It’s Greek to me

If there’s one good thing I can say about the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, it’s that at least it reflects an understanding of the holiness of God and his hatred of sin. But beyond that singular right it goes multitudinously wrong. The doctrine stands or falls on whether it is taught or even supported in Scripture, and I will argue that it’s not. But I believe it comes to Scripture already weakened by its history and that’s what I’d like to address first.

Many ancient religions and philosophies had similar beliefs about an intermediary place of the dead PLATOwhere imperfect souls were either held or purified. Some examples:

  • In Buddhism “The suffering of purgatory is not a `punishment’ as in the theistic conception of hell but, as said before, the result of one’s own negative actions.”  (1)
  • The ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his dialogue Phaedrus, referring to the souls of the dead, says that “after the judgment some go to the places of correction under the earth and pay their penalty, while the others, made light and raised up into a heavenly place by justice, live in a manner worthy of the life they led in human form.” (2)
  • In Greek and Roman mythology there were various levels or destinations in the afterlife to separate the souls depending on their deeds. “The Asphodel Fields were for a varied selection of human souls: Those whose sins equalled their goodness, were indecisive in their lives, or were not judged. The Fields of Punishment were for people that had sinned often, but not so much as to be deserving of Tartarus. In Tartarus, the soul would be punished by being burned in lava, or stretched on racks.” (3)

The belief that the living could aid the dead in their journey to eternal bliss was also common in the ancient era.

  • “The importance of remembrance of the dead as part of one’s religious devotions was integral to the beliefs of the Greeks as well. Continued remembrance of the dead by the living kept the soul of the deceased alive in the afterlife.” (4)
  • “Immortality lay in the continued remembrance of the dead by the living.” (5)
  • “it was considered one’s duty to the dead to remember them well, regardless of the life they had lived, the mistakes they had made, and, thereby, provide them with continued existence in Elysium.” (6)
  • “The living were perpetually obsessed by their care for the dead, expressed in elaborate, magnificently equipped and decorated tombs and lavish sacrifices.” (7)

The similarity of the doctrine of Purgatory to pagan beliefs does not in itself disconfirm it. But the fact that the core elements of 1) a distinctive place of judgment between heavenly bliss and eternal and inescapable torture, and 2) the involvement of the living in aid of the dead feature in both ancient pagan religions AND the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory BUT are not found in Scripture, the only reliable source we have for information about the afterlife, is reason to suspect a correlation.

There’s no doubt that the early Church fathers were influenced by the Greco-Roman culture of their times. This quote from French historian Jacques Le Goff, regarding late second-early third century fathers Clement and Origen, gives an example.

The two theologians were indebted to ancient Greece for the idea that the chastisement inflicted by the gods is not punishment but rather a means of education and salvation, part of a process of purification. In Plato’s view this chastisement is a boon offered by the gods. Clement and Origen deduce from this the idea that “to punish” is synonymous with “to educate” and that any chastisement by God contributes to man’s salvation…Their Platonic idea of Christianity led Clement and Origen to take a comforting view of the matter…In keeping with this attitude, the two theologians give a soothing interpretation of the Old Testament passages in which God explicitly uses fire as an instrument of his wrath…Origen develops to the full the theory of purification, catharsis, which came to him from Plato, the Orphics, and the Pythagoreans. (8)

So no matter how early any evidence we may have outside Scripture of a Christian espousing the doctrine, it must be evaluated within the context of the cultural milieu the early believers were immersed in. But as I said, the legitimacy of the doctrine will depend on how it lines up with the truth of Scripture. That’s what I’ll begin examining next time.








(8) Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1984), pp.52-53, 55.