Purgatory (Origin, History + Everything you need to Know)

As a long-time Christian, I like to research every doctrine Biblically. In the past year, I have been researching Purgatory. This doctrine is prevalent in the Catholic Church, and this prompted me to visit the local Catholic Church for insight. Within three weeks of insightful discussions with the Brothers and the Catechist, I left with all the information regarding this doctrine. Last Sunday, members of my online Bible forum debated on the existence of Purgatory. One gentleman argued that it was a delusional concept invented by people with attachment issues to their departed family members. Another lady refuted this and argued that it provided hope for those going through loss. There was a back-and-forth argument that polarized the group concerning this matter. Since I had all the required information, I was the right person to put the issue to rest. Thus, I gave a one-hour lesson on Purgatory.

According to several Christian denominations, especially the Catholic Church, Purgatory refers to a transitional state after a person’s corporeal death for expiative refinement. The process involves the ultimate purification of the elect’s souls through a cleansing fire that is completely distinct from the punishment of the damned souls in hellfire.

In this article, I will take you on an expedition that will discuss the concept of Purgatory and so much more. Welcome aboard as we delve into this fascinating subject matter.

Purgatory Origin and history

Purgatory Origin
Purgatory Origin. Image source: Pixabay

What is purgatory?

According to Roman Catholic and medieval Christian doctrines, Purgatory is the place of interim punishment in which the souls that died in a state of grace are purified for Heaven. The process of purging is postmortem suffering that will not last forever. Even though these souls have their sins forgiven, they are still culpable of experiencing a form of transient punishment prior to their admittance to Heaven because nothing desecrated will enter God’s abode. In Purgatory, they must work out their salvation through suffering and purification so that they are adequately liberated from the flaws they had acquired while living in the world.

Where did the concept of Purgatory come from?

The concept of Purgatory as a physical realm has its roots in Western Europe at the culmination of the 12th century. In 1274 at the Second Council of Lyon, the Catholic Church, for the first time, defined its doctrine on Purgatory. The concept of Purgatory came into existence in early Christian literature due to the accomplishment and imagination of medieval Christian piety. The perception of Purgatory made a profound impact in the Middle Ages on Western society.

History of Purgatory

The term ‘purgatory’ first appeared between 1160 and 1180. The history of Purgatory emanates from the Roman Catholic tradition of praying for the dead during their intermediate state since the time prior to Jesus Christ. The Catholic church uses biblical support for Purgatory as an afterlife purification in 2 Maccabees 12:42-45 whereby the doctrine states that prayers for the dead are effective and that probably Judas anticipated his purification offering to blot out punitive actions. It illustrates the belief in penance for sins and the resurrection of the just and good souls that died.

Based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Purgatory was embraced for souls that existed since the dawn of time to transition from death to their destination. In addition, the Catholic Church believes that the doctrine emanated from the ancient Christian tradition that was originally granted to them from Heaven. The Catholic Church’s practice of praying for the dead was equally defined in the Council of Florence from 1438-1445 and the Council of Trent from 1545-1563.

Purgatory concept in Christianity

Purgatory History 
Purgatory concept in Christianity. Image source: Pixabay


In Catholicism, it is believed that souls that die in God’s grace and relationship but are still lacking refinement experience a process of purification in Purgatory so that they can attain the holiness required to enter Heaven. The Catholic Church also premises the concept of praying for the dead according to 2 Maccabees 12:46, whereby there is an expiative sacrifice offered for the souls to deliver them from their sin. It identifies purgatory as the after-death purification of souls as a process rather than a physical place with fire.

Catholic’s teaching about Purgatory

At the Second Council of Lyon, the Council of Florence, and the Council of Trent, the Catholic Church defined its teaching about Purgatory as the existence of souls purified after death that benefit from the prayers, suffrages, and virtuous duties of the living. The offerings from the living, such as prayers, almsgiving, acts of sacrifice, and other duties of piety, relieve the souls from these punishments. The Catholic Church also believes that during the celebration of the Eucharist, souls in Purgatory are purified and attain a complete remission of the punishment of their sins to enter Heaven.

What is the role of Purgatory in the Catholic Church?

According to Catholicism, the purpose of Purgatory is to help the souls of the dead to atone for their sins. If the souls die repentant before they have worthy fruits for the atonement of committed or omitted sins, their souls are purified via cleansing punishments after death. Additionally, purgatory renders the prayers of the souls for the living efficacious due to the virtues of the saints in Heaven, in Purgatory, and on Earth.

How are sin and the concept of Purgatory related according to the Catholic Church?

Purgatory - Everything you need to Know
Sin vs Purgatory according to the Catholic Church. Image source: Freepik

According to the Catholic Church, souls committed mortal sins with deliberate consent and knowledge and must experience purgatory for purification. Sin is considered a grave matter because it causes marginalization from God’s kingdom. Sin also makes people unworthy of eternal life but worthy of punishment or eternal damnation in hell, as illustrated in Romans 6:23. The sins impede a soul’s progress in the implementation of virtues and moral good and make a soul deserve temporal punishment for purification. Purgatory is not regarded as a form of vengeance imposed by God but as refinement from sin. It can be compared to a gradual rehabilitation process of purification from any addiction for a soul to appear before the divine presence of God.

Eastern Orthodox

Eastern Orthodox theology does not use the term purgatory but acknowledges a transitional state following death and preceding the final judgment and thus extends prayers on behalf of the dead. They teach that while souls experience individual judgment immediately after death, they do not undergo a state punishment, with several exceptions for righteous souls like the Blessed Virgin Mary. They also hold that it is essential to believe in this transitional after-death state where souls are perfected and receive complete divinization, which is a process of growth instead of punishment.

The Eastern Orthodox Church does not illustrate the situation of the dead as pertaining to fire or suffering, although it depicts it as a dreadful place called Hades. This is especially if the souls departed without bringing forth fruits worthy of repentance that may be abetted towards the accomplishment of a blessed resurrection.


Generally, Protestant churches reject the doctrine of Purgatory for being an unbiblical doctrine as they believe that salvation is only obtained by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, as illustrated in Ephesians 2:8. However, they teach of the existence of a transitional phase without consciousness whereby a soul enters a state of soul sleep after death and before the resurrection. They also believe that the soul in that interim state is cognizant of the fate that awaits it and that there are no second chances. The overall Protestant standpoint is that the Bible excludes deuterocanonical books such as 2 Maccabees and thus does not provide any explicit depiction of Purgatory.


According to Judaism, there is no purgatory, but a place known as Gehenna, which is an intermediate state of the purification of souls. In this state, the souls whose virtues and sins offset each other float up and down until they are purified into a fire that refines them as gold and silver. However, the righteous and the sinners from Israel whom Abraham intercedes for due to the Abrahamic covenant are not affected by Gehenna fire as they pass through this transitional state. In rabbinic literature, Gehenna, as a place of purification in the fire, was to encourage the obedience of the Torah commandments.

Concept of Purgatory in other religions


According to Islam, Purgatory is known as Jahannam. It is conceptualized as an interim place for Muslim sinners that would cease to exist if they repented.


In the Hindu religious conviction, Purgatory is known as Naraka. It is a place for the purification of Hindu souls.


According to Zoroastrian eschatology, souls in the afterlife will receive purification in melted metal.


In Mandaean cosmology, after death, the soul must experience numerous purgatories before entering Heaven, which is considered the ultimate world of light. Mandaeans believe in the purification of souls within Leviathan, also identified as Ur.


According to medieval Chinese Buddhists, the dead go through numerous trials in the afterlife. Thus, the living make offerings on behalf of the dead.

Representations of Purgatory in modern culture

Purgatory - Origin
Representations of Purgatory in modern culture. Image source: Freepik

Purgatory is represented in modern popular culture diversely through poems, games, movies, and series. A picture-perfect representation of Purgatory is evident in Dante Alighieri’s poem, known as the Divine Comedy. In the poem, Dante illustrates purgatory as an enormous mountain with seven terraces that characterize several deadly sins. The souls in this place must experience every single terrace to purify themselves from their sins. The more a soul goes through the terraces, the more they ascend through the mountain and attain purity. According to the poem, Purgatory is depicted as a place of hope and redemption where each soul can recompense for their sins.

Purgatory is the key premise of a projected 3D role-playing game known as Graywalkers: Purgatory. The game’s environment is a post-apocalyptic realm where the afterlife fuses with humanity. Angels and demons battle with each other over the fate of human lives, and thirty-six heroes known as Graywalkers surface to assist the angels. The creator of the game stated that Graywalkers: Purgatory is a game of action and consequence, whereby the player’s actions will suggest the ultimate outcome of the game. The game equally has religious connotations of the Catholic faith that support Purgatory, where characters such as Father Rueben put on traditional Catholic garments with the supplementary implementation of innovative weapons and Catholic themed tattoos.

The concept of Purgatory is also featured in the popular television show known as Sleepy Hollow, which premiered on the Fox Network in 2013. According to the show, protagonist Katrina Crane is taken to Purgatory, which is perceived as a paranormal waiting bay for souls that are eternally destined for either Heaven or hell. This version of Purgatory is a maze of temptation meant to contain souls indefinitely. Additionally, if you are offered any food or drink, you must not accept it because the reality that is presented to you will appear entirely true, even if it is an illusion. Every aspect of you will want to embrace the false reality, but if you do, you will be trapped in that state for all eternity. This is an alteration from the Catholic doctrinal notion of Purgatory, envisioned as a place where souls are destined for Heaven and focus on atonement rather than temptation.

Purgatory is also represented in the Supernatural television show at the finale of season 7, where Dean and Sam Winchester defeat Leviathan, and Dean is banished to Purgatory. Here, Purgatory is illustrated as a thick forest that is always foggy, gloomy, and dark with monsters and other creatures that craft weapons. Dean describes the place as nasty but pure due to its prey and predator nature that depict trials. It corresponds to the Catholic teaching that Purgatory involves a place for purification with difficult trials.

Differences between purgatory, limbo, and hell





Origin of Concept

Official teaching of the Catholic Church and is acknowledged as a dogma

Theological notion or belief within Catholicism but was discarded by the pope in 2007

Concept recognized in the Christian faith

Permanent or Temporary

Believed to be a temporary place where the souls that are there are to ultimately transition to Heaven after purification

Believed to be a permanent state where the souls never get an opportunity to enter Heaven

Believed to be a permanent place or situation of great suffering and torment through fire and brimstone

Types of Souls therein

The place is meant for souls that died knowing Jesus Christ but must still be purified and cleansed of an underlying venial sin.

The place was mainly meant for the souls of unbaptized children who had committed no other sin other than the sin that every human being possesses, known as the original sin or Adam sin.

The place is meant for the souls of the wicked and the damned that refused to acknowledge the saving grace of Jesus Christ and hence are eternally being punished for the sins they committed while living on Earth.

Biblical arguments that support the concept of Purgatory (bible verses that mention the concept of Purgatory)

Purgatory-Everything you need to Know
Bible verses that mention the concept of Purgatory. Image source: Pixabay

According to 2 Maccabees 12:45, Purgatory is implied when noble Judas Maccabee requested for prayers and sacrifices for the souls of the fallen soldiers who committed idolatry shortly prior to their death. Catholics argue that this beseeching by the living implied of the existence of Purgatory and that there is hope to blot out sins even beyond death for souls that defiled themselves.

As Isaiah 4:4 asserts, the Lord will wash away the filth of the people of Zion and purge the blood of Jerusalem from them through the spirit of judgment and burning. Catholics argue that this context refers to the fire of judgment, which alludes to the doctrine of Purgatory.

According to Matthew 5:25-26, people are advised to quickly come to terms with their adversary lest they are thrown into prison until they have paid every penny. Various Roman Catholics argue that not being released from prison refers to Purgatory and that the last penny is the final payment for the purgation of sins.

According to Matthew 12:32, anyone who speaks against Jesus Christ will be forgiven, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven both in this life and in the afterlife. Catholics claim that this verse has an indirect reference to Purgatory as Jesus left open the likelihood of forgiveness in the next life.

As 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 affirms, Jesus Christ laid the foundation for builders to choose carefully how to build on it. If a person builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of every builder will be manifested. This is because the Day of the Lord will reveal it with fire that assesses the kind of work each has done. If the work built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward, but if it burns up, he will experience loss but will be saved through fire. Catholics argue that this passage refers to the refining fire of Purgatory.

According to Hebrews 9:27, mortals die once and then face judgment afterward. Catholics believe that these two events occur immediately after each other, whereby a person dies, and then there is a judgment to conclude their destination to Purgatory for further purification.

Arguments that oppose the concept of Purgatory

Various scholars argue that according to Isaiah 4:4, the refining fire is not purgatory but addresses God refining people in this life, not the afterlife. They contend that although the Scripture describes fire as purification, Purgatory has no biblical reference as it states nothing about a purifying process between death and resurrection that the soul must experience. They further argue that the concept of Purgatory is misconstrued and contradicts the clear teachings of the Bible.

According to 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, being saved through fire does not refer to Purgatory but the works of a person and not their soul. Additionally, this fire occurs on judgment day and not in the intermediate state.

Another standpoint held by those that oppose Purgatory is that faith alone is what attains eternal salvation and not purgatory, as illustrated in Romans 2:8. Souls saved by Christ are destined for Heaven. In contrast, those not saved will be barred from Heaven.

In addition, according to Matthew 5:25-26, Jesus encourages people to settle their differences before it gets to the judge and that paying the last penny has nothing to do with paying for sin in Purgatory.

Furthermore, Hebrews 9:27 does not specifically address that judgment for Purgatory comes immediately after death. It will only occur when Christ returns and resurrects the dead in future. The moral advancement of the soul, either for better or for worse, ends at the very moment of death. This occurs during the separation of the body and soul. At that moment, the definite destiny of the soul in eternity is forever decided by God the Creator and judge, and there is no means of repentance or help from the world of the living. Thus, there is no place of purging, purgatorial punishment, or a transitional state after death in which souls are purified of all sins to enter Heaven.

Moreover, Matthew 12:32 implies that the phrase this world and the next simply referred to never and not purgatory.

Scholars equally argue that the concept of Purgatory in 2 Maccabees has no significance at all for believers because it is excluded from the text of sacred Scripture. Hence, anything it proclaims is not to be regarded as the gospel truth as there is no biblical support whatever for the idea of any soul going through Purgatory after death to pay off sins in the next life prior to entering Heaven.

Praying for souls in Purgatory

Purgatory - Everything you need to Know
Praying for souls in Purgatory. Image source: Pixabay

Should you pray for souls in Purgatory?

According to the Catholic Church belief system, you should pray for souls in Purgatory. Souls in Purgatory go through suffering, and people can help and relieve them through prayers and pious actions.

How do you pray for souls in Purgatory?

According to the Catholic Church, this is how to pray for souls in Purgatory:

Pray the Novena

To pray for the souls in purgatory, pray the All Souls Novena to the Holy Souls by St. Alphonsus Liguori.

Pray the Holy Souls Rosary prayer after Mass.

After the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the Holy Rosary is the most powerful prayer. Have Masses said for your departed loved ones, especially on the anniversary of their death. Practice the tradition of praying for the souls in Purgatory between the decades of your daily rosary.

Pray special prayers

Offer daily spontaneous and special prayers throughout the day for the souls in Purgatory. Pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet for the intention of the Holy Souls, The Way of The Cross for Souls in Purgatory, and the Office of the Dead. Additionally, pray for the souls before and after meals as a surefire way to remember them daily. Consider using purgatory books with additional prayers and special supplications for the departed souls.

Full and partial indulgences

Earn indulgences through pious actions to lessen or offset the temporal punishment that souls incur due to sin. If you visit an oratory or Catholic Church on All Souls Day and recite the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, you can earn a complete indulgence for the souls in Purgatory. The first eight days of the month, From November 1 to November 8, is devoted to the Holy Souls, where a full indulgence for the poor souls is granted to people who visit a cemetery and pray for the departed souls. Partial indulgences are granted to people who visit a graveyard and pray Vespers of the Office of the Dead, the short Eternal Rest prayer, or Lauds for the departed souls.

Holy Communion Prayer

Offer up your Holy Communions for the souls in Purgatory.

Eucharistic adoration

Through the Eucharistic adoration, visit the Blessed Sacrament to make deeds of recompense to the Sacred Heart of Jesus on behalf of the souls in Purgatory.

Sacrifices and self-denial

Make sacrifices and carry out various deeds of self-denial and offer penances up throughout the day for the souls in Purgatory.

Practice almsgiving

Give alms to the poor as a penance offered for the souls in Purgatory. Almsgiving is believed to purge all sins and save souls from eternal death.

Intercession of saints

Request for the intercession of saints acknowledged to be great friends of the Holy Souls during their lifetime. Welcome them to join you in prayer to release the faithful souls that departed.

Holy water

Sprinkle holy water on the ground or on the graves to remember the departed souls. The practice is believed to be for the spiritual benefit of the souls suffering in Purgatory.


Repent of your sins against God and go to confession to make your prayers for the poor souls more efficient.

Works of piety

Spread piety for the departed souls and make people aware of the dire need the suffering souls have for prayers.

Can souls in purgatory pray for each other?

According to the Catholic Church, souls in Purgatory cannot pray for each other. In purgatory, souls can no longer pray for themselves in that intermediate state. Additionally, Catholics believe that souls in purgatory lose the power to pray, and it is only the living that can pray for them.

Can souls in purgatory pray for the living?

According to the Catholic Church, souls in Purgatory can pray for the living. They can pray out of gratitude for the prayers and sacrifices, and acts of piousness by the living. Additionally, they can pray for the living to request for more intercession from their state of suffering.

Prayers for souls in Purgatory

The following are prayers offered by the Catholics for souls in Purgatory:

The prayer of St. Gertrude for souls in Purgatory

Eternal Father, I offer Thee the Most Precious Blood of Thy Divine Son, Jesus, in union with the Masses said throughout the world today, for all the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for sinners everywhere, for sinners in the universal church, those in my own home and within my family. Amen.

Eternal rest prayer

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And let the perpetual light shine upon them. And may the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Prayer for the souls in Purgatory

O Lord, who art ever merciful and bounteous with Thy gifts, look down upon the suffering souls in Purgatory. Remember not their offenses and negligence, but be mindful of Thy loving mercy from all eternity. Cleanse them of their sins and fulfill their ardent desires that they may be made worthy to behold Thee face to face in Thy glory. May they soon be united with Thee and hear those blessed words which will call them to their heavenly home: “Come, blessed of My Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Amen.

What happens in Purgatory?

What happens in Purgatory? Image source: Pixabay

According to the Catholic Church, the souls in purgatory experience a dual pain comprising the pain of loss, which is the delay of the Beatific Vision, and the pain of sense, which is the fire of Purgatory. The departed souls in Purgatory experience the purification suffering of love known as satispassion. Because the souls cannot be purified by their own efforts, they atone for their sins by experiencing a refining suffering that re-establishes purity and holiness. The departed souls in purgatory embrace their ultimate entry to Heaven with faith, hope, and love.

What happens after Purgatory?

It is believed that all souls will ultimately enter Heaven after Purgatory. It is simply a matter of how immense their attachments were to the earthly life and venial sins. Therefore, the Catholic Church has always encouraged its members to pray for the souls in Purgatory as the prayers can enable them to enter Heaven much sooner.

How long does a soul stay in Purgatory?

The duration of a soul’s stay in Purgatory is not defined in the Catholic faith. There is no official teaching on the duration of Purgatory, and several scholastic theologians like St Thomas Aquinas define the unknown duration as ‘aeviternity.’ It is a measure of time that is different from the living and which is suitable to the angels and may also be applied to the duration of time in Purgatory. It has a beginning but no specific end because it is characteristic of souls that have been created at a particular moment in time but are destined for eternal life.

The duration is not established by a series of physical transformations or events but by the succession of the soul’s thoughts and emotions. Thus, the concept of time does not hold true in the state of Purgatory. Their period of suffering and purification may depend on the depth of their sins.

How can a soul get out of Purgatory?

According to the Catholic faith, a soul cannot get out of Purgatory unless it is going to Heaven as the final destination. To get to Heaven, the soul is purified by means of the sacraments, offering of the Eucharist, prayers, almsgiving, and good works by the living and the saints.

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