Early Fathers on Purgatory

Q. I have been reading the early Christian writings and it gives us all of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, these were the first Christians who were ordained by the Apostles and were taught and lived with the Apostles.

BFHU: I am curious what book you are reading. Because the books of the Early Fathers with all of them in it is 30 volumes or more and very expensive. There are shorter works and online versions. If you are reading a book from a Protestant publishing house it may have been edited to exclude writings that support the Catholic Faith.
Q. Purgatory is not mentioned in their writings and that in fact they say that the apostles, Peter and Paul as well as the first presbyters and bishops WENT TO THE HOLY PLACES AFTER THEY FELL ASLEEP (I.E. DIED )


Doesn’t this mean that these first christians believed in immediate entry into the glory of heaven?

A. All of the Apostles of Jesus, including St. Paul were martyred except St. John. We believe that those who are martyred for their faith DO go directly to Heaven. They atoned for their sins (temporal consequences) through their own passions. And we also believe that those who live very holy lives and offer up their sufferings in union with Christ may also skip Purgatory. So, it is not surprising that the first century fathers talked about the Apostles going straight to Heaven.


A. Purgatory is not mentioned in the Bible by that name either. But we all agree there was/is a place that is not Heaven and not Hell where the dead went for some period of time. Since scripture nowhere tells of its destruction on what authority do those who believe in Sola Scriptura assert that it is no longer used or in existence.

I am not sure when it began to be called Purgatory. So, in the earliest writings we must look to see if anyone puts forth the concept of purification of the dead before entrance into Heaven. What it is called, if it is even named does not matter. The question is:

Did the Earliest Christian believe in a time of further purification after death but before entrance into Heaven?

Most of the earliest writings do not explain the doctrine of Purgatory but rather the necessity and virtue of praying and offering alms on behalf of the dead. Why would the early Christians believe in this? Prayers and alms can’t help anyone in Hell and those in Heaven don’t lack anything. So these exhortations to pray for the dead are evidence of the underlying and accepted doctrine of the necessity of purification after death when individuals have not attained perfect holiness by the time of their death.


The Jews believed and still believe in a place or time of purification for up to “12 months.” This is not an idea that was invented in the 4th Century AD or a bit earlier. It has a very ancient pedigree dating to pre-Christian times. For Jewish beliefs about purification see my post HERE. You can bet the Jews did not invent this idea in the last 2000 years and they would drop it if they were not bound to it by ancient belief.

Some might worry that Purgatory shows up most clearly in writings 4oo years after Christ, thinking how can I know for sure this was an authorized doctrine taught by Christ to His apostles. We need to remember that many early Christian writings were destroyed in the persecutions and by time. Writings were not by any means anywhere close to being as prolific as today.

What I find ironic, however is that often those who most oppose this doctrine because St. Augustine taught it most clearly in his writings, are the very ones who seem to have no problem accepting Martin Luther and his NEW teachings of Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, and the dumping of Christian doctrine, by later reformers, like the immaculate conception, perpetual virginity of Mary, Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, oral confession to a priest etc.

And these new doctrines and changes occurred ONE THOUSAND FIVE HUNDRED YEARS after the time of Christ!!!! I would be more willing to trust the authenticity of writings from the 400’s than from the 1500’s backed by the Church founded by Jesus Christ.

Below are some citations from Catholic Answers at catholic.com . You can click the link to read the whole article of the Roots of Purgatory. They have many other posts with quotes from the early fathers on Catholic Doctrine. I encourage you to check these out.

The Roots of Purgatory…

Jews, Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox have always historically proclaimed the reality of the final purification. It was not until the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century that anyone denied this doctrine. As the quotes below from the early Church Fathers show, purgatory has been part of the Christian faith from the very beginning.

Some imagine that the Catholic Church has an elaborate doctrine of purgatory worked out, but there are only three essential components of the doctrine: (1) that a purification after death exists, (2) that it involves some kind of pain, and (3) that the purification can be assisted by the prayers and offerings by the living to God. Other ideas, such that purgatory is a particular “place” in the afterlife or that it takes time to accomplish, are speculations rather than doctrines.

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 [A.D. 160]).


“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]).

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity

“[T]hat 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 [A.D. 202]).


We offer sacrifices for the dead on their birthday anniversaries [the date of death—birth into eternal life]”


The Crown 3:3 [A.D. 211]


“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 [A.D. 216]).

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 [i.e., 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 [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]).

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 [A.D. 382]).

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 [A.D. 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 3:9–10 [A.D. 402]).


“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]).

“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” (ibid., 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. 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]).

“” (HThat 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 18:69 [A.D. 421]).

“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” (ibid., 29:109).

5 Responses

  1. Dear Pam,

    Your article here is very interesting and informative. I was already aware of many of the quotations from the early church fathers.

    However having said all that, The Lord Jesus the founder of Christianity never said anything about Purgatory and the Gospel and New Testament references are few and INDIRECT: many have different interpretations to them.

    The Lord Jesus just talked about Heaven and Hell in the Gospels.

    If you read John Chapter 14 verses 1 -9 jesus is talking to his disciples and about when he had prepared a place for them in Heaven he would take them to where he was in HEAVEN: NOT PURGATORY!!!!


    yours in Christ.

    Philip Duffin.

  2. Dear Phillip,

    You have obviously been influenced heavily by Protestants who believe anything not found in the Bible is not worthy of belief. And yet the Protestants have nothing, zip, nada in Scripture that commands this restriction or even recommends it. So the doctrine of sola scriptura is a recent doctrinal invention first contrived by Martin Luther 500 years ago.

    Your objection to the sparsity of scriptural support for Purgatory is exactly the same sort of objection that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have to the doctrine of the Trinity. Where is it spelled out in Scripture?

    For that matter where is the incarnation spelled out clearly and indisputably in scripture?

    All that the Protestant have they are indebted to the Catholic Church for. All that they have lost they are indebted to the relatively recent reformers.

    From these scriptures it is obvious that all Jesus did and said is NOT even close to being contained in Scripture…

    Jn 20:30Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.

    Jn 21:25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

    A man may write his autobiography. But all that he was, cannot be contained in a book. A person who is intent on more deeply understanding that man can certainly get a whole lot more information by interviewing those who actually lived with him and knew him best. Protestant do not want to know anything beyond a book. Catholics want to know and have preserved everything those who knew Jesus best passed on by word of mouth.

    I hope you go to Heaven too. Whether you or anyone else believes in Purgatory or not will not help you avoid it if it is necessary in order for you to “be HOLY as HE is HOLY.”

  3. Dear Pam,

    Yes you are right. I have been influenced by Evangelical Protestant thought over the years mainly because my older brother who was a lapsed Catholic married a Presbyterian Divorcee and became a Presbyterian in order to bring his Children up in some form of Christian Faith.

    They have told me that they were told by other Protestants that Purgatory was a late invention by Roman Catholicism to make money to build Catholic Churches.
    i.e. TETZEL the dominican friar who sold Indulgences in 1517 in germany.

    They also only accept SOLA SCRIPTURA as the Sole Rule of faith.

    I do believe myself as a Catholic that there will be some form of Purification after death in order to prepare us for heaven.

    I am not just keen on the SUFFERING BIT of purgatory as nobody likes to suffer!

    I hope you understand me now Pam.

    I would like to congratulate you on the fine job you have done on this site of explaining and defending the Catholic faith.

    WELL DONE!!!!

    Yours in Christ.

    Philip Duffin.

  4. Yes, Tetzel’s selling of indulgences in Germany lit the fire under Martin Luther. And Luther was correct, Tetzel was abusing the the teachings of the Church in order to raise money. But Purgatory was NOT invented as a fundraising scheme in the 1500’s. As you may have seen the Jews long before Christianity believed in a purification after death. The Name PURGATORY was given to conceptualize this purification, just like Trinity and Incarnation which we have already said are not in the Bible. This name may have come into use later but I don’t know at what date.

    Try not to worry about the suffering in Purgatory. We also suffer here in this life and if offered up in union with Christ it will enable to remove some of the suffering we are due in Purgatory. Just as the suffering in this life is not unbearable so our suffering in Purgatory will be bearable. But our Catholic doctrine of suffering is so very beautiful. If we can recollect ourselves and rejoice in our suffering as Peter says in his epistle and offer it up for our own purification or the Holy Souls in Purgatory we can begin our Purgatory in this life. It changes every suffering great and small and brings us so much peace in the midst of our suffering; unlike those who just grit their teeth and bear it, and believe there is no purpose or reason for their suffering. We can also avoid time in Purgatory by giving alms and of course diligently AVOIDING SIN.

    Thank you for you kind words about Bread From Heaven Unlimited.

  5. […] This is simply not historically true. Please see my post: Early Fathers on Purgatory taken from Catholic […]

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