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I understand that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that people today spend time in Purgatory after they die prior to going to heaven.

However, this teaching does not appear to have been taught in the Old Testament or been believed by Israel during that time.

Does the Catholic Church teach that people who died before the atonement of Christ, like Abraham, Moses, Elijah, etc., also spent time in Purgatory before going to Heaven?

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In short, No. Purgatory did not exist before Christ rose from the dead. They were in the Limbo of the Fathers (limbus patrum).

I know it is long, but here is the Catholic teaching from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

632 The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection.478 This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.479

633 Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” — Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek—because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God.480 Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”:481 “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.”482 Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.483 (1033)

634 “The gospel was preached even to the dead.”484 The descent into hell brings the Gospel message of salvation to complete fulfillment. This is the last phase of Jesus’ messianic mission, a phase which is condensed in time but vast in its real significance: the spread of Christ’s redemptive work to all men of all times and all places, for all who are saved have been made sharers in the redemption. (605)

635 Christ went down into the depths of death so that “the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”485 Jesus, “the Author of life,” by dying destroyed “him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and [delivered] all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage.”486 Henceforth the risen Christ holds “the keys of Death and Hades,” so that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.”487

Today a great silence reigns on earth, a great silence and a great stillness. A great silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began.... He has gone to search for Adam, our first father, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow Adam in his bonds and Eve, captive with him—He who is both their God and the son of Eve....” I am your God, who for your sake have become your son.... I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead.”488

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That depends on how you mean "purgatory". No one went into heaven prior (John 3:13) to the death of Christ (which opened the Kingdom of Heaven to believers (this is in the Te Deum, but it might be Biblical?)). Those who would have been considered truly righteous (Elijah, Moses, Abraham, etc.) would have been in "Abraham's bosom" (as in Luke 16:22-23), something which isn't heaven but it isn't painful either. That said, there are passages in the New Testament (2 Peter and Jude especially) which suggest that Christ also freed people from some place which was more unpleasant than the spiritual waiting room.

It can be argued that both of these qualify as purgatory. It can also be argued that neither of them really qualify as purgatory but are considered something else. Either way, both places are considered to be different from the post-resurrection fate of the impure we now call "purgatory".

(Interestingly, in the old meaning of the word "hell" (the modern maps almost exclusively to Gehenna/Tartarus), these were considered "hells").

  • RE: "Hells" because they were considered deep dark pits - a place for eternal sleep, not fire and brimstone and eternal torture. I'll see where I can get references for this (I know I didn't just make it up :) ) – user1054 Jan 2 '13 at 17:44
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In 2 Maccabees 12:39-461
After a bloody battle was won over enemies from Cypress and Joppa, Judah Maccabee, in recovering his dead soldiers' bodies for burial, discovered that many had worn under their garments some images of pagan idols for protection in battle -- which was prohibited by the Hebrew faith. Judah considered the bravery and the sacrifice the men had made for their people. He then sent 12,000 silver drachmas to Jerusalem for the priests to offer sacrifice for the heroes of the war. It would be senseless to do this had he not believed that there was some possibility to expiate their sins and gain mercy and forgiveness.

Text note from the Douay Rheims Bible follows.

NOTE: "With godliness: Judas hoped that these men who died fighting for the cause of God and religion, might find mercy: either because they might be excused from mortal sin by ignorance; or might have repented of their sin, at least at their death."

Vere 46

It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.

It follows to ask where were these souls so that they may receive mercy? Judah Maccabee asked himself a logical question about God's justice, interceded for his men with hope, and trusted in God to judge his dead heroes.


1 39 And the day following Judas cam with his company, to take away the bodies of them that were slain, and to bury them with their kinsmen, in the sepulchres of their fathers.
40 And they found under the coats o the slain some of the donaries of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbiddeth the Jews:
41 Then they all blessed the just judgment of the Lord, who had discovered the things that were hidden.
42 And so betaking themselves to prayers, they besought him, that the sin which had been committed might be forgotten. But the most valiant Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forasmuch as they saw before their eyes what had happened, because of the sins of those that were slain.
43 And making a gathering, he twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection, 44 (For if he had not hoped that the that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead,)
45 And because he considered that the who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them.
46 It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins. that all plainly saw, for this cause they were slain.

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    Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. Thanks for offering an answer. However, the question specifically asked for an answer based on Roman Catholic teaching. Since your answer doesn't provide that, it will likely be deleted. However, if you can show, with references, that this answer represents Catholic teaching, it would be considered a valid answer here. See: What makes a good supported answer? – Lee Woofenden Oct 17 '16 at 22:45
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    @LeeWoofenden The answer is based on 2 Maccabees, which is in Catholic Bibles but not in Protestant ones. The answer also quotes a text note from a Catholic translation of the Bible, the Douay Rheims Bible. So it seems to me that it is sufficiently "based on Roman Catholic teaching." – Andreas Blass Oct 17 '16 at 23:30
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    @AndreasBlass 2 Macabees being in the Catholic Bible doesn't make it a Catholic book. And a Bible translation is not a doctrinal statement, even if may lean toward the doctrines of the sponsoring church. – Lee Woofenden Oct 18 '16 at 1:13
  • @LeeWoofenden It is part of the Catholic Canon. Citing scripture is a part of a good answer, but I think you want more than that: a linkage between that scripture and how the RCC teaches of purgatory from it. Right? – KorvinStarmast Oct 18 '16 at 1:18
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    @KorvinStarmast Citing scripture responds to a biblical basis question. But it is not sufficient to answer a question requesting the doctrinal position of a denomination. If a question asked for the Lutheran position on a particular issue, it would not be sufficient to quote from the Protestant Bible. The answer would have to make specific reference to Lutheran teachings, even if those teachings are interpretations of passages from the Protestant Bible. – Lee Woofenden Oct 18 '16 at 2:13

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