Q. In regards to the parable the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31, if there is a great chasm set between heaven and hell, where do we get the tradition of purgatory? When did it start and what theology backs it?
A. The chasm described in this parable was not trying to suggest that there is a region between heaven and hell, as if it was some void in a spatial sense. This chasm needs to be understood as revealing that there is no passing back and forth between heaven and hell. Those in heaven are in heaven, those in hell are in hell, and there is no crossing over from one to another. An Early Church writer named Aphraates said, “The chasm shows that after death and resurrection there will be no scope for any kind of repentance. The impious will not repent and enter the Kingdom, nor will the just sin and go down to hell. This is the unbridgeable abyss.”
But what about Purgatory? Like many Christian doctrines, it is a teaching that has been revealed progressively through Scripture and through the doctrinal formulations that have been developed and unpacked over the Church’s history. From Scripture, we know that the Jewish people’s understanding of the afterlife developed throughout the Old Testament and into the New Testament.
The People of God in the Old Testament believed the underworld to be literally beneath the earth and consisting of two rooms or sections, a lower region called Gehenna and an upper region known as Sheol. Gehenna or Gehinnom is a valley situated near Jerusalem where they burnt the city’s garbage. It was seen as a cursed placed where unburied bodies were left and demons were said to roam, as it was where children were once sacrificed to Canaanite gods. Both Jesus (Mk 9:47-48) and St. James (Jas 3:6) refer to Gehenna as a place of eternal punishment for the wicked, not an actual physical place but rather a spiritual state of existence that resembled the valley of Gehenna.
Sheol is described in the Old Testament as the place where all the dead would go. In time, God revealed through the Old Testament Scriptures – ones written within 200 years of the birth of Christ – that in the underworld, some went to the lower region of Gehenna while others dwelt in the upper region of Sheol. Sheol was not a place of eternal punishment, but a shadowy existence. It was a place where souls did not suffer, but did not experience seeing God face to face nor were they unable to enter the kingdom of heaven. In the Book of Maccabees (2 Mac 12:43-46), Judah and his warriors offered sacrifices for their comrades who dwelt in Sheol to make reparation for their sins so they could experience the Resurrection of the dead. It was during the time of the Maccabees that belief in the Resurrection of the dead was held by the majority of the Jewish People. While this doctrine had been alluded to previously in the Old Testament (most notably at Ezekiel 37:1-14), it is in the Wisdom biblical books and Maccabees that speak extensively about the hope of the Resurrection of the dead for those in Sheol.
When we say in the Nicene Creed that Christ descended into hell, we are referring to his descent into Sheol, where all the souls of the righteous awaited Him to bring them into heaven. This is what the parable was referring to as the “Bosom of Abraham” or what St. Thomas Aquinas called the limbo of the Fathers (that is, the saints of the Old Testament who needed to wait for Christ to open the gates of heaven for them).
We believe that Christ emptied Sheol on that Day of Days. But this state of existence remains for those who either die free of mortal sin but need to be purified of venial sin or for those who have not yet made reparation for all the consequences and temporal punishments of the sins that were committed in this life. Thus Sheol, or what we call Purgatory, remains as that place of purification that allows us to be made ready for heaven. It is not an actual physical place under the earth, but can be best described as an interior state of existence where you experience a purifying fire within (1 Cor 3:11-15), removing all attachments to sin and making you ready to see God face to face in heaven. St. Paul’s description of Purgatory as a purifying fire was one quickly adopted by the Early Church. St. Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD) writes: ” The necessity of this purifying discipline is such, that if it does not take place in this life, it must after death, and is then to be effected by fire, not by a destructive, but a discriminating fire, pervading the soul which passes through it.”
It is interesting that in Orthodox Judaism they have a similar belief in a “purgatorial” version of Gehinnom that lasts no longer than twelve months after death. After this one-year probationary period, the person ascends to his proper place in olam ha-ba (the world to come). This twelve-month purification derives from the Talmud (the authoritative commentary on Judaism), and it is connected to the mourning cycles and the recitation of Kaddish (Jewish prayers for the dead).
For a more in-depth explanation of Purgatory, check out the following links: