THe Politics of Purgatory

Purgatory is the temporary state of the dead (Hanna 1911). In Roman Catholic tradition, purgatory is process of purification or temporary punishment where it is believed, the souls of those who die in a state of grace are made ready for Heaven (1911).  Within Catholic belief, a person undergoes judgment after death wherein their soul is eternally unified with God in Heaven or is denied God’s grace in Hell (1911). Purgatory, usually depicted less like a process of cleansing and more as a specific place in poetic representations as far backs as Dante’s Divine Comedy, is the third destination of souls (1911). Purgatory, however, is mentioned only in second Book of Maccabees which is only recognized by the Catholic denomination of Christianity, and thus is not found in the protestant bible (1911.)  I submit that the Catholic embrace of purgatory serves not only a religious but also political function, addressing the issue of what type of sin can be redeemable – also known as venial sin and reinforced the power of the Catholic Church.


Many theological scholars trace of the origins of Purgatory to Maccabees 12:45,46 … “And also in that he perceived that there was great favour laid up for those that died godly, it was an holy and good thought. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from sin.”

The bible does not refer to the exact word, purgatory, but it does reference a place; the location of this place has historically been a point of debate amongst scholars. However, the words in the book of Maccabees had so clearly favored the Catholic custom, that the whole book was removed from the Protestant Bible. Further evidence of the existence of purgatory can also be found in the New Testament.

In Matthew 5:26 Christ is condemning sin and speaks of liberation only after expiation. “Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” This passage references a third place that is neither Heaven nor Hell. Matthew 12:32 says, “And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.” Matthew speaks of sin against the Holy Spirit. The implication is that some sins can be forgiven in the world to come, but not in Hell from which there is no liberation, nor in Heaven because nothing imperfect can enter it as we see in the next part. Any remission of sin cannot occur in either of these places because they are a destination unlike this third place.

 Early theologians sought to define this place which was eventually named “purgatory (Hanna 1911)” because it means “a cleansing place” (1911). Therein souls are purged from the small stains of sin, which prevent their immediate entrance into Heaven. Tertullian, in the 2nd century, contended the existence of a sort of negative space which merely delayed the final completion of happiness (Catholic Layman). Cyril, in the 4h century, agreed with Tertullian but added that the souls whether they left the earthly world with or without sin could all benefit from prayers meant to cleanse the impure (Catholic Layman). However, it is St. Ambrose who can be credited with the name purgatory (Catholic Layman). Ambrose claimed, “those whose sins have not been expiated in this life, will experience a purgatorial fire during the period which will elapse during the first and final resurrection” (Catholic Layman pg 135).  St. Augustine, a pupil of Ambrose, expounded the subject of purgatory, claiming that “only minute sins are purged” (Catholic Layman);” this laid the foundation for the creation of both the seven deadly sins and Dante’s Purgatorio.

Cardinal Sins

The Seven Deadly Sins, also known as cardinal sins, are a classification of objectionable vices that have been used to educate and instruct Christians concerning fallen humanity’s tendency to sin (History Channel). The Catholic Church divides sin into two categories: venial sins, in which guilt is relatively minor, and the more severe mortal sins (History Channel). “Theologically, a mortal sin is believed to destroy the life of grace within the person and thus creates the threat of eternal damnation” (Hanna 1911). The Deadly Sins do not create an additional category of sin (Hanna 1911). Rather, “they are the sins that are seen as the origin of the other sins” (Hanna 1911); these sins can be either venial or mortal, depending on the situation.

Though considered a tenant within Christian, especially catholic doctrine, the seven deadly sins do not appear within the gospels. Thus, they cannot be found in the bible; though, it should be noted their creation did roughly coincide with the appearance of the bible as a whole document. The composition of the seven deadly sins came about within the mid to late 4th century by a Christian monk, Evagrius Ponticus (History Channel). Ponticus, during his isolation traces the roots of evil thoughts with lust being the least harmful for a soul and pride begin damaging as it is recognized as the foundation for the fall of Lucifer and subsequently Adam and Eve (History Channel).

However, Ponitcus’s work was not formally recognized until almost two centuries following his death (History Channel). During Pope Gregory the Great’s reign, the sins became popularized within the Christian religion (History Channel). The currently recognized version of the sins is usually given as wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony; these are altered from the Ponticus’s original eight sins by Pope Gregory (History Channel) and are the foundation for seven terraces of Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy (History Channel).


The most common depiction of purgatory, both in literature and art, is attributed to Dante Alighieri’s Purgatorio. Purgatorio is the second installment of Dante’s Divine Comedy, following the Inferno, and preceding the Paradiso. The poem was written in the early 14th century and details the poet’s climb up Mount Purgatory along with his muse, Virgil, after surviving the depths of the inferno. Allegorically, the poem represents the Christian life as viewed through the common conception of the middle ages; the poem discusses the nature of sin, examples of vice and virtue, and moral issues in politics and in the Church (Reynolds 2006; Alighieri). “The poem outlines a theory that all sin arises from love, either perverted love directed towards others’ harm, or deficient love, or the disordered love of good things” (Reynolds 2006). This representation was later adopted by the Roman Catholic Church but only as a metaphorical description.

In the poem, Purgatory is depicted as a mountain in the Southern Hemisphere which was created by earthly displacement of rock during Lucifer’s fall from paradise; this same event created hell underneath the city of Jerusalem on the opposite side of the world (Reynolds 2006). Purgatory, according to Dante, consists of a bottom section which is known as the Ante-Purgatory, “seven levels of suffering and spiritual growth which are associated with the seven deadly sins” (Reynolds 2006), and finally the Earthly Paradise at the top (Alighieri).

Figure 1.1 (Reynolds 2006) – Google books diagram

Within the lower shores of Ante- purgatory, souls are separated into two main categories whose penitent Christian life was delayed or deficient: the excommunicate and the late repentant (Alighieri) The excommunicates are detained in purgatory for a period that is thirty times longer than their period of excommunication from the church (Reynolds 2006) The late repentant category is reserved for those too lazy or preoccupied to repent; traditionally these souls did not repent until the last minute (Alighieri). Because the repent is genuine they are allotted a place in purgatory, but these souls must wait until the duration of time that is equal to their lives on earth (Alighieri).

The seven terraces correspond to Pope Gregory’s seven deadly sins as the source of sin; this is sin, according to Dante, is inherent within each human individual as a result of humanity’s imperfect state since the fall from paradise, but those in hell and purgatory failed to successfully battle against these vices (Reynolds 2006). The classification of sin in purgatory is more psychological than that of the Inferno, being based on motives, rather than actions; it is also drawn primarily from Christian theology, rather than from classical, mythological sources (Reynolds 2006). Each terrace purges a particular sin in accordance with the manner in which that sin affect the soul during their life; unlike those in the Inferno, souls in purgatory can leave but only when the flaw within them has been corrected (Reynolds 2006).

 The terrace houses the souls of the proud who must heave huge statue depicting humility, the opposite virtue, on their backs (Alighieri). Pride is the furthest from earth of the terraces and thus the most serious offense (Alighieri). The second terrace is composed of souls afflicted by envy (Alighieri). Envy is the sin that “looks with grudging hatred upon other men’s gifts and good fortune, taking every opportunity to run them down or deprive them of their happiness” (Alighieri). The envious are garbed in grey cloaks, have their eyes sewn shut, and can only listen to voices illustrating tales of generosity (Alighieri). Dante sites the biblical example of Cain who is in purgatory for the envy which led him to commit the murder of his brother (Alighieri). The third terrace is that of wrath, where souls walk in circles in acrid smoke that is meant to symbolize the blinding power of anger; these souls hear only tales of meekness (Alighieri). On the fourth terrace we find souls “whose sin was that of deficient love, that is, sloth or acedia. Since they had failed in life to act in pursuit of love, here they are engaged in ceaseless activity” (Reynolds 2006). In the last three terraces are those who sinned by loving good things, but loving them in an excessive or disordered way (Alighieri).

In the fifth terrace, excessive concern for earthly goods, whether in the form of greed, ambition or extravagance, is punished and purified, and the souls lie face-down on the ground, unable to move while they are reminded of the humble birth of Christ as means of purification (Alighieri).The gluttonous in the sixth terrace are starved in the presence of fruitful trees but the fruit is always out of reach while they listen to the story of the Virgin Mary as an example of temperance (Alighieri). The seventh and final terrace is separated by a large wall of fire where those guilty of misdirected sexual desire, both heterosexual and homosexual, continually run through the flames as they shout examples of lust, such as Sodom and Gomorrah, and chastity, such as that attributed to the Virgin Mary (Alighieri).

 As demonstrated by Dante, the subject of purgatory despite its early origins did not become popularly recognized until the middle ages; this is where the nether space of purgatory enters the political realm, and purgatory’s subsequent elimination from the protestant bible can be explained through an examination of the history of the Catholic Church. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, medieval Europe fell to feudalism. Minute kingdoms dominated the land. The impersonal structure of order and government was replaced by personal relationships between lords and vassals. In wake of Rome’s destruction, the only common identity found amongst the people during the age of feudalism was Christianity… what came to be called Christendom.

Within Christendom, the church and members of the clergy retained the majority of power- kings came and went, but the church remained. Members of church were traditionally the more educated and the church’s power resulted from the fact that it held the keys to salvation. The church’s significance grew as people believed that they could not themselves fight against sin, and thus, need the church’s guidance (Catholic Layman). During the middle ages, the existence of purgatory and the torment associated within that state was pushed upon people’s beliefs more than any other doctrine Catholic Layman).

People’s fear of purgatory strengthened the reverence of the priests who were thought to be the means by which purgatory could be avoided and increased the amount of money which the church received (Catholic Layman).  “Since Pope Gregory, it was constantly believed that the torment of purgatory could be eased…by the prayers, alms, and mass” (Catholic Layman)”; all of which could only be provided by the church (Catholic Layman). The use of alms corresponded with money being contributed toward the church which increased the wealth and by virtue power of the clergy (Catholic Layman).“Thus, pergatory was the most direct way to fill the coffers of the church” (Catholic Layman).

This practice continued well into the fourteenth century and lead to the abuse of indulgences as people became less concerned about wrath hell and more concerned about “escaping the purgatorial fire” (Catholic Layman). Therefore, when Martin Luther and other Protestants during the reformation sought to purge the church of the abuse of indulgences, purgatory, being the embodiment of church corruption, was left out of the new Protestant Bible in an effort to keep history from repeating itself (Catholic Layman).

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