Hades, the Intermediate State and Purgatory
The early Church inherited from Judaism the belief that the souls of the departed are alive and either in bliss or in pain, as they wait for the general Resurrection of the dead. There is Hades wherein is both Pain and Paradise (Abraham's bosom).This doctrine of life after death was developed in relation to Christ as its center so that Christians spoke of "the dead in Christ" when referring to believers who had died.
They were taught and possessed a profound sense of the unity of the Church be She militant on earth, expectant in the intermediate state, or triumphant in heaven. There was One Body, One Head and many members under the Head and in the Body. There was the "communion of saints."
Further, as the years went by, they expressed the belief that some of the Christian dead (called "martyrs" and "saints") were in a special relation of proximity to the Lord Jesus Christ and thus their prayers could be requested - "Pray for us." At the same time, the Church (militant here on earth) believed (as the early Liturgies make clear) that it was perfectly natural to pray for the generality of the Christian dead (Church expectant) that they would "rest in peace" until the Day of Resurrection.
In the Western Church, but not in the Eastern, the doctrine of the intermediate state gradually became for most practical purposes the doctrine of purgation or purgatory. It was the sphere wherein the generality of the Christian dead (those who had died forgiven but not inwardly cleansed) were able in God's provision and mercy, by expiation and satisfaction, to be fully cleansed and perfected in their love for God and devotion to Christ Jesus. And to assist the Christian dead who belonged to the Church Expectant there developed in the Church Militant on earth the practice not only of the offering of prayers and the sacrifice of the Mass but also works of piety for their brethren in Christ in order to alleviate the pain of the expiation of their sins.
Yet, only in the late Middle Ages was the doctrine of purgatory defined by Church Councils - Lyon (1274) and more precisely Florence (1439). Here is the statement from the Council of Florence:
On the eternal fate of the dead
"And, if they are truly penitent and die in God's love before having satisfied by worthy fruits of penance for their sins of commission and omission, their souls are cleansed after death by purgatorial penalties. In order that they should be relieved from such penalties, the acts of intercession (suffragia) of the living faithful benefit them, namely the sacrifice of the Mass, prayers, alms and other works of piety, which the faithful are wont to do for the other faithful according to the Church's practice.
The souls of those who, after having received baptism, have incurred no stain of sin whatever, and those souls who, after having contracted the stain of sin, have been cleansed, while in their bodies or after having been divested of them (as stated above), are received immediately (mox) into heaven, and see God Himself, One and Three, as He is, though some more perfectly than others, according to the diversity of merits.
As for those who die in actual mortal sin or with original sin only, they go down immediately (mox) to hell (in infernum) to be punished, however, with different punishments."
In Western Catholic theology, the remission of sins related first to the forgiveness of the guilt of sin. After the giving of pardon, there remained the need for expiation and satisfaction to be made through appropriate penance. So, when a baptized Christian died without having fully completed his penance for his sins, then the satisfaction he owed and the cleansing of the stain of sin from his soul had yet to be completed. Thus purging occurred in the intermediate state before he could by grace be led on to experience the beatific vision of the glory of God the Father in face of Jesus Christ the Lord.
The Rejection of Purgatory
It is fair to state that one of the most widely held views in late medieval Europe was that there is a Purgatory where the vast majority of [previously nominal] Christians are, and that a major task of the Church is to do all She can, by every possible means, to relieve their pain and to assist them on their movement towards the beatific vision. Thus praying and working for the dead in Christ was a major occupation! And it was open to all kinds of excesses and abuses.
In the sixteenth century, we are not surprised that the Protestant Reformers decided, upon the basis of their biblical studies, that the whole doctrine of Purgatory and all the practices associated with it had to be dismantled and set aside. And this amounted not only to a religious but also a social and economic revolution! Further, out with the bath water went the baby, so that no trace of any kind of prayer to the saints or for the dead in Christ was allowed in Protestant Churches.
At the reforming Council of Trent, what was left of the western Catholic Church (we may call it, the Roman Catholic Church), declared its commitment in 1563 in the "Decree on Purgatory" to the doctrine of Purgatory but urged that abuses and excesses be removed from teaching and practice.
Here is what the Church of England stated in 1562 in her Articles of Religion:
XXII Of Purgatory
The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well as Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.
This is a wide sweep and condemnation taking in not only the doctrine and practices associated with Purgatory but also those connected with icons and images. It was written before the Council of Trent assembled.
For the practical effects of the rejection of Purgatory by the reformed Church of England in the 16th century, one can study the service for the Burial of the Dead in The Book of Common Prayer (1552 -1662) wherein all prayers for the brother/sister departed were removed and only prayers for mourners were allowed. No service of Holy Communion was suggested for fear that it be represented as a Mass for the dead. The radical changes in burial practice and service were done because it was believed that the departed soul had gone to its eternal destiny and that no efforts on earth could change that fact. For the Protestant, the Church Militant prays with the Church Expectant to God the Father through Jesus Christ the Lord, but the Church Militant here on earth does not pray for the Church Expectant or call upon any of the Christian dead to pray for their brethren who still abide in flesh and blood.
In modern times, there have entered some Anglican Liturgies brief and general prayers for the dead and are so low-key that they pass unnoticed; but, a rounded belief in the doctrine of purgatory and the offering of the Mass for the dead in Christ has only been done by Anglo-Catholics.
At the Second Vatican Council there was a major attempt to set the doctrine of purgatory in a dynamic eschatological context ( see Lumen Gentium, 1964, 2311-4). Yet, since the 1960s the existence of purgatory has been denied by some Catholic theologians because they reject (on account of their anthropology and views of space-time) the whole doctrine of the intermediate state. Yet in pastoral practice the reality of belief in purgatory is seen in the continuance in the Roman Catholic Church of prayers and masses for the dead even in the secularised West/North.
To all of us and especially to any who are confused about life after death, there is the word of St Paul. "Who [or what] can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? Nothing!". We can hold on to Christ, who is the LOVE of God.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large
of The Prayer Book Society of America