Church Fathers: Purgatory & Prayers for the Dead

Originally posted 3/6/2009.

What the Church Fathers say on prayer for the departed, and the temporary state of punishment that imperfectly purified souls must undergo, and whether there is fire there.


There are plenty of other Biblical passages which form a solid basis for the belief that those in Purgatory are tried by fire, and what reason is there to think that these are merely allegorical? Indeed, all senses of Scripture are based upon the literal:
Sir 2:5: For gold and silver are tried in the fire, but acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation.
Zech 13:8-9: And there shall be in all the earth, saith the Lord, two parts in it shall be scattered, and shall perish: but the third part shall be left therein. And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined: and I will try them as gold is tried. They shall call on My name, and I will hear them. I will say: Thou art My people: and they shall say: The Lord is my God.
1 Cor 3:11-17: For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid: which is Christ Jesus. Now, if any man build upon this foundation, gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble. Every man’s work shall be manifest. For the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire. And the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work burn, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire. Know you not that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? But if any man violate the temple of God, him shall God destroy. For the temple of God is holy, which you are.
Heb 12:29: For our God is a consuming fire.
Jude 1:23: But others save, pulling them out of the fire. And on others have mercy, in fear, hating also the spotted garment which is carnal.

1st Century
East: Bishop St. Dionysius the Areopagite Martyr of Athens says [Ecclesiastical Hierarchy 7:3:7 in PG 3:561D564AB,

For the Hierarch, the expounder of the supremely Divine Justice, would never seek things, which were not most pleasing to the Almighty God, and divinely promised to be given by Him [Ap. C. viii. 43]. Wherefore, he does not offer these prayers over the unholy fallen asleep, not only because in this he would deviate from his office of expounder, and would presumptuously arrogate, on his own authority, a function of the Hierarchy, without being moved by the Supreme Legislator, but because he would both fail to obtain his abominable prayer, and he, not unnaturally, would hear from the just Oracle, “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss” [Jam 4:3].

WRH: The divinely illuminated martyred bishop says that it is not only useless, but sinful, to pray that the damned should receive some respite. Therefore Mark Eugenikos of Ephesus was guilty of heresy when he said that prayers for the damned give them some respite.

3rd Century
West: Bishop St. Cyprian the Martyr of Carthage says in 253, [Epistle 51:20, To Antonianus],

For to adulterers even a time of repentance is granted by us, and peace 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 vigour 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.

4th Century
West: Lactantius of North Africa says in 307 [The Divine Institutes 7:21 in PL 6:802AB],

The same divine fire, therefore, with one and the same force and power, will both burn the wicked and will form them again, and will replace as much as it shall consume of their bodies, and will supply itself with eternal nourishment: which the poets transferred to the vulture of Tityus. Thus, without any wasting of bodies, which regain their substance, it will only burn and affect them with a sense of pain. But when He shall have judged the righteous, He will also try them with fire. Then they whose sins shall exceed either in weight or in number, shall be scorched by the fire and burnt: but they whom full justice and maturity of virtue has imbued will not perceive that fire; for they have something of God in themselves which repels and rejects the violence of the flame.

East: Bishop St. Epiphanius of Salamis says in 375 [Panarion 75:8], Useful too is the prayer fashioned on their [the dead’s] behalf… it is useful, because in this world we often stumble either voluntarily or involuntarily.”
WRH: The prayer would not be useful unless there were some obstacle, some impurity, preventing the dead from achieving the beatific vision immediately. The stumblings are venial sins, because mortal sins cannot be forgiven after death.

East: Bishop St. Gregory of Nyssa says before 394 [Sermon on the Dead], “When he has quitted his body and the difference between virtue and vice is known he cannot approach God till the purging fire shall have cleansed the stains with which his soul was infested. That same fire in others will cancel the corruption of matter, and the propensity to evil.”
WRH:

West: Bishop St. Ambrose the Great of Milan (Doctor) says in 395 [Funeral Oration for Emperor St. Theodosius I the Great in PL 16:1397], “Give, Oh Lord, rest to Thy servant Theodosius, that rest Thou hast prepared for Thy saints… I love him, therefore will I follow him to the land of the living; I will not leave him till by my prayers and lamentations he shall be admitted unto the holy Mount of the Lord, to which his deserts call him.”
WRH: The most holy bishop says that St. Theodosius might not yet have entered Heaven. The radiant Ambrose, though, will pray for him until his venial sins are completely wiped away so that he can enter Heaven.

East: Patriarch St. John Chrysostom the Great of Constantinople (Doctor) says [Homilies on First Corinithians 9:5-6 in PG 61:] with regard to 1 Cor 3:15,

And his meaning is, He himself shall not perish in the same way as his works, passing into nought, but he shall abide in the fire. And so here in saying, “he shall be saved,” he has but darkly hinted at the intensity of the penalty: as if he had said, “But himself shall remain forever in punishment.”

WRH: Clearly the great saint interprets the Pauline passage as discussing those who suffer the eternal punishment of the Hell of the lost, not those who suffer the temporary punishment of the hell of purgatory. Though our beloved father among the saints John Chrysostom is the greatest of preachers and one of the greatest Doctors, his individual authority does not trump the consensus of the Fathers that St. Paul was discussing Purgatory, just as his idiosyncratic Marian exegesis of St. Matthew does not diminish the fact that the consensus of the Fathers is that the Theotókos never sinned. The Purgatory consensus, according to Fr. Joseph Gill’s The Council of Florence, is justified by meticulous study of the context, the contrast between the materials St. Paul enumerates, and the Pauline usage of the words in other passages.5th Century
West: Bishop St. Augustine the Great of Hippo (Doctor of Grace) says in 413 [Faith and Works 1:1 in PL 40:197-198],

If the baptized person fulfills the obligations demanded of a Christian, he does well. If he does not–provided he keeps the faith, without which he would perish forever–no matter in what sin or impurity remains, he will be saved, as it were, by fire; as one who has built on the foundation, which is Christ, not gold, silver, and precious stones, but wood, hay straw, that is, not just and chasted works but wicked and unchaste works.

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2 Responses to Church Fathers: Purgatory & Prayers for the Dead

  1. […] Purgatory & Prayers for the Dead *Church Fathers: Purgatory & Prayers for the Dead […]

  2. […] *Church Fathers: Purgatory & Prayers for the Dead *Why We Believe in the Purgatorial […]

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