The Church Fathers on Purgatory

The Church Fathers on Purgatory and Prayers for the Dead with Commentary


Comments from the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), article on "purgatory":

"The proofs for the Catholic position, both in Scripture and in Tradition, are bound up also with the practice of praying for the dead. For why pray for the dead, if there be no belief in the power of prayer to afford solace to those who as yet are excluded from the sight of God? So true is this position that prayers for the dead and the existence of a place of purgation are mentioned in conjunction in the oldest passages of the Fathers, who allege reasons for succouring departed souls. Those who have opposed the doctrine of purgatory have confessed that prayers for the dead would be an unanswerable argument if the modern doctrine of a 'particular judgment' had been received in the early ages. But one has only to read the testimonies hereinafter alleged to feel sure that the Fathers speak, in the same breath, of oblations for the dead and a place of purgation; and one has only to consult the evidence found in the catacombs to feel equally sure that the Christian faith there expressed embraced clearly a belief in judgment immediately after death."

Comments from the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967), article on "purgatory":

"The Fathers in general are clear in their affirmation of the existence of purgatory. This is not to deny that some time was needed to formulate a clear and definitive idea of the purification to take place in the other world, for varying eschatological views prevented in the early centuries a uniform presentation of its nature. The witness of the Fathers to the fact of such purification after death, therefore, is beyond doubt; their explanation of the purifying process has as much validity as the reasons advanced by each one. One thing is certain: the primitive Church never accepted the belief that in each and every instance the eternal beatitude of the just began immediately after death....In addition, prayers and other good works were offered for the departed souls as a matter of common practice. There can be no doubt, then, that the widespread belief of the early Church, as shown by many of the Fathers (see Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Ephraem, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Caesarius of Arles, and Gregory the Great...) and as evidenced by the liturgy, demanded the existence of a state after death in which the souls of the just would be fully purified from any remains of sin before entering heaven." (NCE, volume 11, page 1035-6)

Comments by Jacques Le Goff, author of The Birth of Purgatory [University of Chicago Press, 1984]

Excerpts from chapter 2 "The Fathers of Purgatory" -- these I find to be highly relevant passages from this chapter:

From the Old Testament, Clement [of Alexandria] and Origen took the notion that fire is a divine instrument, and from the New Testament the idea of baptism by fire (from the Gospels) and the idea of a purificatory trial after death (from Paul). The notion of fire as a divine instrument comes from commonly cited interpretations of Old Testament passages [ e.g. Lev 10:1-2; Deut 32:22; Jer 15:14; cf. Luke 3:16].... (page 53)

Origen's conceptions were more detailed and far reaching than Clement's. As we have seen, Origen thought that all men, even the righteous, must be tried by fire, since no one is absolutely pure. Every soul is tainted by the mere fact of its union with the flesh....Origen and Clement agree that there are two kinds of sinners, or, rather, that there are the righteous, whose only taint is that inherent in human nature (rupos, later translated into Latin as sordes), and the sinners properly so called, who bear the extra burden of sins that in theory are mortal (pros thanaton amartia, or peccata in Latin).... (page 54,55)

For Clement of Alexandria, the 'intelligent' fire that enters into the sinner's soul was not a material thing...but neither was it a mere metaphor: it was a 'spiritual' fire (Stromata 7:6 and 5:14)....what is involved [in Origen's view] is a purificatory fire, which, though immaterial, is not merely a metaphor: it is real but spiritual, subtle....Origen's eschatological notions were highly personal...He believed that the souls of the righteous would pass through the fire of judgment in an instant and would reach Paradise on the eighth day after Judgment Day.... (page 55,56)

Thus, if Origen glimpsed the future Purgatory, still his idea of Purgatory was so overshadowed by his eschatology and his idea of Hell as a temporary abode that ultimately it vanishes from view. Nevertheless, it was Origen who clearly stated for the first time the idea that the soul can be purified in the other world after death. For the first time a distinction was drawn between mortal and lesser sins. We even see three categories beginning to take shape: the righteous, who pass through the fire of judgment and go directly to heaven; those guilty of the lesser sins only, who sojourn in the 'fire of combustion' is brief; and 'mortal sinners,' who remain in the flames for an extended period. Origen actually develops the metaphor introduced by Paul in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.... (page 56,57)

In this period [of the fourth century] Christian thought concerning the fate of the soul after death was based mainly on the vision of Daniel (Dan 7:9) and on a passage from Paul (1 Cor 3:10-15), and less frequently on Tertullian's idea of refrigerium and Origen's concept of a purifying fire....Lactantius (d. after 317) believed that all who died, including the righteous, would be tried by fire, but not until the Last Judgment [cites Instit 7:21 Migne PL 6:800]...Hilary of Poitiers (d. 367), Ambrose (d. 397), Jerome (d. 419/420), and the unidentified writer known as Ambrosiaster, who lived in the second half of the fourth century, all had ideas on the fate of the soul after death that make them heirs of Origen. (page 58,59)

[Ambrose] also clearly stated that the prayers of the living could help to relieve the suffering of the dead, that suffrages could be of use in mitigating the penalties meted out in the other world...[cites Ambrose on the Emperor Theodosius].... (page 60)

Ambrosiaster, if he adds little to what Ambrose has already said, is important because he is the author of the first real exegesis of 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. As such he had considerable influence on the medieval commentators on this passage, which played a key role in the inception of Purgatory, and in particular on the early scholastics of the twelfth century. Like Hilary and Ambrose, Ambrosiaster distinguishes three categories: the saints and the righteous, who will go directly to heaven at the time of the resurrection; the ungodly, apostates, infidels, and atheists, who will go directly into the fiery torments of Hell; and the ordinary Christians, who, though sinners, will first pay their debt and for a time be purified by fire but then go to Paradise because they had the faith...[then quotes Ambrosiaster on 1 Cor 3:15]... (page 61)

It was the role of Augustine, who left so deep an imprint on Christianity and who, in the Middle Ages, was regarded as probably the greatest of all the Christian 'authorities,' to have been the first to introduce a number of ingredients that later went to make up the doctrine of Purgatory....Augustine's importance in the history of Purgatory stems first from the terminology he introduced, which remained current through much of the Middle Ages. There are three key terms, the adjectives purgatorius, temporarius, or temporalis, and transitorius. 'Purgatorius' figured in the phrase 'poenae purgatoriae': I prefer to translate this as 'purgatorial punishments' rather than 'purificatory punishments,' the latter being too precise for Augustine's way of thinking (the phrase occurs in City of God 21:13 and 21:16). We also find tormenta purgatoria, purgatorial torments (in City of God 21:16), and ignis purgatorius, purgatorial fire (in Enchridion 69). Temporarius is used, for example, in the expression poenae temporariae, temporary punishments, which is contrasted with poenae sempiternae, eternal punishments (City of God 21:13). Poenae temporales is found in Erasmus's edition of the City of God (21:26)....  (page 61, 63)

Now for the Church Fathers on prayers for the dead, purgatory, and the development of the doctrine.

The Acts of Paul and Thecla

"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'." (Acts of Paul and Thecla [c. AD 160] or ANF VIII:490)


"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 [c. AD 190])

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity

"That very night, this was shown to me in a vision: I [Perpetua] saw Dinocrates going out from a gloomy place, where also there were several others, and he was parched and very thirsty, with a filthy countenance and pallid color, and the wound on his face which 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 the 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 on which we remained in fetters, this was shown to me: I saw that the place which I had formerly observed to be in gloom was now bright; and Dinocrates, with a clean body well clad, was finding refreshment....[And] he went away from the water to play joyously, after the manner of children, and I awoke. Then I understood that he was translated from the place of punishment." (The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity 2:3:4 [c. AD 202] or ANF III:701-702)

Origen of Alexandria

"For if on the foundation of Christ you have built not only gold and silver and precious stones [1 Corinthians 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." (Homilies on Jeremias [c. AD 244] or Migne PG 13:445,448)

St. Clement of Alexandria

"Accordingly the believer, through great discipline, divesting himself of the passions, passes to the mansion which is better than the former one, viz., to the greatest torment, taking with him the characteristic of repentance from the sins he has committed after baptism. He is tortured then still more -- not yet or not quite attaining what he sees others to have acquired. Besides, he is also ashamed of his transgressions. The greatest torments, indeed, are assigned to the believer. For God's righteousness is good, and His goodness is righteous. And though the punishments cease in the course of the completion of the expiation and purification of each one, yet those have very great and permanent grief who are found worthy of the other fold, on account of not being along with those that have been glorified through righteousness." (Stromata 6:14 [c. post AD 202] or ANF II:504)

Tertullian of Carthage

"That allegory of the Lord [Matt 5:25,26] which is extremely clear and simple in its meaning, and ought to be from the first understood in its plain and natural sense...Then, again, should you be disposed to apply the term 'adversary' to the devil, you are advised by the (Lord's) injunction, while you are in the way with him, 'to make even with him such a compact as may be deemed compatible with the requirements of your true faith. Now the compact you have made respecting him is to renounce him, and his pomp, and his angels. Such is your agreement in this matter. Now the friendly understanding you will have to carry out must arise from your observance of the compact: you must never think of getting back any of the things which you have abjured, and have restored to him, lest he should summon you as a fraudulent man, and a transgressor of your agreement, before God the Judge (for in this light do we read of him, in another passage, as 'the accuser of the brethren,' or saints, where reference is made to the actual practice of legal prosecution); 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?" (A Treatise on the Soul 35 [c. AD 210] or ANF III:216)

"All souls, therefore; are shut up within Hades: do you admit this? (It is true, whether) you say yes or no: moreover, there are already experienced there punishments and consolations; and there you have a poor man and a rich...Moreover, the soul executes not all its operations with the ministration of the flesh; for the judgment of God pursues even simple cogitations and the merest volitions. 'Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.' Therefore, even for this cause it is most fitting that the soul, without at all waiting for the flesh, should be punished for what it has done without the partnership of the flesh. So, on the same principle, in return for the pious and kindly thoughts in which it shared not the help of the flesh, shall it without the flesh receive its consolation. In short, inasmuch as we understand 'the prison' pointed out in the Gospel to be Hades, and as we also interpret 'the uttermost farthing' to mean the very smallest offence which has to be recompensed there before the resurrection, no one will hesitate to believe that the soul undergoes in Hades some compensatory discipline, without prejudice to the full process of the resurrection, when the recompense will be administered through the flesh besides." (A Treatise on the Soul 58 [c. AD 210] or ANF III:234-235)

"We offer sacrifices for the dead on their birthday anniversaries [the date of death or their birth into eternal life]." (The Crown 3:3 [c. AD 211] or ANF III:94)

"A woman, after the death of her husband....prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection. And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice." (Monogamy 10:1:2 [c. AD 216] or ANF III:66-67)

St. Cyprian of Carthage

"The strength of the truly believing remains unshaken; and with those who fear and love God with their whole heart, their integrity continues steady and strong. For to adulterers even a time of repentance is granted by us, and peace [or reconciliation] is given. Yet virginity is not therefore deficient in the Church, nor does the glorious design of continence languish through the sins of others. The Church, crowned with so many virgins, flourishes; and chastity and modesty preserve the tenor of their glory. Nor is the vigor of continence broken down because repentance and pardon are facilitated to the adulterer. 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 [c. AD 253] or ANF V:332)

Apostolic Constitutions

"Let us pray for our brethren that are at rest in Christ, that God, the lover of mankind, who has received his soul, may forgive him every sin, voluntary and involuntary, and may be merciful and gracious to him, and give him his lot in the land of the pious that are sent into the bosom of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, with all those that have pleased Him and done His will from the beginning of the world, whence all sorrow, grief, and lamentation are banished." (Apostolic Constitutions 8:4,41 [c. third Century] or ANF VII:497)

St. Lactantius

"But also, when God will judge the just, it is likewise in fire that he will try them. At that time, they whose sins are uppermost, either because of their gravity or their number, will be drawn together by the fire and will be burned. Those, however, who have been imbued with full justice and maturity of virtue, will not feel that fire; for they have something of God in them which will repel and turn back the strength of the flame." (Divine Institutes 7:21:6 [c. AD 307] or ANF VII:217)

St. 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."

"For I know that there are many who are saying this: 'If a soul departs from this world with sins, what does it profit it to be remembered in the prayer?'...[we] grant a remission of their penalties...we too offer prayers to Him for those who have fallen asleep though they be sinners. We do not plait a crown, but offer up Christ who has been sacrificed for our sins; and we thereby propitiate the benevolent God for them as well as for ourselves." (23 [Mystagogic 5], 8, 9, 10 [c. 350 AD] or NPNF2 VII:154-155)

St. Basil the Great

"I think that the noble athletes of God,who have wrestled all their lives with the invisble enemies,after they have escaped all of their persecutions and have come to the end of life, are examined by the prince of this world; and if they 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." (Homilies on the Psalms 7:2 [c. ante AD 370])

St. Ephraem of Syria

"Lay me not with sweet spices: for this honour avails me not; Nor yet incense and perfumes: for the honour benefits me not. Burn sweet spices in the Holy Place: and me, even me, conduct to the grave with prayer. Give ye incense to God: and over me send up hymns. Instead of perfumes of spices: in prayer make remembrance of me." (His Testament [c. ante AD 373] or NPNF2 XIII:135)

St. Epiphanius of Salamis

"Useful too is the prayer fashioned on their behalf [of the deceased], even if it does not force back the whole of guilty charges laid to them. And it is useful also, because in this world we often stumble either voluntarily or involuntarily, and thus it is a reminder to do better." (Panarion 75:8 or Medicine Chest Against All Heresies [c. AD 375])

St. Gregory of Nyssa

"If a man distinguish in himself what is peculiarly human from that which is irrational, and if he be on the watch for a life of greater urbanity for himself, in this present life he will purify himself of any evil contracted, overcoming the irrational by reason. If he has inclined to the irrational pressure of the passions, using for the passions the cooperating hide of things irrational, he may afterward in a quite different manner be very much interested in what is better, when, after his departure out of the body, he gains knowledge of the difference between virtue and vice and finds that he is not able to partake of divinity until he has been purged of the filthy contagion in his soul by the purifying fire." (Sermon on the Dead [c. AD 382] or Migne PG 13:445,448)

St. John Chrysostom

"Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice [Job 1:5], 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 [c. AD 392])

"Weep for those who die in their wealth and who with all their wealth prepared no consolation for their own souls, who had the power to wash away their sins and did not will to do it. Let us weep for them, let us assist them to the extent of our ability, let us think of some assistance for them, small as it may be, yet let us somehow assist them. But how, and in what way? By praying for them and by entreating others to pray for them, by constantly giving alms to the poor on their behalf. 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 as 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 3:4-10 [c. AD 402] or NPNF1 XIII:197)

St. Ambrose of Milan

"Give, oh Lord, rest to Thy servant Theodosius, that rest Thou hast prepared for Thy saints....I love him, therefore will I follow him to the land of the living; I will not leave him till by my prayers and lamentations he shall be admitted unto the holy mount of the Lord, to which his deserts call him." (De Obit Theodosii [c. AD 395] or Migne PL 16:1397)

St. Augustine of Hippo

"The man who has cultivated that remote land [Gen 3:17] and who has gotten his bread by his very great labor is able to suffer this labor to the end of this life. After this life, however, it is not necessary that he suffer. But the man who perhaps has not cultivated the land and has allowed it to be overrun with brambles has in this life the curse of his land on all his works, and after this life he will have either purgatorial fire or eternal punishment [habebit vel ignem purgationis vel poenam aeternam]." (De Genesi contra Manich 2:20:30 [c. AD 389])

"'Lord, rebuke me not in Your indignation, nor correct me in Your anger' [Psalm 38:1]...In this life may You cleanse me and make me such that I have no need of the corrective fire, which is for those who are saved, but as if by fire...for it is said: 'He shall be saved, but as if by fire' [1 Cor 3:15]. And because it is said that he shall be saved, little is thought of that fire. Yet plainly, though we be saved by fire, that fire will be more severe than anything a man can suffer in this life." (Explanations of the Psalms 37:3 [c. AD 392])

"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 [c. AD 411])

"But by the prayers of the holy Church, and by the salvific sacrifice, and by the alms which are given for their spirits, there is no doubt that the dead are aided, that the Lord might deal more mercifully with them than their sins would deserve. The whole Church observes this practice which was handed down by the Fathers: that it prays for those who have died in the communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, when they are commemorated in their own place in the sacrifice itself; and the sacrifice is offered also in memory of them, on their behalf. If, then, works of mercy are celebrated for the sake of those who are being remembered, who would hesitate to recommend them, on whose behalf prayers to God are not offered in vain? It is not at all to be doubted that such prayers are of profit to the dead; but for such of them as lived before their death in a way that makes it possible for these things to be useful to them after death." (Sermons 172:2)

"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 [ante iudicium illud severissimum novissimumque]. 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 [c. AD 413-426])

"The prayer either of the Church herself or of pious individuals is heard on behalf of certain of the dead; but it is heard for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not for the rest of their life in the body do such wickedness that they might be judged unworthy of such mercy, nor who yet lived so well that it might be supposed they have no need of such mercy." (The City of God 21:24:2)

"That there should be some such 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 [per ignem quemdam purgatorium]." (Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love 18:69 [c. AD 421] or NPNF1 III:260)

"The time which interposes between the death of a man and the final resurrection holds souls in hidden retreats, accordingly as each is deserving of rest or of hardship, in view of what it merited when it was living in the flesh. Nor can it be denied that the souls of the dead find relief through the piety of their friends and relatives who are still alive, when the Sacrifice of the Mediator [Mass] is offered for them, or when alms are given in the Church. But these things are of profit to those who, when they were alive, merited that they might afterward be able to be helped by these things. There is a certain manner of living, neither so good that there is no need of these helps after death, nor yet so wicked that these helps are of no avail after death." (Enchiridion of Faith, Hope, and Love 29:109)

Phil Porvaznik