Purgatory according to the Church Fathers

The Early Church Fathers believed in prayers for the dead. The Latin theological perspective on Purgatory simply did not begin in the 13th century, but is ancient and Apostolic in its origins.

Clement of Alexandria


If a man departs this life with lighter faults, he is condemned to fire which burns away the lighter materials, and prepares the soul for the kingdom of God, where nothing defiled may enter. For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones (I Cor., 3); but also wood and hay and stubble, what do you expect when the soul shall be separated from the body? Would you enter into heaven with your wood and hay and stubble and thus defile the kingdom of God; or on account of these hindrances would you remain without and receive no reward for your gold and silver and precious stones? Neither is this just. It remains then that you be committed to the fire which will burn the light materials; for our God to those who can comprehend heavenly things is called a cleansing fire. But this fire consumes not the creature, but what the creature has himself built, wood, and hay and stubble. It is manifest that the fire destroys the wood of our transgressions and then returns to us the reward of our great works. (Patres Groeci. XIII, col. 445, 448 [A.D. 185-232]).

"As John stood near the Jordan among those who came to be baptized, accepting those who confessed their vices and their sins and rejecting the rest ... so will the Lord Jesus Christ stand in a river of fire next to a flaming sword and Baptize all those who should go to Paradise after they die, but who lack purgation... But those who do not bear the mark of the first Baptism will not be baptized in the bath of fire. One must first be Baptized in water and Spirit so that,  when the river of fire is reached, the marks of the baths of water and Spirit will remain as signs that one is worthy of receiving the Baptism of fire in Jesus Christ." (Origen, Commentary on Luke, 24th Homily, before 253 A.D)


The citizen of a prominent city, I erected this while I lived, that I might have a resting place for my body. Abercius is my name, a disciple of the chaste shepherd who feeds his sheep on the mountains and in the fields, who has great eyes surveying everywhere, who taught me the faithful writings of life. Standing by, I, Abercius, ordered this to be inscribed; truly I was in my seventy-second year. May everyone who is in accord with this and who understands it pray for Abercius (Epitaph of Abercius [A.D. 190]).


That allegory of the Lord [Matt. 5:25-26] . . . is extremely clear and simple in its meaning . . . [beware lest as] a transgressor of your agreement, before God the judge . . . and lest this judge deliver you over to the angel who is to execute the sentence, and he commit you to the prison of hell, out of which there will be no dismissal until the smallest even of your delinquencies be paid off in the period before the resurrection. What can be a more fitting sense than this? What a truer interpretation? (The Soul 35 [A.D. 210]).

"This place, the Bosom of Abraham, though not in Heaven, and yet above hell, offers the souls of the righteous an interim refreshment until the end of all things brings about the general resurrection and the final reward." (Tertullian, Against Marcion, 4:34, before 220 A.D.)

"Indeed she [a widow] prays for his [her husband's] soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection [Heaven].  And each year, on the anniversity of his death, she offers the Sacrifice [i.e., has a Mass said for him]."  (Tertullian, On Monagomy, 212 A.D.) 


It is one thing to stand for pardon, another thing to attain to glory; it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing; another thing at once to receive the wages of faith and courage. It is one thing, tortured by long suffering for sins, to be cleansed and long purged by fire; another to have purged all sins by suffering. It is one thing, in fine, to be in suspense till the sentence of God at the Day of judgment; another to be at once crowned by the Lord (Letters 51[55]:20 [A.D. 253]).

Cyril of Jerusalem

Then we make mention also of those who have already fallen asleep: first, the patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs, that through their prayers and supplications God would receive our petition, next, we make mention also of the holy fathers and bishops who have already fallen asleep, and, to put it simply, of all among us who have already fallen asleep. For We believe that it will be of very great benefit to the souls of those for whom the petition is carried up, while this holy and most solemn sacrifice is laid out (Catechetical Lectures 23:5:9 [A.D. 350]).

John Chrysostom

Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice [Job l:5), why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them (Homilies on First Corinthians 41:5 (A.D. 392)).

Not in vain was it decreed by the apostles that in the awesome mysteries remembrance should be made of the departed. They knew that here there was much gain for them, much benefit. When the entire people stands with hands uplifted, a priestly assembly, and that awesome sacrificial victim is laid out, how, when we are calling upon God, should we not succeed in their defense? But this is done for those who have departed in the faith, while even the catechumens are not reckoned .is worthy of this consolation, but are deprived of every means of assistance except one. And what is that? We may give alms to the poor on their behalf (Homilies on Philippians 3:9-10 [A.D. 402]).

Ambrose of Milan

Give perfect rest to thy servant Theodosius, that rest which thou hast prepared for thy saints… I have loved him, and therefore will I follow him into the land of the living; nor will I leave him until by tears and prayers I shall lead him wither his merits summon him, unto the holy mountain of the Lord (Funeral Sermon of Theodosius 36-37 [A.D. 395]).


There is an ecclesiastical discipline, as the faithful know, when the names of the martyrs are read aloud in that place at the altar of God, where prayer is not offered for them. Prayer, however, is offered for other dead who are remembered. It is wrong to pray for a martyr, to whose prayers we ought ourselves be commended (Sermons 159:1 [A.D. 411]).

Temporal punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by some after death, by some both here and hereafter, but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But not all who suffer temporal punishments after death will come to eternal punishments, which are to follow after that judgment (The City of God 21:13 [A.D. 419]).

That there should be some fire even after this life is not incredible, and it can be inquired into and either be discovered or left hidden whether some of the faithful may be saved, some more slowly and some more quickly in the greater or lesser degree in which they loved the good things that perish, through a certain purgatorial fire (Handbook on Faith, Hope, and Charity l8:69 [A.D. 421])

St. Perpetua - 3rd century martyr

An African Latin-speaker like Tertullian, her memoirs were documented during her incarceration. At about A.D. 203  she writes ...

"I saw a vision of Dinocrates going out from a gloomy place, where also there were several others.  He was parched and very thirsty, with a filthy countenance and pallid color; the wound on his face that he had when he died.  This Dinocrates had been my brother after the flesh, seven years of age, who died miserably with disease.  For him I had made my prayer; and between him and me there was a large interval, so that neither of us could approach to the other.   And I knew that my brother was in suffering, but I trusted that my prayer would bring help to his suffering; and I prayed for him every day until we passed over into the prison of the camp, for we were to fight in a camp show.   Then I made my prayer for my brother day and night, groaning and weeping, that he might be granted to me.  Then, on the day that we remained in fetters, this was shown to me:  I saw that that place which I had formerly observed to be in gloom was now bright; and Dinocrates, with a clean body, well clad, was finding refreshment.  He went away from the water to play joyously, after the manner of children; and I woke from this vision.   Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment."  (Acts of the Martyrdom of Felicity and Perpetua, Chapters iii-x)

Origin's fellow Alexandrian, St. Clement

"In the other life there will be two fires, a 'devouring and consuming' one for the incorrigible, and for the rest, a fire that 'sanctifies' and 'does not consume, like the fire of the forge,' a 'prudent, intelligent' fire which penetrates the soul that passes through it." (Clement of Alexandria, Stromata 8.6, c. before 215 A.D.)

St. Basil the Great ...

"...and if they [i.e., Christians who die] are found to have any wounds from their wrestling, any stains or effects of sin, they are detained.  If, however, they are found unwounded and without stain, they are, as unconquered, brought by Christ into their rest."  (Basil, Homilies and Psalms, 370 A.D.) 
And St. Basil's own brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa declares ...

"...he [the departed soul] is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by purifying fire."  (Sermon on the Dead) 

My Friend Mark Bonocore adds:

While all this is of course in an organic form, and not developed according to the Latin dogmatic definition of Purgatory, one cannot deny that the Tradition existed in the universal Church from earliest times.  Thus, all Apostolic Christians (whether Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic) must accept the fact that some kind of purification takes place for souls who are not fully sanctified (i.e., deified) in this life --that is, who did not die as true Christian saints; and that the prayers of the faithful can assist these departed souls in becoming fully conformed to the holiness of Christ. This is all that the dogma of Purgatory essentially teaches.  

Source: www.StayCatholic.com

Here's how John Pacheco explains it:

Empty Cup: Soul before baptism, lack of sanctifying grace
Water: Sanctifying Grace
Act of pouring water into cup: Infusion of sanctifying grace through the act of baptizing
Commission of Venial Sin: Water in cup becomes dirty
Commission of Mortal Sin: Water is poured out of cup
Act of True Repentance via Sacrament of Reconciliation: Pure Water is poured back into cup
Purgatory: Water is poured through filter and cleansed
Purpose in life: Let Jesus' water be in the cup: no water in cup; no salvation.


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Justification by Faith alone
Flow Chart of Catholic Doctrine
Sheol, Hell and Hades


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