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When was Purgatory first talked about?

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05/22/2010

The concept of Purification after death has been with us a very long time. (Although, use of the term 'Purgatorium' or 'Purgatory' for this after death state of purification wasn't until the 1100's AD)

The idea of God purifying souls before entrance into Heaven started in Judaism. One example of a text (from 30-10 BC) that confirms this opinion is printed here, "But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. "For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them." Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-6 NRSV (italics added)

Another Jewish text from the First Century B.C., records an instance of Praying for the souls of the dead. "The noble Judas (Maccabeus) exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened as the result of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin." 2 Maccabees 12:42-44 NRSV (italics added). This passage is used by the Church of Rome to support the doctrines of Purgatory and Prayer for the Dead. (although a much different concept then the Roman doctrine)

In the Christian New Testament, there are a couple different passages quoted by different people to support Purgatory and like doctrines. Paul of Tarsus, in his second letter to Timothy (written in 68 A.D.), asks, "May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me ---may the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! And you know very well how much service he rendered in Ephesus." 2 Timothy 1:16-18 NRSV. This passage is disputed because although Onesiphorus is referred to in past tense (suggesting that he in fact is dead,) it says "to the householdof Onesiphorus", not directly him (but it does show a great deal of care for a dead man none the less.)

The most oft quoted New Testament passage thought to be about Purgatory, written between 53-54 A.D., is as follows, "According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw--- the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire." 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 NRSV (italics added)

Another early reference to after death purification that scholars have found comes from The Acts of Paul and Thecla, which was written around 160 AD. In that work, we read the following:

"And after the exhibition, Tryphaena again received her [Thecla]. For her daughter Falconilla had died, and said to her in a dream: 'Mother, you shall have this stranger Thecla in my place, in order that she may pray concerning me, and that I may be transferred to the place of the righteous'"

One common misconception about Purgatory is that is "a Roman Catholic heresy." Eastern Orthodox Churches believe in a type of Purgatory, (that is a 'type of purification after death') The Anglican Theologian who started the Methodist movement, John Wesley believed in an intermediate state between death and the final judgment and in the possibility of "continuing to grow in holiness there" and even wrote a prayer for the dead, although Methodism does not officially affirm his belief. Another Protestant who supported a purification after death, was famous 20th century theologian, C.S. Lewis (who is quoted in his Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer, Chapter 20; Below)

"Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to him?

I believe in Purgatory.

Mind you, the Reformers had good reasons for throwing doubt on the 'Romish doctrine concerning Purgatory' as that Romish doctrine had then become.....

The right view returns magnificently in Newman's DREAM. There, if I remember it rightly, the saved soul, at the very foot of the throne, begs to be taken away and cleansed. It cannot bear for a moment longer 'With its darkness to affront that light'. Religion has claimed Purgatory.

Our souls demand Purgatory, don't they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, 'It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy'? Should we not reply, 'With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I'd rather be cleaned first.' 'It may hurt, you know' - 'Even so, sir.'

I assume that the process of purification will normally involve suffering. Partly from tradition; partly because most real good that has been done me in this life has involved it. But I don't think the suffering is the purpose of the purgation. I can well believe that people neither much worse nor much better than I will suffer less than I or more. . . . The treatment given will be the one required, whether it hurts little or much.

My favourite image on this matter comes from the dentist's chair. I hope that when the tooth of life is drawn and I am 'coming round',' a voice will say, 'Rinse your mouth out with this.' This will be Purgatory. The rinsing may take longer than I can now imagine. The taste of this may be more fiery and astringent than my present sensibility could endure. But . . . it will [not] be disgusting and unhallowed." -C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcom: Chiefly on Prayer, Ch. 20, ¶7-10.

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