Dante was the first writer to draw an elaborate map of Mount Purgatory, but he did not invent it. The idea of a place between death and heaven, as well as the practice of praying for the dead, dates back to the earliest days of the church.

Though not directly mentioned in the Hebrew canon that became the basis for the Protestant Old Testament, prayers for the departed are encouraged in the Greek Septuagint, on which the Catholic and Orthodox Old Testaments are based. For example, 2 Maccabees states: "It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins." Other verses cited as proof of purification after death include 2 Samuel 12, 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, and Matthew 12:32.

The latter verse, in which Jesus declares that "anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come," struck Augustine. He argued in City of God, "That some sinners are not forgiven either in this world or in the next would not be truly said unless there were other [sinners] who, though not forgiven in this world, are forgiven in the world to come."

Words of hope and comfort (precursors to the modern "Rest in Peace") appear on many early Christian monuments, especially in the catacombs. Believers gathered there on death anniversaries to ask mercy for the departed souls. Expansions of this practice, such as granting indulgences for the dead, developed later.

Another aspect of the doctrine of purgatory is that some sins will be punished more severely than others—a concept vividly illustrated in the Divine Comedy. The distinction between major and minor sins and the belief in cleansing after death are found in early Christian texts, notably in the visions of Perpetua, ...

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