Explaining Purgatory from a New Testament Perspective

Many times converts to Catholicism will say they never really understood the Bible until they began to read it with Catholic eyes. Passages they read many times began to take on new meaning. Doctrines, which seemed to be invisible, become readily apparent. Such is the doctrine of Purgatory. Many Protestants reject the theology of Purgatory because they do not find it in the New Testament. Like the doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of Purgatory is there, but the pieces of the puzzle have to be put together in order to clearly see the complete picture.

The theology of Purgatory begins, as all genuinely Christian theology must, from Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. I intend to focus primarily on the New Testament. That said, it must be understood that doctrine is not always clearly defined in Scripture. Some begin with a premise and then search the Scriptures to find supporting evidence to substantiate their beliefs; others study seeking understanding of God's will and design for mankind. Even the Ethiopian Eunuch recognized the need for proper interpretation of Scripture (Act 8:27-31). 

That the Scriptures do not interpret themselves is evidenced by the myriad of Christian denominations in existence today. Each denomination has the same basic New Testament as their foundation, yet there is little or no agreement concerning substantive doctrinal issues. Each person professes to rely on the Holy Spirit as guide and arbiter. It seems as if the Holy Spirit has a multiple personality disorder and instructs each person with a different truth. Argument can become vicious if the beliefs and presuppositions do violence to the given reality or if we expect a specific meaning to be clearly defined in the pages of a text, neat and self-explanatory. And as we are to deal with Purgatory, the search is made more difficult by centuries of bitter controversy often along denominational lines. It soon becomes evident that Purgatory is a test case for revealing and linking other beliefs, practices, and ideologies. It could be said, with only slight exaggeration, that to ask a Christian what he understands by Purgatory is the quickest way to discover what he believes concerning life after death, the relationship of Scripture to Tradition, the nature of the Church, sin and its forgiveness, prayer, etc.

I will endeavor to present the Catholic doctrine of purgatory in its most important aspects using the New Testament that all Christians hold as sacred Scripture. To this biblical foundation I will incorporate the historical origins and foundations of Purgatory from Jewish belief. 




Purgatory is "a state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God's friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven (CCC p. 896).


New Testament


Let's begin our study of the New Testament with 2 Cor. 12:2-4. St. Paul writes of a vision of the "third heaven" and "Paradise": "I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know that this man was caught up into Paradise--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows--and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter" (RSV).

Let's take a good look at this passage. First Paul speaks of the third heaven. He does not say that there are only three levels of heaven, or three heavens as Mormonism teaches, only that he (most scholars believe that Paul was referring to his own experience in this passage) had a vision of the third heaven. There are numerous Scripture passages in the Book of Genesis, which refer to heaven in the plural. Secondly, he states that he was also given a vision of paradise. Paradise is obviously separate from heaven.


Seventh Heaven


    When I was a boy, "He's/She's in seventh heaven" was a common expression. It was not until I began a study of Jewish belief and doctrine that I understood the origin of the expression. You see, Jews in Jesus' time believed in seven levels of heaven. The throne of God was situated in the seventh, or highest level of Heaven, hence, the expression: "He's in seventh heaven" indicating someone who was joyously happy. The significance of 7 in the Bible is fairly obvious; it means totality, fullness, completeness.
    The Book of Revelation states that nothing profane can be in the divine Presence. Where God is, there can only be pure and perfect love (Rev. 21:27).

Jewish legend tells us that on the first day of creation God produced ten things: the heavens and the earth, Tohu and Bohu (formlessness and emptiness), light and darkness, wind and water, the duration of the day and the duration of the night:

    "Several heavens were created, seven in fact, each to serve a distinct purpose. The first, the one visible to us, has no function except that of covering up the light during the nighttime; therefore it disappears every morning. The planets are fastened to the second of the heavens; in the third the manna is made for the pious in the hereafter; the fourth contains the celestial Jerusalem together with the Temple, in which Michael ministers as high priest, and offers the souls of the pious as sacrifices. In the fifth heaven, the angel hosts reside, and sing the praise of God, though only during the night, for by day it is the task of Israel on earth to give glory to God on high. The sixth heaven is an uncanny spot; there originate most of the trials and visitations ordained for the earth and its inhabitants. Snow lies heaped up there and hail; there are lofts full of noxious dew, magazines stocked with storms, and cellars holding reserves of smoke. Doors of fire separate these celestial chambers, which are under the supervision of the archangel Metatron. Their pernicious contents defiled the heavens until David's time. The pious king prayed to God to purge His exalted dwelling of whatever was pregnant with evil; it was not becoming that such things should exist near the Merciful One. Only then were they removed to the earth.
"The seventh heaven, on the other hand, contains only what is good and beautiful; right, justice, and mercy, the storehouses of life, peace, and blessing, the souls of the pious, the souls and spirits of unborn generations, the dew with which God will revive the dead on the resurrection day, and, above all, the Divine Throne, surrounded by the seraphim and ofanim, the holy Hayyot (the highest angelic beings), and the ministering angels." (The Legends of the Jews, Louis Ginzberg, Vol. 1, p. 8-9, 1937, Jewish Publication Society)




Jewish belief was there were also seven levels of the abode of the dead. The exact opposite of the seventh level of heaven is the seventh level of the abode of the dead, which was/is called Gehenna. As the seventh level of heaven is perfect love, then Gehenna would be the total absence of love, or perfect hate. One priest described it by saying that "if it were possible, a person in Gehenna would tear his own flesh from his body, because he has only perfect hatred, even for himself."

In the New Testament the matter is quite clear. In the first place, the word hell usually means the abode or state of the dead. And, in the second place, there is nothing more clearly and certainly taught in the New Testament than the reality of Gehenna. It is not just a figure of speech, and its torments are unimaginably severe and everlasting. The intensity of the suffering in Gehenna will depend upon the number and greatness of sins committed, and there will never be any lessening of that suffering. The greatest grief results from being separated from God, for the damned realize that they had been created only for God and because of their own foolishness and pride they have lost Him (Matt. 7:23; 25:10, 41). There is an additional punishment which God created, which we can call hell-fire (Matt. 13:42; 18:9). This fire is some agent outside the souls of the damned and causes them real pain and suffering. God manifested his justice by creating an eternal Gehenna, for the evil of a mortal sin is unlimited, and so the punishment for it must be without end.

When Jesus spoke of everlasting punishment, he did not use the words hades, or Sheol, he usually used the term Gehenna. To the south of ancient Jerusalem is a precipitous ravine, which stretches down and joins the Valley of Kidron. It was called by the Hebrews, Gei Ben-Hinnom - Ravine (or Valley) of the Son of Hinnom. It was in this valley, at a place called Tophet (probably "place of abomination") that Manasseh and the wicked inhabitants of Jerusalem went to worship idols and to sacrifice their sons and daughters (2 Kgs. 23:10; 2 Ch. 28:3; 33:56; Jer. 7:31; 19:2ff; 32:35). In fact, the Valley of Hinnom was set aside in Molech's honor.

The Torah forbade this practice: "You should not give any of your children to devote them by fire to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord." (Lev. 18:21).

The prophet Jeremiah cursed the place and predicted that it would become a place of death and corruption. In Jesus' time this valley, because of its ancient history, was known as a place defiled and was used as the city's garbage dump; a place of rotting flesh, maggots, stench and fire. Gehenna in the New Testament is mentioned seven times in Mt, three times in Mk, once in Lk., once in Js 3:6. It is a place of fire (Mt 5:22; 18:9; Js 3:6). The fire is unquenchable (Mk 9:43). It is a pit into which people are cast (Mt 5:29f; 18:9; Mk 9:45, 47; Lk. 12:5). It is a place where the wicked are destroyed (Mt 10:28). Depending upon the translation you may find the word "Gehenna" or the phrase "the hell of fire". "The hell of fire" implying that there are other hells or other levels of the abode of the dead.

Popular belief was that the souls of evildoers and sinners were condemned to live in the everlasting darkness and terror of Gehenna, a place lit only by the infernal fires that raged there. Gehenna reeked with the stench of burning sulphur or brimstone. Suffocating, acrid smoke arose from the "Fiery Pit" or "Pool of Fire" in which the wicked, expiating their sins in life, agonized. It was too late for those who wished to escape their fiery torments - too late for remorse when remorse could no longer avail them! Their punishment was clearly written down in the Talmud (Jewish Civil and Canon Law): "The Holy One, blessed be He, judges the wicked in Gehenna for twelve months. At first he afflicts them with itching. After that [He roasts them] with fire. At this they cry out, Oh! Oh! And then he torments them with snow. Thereupon they cry out "Woe is me! Woe is me!" Jewish belief was that a soul consigned to Gehenna would be annihilated after twelve months. The correction of this erroneous belief, by Jesus, is found in Matt 25:31-46 where he stated that the punishment for the wicked in Gehenna would be "eternal."

Shammai and Hillel


In Talmudic times there were two differing opinions as to which category of souls would be flung into the Fiery Pit. The School of Shammai (first century B.C.) held that three classes of souls were judged after death: Those who had been perfectly righteous, those who had been completely wicked, and those who were merely "so-so" - namely a "little" righteous and a "little wicked". The names of the righteous were instantly entered into the Book of Judgement; they were considered worthy of eternal life without any prior examination. The souls of the wicked were cast down into the dark caverns of Gehenna to be tormented and finally consumed in the Fiery Pit. As for the "mediocre" sinners, namely run-of-the-mill men and women-they were obliged to go down into the netherworld for a period of fiery purgation, before being deemed sufficiently worthy of ascending and entering heaven. The disciples of Shammai based these constructions on this prophecy: "Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2).

But the School of Hillel, which was contemporary with that of Shammai was always at loggerheads with it, had a more humane conception of the fate of evildoers in Gehenna. Because the Hillites considered God to be compassionate and just, they were sure that after the process of purification by suffering and remorse had been completed for the whole human race, "Gehenna will cease!" They consoled the backsliding, the confused, and the straying with the assurance that, in the fires of retributive justice, all their impurities would be consumed. In this way there would be fulfilled the promise that the Prophet Zechariah had given Israel: that God "will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as Gold is tried" (Zech 13:9).

This moral principle, with its implication that the human race is perfectible - a belief fought for so valiantly by Hillel and his devoted adherents - assumed, finally, a central position in the ethics of Talmudic Judaism. "Every man a share in the World-to-Come," became one of the most beloved of the moral dicta of the Sages of the Mishnah.

Regardless of the validity of either of these propositions, the point is that both schools believed and taught that a state of purgation would be necessary before a soul could enter heaven. As a matter of fact, if you look up the word hell in most Jewish dictionaries or encyclopedias you will see hell defined as purgatory.

A Place of Hate and Pain


Since the seventh level of heaven was a place of perfect love and happiness in the presence of God, it stands to reason that the seventh level of Hell would be in direct opposition in degree, i.e., a place of hate and pain. For the sake of this discussion I will call the seventh level of hell Gehenna, in order to differentiate it from the first six levels of the abode of the dead.

The New Testament is so clear on the subject of death and its aftermath that the Gospels are almost thematic on the need for serving God faithfully in this life, because after death there is no chance of repentance. When I was in grade school, the sisters taught us to pray, holding our hands, palm to palm, fingers extended, with the right thumb crossed over the left. They explained that the thumbs crossed in this manner indicated mercy over justice and as long as we prayed we could receive God's mercy - which is a very fine spiritual interpretation of a simple gesture. As long as we are alive, we can invoke God's mercy over his justice.




When Jesus was being crucified he turned to the good thief, and said: "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Lk. 23:43). This makes Paradise the place where both Jesus and the repentant thief went after their deaths; this is the paradise of the righteous, also called the "Bosom of Abraham" (Lk 16:22) or in Catholic parlance "The Limbo of the Fathers". Paradise was the abode of the souls of the just and identified with part of hades or hell. Here the souls of the just awaited the Messiah to lead them to heaven. "The Bosom of Abraham was the first level of hell" (Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 2, p. 165).

Keep in mind that the gates of heaven were not opened until Jesus ascended to the Father. When Jesus ascended to heaven Scripture tells us that "led a host of captives" (Eph. 4:8). 

Now, who were these captives and where were they being held captive? They were the righteous souls of the just men and women who were awaiting heaven's gate to open. Keep in mind that heaven had been closed as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve.

Lazarus and the Rich Man


Christ's parable about Lazarus and the rich man is unmistakable. When the rich man (tradition has him as Dives) begged Abraham for some relief from his sufferings, he was told, "My son, remember that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus. Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony. But that is not all: between us and you a great gulf has been fixed, to stop anyone, if he wanted to, crossing from our side to yours, and to stop any crossing from your side to ours" (Lk. 16:22-31). Further, Dives asks Abraham to send Lazarus back to his brothers and warn them, in order to save them from the torment that he was experiencing. Where was Dives who had compassion and love for his five brothers? It is generally understood that there is no love in Gehenna, only complete and perfect hatred. He obviously, was not in either Heaven or Paradise. Since the rich man had love and compassion for his brothers, it would indicate that he was not in Gehenna. And please note that he was able to converse with Abraham; this would indicate that he was in the second level of the abode of the dead, or Purgatory. 
    To sum up: The first level of hell was the paradise or "Bosom of Abraham"; the abode of the souls awaiting the opening of heaven's gate. When Jesus ascended to the Father, he took the captives with him, emptying Paradise.

Level seven, Gehenna, was a place of defilement and hatred, the direct opposite of level seven in heaven, filled with the souls who had rejected God. Levels 2 through 6 were the state of purgation. Assignment there would depend upon the severity of the sin. As a soul's sins were expiated it would graduate from one level to another until it reached perfection (perfect love of God) and be worthy of heaven.

Catholics did not "invent" the doctrine of purgatory, or even coin the phrase "State of Purgation." The doctrine is a legitimate outgrowth of Jewish belief. We must take the Bible as an organic whole, not simply selecting certain verses on which to build theologies. Jesus corrected the Jews concerning divorce in Matt 19:3-6. He also taught that the fires of Gehenna would be everlasting in contrast to the Jewish belief that would be a time limitation of 12 months. Jesus did not come to change the law, but He did clarify certain aspects. It stands to reason that if the Jews were wrong about their belief in a state of purgation. Jesus would have had a moral responsibility to correct them; this he did not do.

When NT passages, such as 1 Cor 3:13-15; Rev. 5:3, 13; 21:27; Matt 5:25-26, 12:32; 1 Pet 3:18-20; 1 Jn. 5:16; and Lk 12:58f are examined in the light of Jewish belief their meaning becomes clear. Souls must be purified before they can enter heaven's gate; God's justice demands it.

Finally, the doctrine of Purgatory is reasonable. Our God is not a God of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33). Everything God revealed as truth must make sense. The greatest part of humanity; all who believe in revelation, except those who follow the Protestant Reformers, and those who are guided by reason alone, agreed in the belief in a place of temporal punishment, and in the practice of praying for the dead. If a soul dies before attaining a state of perfection, then Divine Justice, will after death, be compelled to exact the last penny of what could have been paid in this world. If one continues to assert that he cannot find either purgatory or the practice of praying for the dead in New Testament Scripture, the Catholic Church answers that we find both doctrine and practice clearly expounded there.

Who shall decide, and decide so as to put the question to rest forever? None but the Church, which Jesus established almost two thousand years ago, placing Peter as its head. When infusing into His ministries the Spirit of Truth, Jesus promised that the Spirit would never depart from them until time ceased. I believe the Catholic Church's teaching on the existence of Purgatory is Scriptural, Historical and reasonable. 

Prayer for the dead goes so far back into pre-Christian/Jewish antiquity that there is no way to trace its origins. If a soul is in heaven, it has no need of prayer. If a soul is in Gehenna, prayer will do no good. Prayer for the dead indicates a belief in an intermediate state between heaven and hell where prayer would do some good. We Catholics call this state Purgatory. The Catholic doctrine of Purgatory is a legitimate outgrowth of Jewish belief and divine revelation. Please keep in mind that the Catholic Church does not specifically teach that there are seven levels of heaven or seven levels of the abode of the dead, only that Heaven, Gehenna, and Purgatory exist.


© 2002 – Victor R. Claveau

Part or all of this article may be reproduced without obtaining permission as long as the author is cited.



“Lord, here burn, here cut,

here consume, but spare my soul in eternity.”

-St. Augustine