What is Purgatory? - where Christians go after they die
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What is Purgatory?

Notre Dame Purgatory
A demon torturing a sinful bishop and a king
(Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, 1200s)

In the early days of Christianity, people pretty much thought that at the Last Judgment you went to Heaven if you had been good or you went to Hell if you had been bad and that was that. This was about the same as the old Egyptian idea of the weighing of the souls.

But later on more people became Christians, and some of them weren't such serious people, and they sometimes did things that were wrong. Maybe they stole some candy, or they cheated on their girlfriend. Maybe they lied about being Christians in order to keep from getting killed by the Romans. These people started to say, well, what if you had been mostly good except for one thing? Would you really have to stay in Hell forever just for that one thing? And beginning with Augustine, Christian writers began to form the idea of Purgatory, which was a bad place, like Hell.

You went to Purgatory after the Last Judgment, at the end of time, if you had done some bad things but you were mostly good. And you paid for the bad things, but then after a while you could still go on to Heaven. This is not far from the Buddhist idea that people are reincarnated over and over until they are good enough to be released from the wheel. The idea of Purgatory was first clearly laid out by Gregory the Great around 580 AD. It got a lot more attention from the Italian poet Dante in the early 1300s AD.

Learn by doing: write about someone who did something wrong. What should happen to them?
More about Christianity
More about religion

Bibliography and further reading about Purgatory:

More about the weighing of the souls
More about Buddhism and reincarnation
More about the Decian persecution of Christians
More about the Italian poet Dante


For Presidents' Day, check out our articles about Washington in the Revolutionary War and Lincoln in the Civil War. Find out about the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the other Amendments, and how Washington promised to include freedom of religion.
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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