The idea of Purgatory was neither taught by Jesus nor His apostles. How it became an integral belief of the Catholic Church today can be seen by looking at its origin, development and purpose over the centuries.
1. Prayers for the Dead
Purgatory belief can be traced to the unbiblical practice of praying for the dead. Writings of some early church fathers contain references to prayers for dead loved ones to have ‘refrigerium’ (refreshment or pleasures of paradise). Mohrmann Christine in a philological study comments that the term “refrigerium” refers to “heavenly happiness” that “Among the later Christian writers, refrigerium is used in a general way to denote the joys of the world beyond the grave, promised by God to the elect” (Le Goff Jacques, The Birth of Purgatory, University of Chicago, 46-47).
While prayers for the dead can be found in their writings, they do not contain the idea of purgatory as Rome believes it today. William Webster stated that:
“For at least the first two centuries there was no mention of purgatory in the Church. In all writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, there is not a slightest allusion to the idea of purgatory. Rome claims the early Church nevertheless believed in purgatory because it prayed for the dead. This was becoming a common practice by the beginning of the third century but it does not, in itself, prove that the early Church believed in the existence of a purgatory” (Church of Rome at the Bar of History, Banner of Truth, 1997 p. 114).
2. The “Architects” of Purgatory
The practice of praying for the dead led to belief in a third state between heaven and hell. This doctrine can be majorly linked to 5 church fathers:
(a) Tertullian (A.D. 160-220): He was the earliest church “father” to pray for the dead though he admitted that there is no direct Biblical basis for it. He wrote: “If you look in Scripture for a formal law governing these and similar practices, you will find none. It is tradition that justifies them, custom that confirms them, and faith that observes them” (De Corona Militis 3:2-3).
Note this statement carefully the next time a Catholic quotes some Bible verses or church fathers to try support purgatory. In Tertullian’s time, the act of praying for the dead was merely a practice – not a doctrine, let alone a dogma. Tertullian only spoke of this concept after he had joined a heretical group called the Montanists.
(b) Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 150-220): He was a key proponent of purgatory. During his time, the issue of baptismal regeneration led to much debate and in order to explain where those who sinned after baptism would go, the idea of a place where they can be purified by fire after death was adopted.
(c) Origen (A.D. 185-254): He and Clement of Alexandria were the two main architects of purgatory beliefs. Much of what these men wrote cannot be believed by most Catholics or Protestans today. They engaged in allegorical interpretation of the Bible, ignored its literal, historical-grammatical meaning and mixed it with strange ideas. Through his absurd interpretations, Origen denied the existence of Hell; believed that Satan would be saved and also believed in the pre-existence of the human souls. He embraced the idea of an afterlife corrective, punitive cleansing of the soul from Greek philosophy and dualism.
(d) Augustine (A.D. 354-430): He also endorsed prayers for the dead. It seems his thinking was influenced by his mother’s dying wish to be remembered in his prayers. Though he wrote about salvation by faith, he popularized the theory of purification after death through sufferings.
(e) Gregory the Great (A. D. 540-604): This bishop of Rome, though ignorant of the Biblical languages, wrote extensively resorting to silly, allegorical twisting of the Bible. In his work, Morals on the Book of Job, he twists the names of people, things and even syllables in the book of Job giving them mystic meanings. He claimed Job represents Christ: his wife represents the carnal nature; his 7 sons represents the apostles; his 3 daughters represents the faithful laity who worship the Trinity; his friends, the heretics and Job’s 7,000 sheep, the faithful Christians!
(Note that Gregory the Great rejected the canonicity of the apocryphal books of Maccabees). His ideas of purgatory emerged in his book, The Dialogues, which was between him and a Roman archdeacon Peter. In it, he described “in incredible marvels and visions of the state of departed souls.” However, he admits transmitting hearsays, that he didn’t see these alleged visions himself (Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. III).
3. The Fruits of Purgatory
For about 500 years after Gregory cooked up purgatory, it didn’t become an official doctrine. In the Medieval era, it made way for all manner of extortions and outright deceptions.
The 5th century Irish “saint” Patrick was said to have been frustrated by his people’s refusal to believe in purgatory, so he “prayed that God would help him convert the people.” Then Christ allegedly showed him a pit in the ground which is said to lead to purgatory. Some people were let in into the pit and came up to tell others terrible tales of hell (Biebler Ludwig, The Irish Ecclesiastical Record, 1960, 93:137-44).
This “entrance to hell” remained for centuries. After investigations, the pit was called a grievous fraud and finally closed on October 25, 1632. (It seems purgatory and hell were not distinguished from each other at that time). By the 19th century, the specific site of this pit is no more certain. Some scholars declared that sparse documentations from 5th century Ireland support this tale and that “St.” Patrick never visited Lough Derg where the “purgatory pit” allegedly was . It was a 12th century horror tale cooked up to fill the pews of the Catholic church (The Medieval Pilgrimage to St. Patrick’s Purgatory, 1988, 8-9).
The Catholic crusaders were promised that they would bypass purgatory if they died in those wars. This also led to Indulgences – remission of temporal punishment through certain conditions laid down by the Church – which generated great wealth for Rome by selling the people a bogus ticket to heaven.
In 1170, Pope Alexander III decreed that no one could make a valid will except in the presence of a priest. Anyone who dared to disobey this law was to be excommunicated – a decree feared more than death in those days. Since the priest was often the last person to be with the dying (to administer the “last rites”), one can be sure that this system was meant to enrich Rome.
During the time of Martin Luther, the pope needed money for the construction of St Peter’s in Rome, so he sent a Dominican monk, Johann Tetzel, to sell indulgences to the people. He would carry with him a picture of the devil tormenting souls in purgatory and repeat the statement written on the money box: “As soon as the money in the casket rings, the troubled soul from Purgatory springs.” It worked like magic and the coffers became full (Martin Luther, Wider Hans Worst, 1541, 538).
Even today, Catholics who have no one who could say Masses for them after death fear being forgotten in purgatory, so they join the Purgatorial Society and donate to them yearly so they will say Masses for them after death. That’s Rome’s “insurance policy.”
4. The Purpose
Not only did purgatory bring Rome influence and loyalty, it also boosted papal control over nations. A Catholic historian explains:
“It had been said before that the power of God’s vicar extended over two realms, the earthly and the heavenly … From the end of the thirteenth century a third realm was added, the empire [rule] over which was assigned to the Pope by the theologians of the Curia- Purgatory” (Ignaz von Dollinger, The Pope and the Council, 1869, 186-7).
Medieval Gnostic works such as Apocalypse of Peter or Paul which presented a view of the afterlife in tune with Greek paganism had also shaped the views of the people. These factors influenced the Council of Florence of 1439 to make purgatory an official dogma. The council of Trent and modern catechism rely on this Council of Florence in defining purgatory.
5. Pagan origins
Purgatory was already known in paganism before its adoption into Catholicism.
Virgil, a pagan Latin poet who lived between 70-19 B.C. divided the departed souls into three different places in his writings: Elysium for the very good, Tartarus for the very bad and Erebus for the indifferent or moderately good (Bell’s New Pantheon Historical Dictionary, John Bell, Charles Thornthwaite, 1790, Vol. I, 379).
Greek philosopher, Plato (427-347 BC) spoke of Orphic teachers in his day “who flock to the rich man’s door, and try to persuade him that they have a power at their command, which they procure from heaven and which enables them by sacrifices and incantation … to amend for any crime committed by the individual himself… Their mysteries deliver us from the torments of the other world, while the neglect of them is punished by an awful doom” (Homer Smith, Man and His Gods, Brown and Co., 1952, 127).
Stoic philosophers taught that there was a place of fire after death that was for enlightenment and the purging of the soul from the corruptions of material life before one could enter spiritual peace. They called it Empurosis (Encyclopedia Britannica, Vol. 22, 660).
Hindus and Buddhists “also believe in heavens and hells where souls who are not immediately reborn spend time. They then spend some temporary time there. These are in effect the equivalent of purgatory because they are temporary states in the soul’s long progess towards eventual salvation” (Encyclopedia Americana 23:19).
Zoroastrians also believe that there are 12 stages of purification after death before they are fit for heaven. Catherine Beyer in her article, Purity and Fire in Zoroastrianism, stated that Zoroastrians believe that “all souls will be submitted to fire and molten metal to purify them of wickedness. Godly souls will pass through them unharmed while the souls of the corrupt will burn in anguish.”
In contrast to these pagan systems, however, the Bible doesn’t support the idea of an afterlife “third state”. Jesus’ consistently spoke of the evil and the good (Mt. 5:45) the narrow way and broad way (7:13-14), the wise and foolish virgins (25:2) the sheep and the goat (25:32) without any reference to a “third” or “neutral” group, because there is no “third state.” There are only two eternal destinations beyond the grave – Heaven and Hell.