Is Purgatory Above Us?
Why our Final Purification May Occur on our Ascent to Heaven in the Aerial Realm (Part 1 in the Final Purification Series i.e. 'purgatory')
(Photo by Severin Höin sevhoein on unsplashed)
The doctrine of purgatory has historically been a source of tension and division between the Christian East and the Christian West. Although both traditions believe that the faithful should pray for the deceased and that our prayers greatly benefit them on their journey home, there have been 3 primary areas of disagreement and misunderstanding-- 1) the nature of place, 2) the nature of fire, and 3) the nature of punishment. In this article, I would like to approach the topic of place and focus on a popular tradition in Eastern Orthodoxy that teaches that our final testing and cleansing occurs above us in the aerial realm of angels and demons on the way to Paradise with Christ. I will deal with other possible locations for final purification or purgatory in future articles.
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The Catholic Church & the Aerial Tradition
In the 13 century, Jacopo da Varazze, an Italian Chronicler and Archbishop of Genoa, summarized three popular views concerning the location of purgatory among Christian teachers of his day. He writes, “Purgation is accomplished in a place near hell called purgatory… others believe that it is situated in the air…” and others believe that ‘various places are sometimes assigned… so that the punishment may be completed at the site of sin.’”1 He notes that the first option was the one preferred by the scholastics. A contemporary of Jacopo, St. Thomas Aquinas, never mentions the aerial realm, but instead, mentions that most people in need of purgation descend to Hades in a place called Purgatory near the fires of Hell of the Damned. Following the lead of Pope St. Gregory the Great in the 6th century, Aquinas is also open to the possibility that some people may experience purgation on earth where they often sinned (see the famous ‘bathhouse’ story recorded by St. Gregory the Great).
There is no denying that the concept of purgatory being an infernal place below us with fire that punishes and purifies ‘immature Christians’ became the dominant perspective in the West. However, it must be stated that this popular concept is still loaded with theological opinion that was never accepted as irreformable dogma. No ecumenical council (Lyons II, Florence, Trent) ever taught definitively that there is fire in purgatory. Even for those theologians that do hold to a private opinion of ‘fire’ being present there, the nature of this fire has never been settled even among them. It could be material, mystical, metaphorical, the heat of our own conscience, or Christ’s own fiery presence.2 (*St. Catherine of Genoa of the 15th century certainly had a mystical view of this fire. Dr. Edward Siecienski in his newly released book, Beards, Azymes, and Purgatory (2023), states that St. Catherine “sounds almost ‘Orthodox’—that is, the fire as purificatory and the pains caused chiefly by the postponement of the Beatific vision.” see page 293).
It should also be noted that no ecumenical council has ever dogmatically stated where purgatory is located as St. Robert Bellarmine, a Doctor of the Church in the 16th century, reminds us. he writes, “Where is Purgatory? The Church has defined nothing on such a question, although there are many opinions.”3 He then lists several possibilities, some which he personally prefers or rejects, and others, like the Aerial realm, which he simply has no comment on. He writes “The seventh opinion is that it is a penal place of souls that is not earthly, but a foggy air where demons live…” He goes on to state that the soul is led through this aerial realm by angels into heaven and “there the works of men will be examined.” Lastly, he states that this view was taught by some of the Eastern fathers such as St. John Chrysostom and St. Gregory of Nyssa.
Like Bellarmine, the Catholic Church today does not officially teach a position on the location of purgatory and has begun to emphasize the experience as more of a state of the soul and a ‘journey’ to God after death. St. John Paul II writes, “For those who find themselves in a condition of being open to God, but still imperfectly, the journey towards full beatitude requires a purification, which the faith of the Church illustrates in the doctrine of 'Purgatory.’”4 Pope Benedict XVI develops purgatory even further by linking this ‘journey of transformation’ much more closely to our particular judgment before Christ. Benedict XVI seems to lean in the direction of purgatory being ‘an ascent to Heaven’ (see his encyclical ‘Spe Salve’) rather than a descent to Hades (distinct from the Hell of the damned) as depicted in the Catechism of Trent. If this is so, it may be inferred that today’s Magisterium has elevated traditions that depict an actual ascent of the soul to Christ in Heaven such as the ariel tradition. Fr. Deacon Anthony Dragani, an Eastern Catholic Deacon, explains,
“In the East, we tend to have a much more positive view of the transition from death to Heaven. Rather than seeing this as a place to ‘sit and suffer,’ the Eastern Fathers of the Church described it as being a journey. While this journey can entail hardships, there are also powerful glimpses of joy.”5
It would certainly seem that St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI are using language much closer to the Eastern tradition.
The Orthodox Church & the Aerial Tradition
Among the Orthodox, the idea that particular judgment, testing, and cleansing may occur in the aerial realm (also referred to as the ‘tollhouse tradition’) has remained constant throughout their tradition and has grown popular today, particularly in the United States and Russia due to Fr. Seraphim’s Rose book, The Soul After Death. Other Orthodox may caution against this tradition, particularly if it is taken too literally, as it may seem too close to the idea of purgatory and punishment. These Orthodox tend to rely more on St. Mark of Ephesus who represented his view at the Council of Florence. He writes,
“Some must be cleansed in the very departure from the body, thanks only to fear, as St. Gregory the Dialogist literally shows; while others must be cleansed after the departure from the body, either while remaining in the same earthly place, before they come to worship God and are honored with the lot of the blessed, or — if their sins were more serious and bind them for a longer duration — they are kept in Hades, but not in order to remain forever in fire and torment, but as it were in prison and confinement under guard. All such ones, we affirm, are helped by the prayers and Liturgies performed for them, with the cooperation of the divine goodness and love for mankind.”6
However, St. Mark of Ephesus may not have rejected the aerial tradition outright, particularly since his successor (George Gennadios Scholarias) was very aware of the teaching on tollhouses. St. Mark of Ephesus does mention “being cleansed by fear at the sight of angels.” He may have in mind the aerial or angelic realm with that comment, but he did not elaborate at Florence. He mentions fear that comes from seeing angelic beings. Where is this occurring? It is not rightly called the ‘terrestrial or biological realm’ since the soul has departed the body and so it must be the invisible, angelic or aerial realm.
St. Mark’s successor, George Gennadios Scholarias, mentions “the tradition of the tollhouses, which was, in his opinion, like Purgatory without fireworks.”7 He writes,
“the Church of the Orthodox has nearly the same [teaching] as the Roman, for she teaches that those who are stained by venial sin do not immediately enter into eternal life.”
As souls ascend through the aerial realm of angels and demons, those burdened by sin (but still in friendship with God) may be delayed and suffer “the postponement of their expected compensation and the temporary deprivation of God’s glory until, through the recognition of the pardonable things… and due to the distress and sadness caused by the sins, they call out for divine mercy and, through God’s benevolence, they are delivered from guilt.” Although he, like Mark, rejected certain aspects of the Western notion of purgatory (particularly the ‘retribution model’ or fire/suffering expiating the stain of sin), he did agree with the Latins that “the suffrages of the living helped to accelerate the process by which those in this middle state… move toward God.”
(Other Orthodox may rule out any cleansing in a place of sorrows within Hades, or the aerial realm, or the frequent places of sin upon the earth and simply hold that purification and moral growth happens in the realm of paradise. Orthodox Priest, Fr. Laurent Cleenewerk, seems to hold this position (See His Broken Body, pg. 380) as does Catholic philosopher, Dr. Peter Kreeft. These souls grow in purity and holiness as they advance to the light of God until they experience the bodily resurrection at the end of the age when Christ returns and Heaven comes upon the earth.
Perhaps it is possible to find Eastern Orthodox/Catholic Christians who may embrace all the possibilities. Like the Western Catholic tradition, the Eastern Orthodox tradition maintains that purification can happen in many places or abodes. Today and throughout the centuries, there has been a set of diverse options, and so we should be slow to condemn one another on this point of place.)
Biblical, Patristic, & Liturgical Sources on the Aerial Realm
But what evidence do we have for this aerial realm of angels and demons? Aren’t demons in hell and angels in heaven? The Scriptures and fathers of the church teach that our human world is caught up in a great cosmic battle between the angelic forces of light and the demonic forces of darkness. This conflict over souls, cities, and whole civilizations is not primarily happening in the heavenly court nor the pit of hell, but here upon the earth in our own realm. Jewish and Christian apocalyptic literature describes this battle in the unseen, aerial realm, which one can see particularly in Daniel 10:13-14.
“But the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me twenty-one days. So Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, and I left him there with the prince of the kingdom of Persia,[a] and have come to help you understand what is to happen to your people at the end of days. For there is a further vision for those days.”
This encounter between Daniel and the angel assumes a cosmic battle above the empires of this world. This particular angel’s flight to Daniel was delayed by a demon, but he was then aided by St. Michael the Archangel, who is called ‘one of the chief princes.” Since angels are spirits and not bound by the laws of gravity, they can simply fly through the invisible, aerial realm.
St. Paul would seem to agree in Ephesians 2:1-2 when he writes,
“You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.”
The church fathers cite this verse more than any other as evidence for the battle going on in the aerial realm between angels and demons. Satan is considered the chief prince of the air who was originally given a type of dominion within the created order. After his fall from the heavenly court, one could say that Lucifer has been ‘quarantined’ to our world but yet still retains some of his power to rule. This remains particularly true in regards to other fallen angels in the aerial realm and the fallen human race through the power of sin. Although the devil was eventually put to shame by Christ’s victory on the cross and the saints were set free by Christ’s descent into Hades, he is still the thief who comes to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:9). Though his time is limited, he is still roaming around like a lion looking for whom he can devour (1 Peter 5:8).
Now let us turn to the fathers of the church who are even clearer on the aerial realm:
St. John Chrysostom (c. 347- 407 AD)
"Then we will need many prayers, many helpers, many good deeds, and a great intercession from angels on the journeys through the spaces of the air. If when traveling in a foreign land or a strange city we are in need of a guide, how much more necessary for us are guides and helpers to guide us past the invisible dignities and powers and world-rulers of this air, who are called persecutors and publicans and tax-collectors." (St. John Chrysostom-Homily on Patience and Gratitude)
My Commentary: St. Robert Bellarmine, in his 17th century work ‘On Purgatory,’ believes that Chrysostom is one of the fathers who promotes this view of purgatory being in the aerial realm. St. John refers to the demons as tax-collectors who are attempting to accuse the deceased person of sins. Tax collectors were very much despised by most people throughout the Roman empire not only during Jesus’ day, but also during John’s time. For those who die in friendship with God, they are protected and purified through this process of accusation. If a person does not belong to the Lord, then his ‘allegiance’ belongs ‘to the beast’ (See Revelation 13 & 20) and so the ‘tax-collectors’ can rightly take the soul to their “father, the devil” (see John 8:44). This ‘tax-collector’ language is what eventually led to this Aerial view of particular judgment and final testing being referred to as the “Tollhouses.”
St. Ephrem of Syria (c. 306 - 373 AD)
“While the dying person addresses his last words to us, suddenly his tongue is at a loss, his eyes dim, his mouth falls silent, his voice paralyzed when the Lord’s troops have arrived, when His frightening armies overwhelm him, when the divine bailiffs invite the soul to be gone from the body, when the inexorable lays hold of us to drag us to the tribunal… Then the angels take the soul and go off through the air. There stand principalities, powers and leaders of the adverse troops who govern the world, merciless accusers, strict agents of an implacable tax bureau, like so many examiners that await the soul in the air, ready to demand a reckoning, to examine everything, brandishing their claims, that is to say our sins: those of youth and of old age, those intentional and those not so, those committed by actions and those by words or thoughts. Great then is the fear of the poor soul, inexpressible its anguish when it sees itself at grips with these myriads of enemies, who stop it, push and shove it, accuse it, hinder it from dwelling in the light, from entering into the land of the living. But the holy angels, taking the soul, lead it away.”8
St. Jerome (c 342 - 420 AD)
“We must understand that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against certain unseen powers, against the princes of darkness, which encompass this world, spreading error amidst unbelieving people, and against the spirits of wickedness, which abide in the aerial spaces. This does not mean that the demons spend their lives in the Heavens, but that they are in the air over us and have received the name (aerial).”
St. Athanasius (c 293 - 373 AD)
“…the air is the sphere of the devil, and the enemy of our race, who, having fallen from heaven, endeavors with the other evil spirits who shared in his disobedience both to keep souls from the truth and to hinder the progress of those who are trying to follow it. The apostle refers to this when he says, “According to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that now worketh in the sons of disobedience.” But the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make “a way” for us up to heaven, as the apostle says, “through the veil, that is to say, His flesh.” This had to be done through death, and by what other kind of death could it be done, save by a death in the air, that is, on the cross? Here, again, you see how right and natural it was that the Lord should suffer thus; for being thus “lifted up,” He cleansed the air from all the evil influences of the enemy…” (On the Incarnation)
My Commentary: Who knew Jesus also came to ‘purify the air” of demons with his death! This is one of the reasons that St. Athanasius says that he was ‘lifted up high” upon the cross so that he could defeat the demonic forces of the aerial realm and make a path to paradise (or ladder to Heaven) for all those that choose to follow Him. This did not mean, however, that St. Athanaius thought that fallen angels had been entirely removed from this realm, but instead they could no longer prevent saints who are ‘in Christ’ from ascending. This is why St. Athanasius describes St. Anthony the Great ascending through the aerial realm and being accused by the demons though left untouched.
"He perceived that he was caught up in the spirit, and, wonderful to tell, he stood and saw himself, as it were, from outside himself, and that he was led in the air by certain ones. Next certain bitter and terrible beings stood in the air and wished to hinder him from passing through. But when his conductors opposed them, they demanded whether he was not accountable to them. And when they wished to sum up the account from his birth, Antony's conductors stopped them, saying, 'The Lord hath wiped out the sins from his birth, but from the time he became a monk, and devoted himself to God, it is permitted you to make a reckoning.' Then when they accused him and could not convict him, his way was free and unhindered. And immediately he saw himself, as it were, coming and standing by himself, and again he was Antony as before…
'Antony, rise, go out and look.' Having gone out therefore (for he knew whom he ought to obey) looking up, he beheld one standing and reaching to the clouds, tall, hideous, and fearful, and others ascending as though they were winged. And the figure stretched forth his hands, and some of those who were ascending were stayed by him, while others flew above, and having escaped heavenward, were borne aloft free from care. At such, therefore, the giant gnashed his teeth, but rejoiced over those who fell back. And forthwith a voice came to Antony, 'Understandest thou what thou seest?' And his understanding was opened, and he understood that it was the passing of souls, and that the tall being who stood was the enemy who envies the faithful. And those whom he caught and stopped from passing through are accountable to him, while those whom he was unable to hold as they passed upwards had not been subservient to him. So having seen this, and as it were being reminded, he struggled the more daily to advance towards those things which were before…" (Chapters 65-66).
St. Boniface (c.675 - 754 AD) (Anglo-Saxon)
(He records the following account of a monk who died and came back)
"Angels of such pure splendor bore him up as he came forth from the body that he could not bear to gaze upon them… "They carried me up," he said, "high into the air…" He reported further that in the space of time while he was out of the body, a greater multitude of souls left their bodies and gathered to the place where he was than he thought to form the whole race of mankind on earth. He said also that there was a crowd of evil spirits and a glorious choir of higher angels. And he said that the wretched spirits and the holy angels had a violent dispute concerning the souls that had come forth from their bodies, the demons bringing charges against them and aggravating the burden of their sins, the angels lightening the burden and making excuses for them. He heard all his own sins, which he had committed from his youth on and had failed to confess or had forgotten or had not recognized as sins, crying out against him, each in its own voice, and accusing his grievously… Everything he had done in all the days of his life and had neglected to confess and many which he had not known to be sinful, all these were now shouted at him in terrifying words. In the same way the evil spirits, chiming in with the vices, accusing and bearing witness, naming the very times and places, brought proofs of his evil deeds… and so, with his sins all piled up and reckoned out, those ancient enemies declared him guilty and unquestionably subject to their jurisdiction. "On the other hand," he said, "the poor little virtues which I had displayed unworthily and imperfectly spoke out in my defense… And those angelic spirits in their boundless love defended and supported me, while the virtues, greatly magnified as they were, seemed to me far greater and more excellent than could have ever been practiced in my own strength."9
***For much longer description of the aerial realm, one can read an account from the 10th century by Gregory, a disciple of St. Basil the New, regarding a vision that he had of Blessed Theodora in the afterlife.
The testimony of the fathers makes for a strong case that there is some kind of judgment, testing, and purification in the aerial realm after death. How long will this process last? 1 hour, 1 day, 40 days? It is often associated with 40 days after a person dies in the Eastern liturgical prayers. Why is this the case?
Fr. Stephen De Young, an Orthodox priest and Bible scholar, writes, “The Church has always understood that when the human soul leaves the body that it travels toward its intermediate state, Paradise or Hades, where it will await the resurrection on the last day. This period, as all periods of preparation, purification, and restoration in the Scriptures is associated with 40 days. Just as in this world we are subject to the predation of hostile, fallen spiritual powers abetted by our own sin, so also souls of the departed may be assailed by demonic powers seeking to lay claim to them through sin’s corruption. For this reason, the Church intensifies her prayers for the departed. We pray for those who have fallen asleep in the Lord that they will receive angelic protection and be fully healed and purified of their sins. We pray that by this means they will be brought safely to Paradise We offer our prayers to God as instruments through which he may choose to accomplish this.”10
In the next few articles in this series, I will explore other possible locations for final purification (or purgatory) that the Eastern and Western theological traditions have considered such as places of frequent sin on earth or an abode within Hades or Sheol. For some theologians, certain ‘places’ have been more likely than others or while for others, such as St. Mark of Ephesus, all of the places seem to be embraced. None of us knows with certainly what the celestial landscape of the afterlife is quite like, but what is most important is that we devoutly pray for the cleansing and refreshment of the deceased so that they might see the Face of God and rejoice!
Watch Fr. Deacon Anthony Dragani discuss this very topic of purgatory in the aerial realm with me. Here is a clip:
Want to read a fictional account on how I relate the Eastern and Western teaching on the afterlife and purification? Purchase my book called ‘The Ascent’ today that I published back in 2021! Many Protestants have also enjoyed this work and found that their ‘concerns’ about purgatory were lessened or resolved after reading it.
*A Note for Further Research: Are Demons really involved in our purification after death?
Bellarmine, in his book ‘On Purgatory,’ states that it is still an open question and the church has not definitely decided. Aquinas clearly says ‘no’ but only in the sense of demons having mastery or control over us. Even Christ was surrounded by evil and demons at times though they had no mastery over Him. God may allow demons to accuse but no more. A key question that remains for the Orthodox: Does Mark of Ephesus view people being taken to Hades by demons who will eventually be released to heaven? Or are they brought to hades by their guardian angels? Are they under guard by God’s angels and demons? In 1 Enoch, we see that one of God’s chief angels is in charge of guarding Hades….
Le Goff, Jacques, The Birth of Purgatory, pages 322-323
Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange agrees with St. Robert Bellarmine that the existence of fire in purgatory is not definitive or ‘de fide’ even though they both believe it to be probable. See ‘On Life Everlasting.’ https://www.ewtn.com/catholicism/library/life-everlasting-12603
Bellarmine, St. Robert. On Purgatory: The Members of the Church Suffering. Mediatrix Press. Translated from Latin to English in 2017. pgs 177-178
Quoted from Fr. Deacon Anthony Dragani’s website on Eastern Catholicism: https://east2west.org/faq/doctrine/
You may find St. Mark of Ephesus’ homilies translated in several places online. Here is one of them- https://silouanthompson.net/2019/05/mark-of-ephesus-purgatory/
Siecienski, A. Edward, Beards, Azymes, and Purgatory: The Other Issues that Divided East and West. Oxford University Press, 2023. page 292
J.S. Assemani, Bibliotecae Orientalis Clementino-Vaticana, vol 3, Roma, 1719-1728, 275-276. Excerpted from Jean-Claude Larchet, Life After Death According to the Orthodox Tradition, ET by G. John Champoux, Orthodox Research Institute 2012, 90-91.
The Letters of Saint Boniface, tr. Ephraim Emerton, Octagon Books (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux) New York, 1973, pp 25-27. Qtd in The Soul After Death, by Fr. Seraphim (Rose)