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The Ideas of Hell and Purgatory: A Wide Shift from Then to Now Essay

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“Hell has probably caused more personal anxiety and distress than any other Christian belief. Hell has also motivated many Christians to follow the Great Commission and attempt to convert the world to Christianity” (“Various Views of Hell: As seen by Conservative Christians”).

The word “hell” derives from the Pagan Norse Queen of the Underworld, Hel. When Christianity first evolved, the church taught that nearly everyone descended to this similar place to earth after dying. Included in this belief were the Pagan Gods and Goddesses from the Middle East, Rome, Greece, and the Germanic and Celtic tribes. Nevertheless, hell was commonly envisioned based on an ancient Jewish perspective, where “the wicked were separated from the righteous, and thrown into a large burning trash dump called Gehenna” (Graham). From the beginning, the church sought to get rid of this Old Testament idea which made the church less appealing. Hence, the once harsh idea of hell and purgatory has lightened with the times.

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Christian views in the second and third centuries suggested that faith in a “Higher God” was the only requirement for getting into heaven (“The Afterlife: Ancient Christian Beliefs”). Most people, however, were sent directly to hell. An idea according to the early church allowed the few individuals admitted into heaven to watch the people being tormented in hell. St Thomas Aquinas wrote, “In order that nothing may be wanting to the felicity of the blessed spirits in heaven, a perfect view is granted to them of the tortures of the damned”(“The Afterlife: Ancient Christian Beliefs”). A balance between all humans going to heaven and all humans going to hell was needed, which theologians pondered in the years to follow.

In the third century, when hell was considered an eternal punishment, Tertullian thought of a new place that he called the bosom of Abraham. “The bosom of Abraham, though not in heaven, and yet above hell, offers the souls of the righteous an interim refreshment until the end of all things brings about the general resurrection and the final reward” (Chidester 149). The idea of this mid-place caught the attention of many theologians of the time. In the fourth century, hell was seen as a place of spiritual suffering by Gregory of Nyssa. At the same time, the Latin theologian Jerome theorized hell as a place of pure physical torture. Augustine of Hippo proposed that “correctional fire” was used to free souls from sin (Chidester 152) in the fifth century. He introduced the thought that suffering in hell was both spiritual and sensory, and that a purifying fire would cleanse the soul while being agonizingly painful.

During the next century, Origen argued against the mainstream belief that hell was forever. He suggested that sinners in hell could be rehabilitated and work toward heaven. Church leaders quickly rejected this view at the Council of Constantinople in 543. Instead, Augustine’s cleansing fire idea reigned most believable until the fourteenth century. “Out of this imagery of refining fire, the geography of the Christian afterlife was expanded to include a special location – purgatory – in which Christian souls underwent suffering in preparation for heaven” (Chidester 152). Purgatory was not an official church belief until the sixteenth century, however.

In the early fourteenth century, a poet named Dante Alighieri presented a vivid vision of hell and its surroundings in Inferno, part one of three in the Divine Comedy. Virgil, representing human reason, gives Dante a complete tour of hell. The graphic imagery portrayed for each level of punishment is dependent on the crime committed. “He wept out of six eyes; and down three chins, tears gushed together with a bloody froth. Within each mouth – he used it like a grinder – with gnashing teeth he tore to bits a sinner, so that he brought much pain to three at once” (Alighieri 313). Here, Dante is describing Satan and the punishment inflicted upon the betrayers of God: Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius..”At the bottom of hell, they found the supreme traitor – the angel Lucifer, the devil Satan – who had betrayed the original divine order. Ultimately, sin was revealed in the depths of hell to be a betrayal of God” (Chidester 234). Dante’s gruesome approach to hell may have served to scare people into acting good.

In Purgatorio, the second part of the Divine Comedy, Dante is taken through Purgatory where sinners were both punished and purified. The seven deadly sins – pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust – represent misdirected love, or love toward the world instead of toward God (Chidester 234). In Dante’s depiction, the purpose of Purgatory was to “correct these deviant forms of love and redirect human desire toward the love of God.” (Chidester 234). In Paradiso, the final part of the Divine Comedy, Dante ascends into heaven.

“By developing his philosophy through the medium of poetry, Dante opened up new possibilities for Christian rhetoric that combined beauty with sacred truth . . .His poetic accomplishment in the Divine Comedy was widely regarded by Italian scholars as an advance in Christian philosophy” (Chidester 235). Dante’s portrayal of purgatory elaborates on Augustine’s original idea to cleanse while accepting pain, and also takes from Origen’s rejected view. Thus, he ascended into heaven because he had sincerely worked to rehabilitate himself in hell.

During the seventeenth century, several Christian writers denounced the idea of eternal punishment as incompatible with the love of God (McManners 282).

“To people living in early Christian centuries, infernal images of hell conveyed quite effectively the horrific consequences of rejecting God. One thing people feared most then was the burning and pillaging of their towns,” says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit journal America. “If you had described hell to them in terms of relationships and psychological experiences like loneliness, they wouldn’t have known what you were talking about” (Sheler).

As humanity is becoming more advanced, it is silly to think of hell in literal terms when a deeper meaning can be found. “Hell has not only been a formal item of Christian belief but a powerful and vividly portrayed aspect of the way in which the church has sought to ensure conformity of belief and reformation of life.” (McManners 566). Formerly, the idea of hell was exploited and used to control how one should live his or her life. By the seventeenth century, the need to scare people into following religion was lost.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Augustine’s combined physical and spiritual view of hell reawakened. “The Westminister Larger Catechism declared hell’s agonies to include “grievous torments in soul and body,” in addition to “everlasting separation from the comfortable presence of God.” (Sheler). Even so, people became very critical of the Old Testament in the nineteenth century. The Old Testament distinctly refers to hell “as a physical place of fiery torment and warns us we should fear” (Sheler). Therefore, the outdated book “came increasingly under fire” (Dowley 554).

Prior to July of 1999, the Catholic Church claimed that hell is a place where people who have died and not been wiped clean by church rituals will be severely punished for eternity. The level of punishment depends on the sin committed, and there is no hope of relief. However, the chance to be “wiped clean” is given in Purgatory.

Every imperfection must be corrected before entering heaven, thus “The souls of those who have died in the state of grace suffer for a time of purging that prepares them to enter heaven” (“Purgatory: History and Current Beliefs”). The Doctrine of Purgatory was established at the Councils of Florence (1438-1443) and Trent (1545-1563). The basic outcomes were that purgatory exists, and that “prayers of the faithful” will help purge a soul to heaven (“Purgatory: History and Current Beliefs”).

Before the Protestant Reformation, Purgatory was taught as a horrific place of painful long-lasting punishment with fire. “Medieval people had a very real dread of the period of punishment in purgatory which was portrayed in detail by the church; for the church taught that before they reached heaven they had to be cleansed of every sin committed in mortal life” (Dowley 366). This thought could be overwhelming to any imperfect human.

Accordingly, the Catholic Church teaches of indulgences; that a soul may be released early from Purgatory and go to heaven through prayer and good works. “An act such as reciting a prayer, saying the rosary, or helping someone in need can gain for the individual a reduction of many days in their stay in Purgatory” (“Purgatory: History and Current Beliefs”). During the late Middle Ages, indulgences were sold to members of the Church. In exchange for money was the promise that their loved one would be relieved of the pains of Purgatory and sent to heaven.

“The prevailing doctrine of Purgatory at the time of the Reformation was related to some of the worst abuses in the Church, particularly the sale of indulgences, a practice that many saw as a denial that we are saved through faith in Christ” (Walls). Friar Johannes Tetzel (1465-1519), a successful salesman of indulgences, said that “a soul is released from purgatory and carried to heaven as soon as the money tinkles in the box”(“Purgatory: History and Current Beliefs”). Martin Luther, the leader of the Protestant Reformation, disagreed with the selling of indulgences as a way of “selling grace” (Chidester 316). “Such exchanges of money for forgiveness are not to be compared with the grace of God and the compassion shown in the Cross,” (Chidester 316) he said.

In 1517, Luther published ninety-five theses against indulgences. At the time, printing was a new source of technology. Therefore, the issue was quickly made public and the church faced an embarrassing challenge.”There is only one punishment, not different degrees of ecclesiastical satisfaction and degrees of punishments in purgatory, and finally hell. The one and only punishment is the despair of being separated from God” (Tillich 232), Luther declared. “The Dead in purgatory can only be released by the pope; he can only pray for them; he has no power over the dead” (Tillich 232). Luther clearly believes that hell is spiritual suffering from the absence of God.

During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther accepted the belief in purgatory. In 1530, however, he said that Purgatory could not be proven to exist. Since then, Protestants have not taught the idea of Purgatory.

The Catholic view claims that Purgatory ends for person when he or she has been completely purified. He or she can then be let into heaven. However, the level of torment can be reduced by friends and family if they offer masses or prayers (“Purgatory: History and Current Beliefs”) The Vatican II documents state, “The doctrine of purgatory clearly demonstrates that even when the guild of sin has been taken away, punishment for it or the consequences of it has been taken away, punishment for it or the consequences of it may remain to be expiated or cleansed.

They often are. In fact, in purgatory the souls of those who died in the charity of God and truly repentant, but who had not made satisfaction with adequate penance for their sings and omissions are cleansed after death with punishments designed to purge away their debt” (“Purgatory: History and Current Beliefs”). The underlying information here is that individuals must be held accountable for their actions, even if they are forgiven. Consequences must be dealt with, and rituals according to the Catholic Church must be followed through with.

When Princess Diana died in 1997, Queen Elizabeth received a letter of condolence from Pope John Paul II. “The Holy Father has offered prayers summoning her to our Heavenly Father’s eternal love,” read the letter (Walls). This quote hinted that Diana was in Purgatory, and that prayers would end her time of purging and allow her to rise up into heaven.

On November 29th of the following year, the Pope issued a statement in “Conditions for Gaining the Jubilee Indulgence” describing how members of the Roman Catholic Church “can reduce or eliminate the interval in purgatory for themselves or loved ones through indulgences” (“Purgatory: History and Current Beliefs”). Refusing to drink, smoke, or eat for a period of time could help reduce time in purgatory, as well as visiting the sick, imprisoned, or elderly. On August 4, 1999, the Pope also declared that purgatory is a “condition of life” (“Purgatory: History and Current Beliefs”) rather than a place. Like hell, purgatory is not believed to be a physical place.

1 Corinthians 3:13-15 of the Bible is used by Catholics in support of Purgatory. “Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath build thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire”(KJV). On the other hand, Christian Fundamentalists and other Evangelicals see this verse as “referring to rewards given to previously saved individuals” (“Purgatory: History and Current Beliefs”).

The current beliefs on Purgatory are extremely light in comparison with those held before the Protestant Reformation. The Eastern Orthodox church rejects the idea of purgatory, but believes in praying and making offerings for the dead. Conservative Protestants also reject the idea of Purgatory, and believe that persons who have been saved during their lifetime will go to heaven at death. Liberal Protestants reject the idea of purgatory as it is “incompatible with loving, understanding, caring God” (“Purgatory: History and Current Beliefs”).

“Even if Purgatory existed, liberal Christians would reject the concept that prayers by the living would influence the severity or duration of the torture being inflicted on the inmates. If the prayers of the living influenced the punishment of the souls in Purgatory, then two individuals being punished for the same sins would suffer different sentences in Purgatory, depending upon how many living Catholic friends and relatives each had. This would be fundamentally unjust” (“Purgatory: History and Current Beliefs”). This fault in the idea of Purgatory may be a reason why the belief has become less popular. Moreover, many people today would argue that purification occurs in the act of dying (Walls).

Today’s common views of hell are noticeably more liberal. “The growth of historical knowledge has affected the way in which Christians understand the Bible, the primary source of distinctively Christian beliefs, to have been written; the growth of scientific knowledge has affected the way in which it seems possible to understand God’s action in the world; a deeper sociological awareness has made us more sensitive to the ways in which specifically Western and patriarchal attitudes have moulded Christian beliefs” (McManners 570).

The growing interest in diversity and the safeguard of being politically correct in order to not offend anyone has affected Christian belief. Hence, “Lampooned by modern intellectuals and increasingly sidelined by preachers preferring to dwell on more uplifting themes, the threat of post-mortem punishment of the impenitent in an eternal lake of fire all but disappeared from the religious mainstream by the 1960s.” (Sheler). In a poll taken in 1999, 34% said that hell is a real place where people suffer eternal fiery torments, a drop from 48% in 1997. 53% agreed that hell is an anguished state of existence eternally separated from God, an increase from 46% in 1997 (Sheler).

The old-fashioned literal interpretation of hell is considered ridiculous, and has been replaced with more believable ideas. Pope John Paul II gave an updated perspective of hell on July 28, 1999: “The thought of hell must not create anxiety or despair, but is a necessary and healthy reminder of freedom” (Sheler). In previous decades, the idea of a fiery hell with horrifying punishments was used to make people afraid of the possible consequences for their bad actions. On the other hand, freedom is a privilege, and when freedom is abused, penalties are given. God’s law and man’s law are different, however. One may not be held accountable for breaking God’s law during his life on earth, but that does not mean he will never be held accountable.

The Pope also claimed that “Hell is not a punishment imposed externally by God, but the condition resulting from attitudes and actions which people adopt in this life” (“The Afterlife: Current Beliefs of Major Wings of Christianity”). “This modern and more benign view of hell, scholars say, reflects a shift in much of Christian theology during the past 150 years away from literalism and physical imagery toward more psychological metaphors and symbols” (Sheler). Fire can now be thought of metaphorically, with the absence of God creating as much psychological suffering as physical suffering with fire. “No longer are the eternal flames being pitched as the most awful of all damnation possibilities” (Graham). Isolation from God can be a greater agony than burning forever.

Similarly, Jude 7 of the bible discusses everlasting punishment, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Professor Robert A. Peterson of Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis says in his book Hell on Trial, “Those descriptions signify extreme suffering and remorse…it is not possible for those annihilated to cry and grind their teeth” (Sheler).

In spite of the Pope’s comforting statements in 1999, the Catholic stance on hell is that very few persons go directly to heaven. Instead, they (members of the Church) are sent to Purgatory for a cleansing process, and later allowed into heaven. Everyone else will go to hell, where suffering is eternal. “We are asked to believe that God endlessly tortures sinners by the million, sinners who perish because the Father has decided not to elect them to salvation [while they were alive on earth], though he could have done so, and whose torments are supposed to gladden the hearts of believers in heaven. The problems with this doctrine are both extensive and profound,” commented C.H. Pinnock. (“Various Views of Hell: As seen by Conservative Christians”). Several universal concepts of justice are violated by the idea of hell, including the inherent dignity of the individual, human treatment of prisoners, freedom of religion, and freedom of individuals to hold diverse beliefs (“Various Views of Hell: As seen by Conservative Christians”).

Liberal Christians view hell as a concept, but do not believe in hell as a place of eternal punishment. Punishment of a person because they hold different religious beliefs is unjust, and God would not do such a thing. Moreover, punishment of an individual because he or she had never heard the Gospel is unfair. Even if she was familiar with the Gospel, an infinite sentence is “immoral, uncaring, and intolerant” (“The Afterlife: Current Beliefs of Major Wings of Christianity”). Basically, liberal Christians feel that a loving God would be incapable of creating a Hell. They hold the all-inclusive belief that everyone will go to heaven, if such a place exists.

Most people have not had the opportunity to lean about Jesus Christ and be saved. “About 66% follow either no religion or a non-Christian religion” (“The Afterlife: Current Beliefs of Major Wings of Christianity”). Some conservative Christians believe that individuals who have not been saved will be sent to hell.

“Recently, there has been a softening of this positions, as many conservative Christians have gradually moved away from the necessity of being saved while alive. They believe that those who die without having heard the Gospel will be given some form of other opportunity to be saved – by some unknown form of post-mortem salvation that is not mentioned in the Bible”(“The Afterlife: Current Beliefs of Major Wings of Christianity”). This idea is based on the perceived immorality of a God of love and justice punishing people for their lack of knowledge – a factor beyond their control. (“Conservative Christians’ Views of Hell: Trends and Implications”). A God of love and justice will not punish for lack of knowledge.

The concept of Hell and its tortures are a continual theme in the Bible. It cannot easily be avoided. “Hell is an embarrassing reality to countless Fundamentalist and other Evangelical Christians. It is a major stumbling block that prevents many potential converts from accepting the beliefs of conservative Christianity” (“Various Views of Hell: As seen by Conservative Christians”).

For this reason, Pastors rarely discuss Hell in sermons today. E.V. Hill of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles says that only a tiny minority of clergy in his community every preach on the subject. “The popular conception is that God is too good to allow a hell” (“Conservative Christians’ Views of Hell: Trends and Implications”). Cecil Perry, president of the Seventh-day Adventists in Britain, also agrees that hell conflicts with the loving messages of Christianity. “The message of hell is in stark contrast to the message of home and love and tends to engender fear” (“Conservative Christians’ Views of Hell: Trends and Implications”).

Subsidiarily, people tend to focus more on the present, and not think about being held accountable for their actions. Timothy George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama said “Heavenly happiness offers a better approach…than how hot it is in hell. We ought to focus on heaven and not lose sight in focusing on what the temperature is in hell. We ought not to lose sight of the alternative, which is eternity with God in heaven” (“The Afterlife: Current Beliefs of Major Wings of Christianity”) .

In essence, althought the bible has not changed, our beliefs in its teachings have. “In every generation, the church must interpret and apply the Scriptures in the context of contemporary culture if we are to be faithful to the text as it is meant,”said Reverend Stephen Happel, interim dean of religious studies at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. (Sheler). Time has shown that a society will adopt the beliefs they are most comfortable with.

“The gap between secular concepts of justice and the literal or metaphorical interpretation of biblical verses about hell can only widen with time” (“Conservative Christians’ Views of Hell: Trends and Implications”). This gap was further widened by the fascination of spirituality by today’s culture. “A change was detected in popular culture a decade ago with the public’s fascination with angels. Angelical memorabilia, books, movies such as “The Preacher’s Wife,” and television’s “Touched by an Angel.”

Jerry Miller, chairman of the philosophy department at Salisbury State University in Maryland suggested that “the result of such re-imaging is that religion loses some of its negative reputation for bullying people into submission” (Graham). Hell and purgatory are no longer popular ideas preached from the pulpit. It is a time of a lighter, more encompassing message. Hell and purgatory are left out of mainstream discussions with the topics pertaining more to a God of love and acceptance than of anger, hell, and purgatory. “Basically . . .there is an afterlife. It doesn’t necessarily take on the image of horns and red suits chasing people around” (Graham).

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