Historical Purgatory and Prayers for the Dead

Question
Do the Church Fathers testify unanimously regarding purgatory and prayers for the dead?

Catholic apologists point out that the church fathers all believed in praying for the dead and in purgatory. Is this true?
Answer
On purgatory and prayers for the dead, I doubt that many Catholic theologians would argue that all the church fathers believed in prayers for the dead and in purgatory. That would be a rather odd assertion, given the facts that the church fathers were not entirely united on every point of doctrine, and that most of them never wrote about either subject. Of course, there is no way I can offer a short answer that will deal effectively with every possible mention for or against these doctrines in the early church writings, so I'll just list a couple of examples:

Hippolytus seems to reject the notion of purgatory in Against Platoà, speaking of the departed saints as being in Abraham's Bosom, which is

"a locality full of light ... enjoying always the contemplation of the blessings which are in their viewà There, there is neither fierce heat, nor cold, nor thorn; but the face of the fathers and the righteous is seen to be always smiling, as they wait for the rest and eternal revival in heaven which succeed this location."

The unrighteous, however, are said to undergo the punishments of hell. At the final judgment, these temporary conditions are fulfilled in the resurrection as permanent conditions. There is no mention of the idea that undergoing punishment results in righteousness. Rather, those who began unrighteous are also unrighteous at the end.

It seems to me that in Tertullian's Treatise on the Soul, he too denies that the departed saints undergo any suffering. See particularly his conclusion in chapter 58, but also those preceding it. One of his arguments here is that the afterlife prior to judgment is consistent with what will take place at the judgment. He also, through rhetorical questions, rejects the idea of the confusion that would take place if Christians did not find comfort when they died.

In the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 61, prayers for the departed are instructed to be prayed in order that they might be forgiven and receive God's mercy. This is not the purpose of prayer for those in purgatory — those in purgatory have already been forgiven. Moreover, Constitutions à 61 also says that they dead are "at rest in Christ" and that "no torment can touch" them. Again, the Roman Catholic Church probably has a different spin on this passage, but I think I have captured the plain meaning of it.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.