Most Protestants reject the doctrine of Purgatory, believing it to be both unbiblical and an invention of the Catholic Church. They think that the Christians of the early church did not believe in Purgatory or pray for the dead, and these doctrines were created by a corrupted paganized version of Christianity (i.e. the Catholic Church) centuries later.
What did the early Church believe and what did the Church Fathers teach? If Purgatory was invented by the Catholic Church, then there should be a time when this doctrine appeared. It does not necessarily have to be a fixed date. Protestants can have a good argument against Purgatory by showing a period when the doctrine was taught and a period before when there was no mention of it, implying it was created after that.
Purgatory did not always exist. To confirm Protestant beliefs, Purgatory is a Catholic invention. Now, to disappoint our separated brethren, the doctrine was not invented in the 6th Century by Pope St. Gregory III. Purgatory was created by God after Jesus died on the cross. Before Jesus’ redemptive work on the cross, no one was able to enter Heaven. All those who died before the Crucifixion and were worthy of Heaven but could not enter due to the stain of sin waited in a place referred to as the Limbo of the Fathers.
Limbo is a state (or a place) between Heaven and Hell. The word came from Limbus, a Latin word meaning border. Before the Messiah came, no one could go to Heaven directly because nothing unclean may enter it (Revelation 21:27). Jesus had not yet died for their sins and redeemed them, so they were not worthy to be in God’s presence. After Jesus died, “He went to preach to the spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:19) and opened the way to Heaven for them. The prison was Limbo. After the gateway was opened to Heaven from Limbo, Purgatory was created. This was necessary because even though redemption is for all of mankind, many people leave this world unworthy to directly enter Heaven due to the stain of sin in their souls.
There were religious groups throughout history who have rejected Purgatory. In the early centuries after Christ, the Gnostics had no use for expiating their sins in an afterlife. They believed that the sufferings on earth were sufficient to purify their souls for Heaven.
The heretics of Arianism in the 4th Century believed that praying for the dead was immoral. Their reasoning behind this is that by doing so a person could commit any sin they wished and count on others praying for their soul in Purgatory.
The 12th Century had its share of doubters as well. The Waldenses had great disagreements among themselves over whether Purgatory was a reality. The influence of Gnosticism was still present in this era among the Albigenses and Catharers, both groups finding Purgatory to be incompatible with their doctrines.
The best known attack on the doctrine of Purgatory was by Martin Luther, a Catholic monk in the 16th Century. He began by attacking the pious practice of indulgences when he nailed his “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” (more commonly known as “The 95 Theses”) on the door of the church beside the castle of Wittemburg in 1517. Luther did this on the day before All Saints Day. At that time there were abuses in indulgences which led Luther to publicly condemn them, but he went too far in his condemnation by attacking the authority of the Church to grant indulgences.
On that historic date, Luther had not condemned Purgatory. He believed in it but did not accept the Church’s methods of obtaining indulgences for the poor souls there. From 1518-1519 he believed Purgatory was true and taught it to his followers. From there up to 1530 he kept the doctrine of Purgatory but did not want it to be an article of faith since he believed that it could neither be proved nor disproved but it should be permitted to be taught. In 1530, Luther published “Denial of Purgatory”, his rejection of this ancient doctrine. He referred to Purgatory as a “Devil’s mask” in the Schmalkaldian Articles of 1537. Luther did have varying opinions of Purgatory after that and in 1543 he allowed prayers for the dead in his “Church Directory”.
There are of course more examples of Christians and non-Christians who reject Purgatory. Their main point is that they believe this doctrine was invented by the Catholic Church. Many point to Pope St. Gregory III instituting it in the 6th Century, but all of them would agree that it occurred after the 4th Century when the Catholic Church supposedly began. Since this doctrine began after the 4th Century, there should of course be no Christians praying for the dead before that and if there were, they would be condemned by the Church of that time.
Now, there is no historical evidence of the Church condemning Purgatory or condemning prayers for dead before the 4th Century. There were prayers for the poor souls in Purgatory inscribed in the catacombs (underground tombs) in the first century.
In “The Acts of Paul and Thecla” (8:5-6; 160 A.D.), “After the beasts had been shown, Trifina took Thecla home with her, and they went to bed. And behold, the daughter of Trifina, who was dead, appeared to her mother and said: Mother, let the young woman Thecla be reputed by you as your daughter in my place, and ask her to pray for me, that I may be translated to a state of happiness. Upon which Trifina, with a mournful air, said, My daughter Falconilla has appeared to me and ordered me to receive you in her place; wherefore I desire, Thecla, that you would pray for my daughter that she may be translated into a state of happiness and to life eternal.”. The idea here is prayers are requested to expiate Falconilla’s sins so that she can go to Heaven sooner from Purgatory. Falconilla appeared to her mother and asked her bring Thecla into her household to pray for her soul.
Again, in the 2nd Century, more evidence of prayers for the dead, this time prayers being requested by a man planning for the future by requesting prayers for his soul while in Purgatory. “The citizen of a prominent city, I erected this while I lived, that I might have a resting place for my body. Abercius is my name, a disciple of the chaste shepherd who feeds his sheep on the mountains and in the fields, who has great eyes surveying everywhere, who taught me the faithful writings of life. Standing by, I, Abercius, ordered this to be inscribed; truly I was in my seventy-second year. May everyone who is in accord with this and who understands it pray for Abercius” (Epitaph of Abercius; 190 A.D.).
Tertullian wrote about Matthew 5:21-26. There Jesus taught about temporary and eternal punishment for sin. The temporary punishment would be in Purgatory, the other in Hell. The “prison” he talks about is Purgatory. This interpretation of this passage of Matthew was taught since the earliest times of the Church. “To sum up, since that ‘prison’ which the Gospel indicates we understand to mean the place of the departed, and the ‘last penny’ we interpret to mean even a small fault which must be expiated there before the resurrection, no one shall doubt that the soul will pay something in the place of the departed spirits before the fullness of the resurrection in the flesh” (On the Soul, 58; 208 A.D.).
He also wrote about making sacrifices for the dead on their birthdays. “As often as the anniversary comes round, we make offerings for the dead as birthday honours.” (The Chaplet, 3; 211 A.D.).
Tertullian again writes, “A woman, after the death of her husband … prays for his soul and asks that he may, while waiting, find rest; and that he may share in the first resurrection. And each year, on the anniversary of his death, she offers the sacrifice” (Monogamy 10:1-2; 216 A.D.).
And in 253 A.D., St. Cyprian wrote about Purgatory and also made a reference to Matthew 5:21-26, “it is one thing, when cast into prison, not to go out thence until one has paid the uttermost farthing”. “Farthing” is another way of saying a small amount of currency, such as a penny. The great saint has more to say on purification in Purgatory, “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”. These quotes can be found in St. Cyprian’s Letters 51:20.
Those who claim that the Catholic Church started in the 4th Century say that it began in 313 with the Edict of Milan, so we can squeeze another quote by Lactantius from 307 A.D. “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” (Divine Institutes 7:21).
Well, here we have it. Plenty of evidence that the early Church taught and believed in praying for the dead in Purgatory. What we won’t find is the Church condemning these people as heretics for their teachings. These doctrines can be traced back to the origins of Christianity. However, talking about the history of Purgatory without doing something about the poor souls is useless. Remember to pray each day for them so that they can enter Heaven sooner. God will bless you for this and the souls you have freed will be eternally grateful.