into future generations.

As there was a financial as well as a social element in this, in the later Middle Ages confraternities developed among like-minded people (often in the same lay profession) to provide funds for the kind of intercession that monasteries typically provided through clerics, monks, and nuns. Prayers for the dead were a feature of guild documents early on. For example, the Exeter Guild Statutes were assembled ‘for the love of God and for our souls’ need’; at guild meetings a priest was to sing two masses, ‘one for the living friends, the other for the departed’, and after a death ‘each man is to pay for six Masses or six psalters of psalms’ (Whitelock 1955: 558). Confraternities provided the notion of fraternal fellowship that was active within the community, while also stemming the shortfall of the intercession of friends and family in a society that was becoming more complex, and whose population was becoming more widely dispersed, and to some extent anonymized.

5.2.1 Books of Life

The Book of Life (Liber vitae) was a document in which the names of the dead to be prayed for was recorded. These books were both a form of memorialization of the dead and a pious burden on the living. The early church listed members of the faithful on diptychs that were kept on the altar; these names were read aloud during the service. In the early Middle Ages, monastic and ecclesiastical communities kept rolls or books in which they recorded the names of those to be remembered and prayed for in that community and in allied communities. As ideas about the nature and duration of the pain of Purgatory evolved, Christians felt it was beneficial for these intercessory prayers to continue long into the future and even (optimistically) in perpetuity. Dying Christians gave generously to the churches to secure these prayers and offset the burden that prayers and masses imposed on the time of the clergy.

5.3 Reciprocal aid of living and dead

5.3.1 The communion of saints: solidarity of the living and the dead

Catholic teaching affirms that the saved form a community, the community of saints. Whether on Earth, in heaven, or ‘detained’ in Purgatory, those destined for heaven share a common ultimate destination. Through charity a community of self-help binds all together, working for the smooth transit of fellow souls to heaven. As ‘death’ is overcome, there is no eschatological distinction between the desires and aims of the living and the dead. The living pray and intercede for the dead. The saints intercede for the living and for souls in Purgatory. This reciprocal relationship of prayer was affirmed by Vatican II. However, the prayers of the saints in heaven are especially valued as they have trodden the path that the Earth-bound Christian has yet to follow; their help is expected because their charity is in no way diminished on having completed their journey and having achieved rest. Vatican II affirms that the saints ‘do not cease to intercede with the Father for us’ (Lumen gentium; Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 4169–4170).

As the mechanisms of Purgatory were increasingly understood by the laity, stories of souls returning to visit the living seeking intercession became popular. Some of these accounts of supernatural release were recorded and disseminated in exempla (edifying tales) and sermon literature. In the 1220s, Caesarius of Heisterbach’s Dialogus Miraculorum (1929) included tales of the miraculous apparitions from Purgatory to the laity which did much to encourage an expanded audience for this kind of literature, while also greatly reifying Purgatory and encouraging a lay culture of intercessional practices. Lay and monastic mystics were among those who developed a vocation around prayer for suffering souls in Purgatory and their accounts greatly advanced a belief in the importance of suffrages for the dead in Purgatory.

But what of souls in Purgatory? Can they intercede for the living? This was a thorny issue. The notion that souls pray in Purgatory and that they can intercede for the living, or indeed that Purgatory is a place for prayerful petition of any kind, is witnessed only late in the tradition. In the early tradition, Purgatory’s inhabitants may benefit from the intercession of others, but cannot ameliorate their own position or that of others through such means. Augustine viewed the purgatorial stage of the soul as strictly punitive – a penalty for sin. That purgatorial pains are a punishment was affirmed by the Council of Florence (1439; Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 1304). Medieval theologians doubted that suffering souls could be aware of anything beyond their own suffering, and thus direct intercession for the living seemed impossible. Aquinas suggested that since souls in Purgatory were in pain ‘they are not in a condition to pray, but rather in a condition that requires us to pray for them’ (Aquinas 1920). The idea that purgatorial pains were an extension of penance received support in the writings of William of Auvergne in the thirteenth century (Bernstein 1982), but those in penance were not yet viewed as intercessors. Suffrages directed by the living to souls in Purgatory were a kind of long-term investment, a deferred benefit: once souls were purified and admitted to heaven, they would intercede for those who had helped them. The living could benefit from the prayers of souls in Purgatory only if it was conceded that souls in Purgatory retained some knowledge of the events on Earth. In his great work on penance, the Jesuit theologian, Francisco Suárez (1548–1617) claimed that the dead knew and cared about the living (Suárez 1678). In his 1759 treatise on prayer (I.3.2), Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787) asked whether it is good to invoke the souls of Purgatory, concluding that souls in Purgatory could indeed pray for the living but with the distinction that ‘the Church does not invoke them, or implore their intercession, because ordinarily they have no cognisance of our prayers’ (Liguori 1886). These two thinkers inched their way towards a stronger sense of Purgatory as a place of reciprocal prayer, moving considerably away from the careful pronouncements of Aquinas and other medieval theologians. Still, while theologians were notably cautious, there was probably always a hope that the dead could help the living by providing supernatural knowledge, guidance, or protection. This hope was finally given enthusiastic currency in the nineteenth century in the context of the rise in sentimental notions of death and spiritualism (Cuchet 2005) and the idea that souls in Purgatory can pray for the living continues in modern Catholic thought (Ratzinger 1988).

5.3.2 Ghosts and the supernatural

The Christianization of ghosts in Western culture was related to developing ideas about Purgatory as a liminal place, or prison, from which encumbered souls could be rescued by the efforts of the living. In the Middle Ages, some of the ghosts familiar from classical literature came to be viewed as souls suffering purgatorial pains. In Dante’s Purgatorio, the dead are described as ‘shades’ – the ancient image of the dead – yet now imbued with all the sensory organs the soul had in life. In the poem, Statius was made to describe the sentience of the shade: ‘And we can speak, we shades, and we can laugh, / and we can shed those tears and breathe those sighs / which you may well have heard here on the mount’ (1985: Canto 25). Purgatory’s shades were restless because they needed the intercessory offices of the church or because their reliance on a living person’s suffrages had failed and was now an obstacle to the soul’s transition (Schmitt 1999). The rise of chantries and other prayer associations removed from the dying an absolute reliance on family members to honour their wishes. Ghost stories were popular through the ages and churchmen sometimes encouraged this belief among their parishioners, although mostly this view received only guarded acceptance by the ecclesiastical elite. Although ghosts continue to have a place in popular conceptions of death and the afterlife, their connection to Purgatory, much criticized during the Reformation, has faded from any formal theology of Purgatory.

6 Purgatory’s proponents and deniers

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries much was still unresolved about Purgatory’s place in the Christian universe. Some of the great thinkers of the age tackled the subject. The literature they generated, often in the context of university education, lent theological weight and authority to Purgatory’s centrality to the Christian life and afterlife. Along the way, many fundamental questions were posed and answered that still have bearing on modern understanding of Purgatory. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Purgatory’s existence was given increased authority when popes endorsed the idea as doctrine. Yet even early on there were doubters and even deniers; those voices became increasingly louder over time.

It is in medieval theological works that Purgatory’s existence became an issue of technical knowledge, debated among intellectuals who were motivated by: a concern to underscore the biblical and traditional understanding of earlier authorities; a pastoral concern for the journey of the soul after death; the implications of such belief for sin and penance for the living; and to some extent keeping an eye on advances in scholastic knowledge of the universe.

Jacques Le Goff situated the nexus of these debates, and thus the ‘birth’ of Purgatory, in the Paris schools at the end of the twelfth century, especially among scholastic thinkers associated with the cathedral school of Notre-Dame in Paris. The monasteries of Cluny and Cîteaux had meanwhile become centres for knowledge and practices around the commemoration of the dead and the cult of Purgatory. The connection of schools and monasteries was intensified when Paris schoolmen retired to monasteries: ‘It was at the crossroads between these two worlds, that of the monasteries and that of the urban schools, that sometime between 1170 and 1200 – possibly as early as 1170-80 and surely by the last decade of the century – Purgatory first emerged’ (Le Goff 1984: 168). Yet, unexamined by Le Goff, is Bishop Otto of Freising’s (d. 1158) Chronicle, which described a tripartite afterlife with a place of purgation that fully anticipated the developments Le Goff saw as so important in the later twelfth century (Mégier 1985).

Scholastic writings on Purgatory were exploratory, mostly in the context of glossing Peter Lombard’s Sententiae (Sentences) on First Corinthians. Key figures that discussed Purgatory included Odo of Ourscamp (d. 1171/2), Peter Comestor (1100–1178), and Peter Cantor (d. 1197) and bolstered by works incorrectly attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) and Peter Damien (1007–1072; Le Goff 1984). Fundamental questions raised by these works included the nature of the purgatorial fire. Was it physical, spiritual, or metaphorical? Was the suffering endured by the soul punishment or purging, or both, or experienced sequentially? Were souls in Purgatory in a state of penance? Was purgatorial suffering a place or a state, and how did it intersect with the suffering of the soul before death (as in illness, adversity, or deathbed agony)? Le Goff notes that such questions eventually drew the suspicion of ecclesiastical and secular authorities; it took the work of subsequent generations of scholars to continue the work.

In the thirteenth century, Purgatory became increasingly important as a place that the living and the dead had a stake in. The schools of Paris drew luminaries from around Europe and through their efforts in systematizing theological thought, a degree of consensus was achieved. It was agreed that there was indeed such a place as a Purgatory that was temporally and geographically distinct from the region of hell, and furthermore that Catholic theology required it, even if minor details varied. Purgatory had achieved its fundamental medieval form and it was now something different from what it had been in early patristic thought. Thomas Aquinas’ (1225–1274) Summa Theologiae was especially influential, as was the supplement to the Summa compiled by his disciples in which two appendices gave further clarifications on Purgatory. The supplement declared:

it is sufficiently clear that there is a Purgatory after this life. For if the debt of punishment is not paid in full after the stain of sin has been washed away by contrition, nor again are venial sins always removed when mortal sins are remitted, and if justice demands that sin be set in order by due punishment, it follows that one who after contrition for his fault and after being absolved, dies before making due satisfaction, is punished after this life. (Supplement III, app. 2, a.1; Aquinas 1920)

The work of later medieval theologians undergirded the certainty that was finally communicated by the papacy at the First Council of Lyon (1245), Second Council of Lyon (1274), and reiterated at the Councils of Florence (1438) and Trent (1563). In essentials, Purgatory was affirmed, not modified in subsequent papal pronouncements.

While medieval theologians debated Purgatory, Purgatory-deniers protested even before the papacy undertook to provide any official declaration on Purgatory’s existence. Thus, Purgatory appears late in papal documents and other official Church pronouncements, and largely in the context of groups and sects that may or may not have believed in Purgatory, such as communications with the Armenian Church, or the Byzantine Greeks. Catholic sects that denied Purgatory’s existence were routinely condemned in church councils. Stories of the rescue of tormented souls from Purgatory were considered pious literature, and were supported by the offices of the clergy, yet there remained a reticence to pronounce Purgatory’s existence and importance as an official and essential tenet of Catholic teaching until the later Middle Ages. Yet, at the same time, Purgatory-deniers such as John Wycliffe and the Lollards, were persecuted for their denial of it. Although medieval theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, affirmed arguments in favour of Purgatory, it was not until the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformations that a flurry of pro-Purgatory treatises were written and disseminated widely. The earliest responses and treatises focused on rejecting the writings of Martin Luther, such as those by Tommaso (Thomas) Cajétan (1469–1534), Silvester Mazzolini of Prierio (1456/1457–1527), John Fisher (1469–1535), and Johann Eck (1486–1543). Their works anticipated authoritative pronouncements on Purgatory at the Council of Trent. However, treatises on Purgatory remained a staple of pious Catholic literature from the sixteenth century forward, whether addressed to clerics or to a lay audience. In the seventeenth century, the Catholic position on the doctrine of Purgatory was given decisive expression by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621) whose influential treatise De Purgatorio (in his De Controversiis, first published 1586. vol. 2, controversy 3; see 2017) was disseminated widely, and instigated a concerted scholarly response from Protestant theologians. Together with his other works, personal saintliness, and authorship of a widely used catechism, Bellarmine was Purgatory’s most vigorous defender in the seventeenth century and his writings were the primary point of reference for two centuries beyond that.

While theologians and councils were the most authoritative voices for solidifying Purgatory’s place in Catholic teaching, the experiences of the afterlife described by saints, sinners, and mystics had a profound influence and often reflected current theological teachings. Mystics of the later Middle Ages were often focused on the souls in Purgatory, and their accounts were written down. From the mystic Catherine of Genoa (d. 1510) who wrote on Purgatory and left accounts of her experiences that imagined the great joy to be had there, to Maria Simma (d. 2004) who recounted how she was often visited by souls from Purgatory, a focus on releasing souls from Purgatory and learning about them became a deep spiritual task (Simma 1997).

Finally, Purgatory entered catechisms and became part of Catholic instruction:

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. (Roman Catholic Church 2000: para. 1030–1031)

The teachings of the Western church on Purgatory developed largely independently and isolated from Christian views on the afterlife in other parts of the Christian world. This meant that when attempts were made in the later Middle Ages to reconcile the churches of East and West, teachings on Purgatory were a theological sticking point. Byzantine views of the afterlife were deeply influenced by the views of theologians such as Gregory of Nyssa (d. 395), whose views on purification of the soul after death resembled those of Origen in some respect and generally reflected the views of early patristic authors of the Mediterranean world. Byzantine views about postmortem purification were more positive, less graphic, less punitive, and generally of shorter duration than those that developed in the West throughout the Middle Ages. The Byzantine Greeks (and the Russian and Armenian churches following) were more open to the notion that God and suffrages for the dead might, in exceptional circumstances, release even wicked souls from hell. By contrast, the official views of the Western church held fast to an intractable, impermeable, eternal view of hell that was starkly differentiated from the ‘temporary hell’ of Purgatory. This was at least in part a consequence of the firm anti-Origenist stance of the Western church which taught that the wicked would never be released from hell, and indeed that Purgatory’s existence as a place of mercy depended on the finality of damnation in hell.

Differences between the views of the Latin and Greek churches on Purgatory were at issue at the First and Second Councils of Lyon in 1245 and 1274. In the context of a possible rapprochement between the churches, the papacy’s concern centred on reports that the Greeks did not believe in Purgatory and that in their view the dead awaited judgment on the last day. This was essentially the view of the ancient Christian church that looked ahead to the resurrection on the last day rather than to an immediate judgment after death. Even without a strong view of Purgatory as an intermediate place between heaven and hell, the Byzantine Greeks prayed for the dead and made offerings for the souls of their dead, so that a belief in the value of suffrages was a point of connection between the churches. Although much evidence on the Greek side of the dispute has been lost, there were accounts that Greek theological works denied Purgatory’s existence, but this did not mean that they rejected postmortem purgation. The Greeks’ claim that they simply did not employ the word ‘Purgatory’ for postmortem purgation appears to have assuaged the West, and the First Council of Lyon advised the Greeks henceforth to use the term. Thus, it was in this context of defining Latin views on Purgatory that we see the clearest, earliest papal statements on Purgatory’s existence. However, these clarifications continued at II Lyon (1274) and at the Council of Florence in 1439 (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 1304–1306; Bathrellos 2014).

Purgatory remained a point of differentiation among Christian groups, with the Pope issuing statements that defined or affirmed Catholic beliefs by contrasting them with the beliefs of other groups. In a letter to the Armenians in 1341, Pope Benedict XII imputed to them the belief that ‘in another world there is no purgation of souls’, but the Armenians rejected this characterization of their beliefs at a council held at Sĭs (Kozan, Turkey) a few years later (Denzinger-Hünermann 2012: 1010). The affirmations of postmortem purgation of the soul at the II Lyon were reprised, essentially verbatim, at the Council of Florence (1439), including a reference to the letter to the Armenians. In the end the rapprochement on Purgatory was not decisive, and while some held to the Catholic view, over the centuries Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox theologians posited various positions on the purification of souls with most resisting the idea of a third place of purgation.

The deepest challenge to Catholic theology of Purgatory came from within – the Protestant thinkers who, in the sixteenth century and beyond, challenged the existence of Purgatory and the historicity of the Church’s teachings on Purgatory. As we have seen (in section 4.5), the immediate spur to this rejection was Luther’s attack on papal indulgences, which led, in time, to an outright rejection of Purgatory by Protestant groups. Luther’s position in 1517 had not been to deny the existence of Purgatory, but rather to criticize the unrefined ways in which it was being interpreted, and to decry papal and clerical claims to control the process of post-mortem purification. Others voiced similar concerns. Wessel Gansfort (1410–1489) was an early critic of the church’s role in the intercession for the dead, while advocating the notion of a ‘spiritual purgatory’ (Koslofsky 2000: 27–31). In a widely disseminated sermon published in 1523, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt (c.1480–1541), while not denying Purgatory’s existence, also rejected the church’s role in interceding for souls in Purgatory (Koslofsky 2000: 20–21, 31–34).

The attempt to disentangle the church’s intercessory prayers for the dead from the workings of Purgatory arose from a desire to return to the teachings of the early church. Essential to this process was a re-examination of the way key biblical passages had been interpreted in the Middle Ages to support the existence of Purgatory. The tenuous nature of the scriptural evidence for Purgatory became obvious, and this process of re-evaluation was facilitated by translations of the scriptures into the vernacular. Augustine’s extreme caution about the value of prayers for the dead made him, essentially, an honorary Protestant: in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (III.5; see 1936) John Calvin (d. 1509) wrote of Augustine that his book ‘Care for the Dead contains so many hesitations that it ought by its coolness extinguish the heat of imprudent zeal’, yet ‘the moderns expect their reveries concerning purgatory to be admitted as unquestionable articles of faith’ (Institutes III.5; 1936: 742–743).

Luther’s lead was followed with greater vehemence by other Protestant groups. A newly intense focus on the primacy of scripture, and Purgatory’s absence in any explicit form therein, suggested to many that Purgatory had been an invention of clerics and the papacy. Additionally, for Protestants Purgatory seemed a theological affront to the efficacy of Christ’s priesthood, and to his sacrifice for humanity; if Christ died for our sins, was his death not satisfaction enough? This is stated clearly when Calvin asserted that ‘the blood of Christ is the only satisfaction’ (III.5.6; Calvin 1936), leading him to term Purgatory the ‘deadly device of Satan’ (III.5; Calvin 1936). Calvin’s teachings on predestination placed God in total control of salvation and damnation, having chosen his elect before the creation of the world, thus rendering all other considerations around postmortem fate and the afterlife entirely invalid. This bleak view that rejected human free will rested, nevertheless, on a positive view that ‘[God’s] very nature is goodness and justice’, according to Bruce Gordon (2016: 47). Protestants were not the first to question or reject teachings on Purgatory, but earlier groups such as the Albigensians, Waldensians, and Hussites had not succeeded in fomenting a lasting revolution from within. The Waldensians denied the mechanisms that supported a belief in the existence of Purgatory (prayer for the dead, suffrages) and they were deemed heretical, being condemned in 1184, 1215, and 1318. John Wycliffe (d.1354) and the Lollards in England, and the Hussites, followers of Jan Hus (1369–1415) in Bohemia (modern Czechoslovakia), were likewise condemned for rejecting Purgatory and its mechanisms. At this historical moment in Protestant thought, different and distinct issues (the abuse of indulgences and intercession for the dead) were coupled together to justify the repudiation of Purgatory. For English reformers, the rejection of indulgences and Purgatory were also joined with the rejection of images and relics in article 22 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion in 1572 (Graham 2017).

7 Establishing visual authenticity

For many generations, the idea of what awaited the soul in Purgatory was influenced by texts, paintings, and other visual arts that represented Purgatory as a place in which souls were punished but maintained the hope of salvation.

Visions of the afterlife were an early and popular source for images of heaven, hell, and Purgatory. Whereas early Christian images of purgation centred on fire that might be traversed with little or no pain for martyrs and the ‘just’, the medieval West moved towards imagining the pains of purgatory as analogous to those of hell and situated within sight of hell; Purgatory became ‘infernalized’ (Le Goff 1984). Drawing on images from the extremely influential Vision of Paul (early fifth century but with many later variations), purgatorial pains expanded in the imagination to encompass images of horrible torture as for example in the Vision of Thurkill of 1206 in which souls traversed a purgatorial fire, sat immersed in an icy lake, and crossed a bridge full of stakes and thorns that ripped their ‘flesh’ as they passed over to safety (Silverstein and Hilhorst 1997; Gardiner 1989: 223). Texts of this kind were immensely popular among medieval pastors and the laity. However, theologians typically eschewed such images and insisted that fire alone cleansed the soul.

A legible iconography of Purgatory was slow to develop, perhaps because of the early view that the fire of hell and the fire of Purgatory was the same fire. It is therefore challenging to distinguish early images of Purgatory from those of hell. It is also unclear whether some representations of Christ leading souls from the jaws of hell represent the resurrection of the dead only, the harrowing of hell, or whether they also, and perhaps contemporaneously, show souls rescued from Purgatory. Eventually, the common theme was introduced that showed Christians in Purgatory with their naked bodies intact, eyes uplifted, and hands in an attitude of prayer. These were clearly souls in Purgatory as they maintained hope, whereas souls in hell were depicted as bodies being destroyed or consumed and tortured by various means, with horrified expressions and with no signs of prayerful activity. In paintings of Purgatory, souls are rescued by Christ, the Virgin Mary, by angels and saints.

In the later Middle Ages, another means of depiction of souls in Purgatory developed: a bishop (often Pope Gregory I) prays before the altar and beside and below him, perceived through an opening in the floor, are the souls in Purgatory being rescued or offered consolation by the bishop’s prayers at the altar during the mass.

However, Purgatory received its most poignant and imaginative expositor in the early fourteenth century in Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) whose Purgatorio, the second book of his Divine Comedy trilogy, drew deeply on contemporary scholastic debates but imagined how this new learning would translate to human experience after death. Bringing together classical and Christian figures, themes, and imagery, Dante envisioned Purgatory as a great island mountain that the soul (and Dante, as the Pilgrim) must climb to reach heaven, at first arduously, then more effortlessly as the soul is purged of the encumbrance of its sins. Dante’s Purgatory is the condition of disordered and distorted love. Drawing on the medical analogy of penitential literature, the seven deadly sins were ‘remedied’ by their counteracting virtue, so that, for example, the sin of Gluttony is countered by starvation: ‘All of us here who sing while we lament / for having stuffed our mouths too lovingly, / make ourselves pure, thirsting and hungering’ (Dante 1985: Canto 23, ll. 64–66). Dante’s Purgatorio synthesized much of the medieval tradition in poetic form, especially the visions of the afterlife, and illustrations of his work (most famously those of Gustav Doré in the nineteenth century) contributed to a growing corpus of images for Purgatory.

Other representations showed souls in Purgatory reaching out to the Virgin Mary whose intercession was viewed as particularly efficacious. Roses, the sign of Mary, protect the Virgin’s feet from the lower regions and provide a symbol of the hope that her intercession embodies. Souls in Purgatory supplicating the Virgin Mary is common in Catholic folk art.

Purgatory also made its mark on ecclesiastical infrastructure and architecture. Funds for prayers for the dead resulted in a multiplication of altars in churches and monasteries and supported priests in chantry chapels dedicated to the purpose of providing masses and other services for the dead. Cathedrals accommodated these new practices by adapting side chapels for this use, such as can be seen at Notre Dame, Paris (Doquang 2011). In England, chantries were targeted alongside monasteries during the Dissolution in 1545 and 1547. In Catholic regions, chantries and chapels continued to flourish. Concerns for souls in Purgatory dominated private wills, and a veritable cult of death developed in Spain in the sixteenth century at King Philip II’s court at the royal palace, El Escorial, built outside Madrid (Eire 1995). In Catholic countries, chapels within cemeteries sometimes have alms boxes positioned inside or outside chapels to aid holy giving for the dead (on almsgiving, see 5.1.1 above).

Holy objects have also been associated with a belief in Purgatory. From the sixteenth century, the Carmelite order, founded by the hermit Simon Stock (d. 1265) in the thirteenth century, began to give out brown cloth tokens (the brown scapular) to the faithful with the promise that this would save them from hell, and that they would be released from Purgatory on the first Saturday after their death. An apparition of the Virgin Mary (supposedly to Simon Stock, although this is contested) with this offer of protection increased Marian devotion. The scapular is formed of two squares of brown cloth that reference the brown habit of the order. It is blessed, often embroidered, and worn underneath clothing: the fabric squares, one worn in front and the other behind the body, are attached by strings over the shoulders (scapular bones) and remains a cherished token among lay devotees.

8 Purgatory in the modern age

The nineteenth century saw a resurgence of interest in Purgatory. Lay Catholic devotion often centred on concern for the suffering dead, and marvellous accounts of visitations from Purgatory entered widely disseminated periodical literature actively promoted by local clergy. These accounts were intended to promote the traditional, pain-centred view of Purgatory. Images of suffering spurred urgent intercession. However, there was also a movement towards spiritualizing Purgatory. In the Anglophone world, converts to Catholicism from Anglicanism, John Newman and Frederick William Faber, members of the ‘Oxford Movement’, wrote tracts that drew away from the traditional, material view of Purgatory as a place of torment in favour of a more spiritual interpretation based on God’s love (Pasulka 2015). The view that souls suffered the psychological pain of distance from God was in line with late medieval mysticism and this tradition of spiritual and immaterial Purgatory fit better with modern, scientific knowledge of the Earth and universe. The old tales of Purgatory situated on or under the Earth now raised insurmountable problems except for those who could suspend rationality or adhere to a new view of the miraculous promoted by a belief in Divine Providence (Pasulka 2015). On a popular level, Purgatory’s ghosts (5.3.2) were fed by a resurgence of sentimental and gothic interest in death, dying, and the dead that has continued to inform modern cinematic culture (Cuchet 2005; Pasulka 2015).

Vatican II, Dei verbum 2. 9 (see 2012a) clarified how religious beliefs could be authoritative within the Catholic community even when the scriptural underpinning of the idea was weak. ‘Sacred tradition’ was important alongside sacred scripture, to be ‘accepted and venerated with the same sense of loyalty and reverence’ (Denzinger-Hünermann: 4212). Yet the ebullience of medieval and later pietistic conceptions of Purgatory invited caution. In 1979, Pope John Paul II cautioned that

when dealing with man’s situation after death one must especially beware of arbitrary imaginative representations: excess of this kind is a major cause of the difficulties that Christian faith often encounters. Respect must however be given to the images employed in the scriptures. […] the realities designated by the images. (Pope John Paul II 2012)

This advice acknowledged that traditional views of Purgatory often repelled modern Catholics, and yet the tradition could not be discounted entirely. Vatican II challenged traditional views of Purgatory and the practices that had fed the connection of modern Catholics with their dead. Although the communion of saints, that had been such an important element in sustaining this relationship, was affirmed in Vatican II, priests were now instructed to ‘teach the faithful that the authentic cult of saints consists not so much in the multiplying of external acts, but rather in the greater intensity of our love’, seeking from the saints ‘example in their way of life, fellowship in their communion, and aid by their intercession’. However, ‘abuses and excesses’ were to be removed (Vatican II, Lumen gentium, 21 November 1964, #51; 2012b: 4171). It seemed to many that Purgatory was removed from Catholic teaching and that priests discouraged the laity from earlier practices tied to suffering souls in Purgatory by encouraging more of a focus on prayer to God. Since Vatican II, aided by the internet, pro-Purgatory fellowships have grown up to re-educate Catholics on Purgatory and resuscitate the relationship with the dead that seemed to many to have been lost in official teaching (Pasulka 2015).

Yet Purgatory continues as a fundamental doctrine of modern Catholicism. Catholic theologians have affirmed the spiritual reality of Purgatory, striving to articulate the ideas that underpin the necessity of Purgatory. Ratzinger argued that Purgatory is central to Christianity, Christology, and eschatology, because it encapsulates fundamental truths about the human relationship with God. Transformation of the soul comes about by encounter with God (for Ratzinger, the fire of 1 Corinthians) and this is requisite for communion with the saints and with God. This transformational encounter is what enables the soul to become ‘a vessel of eternal joy’ and to ‘make it fit for the living organism of his [God’s] body’ (Ratzinger 1988: 229). Modern theologians continue to engage with Purgatory in contemporary Catholic belief (Cuchet 2012), moving further away from naïve medieval concepts so as to engage new concepts of the relationship of the human to God and the saints, requiring salvation through the Christian’s ‘full assent of faith’ (Ratzinger 1988: 231). Prayer for the dead remains meaningful, sustaining continuing bonds of ‘self-substituting love’ so that the living and dead can help each other as the ‘possibility of helping and giving’ transcends death (Ratzinger 1988: 233). It is inconceivable that Purgatory will be abolished by papal decree, as was the recent case with Limbo in 2007.

In what may be deemed an ironic reversal, some Protestant theologians who once rejected Purgatory outright have chosen to re-examine the case for ‘purgatory’. In recent years a select number of Protestant faith-based scholars have reconnected with the idea of purgatory as a spiritual and meaningful way to understand what happens to the soul after death (Walls 2002; 2012). This new openness is centred on the juxtaposition of two beliefs: that only the pure will enter heaven, and that most will be unable to attain that rarified status before death. The idea that the soul will be sanctified and justified after death by an external divine act of cleansing, an idea long cherished in the Protestant faith community, has yielded in some quarters to the greater focus on the importance of a continuing spiritual transformation after death – a belief that aligns with a belief in purgatory. This approach makes purgatory a space for love and reconciliation that takes into account not only the purification of the sinner but also need for reconciliation with the victim of that sin in a ‘final social reconciliation’ (Volf 2000). The convergence of Protestant and Catholic theology on the afterlife would be an important and meaningful step in the direction of ecumenism. However, deeply centred on its historical roots, mainstream Protestantism continues to reject Purgatory as understood in Catholic doctrine. At the same time the centrality of Purgatory in the life and practice of most modern Catholics has been greatly reduced (Anderson 2013), just as a more robust Purgatory is being reclaimed in some instances by members of the Catholic laity.

Beyond Catholic and Protestant theology, modern scholars are interested in the idea of Purgatory as a religious and philosophical belief evidenced across a wide array of cultures and religious systems (Vanhoutte and McCraw 2017). The idea of Purgatory intersects with humanistic concerns such as the imperfection and perfectibility of human nature, and the role of divine authority, and even repressive authoritarian systems in ordinary lives (Fenn 1995). The idea and theology of Purgatory lends itself to reflections on the nature and definition of sin but also on transgression and culpability, and the need for other responses to sin, such as atonement, restitution, and contrition (Graham 2017). At the same time, scholars who analyse near-death experiences have brought scientific and psychological questions to historical accounts of visions of the afterlife, while others interrogate the value of paranormal experiences (ghosts and apparitions) as evidence for Purgatory’s existence (Zaleski 1989; Dumsday 2017). Some have even viewed medieval Purgatory as being instrumental in creating a new culture of time and thus discover in Purgatory the roots of ‘modernity’ (Fenn 1995).


Copyright Isabel Moreira (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Almond, Philip C. 1994. Heaven and Hell in Enlightenment England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Marshall, Peter. 2002. Beliefs and the Dead in Reformation England. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Pollard, Richard M. (ed.). 2020. Imagining the Medieval Afterlife. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Siecienski, A. Edward. 2022. Beards, Azymes, and Purgatory: The Other Issues That Divided East and West. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
    • Watkins, Carl S. 2007. History and the Supernatural in in Medieval England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Works cited

    • Aardweg, Gerard J. M. Van den. 2009. Hungry Souls: Supernatural Visits, Messages and Warnings from Purgatory. Charlotte, NC: Tan Books.
    • Anderson, Gary. 2013. ‘Deliverance from Purgatory’, in Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition. Edited by Gary Anderson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 162–181.
    • Aquinas, Thomas. 1975. Summa Contra Gentiles. Books 1–4. Translated by C. J. O’Neil. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
    • Aquinas, Thomas (attributed). 1920. Summa Theologiae III. Supplement. Volume 20. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. London: Burns Oates & Washbourne.
    • Augustine of Hippo. 1947. Enchiridion. Ancient Christian Writers. Volume 3. Translated by Louis Arand. New York: Newman Press.
    • Augustine of Hippo. 1984. Concerning the City of God Against the Pagans. Translated by Henry Bettensen. London: Penguin Books.
    • Baggett, David, and Jonathan Pruitt. 2017. ‘In the Twinkling of an Eye’, in Purgatory: Philosophical Dimensions. Edited by Kristof K. P. Vanhoutte and Benjamin W. McCraw. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 51–67.
    • Bede, the Venerable. 1983. Commentary on Proverbs. In proverbia Salomonis libri iii, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina. Volume 119B. Edited by David Hurst. Turnhout: Brepols.
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    • Dumsday, Travis. 2017. ‘Religious and Paranormal Experiences as Evidence for Purgatory’, in Purgatory: Philosophical Dimensions. Edited by Kristof K. P. Vanhoutte and Benjamin W. McCraw. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan, 33–49.
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