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We have this in our country, I googled it but didn’t find something like this, just found that Martin Luther had something to do with Indulgences.

So is it true or is just some nice writing and good enough relation to Martin Luther?

Rough Translation:

In medieval times, priests sold pieces of heaven to people for a hundred coins, and people bought them.

A wise man was frustrated that people were buying them so he found a solution.

He went to a priest and asked, "How much is all of hell?

The priest looked surprised and asked, "Hell?"

"Yes," he said.

The priest without hesitation said: "Fifty coins."

The man gave him the coins and took the certificate.

He went and put it in town square, and said: "I have bought all of hell and I won't let any of you in."

This man was Martin Luther.

  • 2
    Can you please provide some sort of citation as to where you found this? – Logan Baxter Feb 15 '18 at 20:30
  • This sounds like satire to me. Martin Luther was definitely opposed to the use of indulgences, at least the way they were being promoted. I would certainly like to know the source of this story, and whether a reasonable answer can be given. – bit chaser Feb 16 '18 at 19:41
  • 1
    For a background on the actual history of Luther's response to indulgences, see courses.wcupa.edu/jones/his101/web/37luther.htm . For a story Luther told about Tetzel (a seller of indulgences), see christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/60328/… – bit chaser Feb 16 '18 at 19:56
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    @Nemexia You say this is a story from your country. Which country is that, please? – davidlol Feb 17 '18 at 11:50
  • Did Luther leave it to someone in his will? – Ken Graham Feb 15 at 21:48
2

I cannot verify that this specific incident is historical, but it is built on solid fact and is "true" in the sense of legend. The religious and social setting is certainly accurate and it may well have happened. More on this below.

Theology of Indulgences

"Buying pieces of heaven" most likely refers to the Roman Catholic Church's tradition of selling Indulgences. This tradition was based on the belief that a faithful Christian whose sins were forgiven still suffers the consequence of sin and:

must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the "temporal punishment" of sin (Catechism of the Catholic Church).

From Wikipedia

It may reduce the "temporal punishment for sin" after death, in the state or process of purification called purgatory.

Wikipedia's article is based on Edward N. Peters in A Modern Guide to Indulgences: Rediscovering This Often-Misinterpreted Teaching and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

"Buying a Piece of Heaven"

Thus, when parishioners paid one hundred coins for an Indulgence, they believed they were "buying a piece of heaven." The parishioners were illiterate peasants who barely had enough for the necessities of life. Martin Luther felt they were manipulated by the church to pay for their own salvation and the salvation of their loved ones; he was outraged. Luther was an educated priest who could read the Bible. He believed salvation was free and that the Church was ripping off the peasants to line its own pockets.

It is not for me to judge the RCC's motivations and theology regarding Indulgences. However, judging from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the concept of "buying a piece of heaven" is a crude interpretation of the Church's theology, so crude as to be called a misunderstanding. All the same, it was possibly the only way the illiterate peasant farmers could understand the complex theology of Indulgences, familiar as they might have been with buying a piece of land. From there, it would have been but a tiny step to say that Luther "bought hell"; it's merely bringing in Luther's "free salvation" theology in the language of Indulgences.

The Nature of a Folk Legend

As stated, I cannot verify that this story is historically true, though "buying hell" would have spoken to the people's fear of hell and their obligation to buy Indulgences for salvation. Janez Usenik, a writer on Quora, calls this story "an anecdote circulating in some places" and:

fictional propaganda story that meant to demonstrate how protestants were wiser and better than the catholics

Usenik provides no documentation but I remember my father telling the story when I was growing up in the 1960's; he may have read it somewhere since we were Mennonite and not Lutheran. That is the nature of legends; they are stories that are told and retold down through the generations, sometimes written down, but can never be actually documented and pinned to a specific time and place.

In The Guardian's article Thank Martin Luther for exposing the church’s great salvation sell-off, Giles Fraser may also be referring to this story, though he does not say it in so many words. He mentions a "letter of protest."

Martin Luther was an unknown monk in an ecclesiastical backwater before he wrote Albert a letter of protest. People in the pews were being ripped off. And worse still, the church was twisting authentic Christian theology for financial gain. Salvation wasn’t for the church to buy and sell. First, it was free. And second, it was entirely the gift of God. The letter was sent on 31 October 1517, and, as legend has it, nailed to the door of All Saints, Wittenberg.

It is unclear whether "the letter of protest" was a cover letter to accompany the 95 Theses, or whether Fraser called the 95 Theses themselves a letter of protest. The 95 Theses are well-documented and historical, according to the Waterloo Lutheran Seminary where I studied in the early 2000's.

95 Theses

From Wikipedia:

The Ninety-five Theses or Disputation on the Power of Indulgences is a list of propositions for an academic disputation written in 1517 by Martin Luther, professor of moral theology at the University of Wittenberg, Germany. They advance Luther's positions against what he saw as the abuse of the practice of clergy selling plenary indulgences, which were certificates believed to reduce the temporal punishment in purgatory for sins committed by the purchasers or their loved ones. (Emphasis added.)

This ties together the idea of buying Indulgences for money, and that a certificate represents (is) the Indulgence. In other words, the story in the Question says the priest gave Martin Luther a certificate when he paid for Hell. My point: It was normal for the priest to give the purchaser of an Indulgence a certificate upon purchase. We might call it a proof of purchase.

For more background on the religious situation of the time, go to this page and scroll down to "The 95 Theses: Martin Luther Challenges the Church."

  • Although you do not answer the OP's question directly I very much like the detail and style of your answer. You could further improve it by pointing out that "buying a piece of heaven" or "buying salvation" is a misunderstanding of the Church's teaching. A misunderstanding that Luther himself points out in his 95 Thesis by explaining the difference between temporal and eternal punishment respectively between salvation and indulgence. – David Woitkowski Feb 14 at 8:33
  • However, welcome to Christianity Stack. I would invite you to take our tour (if you haven't already done so) at christianity.stackexchange.com/tour and make yourself more familiar with our site. – David Woitkowski Feb 14 at 8:33
  • @DavidWoitkowski Thank you for your kind words. Why do you say I don't directly answer the question? It asks whether there is "any truth" in Martin Luther's claim that he bought hell. The question mentioned Google, so I understood that documentation was being asked for. I directly addressed those issues, explaining that I cannot verify its veracity but that it's true as in legend. I documented the basics I found. I see now that the question understood Indulgences; I could have skipped that explanation. Did I miss other vital points? – Sarah Bowman Feb 14 at 13:42
  • You write "He may or may not have 'bought hell' to free the people of their fear". An I read the question to ask "Did he or did he not?". And that specific question you did not answer. However, you did a good job to demonstrate in what way the story is more or less plausible, in what narrative it fits and what message it confers to its intended audience. – David Woitkowski Feb 14 at 13:45
  • @DavidWoitkowski I have edited my answer to address your concern re misunderstanding about "buying heaven." – Sarah Bowman Feb 14 at 14:22

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