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The First Christians (Early Church Fathers) on Purgatory

The Early Church Fathers and Historical Archaeological discoveries referencing Purgatory.


The purpose of this page is to show how the very first Christians always held a belief in the reality of Purgatory and the suffering Holy Souls in Purgatory who are being purified of remaining self love. (Revelation 21:27) Tradition within the Catholic Church has always held the period of the "the Early Church" and the study of the Early Church Fathersknown as Patristics, to be between 100 A.D. with the death of the last apostle,
St. John to in around 850 A.D. with the death of Saint John Damascene, other wise known as St. John of Damascus

50 A.D. to 100 A.D.


From the Catacombs and oldest liturgical prayers

(Source: The Poor Souls in Purgatory, A Homiletic Treatise with some specimen sermons by Rev. P.W. Keppler D.D.)

  • Touching manifestations of this belief are found on the walls and tombs of the Catacombs. The souls of the departed are recommended to the holy Martyrs, near whom their bodies are buried. The object of the prayers is: peace and refreshment ("refrigerium" occurs innumerable times); the feeding of them by the "Ichthys," the light of the dead. The departed themselves are represented as requesting the intercession of the living faithful. On one on the tombstones of the catacombs, now in the Lateran Museum, a husband declares that he set this inscription for his beloved wife Lucifera " in order that all brethren who read it may pray for her, that she may reach God."

    The whole series of invocations and acclamations preserved to us in those ancient Christian inscriptions undoubtedly bears the character of real prayers by which the living intended to help their departed brethren in the after life. The very requests for peace and refreshment, for admission amongst the Saints, etc., contained in the inscriptions of the second and third centuries, presuppose the conviction that the good desired for the departed souls will be granted to them by God in response to the prayer of the faithful. The petitions for the departed addressed directly to God, as found in the inscriptions of the second and third centuries, can be understood only on this supposition.

    Scholars have proved that the many pictures in the Catacombs refer to Purgatory. One states,

    "The faithful prayed for the dead, entreating God to protect their souls, as He protected Daniel in the lion's den, the three young men in the furnace, Noe in the ark, and Susanna against the two elders. With the same intention, and in order to invite the visitors of these subterranean cemeteries to pray for the dead, these biblical figures were depicted near the sepulchers -- Daniel and Noe in the hypogeum of the Flavii as early as the first century, and all four together at the beginning of the second century in the Capella Greca."

    On the earliest epigraphical and sculptural documents of the Catacombs, the saints appear as the protectors of the Poor Souls, who are recommended to their intercession.


  • In the oldest liturgical prayers or "Sacramentaries" and in the earliest "Liturgies" (including that of the Testamentum Domini N.I. Ch., and the Apostolic Constitutions), the dead are remembered, not only to honor their memory and to comfort the mourning survivors, but in order to obtain for them forgiveness of their sins, remission of punishments, and their liberation from Purgatory.

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100 A.D. to 200 A.D.


Tertullian: lived from 160 A.D. to about 230 A.D.
Mini-bio: North African; ecclesiastical writer, Christian apologist, son of a centurion and trained as a lawyer in Rome.

One of the earliest of the Fathers whom we find speaking of Purgatory is Tertullian, who was born a little after the middle of the second century. When speaking of certain apostolical traditions, he says:

We make yearly offerings (or sacrifices) for the dead, and for the feasts of the martyrs

Describing the duty of a faithful widow to her deceased husband, he says:

She prays for us soul, and begs repose for him and his company in the first resurrection, and offers (sacrifice) on the anniversary days of his death. For if she does not these things, she has, as much as lies in her, divorced him.

From this we see that it was a public custom in the days of Tertullian to offer up prayer and sacrifice for the dead, and to impetrate eternal rest for them.


In other passages he tell us that prayer for the dead, and the making of oblations — gifts for the Eucharist from which the elements for consecration were taken on the anniversary of their demise — were, according to him, a generally recognized custom of the Church.

St. Clement of Alexandria: lived from 150 A.D. to about 215 A.D.
Mini-bio: Greek; theologian, head of the Catechetical School at Alexandria, Egypt

By punishment after death, men must expiate the least sin before they can enter Heaven.

Origen of Alexandria: lived from 185 A.D. to about 254 A.D.
Mini-bio: Alexandrian; philosopher, theologian, writer

Origen, in many parts of his works, teaches that all souls are purified by fire before they enter Heaven, unless they are so pure as not to need it.

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200 A.D. to 300 A.D.


St. Cyprian of Carthage who lived from 200 A.D. to 258 A.D.
Mini-bio: North African; bishop; biblical scholar, martyr

"It is one thing to hope for forgiveness, and another to enter into eternal glory; one thing to be cast into prison and not to go out from thence until the last farthing is paid, and another immediately to receive the reward of faith and virtue; one thing to be tortured for sins by long-lasting pains and purged by fire, and another to have already expiated sin [here below] by martyrdom."


"It is one thing to be cast into prison not to be released until the last farthing is paid, and another thing through the ardor of faith immediately to attain to the reward."

Lactantius who lived from 240 A.D. to 323 A.D.

Mini-bio: North African; apologist, professor of rhetoric at Nicomedia, tutor to Constantine's son, poet

"But also, when God will judge the just, it is likewise in fire that he will try them. At that time, they whose sins are uppermost, either because of their gravity or their number, will be drawn together by the fire and will be burned. Those, however, who have been imbued with full justice and maturity of virtue, will not feel that fire; for they have something of God in them which will repel and turn back the strength of the flame."

Arnobius who lived from 284 A.D. to 305 A.D.
Mini-bio: African; rhetorician, apologist

"In these, the supreme God is prayed to, peace and pardon are begged of him for kings, magistrates, friends, and enemies, both the living and those who are delivered from the body."


Author's note: Peace and pardon were not asked for the saints, who do not need them, nor the damned, to whom it cannot reach. Therefore this peace and pardon were invoked on those who were [in the process of being purified.]

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300 A.D. to 400 A.D.


St. Ephrem [Syrus | of Syria] who lived from 306 A.D. to 373 A.D.
Mini-bio: Syrian; deacon, hymnist, poet

"Instead of shedding useless tears over the grave, let them flow at prayers in church, for in these there is help and comfort for the dead as well as for the living." And ... "If the Jewish priests were able by their sacrifices to help those fallen in battle [2 Maccabees 12:38-45 ] , how much more will the priests of the Son of God by their Holy Sacrifice and prayers efface the sins of the departed!"

St. Cyril of Jerusalem who lived from 315 A.D. to 386 A.D.
Mini-bio: Palestinian; bishop, scholar, Doctor of the Church

In his Instruction to Catechumens on the Liturgy (one of his writings)


"We remember those that are deceased; first the patriarches, apostles, and martyrs, that God would receive our supplications through their prayers and intercession.

Then we pray for our fathers and bishops, and in general for all among us who are departed this life, believing that this will be the greatest relief to them, for whom is offered up on the holy and tremendous victim which lies on the altar."

St. Epiphanius of Salamis who lived from 315 A.D. to 403 A.D.

Mini-bio: Palestinian; bishop, abbot, scholar

St. Epiphanius of Salamis related that when a bad Arian priest, denied prayers for the dead, this heresy was condemned by the whole Church, and its author numbered amongst the heretics.


Speaking on this subject, the saintly bishop said:


"As to the rite by which the names of our are pronounced, what can be more useful than it: what more opportune, or truly more worthy of admiration."


Further on he says:


"But the prayers that are offered up for the dead are useful to them...I say that the Church, which has received that rite handed down to it from our ancestors, of necessity performs it."

St. Basil the Great who lived from 329 A.D. to 379 A.D.
Mini-bio: Cappadocian; bishop, theologian, monk

"I consider that the active athletes of God, who have fought bravely with invisible enemies during all their life, when arrived at the end of life, shall be examined by the prince of the world, so that if they may be found to have retained either wounds after the contest, or any stains or relics of sin, they should be detained; but if they may be found without wounds and slains, as victorious and free, they would be translated by Christ to rest.


Therefore, David prays for the present and the future life."


St. Basil speaks of sin:


"that the purgatorial fire may entirely feed on and devour it."


Lest there may be a doubt as to his meaning, he adds:


"It does not threaten utter ruin altogether, but it means cleansing (innuit purgationem) according to the opinion of the Apostle [, Paul:]

'But he himself shall be saved yet as so through fire'"
1 Corinthians 3:15

Author's Note: Here is Purgatory, which is nothing else than a place in which sin is devoured, not for the utter ruin of the sinner, but for the cleansing of sin. Thus, he who dies with certain sins in his conscience shall be saved by fire.


St. Ambrose who lived from 339 A.D. - 397 A.D.

Mini-bio: German; bishop, Doctor of the Church

With the approval and applause of the faithful, he often commended to God the souls of the emperors, Theodosius and Valentinian and others. In his funeral oration on Theodosius, that great and mighty emperor, he prays in these words:

"Grant, O Lord, to Thy servant Emperor Theodosius that rest which Thou hast prepared for thy saints. May his soul soar up to whence it came, where it can no more feel the sting of death, and where it will learn that death is not the end of life, but of sin. I loved him, and therefore I will follow him into the land of the living; I will not leave him, until by my prayers and lamentations he will be admitted unto the holy mount of the Lord."

He speaks of most solemn obsequies and sacrifices for the dead, on the third, seventh and thirtieth days after their departure.


In his epistle to Faustinus, who indulged in immoderate grief a the death of his sister he writes:

I do not think your sister ought to excite your tears, by your prayers; nor that her soul is to be dishonored by weeping, but rather recommended to God by sacrifices.

St. John l who lived from 347 A.D. - 407 A.D.

Mini-bio: Syrian; archbishop, Doctor of the Church

In one homily, when St. l was inculcating what people should do in favor of the dead he said:


"Help him not by tears, but by prayers, supplications, alms and oblations. For these have not been rashly devised; nor is it in vain that in the divine mysteries we remember the dead appearing in their behalf praying the Lamb, who has taken away the sins of the world, that thence comfort may reach them. Nor is it in vain that he, who stands at the altar while the revered mysteries are performed, cries aloud:

"Let us pray for all those who have slept in Christ, let us not fail to succor the departed; for the common expiation of the world is offered."

He adds:


"These things are done by the ordination of the Spirit."


Here, in eloquent language, we are taught our duty to the dead — we are to pray, to give alms and to offer sacrifices for them; and this duty is laid upon us not by the invention or self interest of man but by the spirit of God.

St. Jerome who lived from 347 A.D. - 419 A.D.

Mini-bio: Dalmatian; priest, hermit, abbot, biblical scholar and translator, Doctor of the Church

In a letter to Pammachius (Epistle 66) says:

"Other husbands decorate the graves of their wives with violets, roses, lilies, and purple-colored flowers. By such tokens of love they relieve the grief of their hearts. Our Pammachius bedews the sacred ashes and the venerable remains with the balsam of alms; for he knows what is written:

'As fire is extinguished by water, so is sin effaced by almsdeeds.' "

St. Augustine of Hippo who lived from 354 A.D. - 430 A.D.

Mini-bio: North African; bishop, theologian, Doctor of the Church

St. Augustine speaks repeatedly in his writings of the doctrine of Purgatory and intercession for the dead. Forty passages in his books treat of this matter. Dogmatically the most precise statement is found in the Enchiridion (c. 109; al.c.30), which reads as follows:

During the time which intervene between the death of man and his resurrection, the soul finds itself in certain hidden places, according to each soul's merits during its life in the flesh, either enjoying rest or suffering tribulations. Neither can it be denied that the souls of the dead are granted refreshment and relief through the piety of their beloved ones on earth, whenever the sacrifice of the Mediator is offered, or alms are distributed for them. But it will benefit only those who have lived so that it can benefit them afterwards. For there is a certain manner of living which is neither so good, that after death such would no longer be needed, nor so bad, that it could no longer be of any use. When the sacrifice of the altar or alms are offered for all the departed that had been baptized, they are thank-offerings for the very good, atonements for those not very bad; for the very bad, even though they do not help the dead, they afford consolation to the living."


Famous and admired even by Protestants is Augustine's touching profession of faith contained in the last request of his dying mother,
St. Monica, and in his prayer for her, especially this beautiful passage:

"When the day drew near on which she was to pass away, she was not concerned about pompous funeral, nor that her body should be deposited with spices; she did not desire a grand monument, nor wish for a grave in here native land. None of all these things did she charge us with: one thing alone did she request and desire from her Son, Augustine:

That she be remembered at the altar, upon which, as she knew, the holy sacrifice was offered, which blots out the handwriting of the decree that stood against us (Colossians 2:1)

To the sacrament of Redemption Thy servant hath joined her soul by the bond of faith; no one shall tear it and deprive her of They protection."

St. Paulinus of Nola who lived from 354 A.D. - 431 A.D.

Mini-bio: Gallic; husband and father, bishop, poet

St. Paulinus, Bishop of Nola, the coeval of Augustine, Ambrose and Jerome, by whom he was very much esteemed, wrote an epistle to one Delphinus, to whose prayers he recommended his brothers souls. In it he says:

"Cause that by thy prayers pardon may be granted to thee, and that a drop of rest flowing from the smallest finger of thy sanctity may sprinkle his soul."


He everywhere shows the like piety toward the dead. In his epistle to Pammachius, the same to whom St. Jerome wrote, he congratulates him on having discharged his duty to the body and soul of his wife - to her body by tears and to her soul by alms.

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400 A.D. to 500 A.D.


St. John l who lived from c. 470 A.D. - 526 A.D.
Mini-bio: Tuscan, by birth and the son of Constantius, Pope, 52
th successor to St. Peter

He traces liturgical prayer for the dead back to the Apostles, nay, to the inspiration of the Holy Ghost and says:

"The Apostles knew full well that it works much good for the departed: for whenever all the people stand with hands raised in prayer, together with the whole assembly of the priests, and the tremendous Victim lies on the altar, should we not by our petitions in their behalf move the heart of God?"

and again:

"You ought to hasten to his aid, not by tears, but by prayers, alms, and offerings. For not without reason has this been introduced, not in vain do we remember the dead at the sacred mysteries, approach the altar for them, and implore the Lamb Which is present, and Which takes away the sins of the world, but in order that the dead may receive some alleviation ... Therefore we pray with confidence for the whole world, and remember the dead together with the martyrs and the confessors and priests. For we all constitute but one body, although one member is superior to another, and so it is possible that by prayer and sacrifice we may obtain full forgiveness for those whose names we mention."

St. Caesarius of Arles who lived from 470 A.D. - 543 A.D.

Mini-bio: French, Bishop, theologian, renowned as a popular preacher, wrote two monastic rules

St. Caesar, Archbishop of Arles, who presided over many councils in France, bears witness to the same doctrine in the sixth century, that Paulinius, Augustine and Jerome witnessed to in the fourth and fifth centuries. His mind is very clear on the point. He gives us not only the substance and name, but even the very manner of Purgatory. It's pains shall be severer than the greatest torments that can be imagined in this life. No one among us knows how long he many have to endure them, whether for days or months or even years.

Here are the words of St. Caesar:

"If we neither return thanks to God in tribulation, nor redeem sins with good works, we shall stay in the Purgatorial fire until the above-named small sins be consumed like wood, hay and stubble ... But some one says:

I don't mind how long I stay there if at length I shall arrive at eternal life.

Let no one say this dearest brethren, because that Purgatory fire shall be severer than any punishment that can be either thought of, or seen, or felt in this world. How can anyone know whether he is about to pass through that fire for days and months or perhaps even for years?"

So by the sixth century, the word "Purgatory" was a well-known word; nevertheless today some of our separated brethren falsely believe it is an invention of the Church.


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500 A.D. to 600 A.D.


Pope St. Gregory the Great who lived from 540 A.D. - 590 A.D.

Mini-bio: Roman; pope, abbot, liturgist, reformer, statesman, Doctor of the Church. He helped the poor while spreading and strengthening the faith. He wrote extensively on moral and theological subjects.

Pope St. Gregory the Great, whose reign fell in the seventh century, speaks thus of Purgatory:

"They who had the perfection of a good will in confession of sin after death pass by Purgatorial pain to life, if they may not have a sufficient amount of love to wash away their sins: and hence St. Paul says:

They are saved as so by fire.

But let the sinner who has deserved to be saved by fire there. supply by affliction of the flesh here that detect of ardent love which he knows he wants."

In another place he says:

But, however, it must be believed that there is a Purgatorial fire for some light faults before judgment ... but we must believe that this can only happen in the case of small and very small sins.

St. Isidore of Seville who lived from 560 A.D. - 636 A.D.

Mini-bio: Spanish; bishop, scholar, educator, liturgist, philosopher, Doctor of the Church


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600 A.D. to 800 A.D.


St. Bede the Venerable who lived from 673 A.D. - 735 A.D.

Mini-bio: English; priest, monk, scholar, Doctor of the Church


St. John Damascene (of Damascus) who lived from 676 A.D. - 787 A.D.

Syrian; priest, monk, theologian, poet, Doctor of the Church


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