Hey, Father! What is the origin of the concept of Purgatory?

What is the origin of the concept of Purgatory? Some Catholics and Protestants insist that Purgatory is absolutely never mentioned in the Bible or by Jesus Himself. 

– Nancy in Springfield

Witnessing the majestic revelation of the new and heavenly Jerusalem, the visionary John foresees the nations of the earth passing through its gates while explicitly noting, “nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does abominable or deceitful things…” (Revelation 21:27).

No sin will be allowed into the presence of all-holy God. Yet we sin, and so will need to be purified in order to pass through the gates of Heaven. The Catechism of the Catholic Church confirms this: “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” (CCC 1030–1).

While the term “Purgatory” is not mentioned in Sacred Scripture, the concept of a post-death purification of sin and its effects can be found in both the Old and New Testaments. The Book of 2 Maccabees, 12:41–45, for example, tells of deceased Jewish soldiers found to be wearing amulets of a pagan god, and thereby breaking the First Commandment. The surviving soldiers first pray for their dead comrades and then take up a collection to send to the Temple in Jerusalem to pay for sacrifices to expiate the sins of the dead.

Interestingly, Second Maccabees was written about 100 years before Christ, and so the idea of purification after death would have been known and believed in by many Jews during Jesus’ lifetime. While our Lord never mentions this notion explicitly, neither does He deny or correct it.

The Gospel of Matthew, in fact, may be cited to show Jesus supported the teaching of purification of sin after death. In 12:32 He says, “And whoever says a word against the Son of man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” Setting aside the question of the unforgivable sin, Jesus discloses that some sins may be forgiven in “the age to come.” Considering the way Jesus uses this term in other places (Mark 10:30, 13:39-40; Luke 18:20, 20:35; Matthew 28:20), He is certainly referring to a time of life after death and so provides a divine foundation for the Church’s current teaching on Purgatory.

The concept of Purgatory originates in our need to be absolutely free from sin to enter into Heaven. Yet, people do die imperfectly purified, as witnessed to in the Scriptures. It is necessary, then, for God to provide a way of purgation, or Purgatory, for those souls to enter into His Presence. Such is found explicitly in the Old Testament and implicitly in the teachings of Jesus Himself. So, make sure to pray for the souls in Purgatory so that they may more quickly gain admittance to Heaven.

Father Seth Brown is pastor of Mother of Dolors in Vandalia and St. Joseph in Ramsey. He is also chaplain of Our Sorrowful Mother’s Ministry, chaplain of the Vandalia Correctional Center, and research theologian for the Diocesan Curia