Purgatory and Dante's Divine Comedy - ANCIENT ORIGINS

This illustration depicts the earliest-known “portrait” of Augustine of Hippo (also known as Saint Augustine). Dating from the mid-to-late 6th century, the original fresco (by an unknown artist) is located at the Lateran Palace in Rome. Among his many other writings, interpretations and observations, St. Augustine (354-430 AD) talked about a purifying process after death.

The Latin inscription, at the bottom of the fresco, says (in translated English): “The different fathers said different things, but with Roman eloquence this man said all things, thundering forth the sense of the mysteries.” Scholars believe this fresco is based on an image taken from Augustine’s signet ring.  Image online via Wikimedia Commons.


It is said that Purgatory has its origins in Judaism, but there is no "third place" (in addition to heaven and hell) in Jewish theology. There is a temporary purification process, however, which occurs in Gehinnom—the Jewish understanding of hell—which rids the soul of spiritual blemishes before it returns to God. (The Yiddish word for this place is Gehenna).

For many observant Jews, purification in "Gehinnom/Gehenna" is actually the beginning of a righteous person's reward.

Using non-theological words and descriptions, Rabbi Benjamin Blech attempts to demystify this purifying process in Understanding Judaism:

The Jewish faith embraces the idea of heaven - although we can't describe it, we know it's a wonderful place...Hell also exists, but not in the way it's usually described, as a place of torture and burning with fire...The closest we can come to understanding it is that it's a place where we are estranged from God and our souls are purified from their sins...The maximum time for anyone to have his or her soul "purified" in this place is 12 months. Very righteous people might possibly have "overnight cleaning service." How long the process takes depends on how much has to be done. It's only the very worst of all people who require the entire year for their purification. (Blech, Understanding Judaism, page 222.)

St. Augustine—an early church father—also wrote about a purifying process after a person's death. One of the most influential Christian thinkers of all time, Augustine (who became Bishop of Hippo in North Africa) wrote his masterpiece, The City of God, in the early 5th century. Except for the Bible, few books—if any—had greater influence on people living in the Middle Ages.

Does Augustine discuss a concept that sounds like Purgatory? In "Book XXI," near the end of The City of God, he observes:

But temporary punishments are suffered by some in this life only, by others after death, by others both now and then; but all of them before that last and strictest judgment. But of those who suffer temporary punishments after death, all are not doomed to those everlasting pains which are to follow that judgment... (City of God, page 784.)

St. Cyprian, writing about 150 years before Augustine, had this to say about purging one's sins:

And you must realize that it is one thing for a man to stand by, awaiting the granting of pardon, and quite another thing for him to achieve the heights of glory; it is one thing for him to be thrown into prison and not to emerge from it until he pays the very last farthing, and quite another thing for him to receive all at once the rewards for faith and valor; it is one thing for a man to be wracked by long grieving over his sins and to be purged and purified over a lengthy period of time by fire, and it is quite another thing for him to have purged away all his sins by a martyr's death.

In a word, to hang in doubt on the day of judgment awaiting the verdict of the Lord is far different from being crowned by the Lord without a moment's delay. (The Letters of St. Cyprian of Carthage, Volume 3, page 45.)

If not an actual place, as understood by ecclesiastical authorities in the Middle Ages, Purgatory at least appears to have ancient conceptual roots.

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Jul 01, 2004

Updated Last Revision: Jun 23, 2019

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