Tertullian V: Purgatory

09 Jan

I have a few books here which talk about the evolution of the Doctrine of Purgatory and one of these days I really should read them. It’s possible I missed something with earlier authors (I seem to have focused on their arguments for bodily resurrection) but most seemed to feel that when you die, your path is set and your soul sleeps. Once awakened, you will either be judged worthy of heaven or be sentenced to hell. Some authors believe Saints and Martyrs will ascend to heaven immediately while normal believers sleep.

Painting by Cristobal Rojas (1890), depicting purgatory.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Tertullian believes otherwise. In his Treatise on the Soul (de anima) he proposes that while in Hades, souls are aware. As a background to this, Tertullian adds some properties to souls which I’ve not previously come across (or if I have I didn’t note them). Unlike other authors, Tertullian believes that souls are corporeal and have substance. This happens to be one of the few areas where he agrees with ancient philosophers and even uses them as evidence. Treatise on the Soul, V-IX

As with other topics, Tertullian builds towards his argument that souls are awake in Hades and subject to punishment. I’m going to provide passages which will, I hope, help you understand the meticulous way he constructs this. He begins with a discussion of what happens to the soul during sleep. Sleep, he says, “is the very mirror of death.” (Treatise on the Soul, XLII) During sleep, the soul is alert and active:

“Our only resource, indeed, is to agree with the Stoics, by determining the soul to be a temporary suspension of the activity of the senses, procuring rest for the body only, not for the soul also. For the soul, as being always in motion, and always active, never succumbs to rest, — a condition which is alien to immortality: for nothing immortal admits any end to its operation; but sleep is an end of operation. It is indeed on the body, which is subject to mortality, and on the body alone, that sleep graciously bestows a cessation from work. … But yet it[the soul] dreams in the interval. Whence then its dreams? The fact is, it cannot rest or be idle altogether, nor does it confine to the still hours of sleep the nature of its immortality. It proves itself to possess a constant motion; it travels over land and sea, it trades, it is excited, it labours, it plays, it grieves, it rejoices, it follows pursuits lawful and unlawful; it shows what very great power it has even without the body, how well equipped it is with members of its own, although betraying at the same time the need it has of impressing on some body its activity again.” Treatise on the Soul, XLIII

He continues on this topic for several more chapters but hopefully this is enough to show where Tertullian was going with this. Sleep is akin to death. The soul is active through death as is evident from dreams. What’s left is to discuss what happens during death itself.

Hades is not just for the evil. All souls are consigned to it, but possibly to different regions. An interesting argument is when he asks how the soul of an infant, if it is not allowed to develop further, can be prepared to fully participate in God’s kingdom?

“Suppose it be an infant that dies yet hanging on the breast; or it may be an immature boy; or it may be, once more, a youth arrived at puberty: suppose, moreover, that the life in each case ought to have reached full eighty years, how is it possible that the soul of either could spend the whole of the shortened years here on earth after losing the body by death? One’s age cannot be passed without one’s body, it being by help of the body that the period of life has its duties and labours transacted. Let our own people, moreover, bear this in mind, that souls are to receive back at the resurrection the self-same bodies in which they died. Therefore our bodies must be expected to resume the same conditions and the same ages, for it is these particulars which impart to bodies their especial modes. By what means, then, can the soul of an infant so spend on earth its residue of years, that it should be able at the resurrection to assume the state of an octogenarian, although it had barely lived a month? Or if it shall be necessary that the appointed days of life be fulfilled here on earth, must the same course of life in all its vicissitudes, which has been itself ordained to accompany the appointed days, be also passed through by the soul along with the days? Must it employ itself in school studies in its passage from infancy to boyhood; play the soldier in the excitement and vigour of youth and earlier manhood; and encounter serious and judicial responsibilities in the graver years between ripe manhood and old age? Must it ply trade for profit, turn up the soil with hoe and plough, go to sea, bring actions at law, get married, toil and labour, undergo illnesses, and whatever casualties of weal and woe await it in the lapse of years? Well, but how are all these transactions to be managed without one’s body? Life (spent) without life? But (you will tell me) the destined period in question is to be bare of all incident whatever, only to be accomplished by merely elapsing. What, then, is to prevent its being fulfilled in Hades, where there is absolutely no use to which you can apply it?” Treatise on the Soul, LVI

Now the souls of those who will spend eternity in heaven may go to a different region of Hades, but this is their destination while they await judgement:

“So then, you will say, it is all the wicked souls that are banished in Hades. (Not quite so fast, is my answer.) I must compel you to determine (what you mean by Hades), which of its two regions, the region of the good or of the bad. If you mean the bad, (all I can say is, that) even now the souls of the wicked deserve to be consigned to those abodes; if you mean the good why should you judge to be unworthy of such a resting-place the souls of infants and of virgins, and those which, by reason of their condition in life were pure and innocent?” Treatise on the Soul, LVI

OK, so we have a soul which must be alert and spend time in Hades. We’ve been told that if it’s a very young soul, it’ll have the opportunity to age a bit. What about the rest of them? Tertullian doesn’t have them sitting around playing cards:

“All souls, therefore, are shut up within Hades: do you admit this? (It is true, whether) you say yes or no: moreover, there are already experienced there punishments and consolations; and there you have a poor man and a rich. And now, having postponed some stray questions for this part of my work, I will notice them in this suitable place, and then come to a close. Why, then, cannot you suppose that the soul undergoes punishment and consolation in Hades in the interval, while it awaits its alternative of judgment, in a certain anticipation either of gloom or of glory?” Treatise on the Soul, LVIII

There is no reason to think that a soul, on entering Hades, is worthy of entering Heaven, but neither is it lost:

“Now really, would it not be the highest possible injustice, even in Hades, if all were to be still well with the guilty even there, and not well with the righteous even yet?” Treatise on the Soul, LVIII

The solution is for the soul to be corrected, to learn and grow, in order to be worthy of resurrection:

“It is therefore quite in keeping with this order of things, that that part of our nature should be the first to have the recompense and reward to which they are due on account of its priority. In short, inasmuch as we understand ‘the prison’ pointed out in the Gospel to be Hades, and as we also interpret ‘the uttermost farthing’ to mean the very smallest offence which has to be recompensed there before the resurrection, no one will hesitate to believe that the soul undergoes in Hades some compensatory discipline, without prejudice to the full process of the resurrection, when the recompense will be administered through the flesh besides.” Treatise on the Soul, LVIII

I’ve bolded for emphasis what I consider to be the key passages. For Tertullian, a soul destined for resurrection may still be made to suffer. He was a strong believer in penance as being necessary for the remission of sins during life; here he believes that this continues after death. Again, until I read further I won’t be able to assess how important Tertullian was in the development of Purgatory, but he’s certainly an early advocate for its existence.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 1: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-083-1.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 2: Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (entire), Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004). ISBN: 1-56563-084-X.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 3: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian: I. Apologetic; II. Anti-Marcion; III. Ethical. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Roberts, Alexander & Donaldson, James, eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4: Latin Christianity: Its Founder, Tertullian, Part Fourth: Minucius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2004), ISBN: 1-56563-086-6.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 3: Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.

Schaff, Philip and Wace, Henry, eds., Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Second Series Volume 6: The Principal Works of St. Jerome. Peabody, MA, USA: Hendrickson Publishers (2012), ISBN(for series): 978-1-56563-116-8.


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